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VICE vs Video games

Would You Really Call Social Services Because a Kid Was Playing ‘GTA’?

If you're a dickhead living in Cheshire, you may soon get your wish.

A screen shot from the upcoming PC version of 'Grand Theft Auto V'

No, you wouldn't, obviously. Unless you're a terrible person and live in Cheshire, renowned haven for the north-west's finest Premiership footballers, and your kid('s friend) attends one of 15 primary schools (or just the single secondary academy) campaigning to make the playing of mature-rated games by those under the recommended age an offence worthy of a call to the police, or worse.

As reported by The Guardian and subsequently picked up on by the games press, The Nantwich Education Partnership intends to classify parental permission to play games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Gears of War as neglect of a level severe enough to call in the law and social services.


Seriously. That tea you had this morning wasn't spiked with dishwasher cleaner. Head teachers are genuinely threatening parents with intervention from social services if they allow their children access to video games unintended for their age range. Social services. For playing some games.

Okay, I get that it's pretty dumb to let an overly impressionable pre-teen loose with a copy of GTAV unsupervised – there's a lot of sick shit in that game, and nobody needs their pride and joy dragged into any faculty's disciplinary system for telling their Year Three teacher to go fuck themselves. There are over 1,000 utterances of the F-bomb in Rockstar's record-breaker, along with a commendable clutch of that choice C-word Scots like to use instead of "person". It's friendly, apparently.

But let's be reasonable here. Yes, we must protect our kids from heinous shit they shouldn't see until their brains and emotions are developed enough to process it all without bursting into tears, voiding their bowels, coughing up their added-colours candy pop-speckled stomachs or a combination of all three simultaneously. I'm a dad, and there's no way I'm digging out my old Wii copy of Manhunt for some rainy Sunday afternoon entertainment in the company of my four year old. But when I started up Bloodborne, a PEGI-16 game intended for grown-ups with developed tolerances for grotesque monsters and brutally demanding difficulty, I let him create my character with me: Elvis, a red-head girl who just wants to slay a few beasts before breakfast.


(Brief aside: PEGI stands for "Pan European Game Information", and it's the body that assesses the age suitability of video games for the, you guessed it, European market. According to their figures, around only four percent of games released are aimed exclusively at adults, earning the top 18 rating, while almost half of all video games are considered suitable for all. Video games in America are rated separately, by the ESRB.)

'Bloodborne' is a PEGI-16, but gruesome baddies and OTT gore are things we've seen in countless games before the ratings came in

Son number one sat happily through my earliest deaths, too – to pitchfork-wielding psychos eager to skewer me, dirty great diseased rats down in the sewers of Yharnam, and those werewolf-type things you find on the bridge before You Know What. He didn't cower from the nasties. Nor did he pop out to the shed to find a spade to shatter my skull with. "I'm not scared, daddy, because they're not real." Well observed, son. But then, you're not the one holding the controller are you and what the fuck was that?

We usually play more age-appropriate games. Mario's a favourite, likewise the LittleBigPlanet series and any number of LEGO titles. But hold up, what's this? The LEGO Movie Videogame, which we both enjoyed together last year, is appropriate for ages seven and upward, according to PEGI. As is LittleBigPlanet 3, and the entirely child-friendly Rayman Legends. The frenetic Hyrule Warriors, which he sat in on without once reaching for a broom handle or curtain rail and smashing the fuck out of my front room, is recommended for players aged a minimum of 12 years old.


I appreciate that the intent of the Nantwich group isn't to restrict junior school kids from enjoying these games just because they're a little south of the PEGI-scaled seal of suggested censorship adorning each title's cover. They're more concerned with the 18+ affairs that we've all seen mums buying their little darlings any given day in Sainsbury's. Sometimes you're tempted to grab them, seeing as they're just a couple of places ahead of you in the queue, in their own little world of ensuring their not-yet-pimpled progeny will suffer no more the peer pressure of the playground, and scream: "Little Danny here is going to grow up a murderer if you buy him Bayonetta 2, because that's what video games do to kids, you prick." Except, that'll never happen. Because nobody under the age of 27 actually owns a Wii U that they'll admit to by buying software in public.

A screen from 'Bayonetta 2', here, portraying the very realistic situation where a witch battles angels on the back of a jet plane

In a letter sent to parents, head teacher Mary Hennessy Jones writes: "If your child is allowed inappropriate access to any game or associated product that is designated 18+, we are advised to contact the police and children's social care, as this is deemed neglectful." She has since reinforced her position to the Sunday Times, telling the newspaper, "We are trying to help parents to keep their children as safe as possible in this digital era… Parents find it helpful to have very clear guidelines."

That being the case, let me address the parents reading this piece, right now: ignore this batshit-logic approach to protecting our offspring from the evils of the everyday – as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are as much a part of childhood today as arguments over who was better between Sonic and Mario were in 1992 (and even if they're not actually playing them, they're going to watch playthroughs on YouTube) – and learn a little more about video games yourselves. The most important lesson, perhaps, being that games today simply aren't the same as those you played in your own youth. If you skipped a few console generations, bloody hell, were you ever shocked on Christmas morning when your 11-year-old daughter unwrapped that PS4 bundle packing Killzone Shadow Fall and a broken Battlefield beside its sexual predator-ready online capabilities and Singstar: Ultimate Party compatibility.


High-def murder-sims can move with strikingly realistic animation, the audible cursing coming on as if blue-barked by somebody actually in substantial bother, but let's be clear: they're hyper-stylised, adrenaline-overloaded experiences that riff on every Hollywood cliché, and subsequently presented as entirely unreal. Hell, that's the name of the engine that so many games are made in, including Gears of War. I mean, as soon as you've a command for "strafing", the illusion of reality is shattered – who the fuck strafes in real life? (As much as it might be useful when approaching festival bars.)

