Just child's play? The Byron Report

Ben Parfitt
Just child's play? The Byron Report
Isn’t the argument of looking into what effect violence has on kids a redundant one? Shouldn’t we purely be investigating how to ensure these games don’t reach children in the first place?

I don’t think it’s a redundant investigation. Any society has to
safeguard the wellbeing of children. It’s not just targeted at the video games industry. It’s targeted at any part of society in which children are consumers or the audience. I don’t think anyone can argue that point. I’m certainly coming at this from a positive point of view.

I’m a parent, I’ve got a nine-year-old and a 12-year old child and we all play video games in my house – my husband and I included. Playing video games with our kids is the same as reading them a bedtime story for us. It’s part of what we do as a family. It’s part of education, literacy and bonding. I’m also a realist. This is part of the landscape of society. It’s how kids spent their leisure time and this is important in terms of development.

Be honest: are you going to end up blaming us for everything?

I’ve been really clear that this report is absolutely not about blame. This is not about restricting freedom of choice. There are games that are designed for an older market; this isn’t about simply saying we should start censoring what adults play.

Within the industry there are people I really need to listen to and talk to and I really hope this feature will encourage people to come forward.

Are you expecting any resistance from the industry?

Not as such, but I do hear this fear: “Here she is, this child psychologist, who’s going to march into our industry from a cynical point of view at how this is impacting on our children – from a clinical, protective, behavioural point of view. And then somehow make the industry responsible.”

That’s simply not correct. Fundamentally, the people responsible for stopping children getting access to these materials and having these experiences are parents. But the truth is that many parents don’t even understand that an ‘18’ rating on Grand Theft Auto is the same as an ‘18’ on Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They see the word ‘game’ and have a totally different mentality.

A major problem is that parents understand this technology, in the main, less than the children who are using it. And it’s difficult for parents to say “I don’t really understand it” to their kids.

Adults need to play catch up with these new technologies. In the same way there comes a point when parents can say, “right, you can go to the shop and get some sweets on your own, because I trust you”, we’ve taught them how to cross the road, be safe and not talk to strangers. They understand and manage risk. When children enter a virtual landscape, the trust and skills needed are more like those for letting them outside the door than letting them watch TV.

It’s not about wrapping kids in cotton wool. I have a real problem with the risk-averse culture that we have for children. Kids can’t even play conkers or throw snowballs anymore. It’s ridiculous. This is about how kids manage risk – not censorship.

Could you see the current PEGI/BBFC system changing at the end of this Review?

It’s something I’m thinking about. Lots of parents have emailed me saying they are confused by this system. Can these people really feel supported by a system that has a statutory and non-statutory aspect to it? That’s a very difficult situation to put retailers in as well.

When I was at the London Games Festival recently, I did a keynote speech for many people from all over the industry. I then observed the panel conversation, with the BBFC’s David Cooke and someone on behalf of PEGI, and there was a very lively debate where there was a lot of disagreement.

When you look at that from my perspective, you think: “Here are people from the industry who can’t agree on how to clarify things and make them more understandable for the consumer. If you haven’t got yourselves clear on this, how on earth is a consumer supposed to use this in a way that is effective for them and is adequate for children?”

There’s no good clear information in shops to really help people understand this. That’s not a criticism of retailers. I’m putting this to the industry as a whole and saying: “How do you want to educate your consumers better, so they can see that you take the safety and wellbeing of young consumers
seriously?” That’s the only way to challenge the unfair, very negative press you get, often through the tabloids.

But doesn’t society just assume that parents know this information on DVD and CDs? Why do games need special treatment?

I see where you’re coming from, and I don’t disagree with the point. But however you want to look at it, if parents don’t truly understand games ratings, technology, parental filters and so on, and you keep getting all this negative, hostile, scapegoating press, surely it’s a no-brainer. If the industry can work with me on this, parents’ media literacy will improve, and it will benefit everybody.

What else have you learnt from parents so far?

I read your magazine and I know you have a huge range of professionals that read it. But a lot of them are in the business of designing, pricing, marketing and selling the sort of games that are played on consoles.

But I think there’s a real issue of online gaming and downloads, and maybe the internet industry and the games industry need to work closer together. Part of the scope of the Review is to look at the internet generally. I’d like to know if your readers feel the internet supports the games industry in its work to stop adult games getting into young hands.

How much time will you dedicate to looking into how violent games affect kids?

Whether or not we think violent video games cause youth crime is a separate question. Currently, there is no hard and fast evidence to suggest these games cause harm. But equally there is no hard and fast evidence to show there isn’t harm.

Ethically, you couldn’t commission that research – you’d have to plonk kids in front of these kind of materials and monitor how they would impact their behaviour.

But we know enough from child development that kids grow and develop via a number of key experiences from family, peer groups and information they access. If you have very vulnerable children, it’s a nobrainer they probably are quite
vulnerable to some violent games.

I saw MCV had a piece from Amanda Gummer the child psychologist the other week: there’s a small percentage of vulnerable kids and we need to think strategically how to protect them. But there a are huge majority of kids and parents who don’t have these problems.

I’m getting loads of emails from parents saying they play video games with their kids who are saying: “please support this”. A lot of parents get a lot from these materials – and that doesn’t get said enough.

What can the Government do at the end of this Review to educate parents and help the industry?

This isn’t about Government specifically doing anything on its own, because then you get into a really nanny state situation. It’s a joined up, shared responsibility. The Government does have things to do – and that’s why they’ve asked me to conduct this Review.

But I also think the industry needs to be prepared to say: “What do we want to do?” This is an industry that targets all ages, and I have a lot of empathy with the fact that many parts of the industry are fed up of being scapegoated in terms of youth behaviour and so on. It’s a very shortsighted, convenient view that a lot of newspapers use.

But the industry needs to look at itself and say: “Are we transparent enough?” It’s important that the industry invests resources, thinking and time into educating their consumers. Once we start splitting Government from industry, you then get into an unhelpful them-and-us situation. We need the opposite if the games industry wants this review to be positive and to show that yours is an industry with ethics.

To contact Dr. Tanya Byron with your thoughts, email her on
Byron.Review@dcsf.gsi.gov.uk

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