I’m not saying it’s been an entirely pointless exercise to reconsider age ratings. Society, via its elected politicians, needs to engage with difficult subjects through reviews, trade bodies and quangos, rather like a vet studying haemorrhoids in hippos reaches first for the rubber gloves and a snorkel mask.
Who knows, post-Byron, people in positions of power might actually grasp that some games exist between the twin negative stereotypes of passive brain drainer and DIY murder manual. I won’t suggest any older MPs have actually tried playing a game (they wouldn’t stick their arm up an elephant, would they?), only that there seems to be a more measured attitude emerging.
What about the kids?
But the idea that the Skins generation will not play Grand Theft Auto because of a sticker is pure fantasy (especially the semi-feral, improperly parented ones we’re in truth wringing our hands about).
This is the first generation in history where young males have seen everything you can do to a person being done to a person – at least outside of the royal compounds of particularly degraded ancient civilisations. With the Web still effectively a frontier land, a No Under-15s Allowed notice on a box seems about as realistic as the same message scrawled on a teenager’s bedroom door.
Putting more logos on a box or 100 more games in front of a board might satisfy politicians and help conscientious mums, but it won’t address the only substantive current problem: that some parents make no effort to engage with games on even a cursory level, and others aren’t parenting at all. (One could even argue a logo absolves good parents from the chore of ‘getting’ games.)
Games without frontiers
Yet this is all tittle-tattle compared to the really hard – and more interesting – questions. Namely, how should we police adults playing games, as the games become more realistic and freeform? And should we police the games themselves, as MMOs have started doing?
Games are the first step in a medium we still barely understand, which is why worries about whether they affect the brain cannot be swept away by comparisons with movies or music.
Games don’t get inside your head, your head gets inside a game. A game doesn’t tell a story – you co-author an experience. And you can’t play a game once and understand its scope – I might choose to run over pedestrians, where you just drove a taxi.
Games like Elite and World of Warcraft best reveal gaming’s almost drug-like ability to create a temporary new reality. That’s what makes games amazing, and dangerous. ‘Evil game’ poster child Grand Theft Auto is much more important for its free-roaming innovations than its cartoon murders. That freedom is what makes games amazing, and dangerous. In Fable you choose whether to be evil or good – in a way Jean Paul Satre would have approved of, through your actions rather than a menu, through murder or mercy. That’s what makes games amazing, and dangerous.
That games were different didn’t matter when we were jumping on mushrooms or jostling for Pole Position. But sooner or later you’re going to be able to torture a photo-realistic adult, whether a designer put it in or because of some emergent behaviour arising from the physics, animation, and AI.
And what then?
If I get a kick out of virtual torture but pay my taxes and am nice to my neighbours, should I be allowed to? Society doesn’t have consistent answers.
Objections relating to an actor’s welfare hardly matter when it’s a computer program being degraded. The issue seems more akin to laws about drugs and alcohol, where we judge personal deprivation to be a price paid by society as a whole, as well as those recurring fears about the long-term effect of ‘negative’ media on the mind – and of the monsters we might create.
Society has been grappling with LSD and nasty movies for 50 years; Moore’s Law will run far faster than any investigations into the more complicated issue of virtual reality.
For three decades we’ve been safe enough behind crude game graphics to ignore such issues. But the curtain is falling. The most intense games of today will look like clumsy cave paintings by the mid-21st century. A future Dr. Tanya Byron may reflect her predecessor got off rather lightly.