Last year, I bought a copy of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare as I thought it would be interesting to play a game aimed at adults and in a genre that I would not usually gravitate towards. We have a Wii system and I hooked up the Wiimote and nunchuk ready to get into video warrior mode. I think I played it twice before getting bored and nauseated by the motion caused by my unsteady gameplay. A couple of months later I traded it in alongside a few other disused games of my son's in order to buy a DS Pokemon title for him.
But unlike, many of my teaching colleagues when I heard kids in the upper grades talking about playing COD at home, I knew they weren't playing a virtual fishing game. In Australia, all of the Call of Duty titles carry a M 15+ rating. Interestingly, this seems to be used a guide rather than as a rule as I have heard kids casually tell me that "everyone has this game" and "my parents bought this for my birthday". I'm pretty sure that many of the pre-orders for the latest installment Black Ops were from the 13 years and under brigade with either very open minded or possibly naive parents (maybe a combination of both) collecting the coveted goods so that bragging rights would be in place for school the next day.
Australia has a mixed approach in rating video games. On one hand, Australia is seen as quite liberal with the Call of Duty games available without guardian approval or assistance from the age of 15. In North America, the ESRB rates the game's starting age at 17, in Britain the age is 16 and Europe's PEGI sets the bar at 16 years of age. But there is also a large list of games that are banned here that can be bought under different rating systems elsewhere in the world. So, are there dangers in allowing younger primary school aged students access to these more mature themed games?
I think it’s right to be concerned about the underage use of games like Call of Duty (COD). Increasingly parents are succumbing to perceived peer pressure and allowing their children to play these games because ‘all their friends are.’ I know lots of parents that have decided it’s okay.
I think there are a number of reasons to be concerned. It’s not just the gratuitous violence that risks becoming normalised, COD and alike are riddled with bad language, sex and other adult themes.
It’s odd that many of us regulate our children’s access to TV but feel that the violence presented in games is somehow different and therefore harmless. But visual realism in these games is increasing. What’s more, it’s participatory. COD Black Ops has a gruesome torture scene, Modern Warfare 2 has terrorists murdering innocent civillians in an airport, and the player can join in. Computer games present violence in the same manner that porn shows sex – entirely casual and inconsequential. I can’t imagine many of us would be comfortable with our children watching 18 certificate films but the content in video games is basically the same.
Killing is the point of these games – it is relentless and mindless. But that might not be an issue to those of us who know better. There is no evidence to suggest that playing violent video games makes well-adjusted players more violent in the long term but there is ample research that shows a rise in aggression and drop in empathy immediately after playing. Current studies suggest that violent games can exacerbate underlying psychosis, that is, if you have a tendency to be violent, first person shooters will make it worse. Thankfully most of us aren’t psychopaths and by our early-mid twenties most of us have settled into our skins. Young people are still ‘solidifying.’
One of the possible solutions in making these sort of games less accessible to the under 15's of Australia is the elimination of the MA 15+ category and the creation of a new R 18+ category where only an adult could buy games of that classification. The logic says that it would be less likely a child could talk their parent into buying a R rated video game as the internal alarm bells should be ringing clearly in that responsible adult's head. But I still continue to be amazed (in a negative sense) at the sort of content that students I have known over the last few years have had exposure to with their parents' knowledge and blessing. At times, I feel very conservative!
Many serious adult gamers want the kids out of their space as well. There is a wealth of reading at the Australia Needs A R18+ rating for video games website, where the reasons for such a move are clearly outlined. And interestingly, my own state is willing to go it alone in such a move with a decision about dropping the MA 15+ rating for the R 18+ due in July. Will it change the behaviour of video gamers under the age of 15? We'll have to wait and see if the talk of COD gameplay becomes nostalgic around the schoolyard.