A fifth of eight year olds have seen nudity on the internet, according to a survey cited in the House of Lords last week by Baroness Benjamin, best known (to me, at least) for her work as a children’s television presenter. I haven’t been able to trace the original source of the data, so it’s hard to know how representative the survey was, or what proportion of eight-year-old internet users it represents. But the survey and Baroness Benjamin’s statement in the House of Lords both reflect a growing concern in society with how easily children and young adults might be able to access content that’s inappropriate for their age using the internet.
Many parents might be worried about app stores too, another channel through which content flows into the home computer. Before the internet, it was fairly hard for children to obtain inappropriate games because shops would refuse to sell them to anyone who couldn’t see over the counter. Now, anyone can think of a game and download it in a matter of minutes.
A key difference between the app store and the internet, though, is that it’s a walled garden. App store owners typically exercise some control over what can be distributed through their store, and set standards that developers must meet.
That doesn’t mean that all content has to be kid-friendly. It just means that content must be accurately rated, so that children can be stopped from downloading games that are inappropriate for their age.
For example, those who distribute games through the Intel AppUp center need to give their game an age rating such as 3+, 6+, 10+, 13+, or 17+. Intel publishes detailed explanations of what’s considered acceptable at each rating, with 10 year olds only allowed to see mild or infrequent violence involving fantasy figures, for example, and 13 year olds being allowed to see mild or infrequent violence involving humans or animals, or more frequent or intense scenes involving fantasy characters. Depiction of weapons, drugs, gambling, swearing, and mild sexual content is also rated. Sexual adult content is banned from the store altogether.
It’s not just the content in the game that might present a risk to children. If a game provides unfiltered internet access, it must have a 17+ rating. If it collects personal data or incorporates user-generated content, it must be rated at least 13+. Minimal advertising that is suitable for children can be shown to 10+ audiences, but other advertising requires a 13+ rating.
To game developers, the ratings system presents two interesting but contradictory opportunities. Firstly, there’s the opportunity to expand the audience of a game by adapting its content. For example, if you’re creating a battle game, does it need to have real people in it? If you instead use fantasy figures, you can broaden the audience to younger players too, assuming that the gameplay mechanics are easy enough for them. (An age rating doesn’t guarantee someone of that age is capable of playing the game, merely that they won’t be adversely affected by exposure to it.) Is user-generated content adding value to the game, or is it just narrowing your market?
The second opportunity is that game ratings give developers the freedom to create games with more mature themes. You can set your game in a seedy underworld and immerse the player in a drug-riddled gambling den without worrying about children being exposed to it. You can depict realistic violence if it fits the story you’re telling, without having to worry that you’ll cause an outcry from concerned parents. Some more mature players might be more likely to buy games with unflinching graphics, too.
A game can’t be all things to all people, of course. I can’t think of any games that are played by six year olds and thirty-six year olds (leave a comment if you can). You need to know who you’re targeting and make sure you don’t water down your proposition so much that it doesn’t truly satisfy anyone. But there are a couple of different strategies you can take when planning the features and content of your game. You can make your market as broad as possible, reasoning that the more people there are who might enjoy your game, the easier it might be to sell it. Or you can be more daring in your presentation, reasoning that your target market might be smaller but more willing to buy. The key thing is to keep age ratings in mind throughout your development, so that you understand the market implications of the game design decisions you take.