If you've been following the news lately, you have undoubtedly heard of the tragedy that happened in Parkland, Florida, a couple of weeks ago. This event has sparked a massive conversation around gun control, school safety, and mental illness.
It's amazing to see these conversations happening more regularly within the community. However, some politicians are taking a step backwards, choosing once again to place the blame of violent acts on video games.
One such politician is President Donald Trump himself, who is said to be meeting with members of the gaming industry later this week. Initially, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) stated that nobody they are associated with has plans to meet with the president. Later in the week, the ESA confirmed they would meet with Trump to discuss video game violence this Thursday.
This news sounds all too familiar to some of us. When a tragic event takes place, violent media is almost always brought up. The United States government has had several discussions over the last couple of decades regarding a rating system or some sort of regulation on the sales of violent video games. But government regulation is not the right answer in this case. Even with the proper systems already in place, children still find a way to play inappropriate games.
So why has nothing happened yet? Why do children continue to play these games if there are systems in place already? To look at this situation as a whole, let's go back to the 1990s, when Night Trap was heavily criticized for its inclusion of sexually revealing images and Mortal Kombat was receiving similar attention for its gory death animations.
The Creation of the ESRB
In the initial argument about these two games, SEGA claimed they were up front about their content, as they had implemented their own rating system. Nintendo on the other hand, scolded SEGA for even creating Night Trap, and censored all of the blood and gore from their version of Mortal Kombat.
Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did not believe publisher-created rating systems held up, and threatened government regulation of the gaming industry. With that possibility looming over their heads, several major publishers came together to form a political trade group called the Interactive Digital Software Association, now known as the ESA. The group created their own rating board known as the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which is what we all recognize today.
How Does the ESRB Operate?
The ESRB follows a very thorough process. When a developer's game is nearing release, they must send a questionnaire and a video containing the game's most controversial content. Seven full-time members examine the footage and send their decided rating back to the publisher.
At this point, the publisher can decide if this rating is okay. If not, they can edit the content and get it reviewed again. Upon final submission, the ESRB receives multiple test copies of the game for further inspection. If a publisher misrepresents their game and tries to sneak content by the ratings board, they could receive a fine of $1 million and a product recall if deemed necessary.
The ESRB also has a "short form" for rating indie games. The publisher answers a multitude of questions that will automatically determine the rating of their game. This is in response to the constant release of downloadable titles. However, if an indie developer releases their game physically, it must go through the "long process" described above and be rated again.
So the ESRB does a pretty thorough job when rating each game. But the ratings board doesn't have much control of who gets their hands on the game after it's released. So should the government step in and control the sale of these games to minors? I don't think so.
How the ESRB is Enforced at the Retail Level
I've worked at two different entertainment stores in my life: Hastings, a small chain that went bankrupt a couple of years ago, and GameStop, a company you're all probably familiar with. At Hastings, it was against company policy to sell an M-rated game to anybody under the age of 17. Failing to follow this rule would result in punishment from a manager.
Things were a little stricter at GameStop, a company that takes the ESRB very seriously. If you were caught selling to a minor without parental approval, you would be fired on the spot. Several employees in my district were let go for this reason.
I can't speak for other retailers like Walmart or Best Buy, but I've noticed pretty strict enforcement of ESRB guidelines. But it's not just the retailer's job to communicate what's in each game. Much like inappropriate films or music, parents must be informed about what type of media their children are consuming.
Think of this situation: A child goes into Walmart and begs his mother to buy Mortal Kombat X for him. The mother completely ignores the rating on the box, the employee does not explain the content of the game, and the child is now the proud owner of one of the most violent modern video games.
What should the mother do at this point? Should she let the child play the game, unsupervised for hours on end? This is never the right answer. It's very understandable that being a parent is tough, and sometimes you just want some time for yourself. But just like any other form of media, you should actively watch your child to see how they're engaging with it and how they're reacting to it.
If Parents Disapprove of Violent Games, How Do Children Still Play Them?
If a parent misses every single sign that a game is not appropriate for their child, it is certainly up to them to catch them in the act of playing it. But some parents aren't bothered by the content at all. They buy the game for their child, and let them play it anyway. I saw it every single day at both stores I worked at.
Imagine a different scenario: A boy really wants to play Grand Theft Auto V for the first time. An associate explains to the child's parent that the game isn't appropriate for his age group at all and goes into detail about each aspect of the game. The parent doesn't care, says it's okay, and the child is now consuming that type of content on a daily basis.
Even though the ESRB is effective, the retail associates try to stop sales that shouldn't happen, and the parents are totally aware of the content, the child still plays the game. If government regulation is introduced, this will not change a thing. Parents will still make the purchase, give the game to the child, and the cycle will continue.
Government regulation of video game sales is not the answer. We need to continue to enforce the guidelines that are already in place, and parents need to be more involved with what their children do in their spare time. If you want kids to stop playing violent games, then that's your decision as their parent. It's not up to the United States Government to tell you how to raise your child. Those well-informed decisions need to be made on your own.