Video games offer experiences that reflect and draw from the full gamut of human experience. However, as with blockbuster films, many of the most popular titles fall within a narrower band and feature violence more frequently.
Chart-Track’s top selling games of 2013 are littered with severe descriptions in their age ratings: “extreme violence”, “multiple, motiveless killings”, “violence towards defenceless people” and violence that could be “upsetting to very young children”.
Although this can sound alarming, the top grossing films of 2013 also include a roughly comparable number of violence descriptors from the BBFC. The disparity comes with the number of popular games at the extreme end of this spectrum - half of the top 10 titles of 2013 included “extreme violence” only suitable for those 18 or over.
"Games deal with adult themes in the same way that films, television programmes and books do," says Do Jo Twist, CEO of the UK’s games industry trade body UKIE. "The PEGI system gives an age rating and a content descriptor to help parents understand the content contained in any game and how appropriate it is for their children to play.”
The PEGI rating system helps inform parents' decisions
Games suitable for children over 3 or 7 years old have an advisory green PEGI badge. Games only suitable for children over 12 or 16 year old have an orange PEGI badge. Games for those over 18 year old have a red PEGI badge. The 12, 16 and 18 age limits are enforced by law at the point of sale.
The age rating is expanded upon by descriptors on the back of the box for Language, Drugs, Fear, Sex, Violence, Gambling and Discrimination. These signify a different severity depending on the related game’s PEGI Age rating.
It’s at this level of detail that a full, and much less alarming, picture of violence in video-games can be seen. Many games have violence descriptors are for “implied” or “non-realistic” occurrences in 7+ and 12+ titles (556 in 2013) and fewer are labelled for the most “extreme” 18+ ratings (149 in 2013):
• PEGI 3+ games won’t have a violence descriptor but may contain “Tom and Jerry” slapstick violence if it is not considered disturbing.
• PEGI 7+ games flagged with a violence descriptor may include “non-realistic violence towards fantasy characters” or “implied violence”. (294 occurrences in 2013)
• PEGI 12+ will have the Violence descriptor to signpost “violence towards human like characters” but this must be non-realistic so that bodies don’t remain when killed. This may also include violent sports like boxing providing there is no blood. (262 occurrences in 2013)
• PEGI 16+ games are flagged for “violence towards human characters” who react to being shot as they would in real life. This will often include blood and bodies will remain once they are dead. (211 occurrences in 2013)
• PEGI 18+ games are flagged for including violence towards humans that may make you “wince” or your “stomach churn”. This includes gross depictions of heads, arms, and legs being removed by way of chain-saw or shotgun. It also includes sexual violence such as rape and mass killings of civilians. (149 occurrences in 2013)
This detailed account of video-game violence actually goes further than ratings for film or music, and dispels blanket concerns by clarifying who the violence is appropriate for. It enables parents to actively curate what is played in the home and avoid these choices being snap decisions.
Talk and about games - and play together
Once we have a clear understanding of video-game violence, attentions turn to its effect on young people. Measuring this is more difficult however because it varies from player to player. While many in the media quickly link playing violent games with violent behaviour the reality is not as clean cut.
We spoke to Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University. “Research is extremely patchy and inconclusive. Certainly from my own experience the vast majority of teenagers who play violent video games I have spoken with are well adjusted, likeable individuals who happen to like playing videos games.” However Phippen went on to reference the importance of using PEGI ratings because “some can be badly affected [scarred, nightmares, etc] by these things".
Younger children will certainly be shocked by on-screen violence intended for adults, as suggested in the ratings. The effect on older players is more complex and needs to be distinguished from watching films or reading books containing similar scenes.
Although the graphics in video games edge closer to photo-realism, their interactive nature does more than simply intensify the experience of violence.
BBFC’s 2007 “Video Games Report” highlighted that being in control mitigates the player “losing themselves” in the violence because their suspension of disbelief is constantly interrupted by the need to take action. “The victims of violence [in video-games] have rarely been brought to life, no matter how realistic they may look; they do not have any stature – they are just a threat to the gamer and an obstacle to progress.”
Don't let consoles migrate to the bedroom
However, there are exceptions that use violence as more than a puzzle to be solved. Games like Shadow of the Colossus and The Last of Us work harder on context and character so that older players will find an emotional response to the loss, shock and sadness of violent scenes.
“On the whole young people can differentiate between video game violence and reality but where PEGI ratings and common sense is ignored alarm bells start to ring," said Phippen.
"I have concerns when I hear primary aged children playing games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. My advice would always be to check out the game prior to the child playing it to decide whether you feel it is appropriate.”
Unlike film and books, video-games are a new technology that we don’t yet fully understand, particularly in their potential for health or harm. That means that it is even more important for parents to accurately understand video game violence and the context in which it exists.
Playing games together as a family, stopping technology migrating to bedrooms, making use of PEGI ratings and having open conversations about these topics creates a healthy environment to maximise the enjoyment of this aspect of family life whilst avoiding potential pitfalls.
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