Monday, April 25, 2005

The child and the glass of poison: Our social duty to educate

I was in a ranting mood today and entered into a conversation at work about legislation governing the sales of mature games. On one side were the folks claiming that it was all the parent's responsibility. "Glory to the western conservative ideal and the American belief in absolute independence." Bah, humbug. On the other side was my admittedly nuanced perspective.

It is not that I disagree the basic concept of individual responsibility. Certainly good stuff. However, your view of the world can't end there. We have a moral responsibility in two key areas:
  • We are obligated to help when a group is poorly educated and they are making decisions out of ignorance that are harmful to their well being.
  • We are obligated to ensure that our assistance is helpful, not harmful.
A simplified version of the dilemma goes something like this: Imagine a thirsty child with two cold clear glasses of water in front of him. One glass is simple water and is harmless. The other glass contains undetectable, yet deadly poison. You happen to know exactly which glass contains the poison.

In the viewpoint of the independent Linux using, anti-activist judge, western conservative, net-a-holic, porn addicted, GTA loving moralist you have no right to interfere with the child's right to choose a glass on their own. This viewpoint is utterly indefensible. If we possess critical information that may help someone make an informed choice then we should do everything in our power to educate.

Kids play M-rated games. You can say that they don't, but I know many who do. Why don't the parents step in? Because many parents still think that games are all played by kids. Folks in the industry and hardcore players may understand that the average age of game players is in the 30s and that there are mature game for adults and kiddy games for kids. But do parents realize this? Do they understand the difference between Gauntlet and Doom 3? Heck, the kids know more about games than the adults do. In many situations, it seems the kids get to make the choices and the parents must uneasily go along with the decision out of a profound inability to provide informed counter arguments.

So first we educate. We tell the store clerks about the bad things associated with selling M games to minors and give them lists of alternative genres and titles. We fund studies on the effects of violence games on children so we are promoting good information, not bad information. We give school money and training to teach kids alternatives to violent games. Like sports. Or art. We teach parents about the rating systems in place.

Do we hold the guardians of our children responsible? I believe the focus needs to be 99% on prevention and treatment of an ill, not punishment. We educate on the good path and we reward it. If punishment must occur, it is for the extreme cases, where abuse is undeniable.

This is a far cry from laissez faire independence. It is also different from the hellfire and brimstone approach that seems so popular on Capital Hill these days. I suspect it is the more difficult path.

Here are some ideas for responsible members of the game development community. Some already have been put in place and simply need a bit more reach.
  • Publisher dedicate X% of their revenue educating parents on the differences in game content of various categories. This needs to correspond with the reach of our industry and cannot be merely a few token advertisements. We make billions. We should be willing to give back millions.
  • Developers clearly label each and every title with the appropriate viewing category.
  • Retail locations clearly separate mature titles from titles intended for the general audience.
  • Game magazines identify their target audience and refuse to print mature rated articles or advertisements if their demographics reaches younger gamers.
If I watched the child drink the glass of poison and did nothing, would I be responsible for his death? Yes. Yes, I would.

- Danc.


  1. Avoiding the rhetoric, here are some problems and discussion points that I see correlate with the issues you're raising.

    1. Nonparents telling parents how to parent. (College age "progressive" kids in particular are probably the MOST far removed group in our society from parental responsibility, and yet so many of these 'good ideas' and opinions come from them.)

    2. Government programs are by their nature innefficient, expensive, and intended to soothe but seldom fix problems.

    3. Because there are so many of them, ratings systems mean nothing.

    4. Funding studies is a good idea, but they take a lot of time, and by the time you've figured out the best course of action the generations that could benefit are dead.

    5. A universal ratings system might be useful. I once heard a useful suggestion that we accept the movie standards for ratings on all media. G - General Audience, PG - Parental Guidance, etc... R-13 (instead of PG-13), R and NC-17 (though the last one has always bothered me, it gives the impression that if you're 17 you can go to it.)

    6. Problem with ratings at age 14 for example is that 14 year olds don't typically have ID, and even then, 13 year olds and those younger than that usually don't buy the content they get ahold of... it is usually passed along to them through some older parent, sibling or friend. Some might even be described as predatory.

    7. There's almost a contempt in our society to erase the innocence of children. In many circles it is viewed as antiquated and quaint. With the likes of overachieving kids and parents who want their kids to be self-made by age 12. Even Danc, you do this, with your twisted fairy tales... taking stories that were arguably for kids, and adding adult elements to them... cuz they're amusing...

    8. It should be okay to be a kid. Loud, obnoxious, distracted, and sometimes gets in trouble. Needing help and guidance, and capable of finding their own fun, without needing it spoonfed to them. Our society has gotten further and further away from what it is like to be a kid, hence we medicate the behaviors we no longer view as normal kid and kid like. Kids need adults close to them, to correct, advise and encourage them. They simply need more attention. Any amount of ratings systems, etc, is not going to solve the absent parent problem.

    9. I am also not sure that age is necessarily the best means to delineate between what is and is not appropriate for people. Cuz every kid grows at a different rate and is sensitive to different things.

    10. I would prefer that all media came "hypertagged" (if you will) with some sort of identifiers for objectionable material. It would even be possible to create technology that could look for and censor that content dependent upon parental settings placed upon a Television, media player or game box.

