UK developers have hit out against a recent episode of Newsnight which featured a debate on games and violence, saying the BBC was wrong to show children playing games intended for ages 15 and up – but the show’s editor has told Develop that the report merely reflected the truth about how children have access to adult-rated games.
Wednesday evening’s episode of the news magazine show featured an examination of the legacy of media critic Mary Whitehouse, who regularly criticised UK broadcasters over supposed falling standards on TV.
The piece, by reporter Liz MacKean, asked what Whitehouse would have made of media in the digital age, and looked to the influence of games – and then showed two 13 year olds playing a 15-rated Mortal Kombat title.
"It’s two people fighting each other to death," said one of the children playing the game, when asked to describe the on-screen content.
"It sounds kind of violent – does that bother you?" asked MacKean.
"Er… not really, no," the young participant responded.
"A couple of my friends, yeah… they just get addicted to [games] – and then become really violent," his friend adds.
"Really – actually violent?" asks MacKean.
"One friend, it effected them a lot – they used to be normal and really nice, but because of a game called Grand Theft Auto they got really violent and use a lot of bad language."
(The report then weighs up how the media has changed its attitudes towards violence and other content – you can see the whole episode here, the games report starts 20 minutes in.)
The report has not sat well with those in the industry.
"Newsnight filmed children playing an 18-rated game and allowed children to play it. Would they do the same with an 18-rated video nasty, sitting idly by whilst they watch? What parents would buy such 18-rated games for their children in the first place? Parents that allow children to play 18-rated games or watch 18-rated movies need to be educated as pointed out in the Byron report," commented James Brooksby of Kuju’s Doublesix games studio.
"In addition, the program inferred that all games are identical in regards to their violent content. This is obviously not the case. The BBC should not need educating on the relevance of a rating system nor should Newsnight need to be told that it needs to give the industry an introduction opportunity to respond."
However, Newsnight editor Peter Barron told Develop that the item in the show merely represented the truth that children still find it easy to access games content intended for adults.
"In this item we aimed to show the reality that children are routinely playing games intended for older children or adults," he said.
"Obviously we wouldn’t try and alter that reality – we simply asked to film and talk to some young people about their game playing habits, with their parents’ permission. This was done in the same way as we would for example show the reality of under-age drinking."
But developers were still unhappy with the lack of wider context in the article.
David Millard, creative director of Kuju’s NiKNaK studio – which specifically works on making games for children and youth audiences – commented: "It is the moral obligation of parents to help steer their children in the right direction, and this means self education about the ratings and content of games on all formats. The hard fact is that if a parent knowingly supplies their child with a game that contains unsuitable material, the responsibility and consequences lie with that parent, and not the existence of the game. The Newsnight article focused on two young children exposed to a violent game, but had nothing to say about who gave it to them. In fact, Liz MacKean came across as the person showing the game to the children for the first time, clutching the box as if she had walked in with it. Would a sensible adult show an 11 year-old an 18 certificate film and ask them what is going on? It’s just another example of irresponsible journalism.
"The ratings are there to help message the kind of content the player/viewer should expect to see, but an increasing number of people seem to get stuck at the concept of the word ‘game’, thinking that this means a harmless piece of fun. Some parents still seem to think that a game is always safe for any age group, and are perhaps under the false impression that there cannot be realistically violent content that could in anyway harm their child. We seem trapped in a circular argument when it comes to video game violence, claiming that it is disgusting and depraved to expose children to it, forgetting the simple fact that it must be exposed to them in the first place. Would you give you child a knife and leave them alone in a room with it? It’s done with violent games all the time."