Underrating the 18-rateds

As I watch my nine-year-old nephew kick a pensioner to death in Grand Theft Auto’s Vice City for what must be the third time this evening, some interesting thoughts begin to run through my mind. I chuckle as I wonder what the National Institute on Media and the Family would have to say on witnessing this particular scene. Oh, it’s just a bit of harmless fun, I try to reassure myself but as I watch this pensioner-bashing begin for a fourth, and subsequently fifth, sixth and seventh time, I start to feel a little concerned.

“Don’t you ever engage in any of the missions?” I enquire.

“No, missions are for suckers,” he says. “I gotta kill these people or else they kill me.”

“Oh, I see. You seem to be targeting old people quite a bit.”

“They go down easy,” he informs me.

“Sure, sure.” I can’t fault the boy’s reasoning. “Um, what are you doing now?”

I watch as my nephew flees his latest crime scene and find myself praying that he’s not scouting for any more senior citizens – heaven forbid there’s a Derby and Joan Club close by. He pinpoints an occupied car, ejects its driver, makes a pitiful attempt at manoeuvring the vehicle and drives straight off a bridge. This instantly kills his player character and also my hopes of watching any endurable gameplay that night.

Becoming overwhelmed by cops became a common occurrence throughout the eveningBeing overwhelmed by cops became a common occurrence throughout the evening

Now, I know that some will be shocked because I watched this boy play an 18-rated game. This is a reaction I can completely understand; after all the game is inappropriate for his age, it’s just that I’m a little naughty like that. But my point is that, fortunately, my nephew is a soft-natured lad and I don’t believe that videogame violence is capable of changing this, despite my occasional shock at his diehard commitment to it. Truth be known, the way games allow us to embody various cultural models intrigues me greatly, intrigue that’s piqued by my nephew being an incredibly sweet boy who possesses such videogame bloodlust.

I’ve always found it interesting that, in the Grand Theft Auto series, the actions necessary for in-game progression are entirely appropriate within the criminal culture your player character personifies. This allows an exploration of the acceptable codes of conduct from a cultural frame that challenges one’s own, which brings to mind a cultural consciousness.

I’ve noticed that this approach has been exploited in many of my favourite films, too. Take Gus Van Sant’s lauded movie Elephant, for example, motivated by the Columbine High School massacre. Elephant boasts huge balls, balls big enough to explore the impetus behind such a massacre from the perspectives of the killers involved. Whilst effectively portraying the oft made-over ugliness of murder, Elephant carries with it a huge level of sophistication, a cleverness that allows it to portray the convoluted nature of these massacres in an open-ended manner. If that doesn’t do it for you, well, it’s got that Alex Frost bloke in it, and he’s well fit.

But what happens when a videogame attempts the same achievement? The mostly negative reactions surrounding Danny Ledonne’s game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! tell us that the mainstream is not quite ready for videogames to embrace such forthright exploration of these tragic incidents. But, perhaps, if we were to somehow include Alex Frost in there…



I’ve started to feel, along with many others, that games offer healthy players the tools to safely explore emotive issues. So while my nephew (quite literally) kicks ass in Grand Theft Auto, I can see him organising his understanding of “right” and “wrong”. I’m not advocating that parents allow their children to play violent games. Rather, what I’ve observed makes me think that it’s only through consistently tackling such controversial themes that games can artistically progress. If this doesn’t happen sometime soon, the videogame industry might just have to take a leaf out of Grand Theft Auto’s book and coerce the mainstream into praising it. (I kid.)







25 responses to “Underrating the 18-rateds”

  1. Mark avatar

    Fabulous post Celeste

  2. Lorna avatar

    It brings to mind the fuss surrounding the announcement of a Holocaust game for the DS. I think that society is still stuck with the view that a ‘game’ is just that and is therefore incapable of rational, mature, or sensitive comment on any subject. Great post.

  3. Jay avatar

    Good post but rather unsettling. Ill effects or not, there are 1000 things I’d rather my kids were doing than aimlessly killing people in a GTA game. You can apply the ‘doing them no harm’ argument to practically anything, but wouldn’t you rather your nephew was doing something a bit more positive?

  4. theBlackHalo avatar

    Nice one, I agree.

    It’s unfortunate and frustrating that video games are the new scape goat for triggering violence and other related issues. It seems very much like something we need to ‘ride out’ until a new scape goat emerges.

    Looking back at comics and TV which were once blamed for similar things, both survived the scrutiny and continue to thrive today.

  5. Celeste avatar

    He does loads of positive things. He is a very active child, plays football with his friends, etc, and is desperately caring. He gets very upset regarding violence in real life. Of course, it’s up to each and every parent what games his/ her kids play, but personally I don’t think playing GTA affects my nephew negatively. He seems to astutely see the humour in the exaggerated context of the violence.

    But of course I understand reactions like yours, Jay. I think that the basis parents use to decide whether their child can have a go on an 18-rated game (his parents don’t allow him to play any other, by the way, and he isn’t technically allowed to play this one) is whether the game will negatively affect that child. And as my nephew’s parents don’t think letting him have a go will do any damage, their decision,based within that framework, is valid.