The moody meat bucket that is Marcus Fenix

The characters of Gears of War look like the CGI cast from Small Soldiers – a film ostensibly for kids – gone wrong, plastic but properly proportioned necks replaced by shoulders of steroids-enhanced ham and their weird, podgy palms entirely comprised of Silly Putty left out under the Sera sun too long. If anyone plays Epic's shooter and thinks what they're seeing is in any way connectable with reality, the problem sure isn't the game itself. The violence in it doesn't feel any worse, to me, that what I played through in Moonstone, or Cannon Fodder, back when I was gaming on an Amiga. It's just been rendered in glossier shades of goriness as befits the technological progression of the games industry.

But don't misunderstand me. I'm not about to let my kid fill the boots of Marcus Fenix. Not at four. Not at eight. Twelve? Maybe, but it really depends on how I feel he's connected with video games that are more age appropriate, and what I think he'll gain from playing an PEGI-18 title, as not all of these adults-only releases are base blasters where the sole goal is dismemberment of antagonistic aliens or the permanent neutralising of opposition soldiers.


If I've played through a game and I feel it's okay for someone younger than me to be a part of, then that's my call to make. There's great beauty in Grand Theft Auto V, and so many activities within the game that don't insist upon the presence of firearms. I've gone hours in that game without pulling a gun once, just drinking in the day-night cycle as I drive around the perimeter of its magnificently realised map, listening to the radio, sight-seeing my way across this incredible analogue of California. It's a most meditative method of participating in one of gaming's most controversial titles, and one that the headlines will never favour over "Grand Theft Auto Blamed After Eight-Year-Old Shoots Grandmother". Not that anyone needs it repeating that violent games alone do not violent kids make. Surely.

The linear campaign of your average Call of Duty isn't likely to tell any player of any age much about army life, but games like BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line go way beyond the gunning down of grunts in gorgeously drawn corridors. The former series' three main games tackle themes like American Exceptionalism, of choice and individuality, and religion taken to controversial limits. The Yager-developed Spec Ops, meanwhile, draws from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to deliver a denouement that may make you feel awful for playing through the preceding hours (two words: white phosphorous). It shows you a memorable side of military engagement that, while fictionalised, nevertheless feels a thousand percent more lifelike than Gears' campaign against the Locust.


'Spec Ops: The Line' is a standard third-person military shooter – until this

Both BioShock and Spec Ops are 18 certificates – but when a game isn't rated by the British Board of Film Classification, using the system you'll find on DVDs and TV box sets, it can confuse parents buying games for younger players. I'm lucky enough to live a six-minute walk away from an independent video games shop that also stocks movies, and its proprietor is well aware that the PEGI system became British law in 2012. But she's received so much shit in the years between from underage customers (and their parents, too) who've demanded she does sell to them, because other shops do.

And I know they do – I was in the centre of Brighton only two days ago and witnessed a kid aged maybe 13 purchasing Battlefield: Hardline from a well-known games retailer, the kind that's always swamped with school-age shoppers come the holidays. That's a PEGI-18 title, right there. Not long ago I saw a mum buy Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare for her trailing teenage son – 14, at best – in a popular supermarket, and the person behind the counter didn't even ask if it was for her or said skulking minor. Judging by her question of "Is this the new one?", one assumes it's unlikely that she'll be taking a virtual Kevin Spacey for a spin any time soon.

Education is therefore key in this discussion – but to come in so heavy handed as the Nantwich Partnership is utterly misguided. Parents need to know what is in the games they allow their children to play, but here's the thing: if they looked at the packaging, or just read a little about the games online, they wouldn't find themselves at any loss as to what's inside the box. "I think the schools are stepping outside the realm of what's probably acceptable," was the opinion of Margaret Morrissey of Parents Outloud, responding to the threat of legal proceedings against the guardians of these inappropriate gamers. "It will be construed by many parents as a threat, and it is not helpful. If schools want to get the support of parents and gain their confidence, threatening them with social services will not help."

The imminent 'Mortal Kombat X' is significantly sicker than the (controversial!) original of the early 1990s

A game's PEGI rating should influence any parent's decision at the tills, if they're unable to take the time to play the game themselves (assuming they've any interest in doing so, but why wouldn't you care about what your kids were exposed to?). If your child is 13, and the game you're holding is an 18, maybe pause for a moment. Read about it. Check out what qualifies it as "adults-only" interactive entertainment. There are sites that lay out these points with parent-aiding precision:, FamilyGamer.TV, and a stack more. Nobody's pride and joy is going to self-combust if they have to wait a while for dad to determine whether or not Bloodborne is okay for them. To be honest, if my oldest was 12 or so, I'd probably let him at FromSoftware's newest nightmare, albeit in a padded room so that my controller's not broken the first time he hurls it against the wall. Any 14-year-old participant in a CoD online match is unlikely to be adversely affected by the experience, just another (modern) way of playing with mates.

I'll judge whether or not a game is suitable for my kids. If you need out-of-touch head teachers to tell you what your children shouldn't be doing in their spare time, then you're living in a past that was banished long before Minecraft came online. Your kids are just doing what we did years ago, with Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse – the difference is that gaming culture moves more rapidly than that of any other entertainment medium, and it's the fault of the parent, not the underage player, if ignorance about these products is abundant in any household. Families that play together will be better positioned to stay together, especially if the Nantwich Education Partnership ever sees its overzealous attitude actively enforced.


Previously: Suicide, Sacrifice and Video Gaming's Illusion of Choice