Age Rantings

James Paterson wonders what all the fuss is about

Hello, my name is James and I'm a gamer.

As a 24-year-old male living in a suburb of Manchester, England, I feel safe telling you this. In 2006's Britain, playing games is fine, it's fun and, dare I say it, it's fashionable.

But it wasn't always like this.

I've always been a gamer. I had a Spectrum, I had a Mega Drive and I've had all of Sony's consoles, not forgetting an Xbox or two along the way. But back in 1994 It was all about the Mega Drive. Aged 12 I was very comfortable in the belief that Sonic was the best thing since sliced bread - I wore red and white trainers and I even spiked my hair like him.

The problem was that this was not exactly a fashionable thing to do. Exploring Sonic's Green Hill Zone and wandering around ToeJam and Earl's version of Earth didn't make me stand out as cool - and let's not even talk about the effects of playing with the bears in Altered Beast.

Of course I've grown up a bit since then and, it's safe to say, so has gaming. The colourful world of platform games still exists, but it's no longer the driving force behind the worldwide gaming revolution. Instead, it's Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series - it's the blockbusters like Halo and now Gears of War. Bye bright blue Sonic, hello stealth-like Sam Fisher.

There is one big difference between the games I used to play and the games we play now - they all carry high age ratings. Splinter Cell is for over 15s, Halo can be yours if your date of birth makes you 16 and Grand Theft Auto - well, prove your 18 and the delights of carjacking, mass murder and drug running can be yours.

Well, as long as you live in the UK or Europe. In America they do things differently. You won't find games marked '12', '15' and '18' there. Instead, games are tagged with words like 'Teen' and 'Mature'. This, according to recognised statistics, leads to 40% of large retailers selling violent games to lone children, no questions asked.

It's been said before that statistics can prove anything, however if 4 out of 10 young children can get hold of violent videogames, it certainly sounds like there is a problem. That's why a growing number of people in the US are pressing for change.

Of course, they are pressing for change in an entirely American way. Stories of mass protests against videogames, class action lawsuits and various other activities make their way around the world at an alarming pace thanks to the wonders of YouTube and any other number of gaming websites. These often portray those pushing for change in an unfortunate light. Whether it's through question and answer sessions where the interviewers already seem to have preconceived ideas or edited comments not showing the whole picture, it's often hard to identify with Mr and Mrs American Protester. Their signs proclaiming offences against God and calling industry personnel sociopaths don't do much for a liberal public.

I should admit that until very recently I too would have believed that the protesters were insane and out of touch. That was until I listened to what they had to say. While I won't go as far as to say I had an epiphany and am now a born again believer, their demands no longer seem so ridiculous. recently interviewed one of the people at the forefront of the movement, Floridian lawyer Jack Thompson. When asked whether parents should be held responsible for censoring games from children and the easily influenced, part of his answer stated 'All I am trying to do is get the US to the UK (and elsewhere) system that stops the sale of adult games to kids'.

Their movement is striving for is what the UK and Europe has.

It's a simple demand - rate games by age. That's it.

Looking at all the publicity around what Jack and the movement are trying to achieve, it's easy to believe that they are after something else, like banning violent videogames outright. Not so, says Jack. 'Any policy to stop the sale of adult games to adults? No way'.

If all he is trying to achieve is parity with other nations, is that necessarily a bad thing? The lack of violent video game related deaths and high profile lawsuits seem to show the system works and everyone copes just fine.

At age 16 I convinced my parents to buy me the original Grand Theft Auto - even in 1998 the retailer refused to sell me the game. The fact my parents trusted me enough to play the game and not, say, steal my father's car and commit murder is a decision they took and one that a retailer can't be expected to. It's not a great leap to see this system implemented across the US and it's hard to see whom it would harm.

The videogame rating system employed in the UK has stood up to everything thrown at it and, to my knowledge, has never seen a game banned. In Australia the game 'Reservoir Dogs' was pulled from the shelves. In England, you can get it in Tesco. They'll also sell you Grand Theft Auto. Bully? Now discounted in most stores. Get it while it's hot.

All this in a country that hasn't seen a single organised rally to ban a game. When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released I was near the front of the midnight queue. The gamer in front of me was lucky enough to look under 18 and was asked for ID at the counter. He showed a card, paid and collected his copy. Both he and I walked out of the shop unhindered - nobody accused us of being evil or baby killers or being responsible for the end of civilised society.

Soon after, the UK gaming industry body, ELSPA, declared San Andreas to be the fastest selling game since records began, shifting million copies in just nine days. The director general of ELSPA, Roger Bennett, was quoted as saying, 'What has been so satisfying is the exceptionally high level of awareness for both GTA and video games in general, in both media coverage and the public consciousness.' No references to regrettable outbreaks of violence, public rioting or mass protests in London.

If this model can be transplanted to continental America, it's hard to find anyone who wouldn't benefit. While the world wouldn't instantly become a better place it's fair to say that protests would end and videogame violence would no longer hit the negative press as much as it does now. If asking for ID stops one person killing another, it's surely worth doing. After all, as Jack said in our interview, 'if [real life violence by gamers] continues, you're going to see a call for a total BAN.'

It's time both sides of this dispute, the angry American parents and the aloof games industry, worked together to help change the way games are sold. ID is cheap and plentiful - drivers licences and passports aren't hard to request, wherever you are.

In perhaps the best example of the flaws in the American rating system, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was pulled from Walmart's shelves during the 'Hot Coffee' scandal, where hidden sex scenes were found in the game. Yet from the start to the finish of this controversy, the game was still available on Asda's shelves across the UK. The only difference is the rating system in place - Walmart rated the game as Mature while Asda sold it as an 18-rated game.

If all it takes to end this crisis is a set of new age rating labels, I'd like to volunteer my printer to help get the US ready for the next Grand Theft Auto. Alright, it's not out till November but it's only a cheap inkjet - it takes some time to warm up. Granted, printing off ten million labels on my desktop printer is a bit of a silly thing to do, but then so are mass riots over the wrong sticker.

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