    I think this just makes good food for thought.

  6. Celeste avatar

    Having read your question again, Jay, I think I went a little off topic. To answer your question, he does a lot of positive things. I guess it’s just natural that kids are going to want to do some things we might not deem “productive” (although I personally think playing games can indeed be productive) and sometimes you’ve just gotta let the little buggers.

  7. Lorna avatar

    Well put Celeste 🙂

  8. Jay avatar

    It’s very true that kids don’t always have to be doing something productive. Kids need downtime as much as adults. I’d be worried about time spent in the way you describe though, even in an adult. I would just prefer to see kids doing something else is all. If one of my sprogs was spending time killing pretend people over and over in a game, I’d want to divert his attention towards something else.

    Buuuut … as you say, it’s your nephew’s parents’ decision and of course it is entirely valid based on their criteria. And he is their son after all 🙂 Just throwing my opinion in.

  9. Kirsten avatar

    Heh, my 7 year old has never been exposed to any age inappropriate game, nor any age inappropriate television but many, in fact most of his role playing with friends in the playground, in the park and in his room centres around fighting, shooting and killing. That’s what little boys do.

    As for GTA, I personally don’t enjoy playing the game but I believe it’s the greatest social commentary ever made on poverty and street crime in America. I think cultural exploration is one of gaming’s greatest and most under-used element.

  10. Razgate avatar

    This is a subject that really infuriates me so I apologise for not reading your post Celeste. so I’ll go by the fact that everyone appreciates it that it went well.
    I’d just like end on a small block capital note though
    Sorry guys, you see that’s why i didn’t want to read it, it would have been worse.

  11. James avatar

    I participated in a psychology experiment at uni wherein we were forced to watch 10 mins of someone going on a killcrazy rampage in GTA4, followed by the old rorschach test. The thing that really annoyed me was not the transparently shallow and leading nature of the experiment, but the fact that the video, rather than showing 10 mins of mission play, simply involved the guy hiding in a hospital foyer, killing everyone, calling the police, waiting for them to show and then killing them all again.

    The game gives you the option to embrace the cultural framework for the benefit of story advancement, but when you’re simply maiming nurse after nurse for no reason than the sheer bloody hell of it, the whole narrative-justified violence argument begins to falter somewhat. I had to explain to the tutor (who was ashen faced in the corner of the room) that the game was being misrepresented, and that the ultimate goal was not simply murdering wave upon wave of medical practitioners for kicks.

    It seems that titles like this place the emphasis on the player to tackle the choices and content in a mature fashion; you can do what I’ve described above, but it’s a fairly unrewarding gameplay experience. I feel it’s much more a refection of what the player decides to bring to the table as opposed to the game leading the player astray. If someone does play GTA4 simply to arbitrarily slaughter nurses for 8 hours every day I might raise an eyebrow, but I would direct it primarily at the player rather than the game.

  12. Celeste avatar

    James – you just put that last bit in there to remind us of your mighty single eyebrow-raising ability 🙂

    Thanks for all the comments guys.

  13. James avatar

    Rumbled. 😀 Great post Celeste.

  14. MarkuzR avatar

    People will grow up to be whatever is within their genetic make up whether they’re exposed to something or not. Instinct will invariably take over no matter how much a parent tries to angelicise a child if that child’s character has an intrinsic desire for violence.

    As someone who has kept all manner of exotic creatures which were bred in captivity, I’ve seen an iguana become petrified when a vivarium containing a 6ft boa was placed above it… even though the iguana was in a solid viv with no glass above it, and had never been exposed to snakes before. It couldn’t see it, and even if it could… it wouldn’t have known what it was… but it knew, because it was in its nature.

    Regardless of the content of the game, the movie, the book, or even the playground antics… if it’s not in the nature of the child to be sadistic, then it will likely never happen. If it IS in it’s nature, then it would happen anyway whether exposed to violence or not. They can fight against their nature, but it’ll always be there under the surface.

    Just my two cents though, based on life experience only I’m afraid

  15. Razgate avatar

    OHHhh!!! Shall….not…..comment…….

  16. Scott avatar

    Great post, Celeste.

    I think that “Healthy players” is really the key term in this issue. I often ponder how my kids (all of whom will love video games, natch) will be exposed to mature games. I know it’s impossible for parents to completely control what their children see and do, but my plan is to introduce games to them based on how mature I feel they are as people.

    Would I, for example, let one of my kids play through Resident Evil or Silent Hill at age 14? Yes, if I thought they would get something valuable out of the experience, thematically.

  17. MrCuddleswick avatar

    Interesting thoughts, and I really enjoyed reading your post.

    The trouble with making a game about a recent tragic event is that you don’t just have to carefully craft a balanced story, you also have to somehow tack some gameplay elements onto it. That’s where it falls down a bit for me, as it’s difficult to imagine some sort of repetitive gameplay mechanic trivializing the events. Could be possible, maybe with something like an inestigative point and click? Personally I’d rather they just left it to the film makers though.

    Re: young kids playing violent games. I’m generally opposed to letting them at it, as I think it could affect some children in a bad way in ways not obvious to their parents until later in life. I prefer to be cautious about it.

