A View from Henry Jenkins

Educating Parents About Video Games Ratings

A reporter called me today with a story that the group, Mothers Against Violence in America, has launched a series of public service announcements designed to educate parents about the importance of paying attention to the ESRB video games ratings…

  • January 14, 2004

A reporter called me today with a story that the group, Mothers Against Violence in America, has launched a series of public service announcements designed to educate parents about the importance of paying attention to the ESRB video games ratings system. The PSAs urge parents not to buy M-rated games, such as Grand Theft Auto, for their children.

I think the reporter assumed that I would be outraged by this campaign - since I have been sharply critical of the claim that video game violence causes real world violence and have been an outspoken critic of attempts to censor video game content. While there are aspects of the organization’s position I do disagree with, I applaud their efforts to educate parents about the content of current games and to get shopkeepers to pay more attention to the ages of people purchasing their products.

A while back, I wrote a column describing my concerns about the role which ratings have been asked to play. I argued that there are two potential functions of ratings – regulatory (telling us what we can or can not buy) and educational (telling us what a media product contains so we can decide whether or not we want it in our homes) and there is a strong tension between these goals. The more you rely on legal enforcement of ratings to regulate content, the simpler the ratings system has to be, until it becomes a crude instrument which provides little or no real information to consumers. Conversely, the more information the ratings offers, the harder it is for an undertrained store clerk to know how to enforce it. My view is that parents need to take responsibility for the media they allow their children to consume but the industry needs to maximize the information they can access for making that decision. Educating the public about the ratings system (and asking them to make smart decisions about what they bring into their homes), then, is a step forward and such efforts should be supported by anyone who cares about games as a medium.

I share the group’s belief that M-rated games should not be consumed by children – not because they increase the likelihood of real world violence (a point of contention) but because they are emotionally disturbing and apt to cause nightmares and because they trivialize the human consequences of violence. Where we might differ would be in the grey area represented by adolescence. Some teens are mature enough to handle more disturbing content, others are not. Adolescence represents a threshold category in our culture and if teens are not given access to some more disturbing content while they still live at home, parents lose the ability to help them adjust to some of the realities of our culture. So, M-rated games should not be consumed by children at all and should be consumed by teens in a home where adults are fully aware of what they are playing and are willing to talk through the issues such games pose.

Why should teens consume such content at all? Again, I probably disagree with this group in believing that art plays an important role in helping us make sense of the place of violence in our lives and that games, which deal as a medium with choice and consequence, can be an effective medium for exploring ethical issues surrounding violence. Rather than banning video game violence, I work with games companies to explore ways to produce games which allow us to explore the ethical consequences of violence and am working with teachers and others to build online communities which talk about the issues raised by games.

The other thing I applaud the group for is its willingness to identify a broad range of games as appropriate for families and children. Critics are right that as the games industry’s demographic has skewed older, they are making less games for kids and parents are having a harder time finding them.

So, hats off to Mothers Against Violence in America. We may have some disagreements but there’s a lot I can praise about what they are trying to do.

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