I met Pete and his young son after moving to a different part of Essex last year. Ethan is a gorgeous little seven-year-old with boundless energy, a cheeky sense of humour and countless knock-knock jokes.
He carries his 2DS with him constantly and can do an excellent Mario impression. He’s played The LEGO Movie Videogame so much in my presence that I know the annoying theme tune off by heart, and he completely freaked out when his dad revealed a Wii U for Christmas (yes, I’m training him up for reviews).
During the holidays I was invited to the sales with them so Ethan could get a new video game for his console, and when we arrived at a local GAME store his initial choice was Super Smash Bros. Its Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) rating of 12 caused Pete and I to throw sideways glances at each other over the top of his head; but as soon as he saw LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham all thoughts of any other title were put to one side, so we didn’t have to tell him ‘no’. We felt it would be entirely appropriate given its PEGI 7 classification and left the shop with the box in hand.
Because of their matching ratings and LEGO themes, we were expecting something similar to The LEGO Movie Videogame. But the title we ended up with was quite different: this wasn’t something Ethan was able to pick up and play without any assistance. An unclear storyline, huge number of characters with various special abilities and an increased difficulty curve meant that Pete and I had to guide him through every step, including the tutorial – and there were some points where even we were stumped ourselves and had to report to a walkthrough we found online.
Realising our mistake
Once Ethan had gone to bed, we started talking about the classifications given to video games and how they’re applied. Why had LEGO Batman 3 been assigned a PEGI 7 rating when it seemed to be beyond the skill of a typical seven-year-old gamer? We’d chosen a title that didn’t feel appropriate for a child of Ethan’s age and we all ended the day feeling pretty frustrated; he was upset as he thought we were telling him off for not playing the game properly, when all we were trying to do was give him little pushes in the right direction. A few wary looks were exchanged behind his back when Ethan said he wanted to try again the following day.
But what we didn’t realise straight away is that we’d got it wrong. The classifications applied are no reflection on the difficulty level involved or the skill required in order to play a game; they’re only concerned with the suitability of the content. A new version of Call of Duty could be created using fantasy non-human characters and slapstick violence and it would be appropriate for a child according to PEGI despite the complex control scheme, because it wouldn’t contain any content that could potentially ‘harm’ them. OK, so that’s a bit of an extreme example – but you get my point.
The PEGI website states:
[The ratings] provide a reliable indication of the suitability of the game content in terms of protection of minors. The age rating does not take into account the difficulty level or skills required to play a game.
A classification of 3 is given to titles that contain ‘some violence in a comical context’ and the child ‘should not be able to associate the character on the screen with real life characters, they should be totally fantasy’. A PEGI 7 title is ‘any game that would normally be rated at 3 but contains some possibly frightening scenes or sounds’.
So given this explanation, the classification applied to LEGO Batman 3 feels correct. The game doesn’t contain anything that could possibly scare Ethan and it’s not as if Pete has had to explain what he has seen onscreen in terms of violence, sex or bad language. But his dad has been gaming for years and I write for this blog, and as such we consider ourselves to be pretty clued-up when it comes to video games; so if we weren’t aware of the true meaning behind the PEGI ratings, then how many parents out there are oblivious too?
Video games aren’t toys
Manufacturers print age-ranges on toy boxes to show how age-appropriate they are. Toys that are too easy will end up boring a child while those that are too advanced will only frustrate them, so the companies provide an indication to help parents decide what will suit. Safety also comes into play (no pun intended but who doesn’t love a good pun) and manufacturers must carry out a comprehensive safety assessment and sample testing of all marketed toys under UK law.
But video games aren’t toys: they’re media with plenty of content, and so therefore need a different method of classification. The PEGI rating system was established in 2003 to assist parents in making informed decisions when buying games and give an indication of suitability of content. As well as age assessments, packaging carries descriptors to help in explaining the subjects that a title might touch upon and these appear as a set of icons covering themes such as fear, bad language, violence and drugs.
The mistake we made was to initially view video game classifications as being similar to the age-range applied by toy manufacturers. I spoke to Ben about this briefly to ask his opinion on the matter and, being a dad himself, he agreed that a lot of parents incorrectly group games and toys into the same bracket. This potentially means that there are many adults out there who are letting their children play titles that are completely unsuitable for them, and I don’t just mean in terms of difficulty in the same way that Pete and I had got it wrong.
For example, we all know parents who are extremely proud of their kids, and who (rightly or wrongly) think their seven-year-old is more advanced than their peers as they display a higher-than-normal level of intelligence. The adults therefore assume the child could handle a video game classified for an older age-group and because they view them as toys, they believe the next level up – a PEGI 12 rating in this case – would actually be more appropriate. The kid is therefore exposed to ‘violence of a more graphic nature towards human-looking characters’ and ‘nudity of a slightly more graphic nature’… that game doesn’t seem so appropriate now, does it?
Handling the situation as a parent
Speak to any gamer and they’re likely to have a story about a parent who has purchased an inappropriate game for their child. In fact, when Pete went to collect the Wii U for Ethan’s Christmas present he actually came across one such dad himself. The guy in front of him in the queue was there with his two young daughters and son, all of whom appeared to be between eight and fifteen. One of the girls handed over a copy of Grand Theft Auto V (with its PEGI 18 rating) and her money when they got to the till; and the assistant told the dad she couldn’t take it from her because of the classification. But rather than choose something more suitable for his kids, the guy handed over the cash himself before passing the game back to his daughter.
The Video Standards Council (VSC) is the board that now jointly administers the PEGI rating scheme with the Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audiovisual Media (NICAM). It established a Code of Practice after being formed in 1989 and this was extended to the gaming industry in 1993. One of its rules states:
Members will have a duty to take all reasonable action to ensure that age restricted and other audio-visual products, DVDs and video games are not supplied or offered for supply either as physical products or online to persons under the specified ages.
So the shop assistant in the example above did the right thing; unfortunately however that doesn’t some people from circumventing the regulations.
It’s entirely believable that an intelligent child may be able to handle a game for an older age-range in terms of complexity of gameplay, but they could still be harmed by inappropriate content such as that contained within GTA V (drugs and strip-clubs, anyone?). Video games blur the line between toys and media. Should they therefore be given a double-rating to distinguish between difficulty and content suitability? Would this be too much classification and cause even more confusion? And some people, like the dad in Pete’s story above, even care?
Perhaps I shouldn’t comment as I’m not a parent myself, but I think the best way to deal with the situation is to get involved with your children. Know what they’re playing and don’t leave it to an age-rating on some packaging; find out for yourself whether the content within a video game is suitable and if the difficulty level matches their skill set. You’ll gain a greater awareness of gaming as well as spending some quality time with your kid. Pete and I may have been initially mistaken about LEGO Batman 3, but at least Ethan will get to the end of it (with our help and a walkthrough) without seeing anything he shouldn’t.