  18. MrCuddleswick avatar

    mechanic NOT trivializing the events

  19. Martin avatar

    Nice post Celeste, but I have to say I totally disagree with allowing younger children to play games beyond their age limit, within reason. Maybe a nine year old should be able to play a 12 rated game but not a 15 or 18. I don’t think kids of nine have the reasoning power to fully understand what may be presented as satire to adults but is killing for the sake to a child. It doesn’t matter if the violence is portrayed in a cartoon/abstract manner, it is still violence.

    Let me put it another way, would you sit back and watch as a nine year old watched either 18 rated pornography or 18 rated horror/violent films? I think it’s safe to say 99.9% of parents wouldn’t allow that to happen, so why should it be ok with games? In the last few weeks I have seen more than one parent buying 18 rated games for children who are obviuosly too young and it disgusts me at their ignorance as to what they may be exposing their kids to.

    You’ve certainly thrown open a few issues here, great post still 🙂

  20. Celeste avatar

    Martin, I totally agree that horror, pornography and violence (generally speaking for the latter – I mean, look at Tom and Jerry), are inappropriate for children. Of course I do. But I don’t think GTA is graphic, and so I think it depends on the child as to whether letting them have a go on it will affect them. But of course you can never really be sure if or how something is going to affect a child, so people’s opinions on this are bound to vary.

  21. MrCuddleswick avatar

    If you can’t be sure how it will affect a child, maybe it’s better to err on the side of caution. In my experience with children in my family though, they are very much capable of telling the difference between games and reality, and how what is acceptable in one is not acceptable in the other, so I don’t see a 9 year old playing GTA under supervision as a problem necessarily.

  22. Celeste avatar

    Good point regarding erring on the side of caution, MrCuddleswick, although personally I wouldn’t judge a parent badly for occasionally caving in for the sake of a moments peace, with them basing this on their belief rather than a “fact”. But I can see what you are saying.

  23. i am gwailu avatar
    i am gwailu

    well this is a nice and civil discussion.
    just though i may add my opinion to it.

    working in a shop where i sell games to people, it’s the bbfc we go by and their rating system. but this is flawed in so many respects. attitudes towards sex and violence change as generations take over, with each finding the prudishness of their elders amusing. everyone here should be able to remember when teenage mutant ninja turtles came out and had to be called “teenage mutant hero turtles” due to restrictions on children’s tv and the use of the word “ninja”?
    and with tmnt the use of the nun-chuck was banned, as it was on the home release of bruce lee’s epic enter the dragon, where the scene’s were cut and the cover image had them replace with a staff. incidentally, this was bbfc rated an 18 and with the scene’s reinstated upon it’s re-reissue it got a bbfc rating of 15.
    and with regards to the sex, titanic was released as a 12 rating by the bbfc and it features full frontal female nudity, which is something games like grand theft auto still do not have in their games. even in fable ii, when you have sex with anyone, the screen goes black and all you get is a few cheeky comments.
    but i think it is up to the parent or guardian to govern the child’s free time anyway.
    just a final thought as i’ve talked crap too much. nobody ever mentions books in all these debates. why? books can be far more graphic in the content in both sex and violence and the language used. but people would always be happier to see a kid reading, without even knowing the content of what they are reading. that said, i love reading as much as i love playing games or being a vidiot. enjoy.

  24. Michael avatar

    Late to this… So, first, what a great blog! 😀

    Books are more graphic? How? Doesn’t the graphicness of something rely more on image than words?

    Why is it (almost) always GTA that’s used in this debate? Someone *checks* OK, Cuddleswick mentioned making a game about a recent tragic event… what of war games, regardless of era? Of the likes of CoD4: Modern Warfare? Are they somehow exempt? I used to play such games without thinking about that but I’ve gotten to wonder about using them as a means of entertainment… although it does tie in to that DS game. Imagination is the Only Escape; is that the onne you meant Lorna? I see parallels between that and Life is Beautiful; a film I love. I think it (the game) was intended to be more educational than anything else but ill-informed people seemed to jump on it because of nature of the material.

    Dunno about people growing to be whatever their make-up dictates… I have a, hmm, history of violence (both around me and from me) and I keep a tight rein on that. I have to. Is it intrinsic? Hmm, don’t think so but it’s there. My instinct is to fight it. I’ve gotten rather good at it.

  25. i am gwailu avatar
    i am gwailu

    evening michael.
    really? you don’t see how books can be more graphic than anything that can be shown? perhaps it’s just the books i read than. but the point was that people aren’t bothered what people read, it’s just the other media that they jump on, be it social websites, film, music or sadly games, where in general the violence is too comic to be considered real.
    but the point you made about why it’s always gta that pisses off the daily mail readers is true (though i’m sure celeste picked this game as her nephew was actually playing it, rather than for sensationalism). games like cod4:mw (as you suggested) to me have a far more violent content due to the realism created by the brilliance and talent of the game makers. but as i play them, i just see them as what they are: games. and both are brilliant at what they do.
    but on another note, i’m lucky in the fact i’ve never been around real violence, a thing i am thankful of. and respect to your for being able to control it.

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