I’m the videogame dad.
That’s how everyone at my kid’s school thinks of me, at least. This time of year, my inbox is full of notes from parents who I know tangentially by their handles — their children. “I’m Aiden’s dad” or “I’m Hannah’s mom.” They call because it’s the holiday game buying season, and they have children, and no idea what’s appropriate.
It makes me, sadly, the local game sommelier. And the ESRB makes my life miserable.
Don’t get me wrong: I would far rather the ESRB be in the game-rating business than the government, and the ESRB does at least provide a guidepost for the truly clueless.
My typical game sommelier session usually goes like this:
Me: “So, I’m happy to recommend a few games or a new console for Christmas, but I have to ask:Do you know what he already has, or has played?” (Sadly, yes, it’s almost always for a boy.)
Them: “Not really. I think we have an Xbox, and there’s this game with a lot of guns in it … .”
Me: “You know, games these days aren’t just like the arcade — they can actually be really amazing. You should think about playing with him.”
Them: “Well, I’m just not a gamer.”
Me: “OK, walk over to the TV and tell me what games you have lying around.”
From there, one of two things happens. They rattle off a bunch of Wii Shovelware, and I feel deeply sorry for the poor kid, or they rattle of a list of M-rated Xbox 360 titles and I feel even sorrier for the kid.
And that’s when I can mention the little label on each and every game that’s supposed to tell them whether the game is appropriate for their kids. Most of the time, I feel fairly confident in telling parents that they can trust the ESRB. I feel confident, for instance, that most E-rated games aren’t going to offend anyone, and there are a ton of fantastic games on every console that fit that bill. Most Zeldas. Pokemon. Racing games. Sports games, music games, the Lego series. There are whole genres that nobody has really any issues with.
But if you’re an 8– or 9-year-old boy, chances are you’re looking up the food chain at the big-boy games, and you’re asking your parents for something outside the “E” or “E-10” box. Much like movies, it’s the middle ground of the ratings system where things fall apart. The “T” rating from the ESRB is supposed to mean “13+,” thus being a rough equivalent of an MPAA “PG-13” rating. But the problem is that an absolutely enormous swath of content gets caught up under that “T” rating. Does Let’s Dance really belong in the same bucket with Heavy Fire: Afghanistan? Is Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess more or less mature than, The Bachelor: The Video Game?
But if I’m being honest, with my own 8 year old — a full 5 years junior to the rating’s intention — there are scores of T-rated games that have been great. Toy Soldiers, Rocksmith, Rock Band, Magic: the Gathering, Super Smash Brothers — these are T-Rated games that have been awesome fun with my son, and which I don’t have any issue letting him play with his friends, with their parent’s approval.
But you know what else is T rated? Arkham City. Arkham City is a great game. My son loves Batman, so I have let him play bits and pieces. But is it in any way really appropriate for an 8 year old? Not mine. Not really. The violence is up close and personal, with Batman just laying waste with his hands on everyone. It’s fun, for sure, but it’s also very real and in your face. It’s precisely the kind of violence he would walk out onto the playground and try to mimic, going “bam, boof, pow” as he mocked taking down bad guys.
And then there’s the hypersexuality of Catwoman and Harley Quinn. I’m not a prude by nature, but I am hyper-sensitive that I’m trying to simultaneously raise a strong, self-confident young woman and a young boy who’s not a dick. I want them both to have rational, real-world respect for everyone as people, not objects. And frankly, both the visuals and dialog in Arkham City were enough to make me skip scenes or even whole chunks of the game with my kids in the room.
To be fair, a lot of this is buried in the ESRB rating for Arkham City. It calls out in a full 250-word description exactly, with quotes from the game and detailed descriptions, how the game pushes the boundaries. So a diligent researcher can discern that Arkham City earns its T rating for tight-fitting outfits and dialog like “Sure could go for some porn right now,” while Twilight Princess gets it just for “Animated Blood” and “Fantasy Violence.”
But there’s really no way a non-gaming parent is going to suss all this out. The amount of time it would take to research all of the available wishlist items is time they could actually just sit down and play the games with their kids.
And then there’s Halo 4.
I guess I understand why it’s rated M. According to the ESRB, it’s rated M because of the Blood and Violence. And sure, those things are in there. But how do you weigh the violence of shooting aliens at range in Halo vs. the brutal hand-to-hand, personal combat of Arkham City? And as for Blood, well, there’s a bit of gore in a few cutscenes, but my kids have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and all the Marvel movies, and there’s far bloodier, scarier stuff in those.
Both of these ratings lack something incredibly important: context. Both Batman and Master Chief are noble warriors, fighting the good fight. They’re superheroes. But Batman’s plotline is about how horrible people do horrible things to each other, and how sometimes Batman has to do horrible things to stop them. (If you’ve played through the Solomon Grundy fight, there’s little I can imagine more horrifying and gory than how Batman ultimately dispatches that particular big lug.)
Master Chief, on the other hand, is an action figure. While Halo 4 introduces some nuance and pathos for the first time, Halo 4 is, above all else, mechanical. It’s fun. It’s extremely well designed. But it’s about as bloodless and mechanical a “shooter” as I can imagine, and certainly more detached than T-Rated shooters like Ghost Recon.
The ESRB tries. They really do. They put as much as they can into their long-form descriptions, available on their website. But ultimately, all the consumer really sees is the big giant letter in the corner of the box, and maybe — maybe — a few words underneath.
So here’s the thing, parents-of-budding-gamers: You only have two choices. Either sit there on the couch with them, play the games, see how it affects them, and talk about the uncomfortable parts, or throw them to the sharks. If you don’t play Halo or Arkham City with your kids, they’ll just find them all the more titillating when they play them at their friend’s house, whose Mom doesn’t even know what console they own.
90% of parenting of is showing up. And you can’t outsource that to the ESRB.