    11. Even if you could shelter your children in your own home, you cannot garantee their safety outside your home.

    12. People have varying standards of what is and is not appropriate for children.

    13. How does one quantify 'damage done' by a violent video game? Is it based upon how many kids they kill in school shootings in real life? By then, it's too late. Is it determined by whether or not they draw a handgun while they're in school? >GASP!<

    14. Whatever program or system of programs, it should not make parenting and family stability more difficult, because THERE IS research that demonstrates that stable family life is key in raising stable children.

    15. Perhaps more rewards should be in place for those parents who don't outsource their parenting responsibilities.

    16. Should all bad behavior be criminalized?

    17. Who decides what is a moral standard and what is not?

    18. Won't practical ideas like yours impact the progressive's freedom of speech? Won't this cause problems with ACLU types who think any form of censorship is bad? Heck, we're not even permitted filters on public library computers that are internet accessible.

    19. TeeVee is convenient, and we're a society of convenience. With fewer parents in the home all around suburbia, kids are confined to their homes because there simply isn't the same safety net there used to be of many watchful parents that stayed at home with their kids. Being indoors has impacted children with more dependence upon media, and less exercise. Those programs that involve physical activity are expensive and require some kind of means by which children can get from point A to point B. TeeVee requires no such restrictions, turn it on, child goes into catatonic state...

    20. A forced donation (as you put it)is simply a tax. While I'm not opposed to a consumption tax, let's call it what it is... put a tax on entertainment, because companies don't donate, and they won't give out of the goodness of their hearts... generally they just pass the additional costs on to the consumers.

    There... there are 20 points of concern and issues that surround the notions you've put forth... obviously not that organized, but hopefully interesting to consider.

  2. Great post. :-) The post I made was more related to the:
    "We should do nothing" vs. "Let's at least make an attempt to educate" arguement that tends to go on in many gaming circles.

    The exact solutions are never perfect, but as long as they are better than doing nothing, they should be attempted.

    As for taxes, I'm all for them. :-) I come from the state with the highest tax rate in all of America. My favorite countries have tax rates that are substancially higher than the US (and average happiness rating that are higher as well). Complaints about higher taxes are just piss and vinegar by greedy Americans who want to drive their SUVs further and buy more electronic gizmos. ;-)

    A generalization to be sure, but most people, especially those in the higher income brackets (trickle down economics be damned), can afford to do with less. If you are making 60% profit margins like some of the more profitable publishers (check out their annual reports), donating a few million here and there to do a social service isn't going to kill you.


  3. Personally I have mixed feelings about taxes. The more taxes there are, the more corrupt government has the potential of becoming, and more bitter the debate becomes on who gets to spend the big wad of cash. That's a serious problem, imo... (and I'm speaking entirely nonpartisan here... money and power corrupts)

    The ideal situation would be (imo) that we all contribute liberally to charities and use our resources wisely for the benefit of all, sure, but I am a pragmatist too. I don't see that happening until God steps in or until we somehow evolve to a higher level.

    I don't believe government helps people evolve. I mean, if I pay my taxes, am I really doing any good, if my taxes go to pay corrupt politician, go to fund programs that I find morally reprehensible, and oh yeah, by the way, they also sometimes go to benefit people?

    Also because taxes are relatively compulsary, you are robbed of the chance of doing something good like donating to your favorite charity on your own... Sure I suppose I could support candidates that funnel government money to charities, but on a purely philosophical level, what's got the potential for greater "good" a system which allows people to do things of their own free will and choice, or one that compells people to be "good"?

    Of course I'm also a pragmatist. The fact of the matter is that people are people, and if they have the potential to choose good, they have the potential to choose bad. In some cases I believe Government SHOULD step in and compel citizens to at least not do "bad" stuff... And I agree that in many cases this requires tax revenues.

    Personally if I have a choice, I like to preserve that choice in taxes too. That's why I am actually quite in favor of consumption taxes. These are taxes based upon choices we make. If I buy a game, and it costs a little more, because it goes to fund research and such, I think that's a great solution, rather than generally raising taxes as a whole.

    I also tend be squemish towards what I've heard described as an "entitlement mentality", because while sometimes it can fix shortterm problems, it often is not a healthy longterm solution. The whole idea that if you're clever enough you can get other people to pay for you by classifying yourself as a victim or oppressed (Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!), imo, is self-defeating. I guess it comes from my mormon upbringing. Mormons WERE for many years victims of horrible intollerance, but if I took that same attitude daily, it just doesn't work, and it really didn't work for my ancestors. Instead they rolled up their sleeves, went to work and made something of themselves and their communities. Rather than go all "Donner Party" they survived and managed to make the desert bloom.

    Okay, so I'm waxing poetic... time to back off... :)

    And btw, I think Washington State now claims the title as the most Taxed state in the country. And since the Dem's stole the last elections, the new Governor who campaigned no not raising taxes, has just proposed a series of 12% tax increases, this with the current budget projections coming in under a projected 7 billion dollar tax surplus.

    Sigh... You should move here... to Washington, I think you'd be in heaven. ;)



  4. "If we possess critical information that may help someone make an informed choice then we should do everything in our power to educate."

    This is the same argument the religious right makes to defend their right to proselytize (or "educate") the "less informed" masses who disagree with them. "Eternal damnation" is their "poisoned cup" and it's their duty to save everyone from it.

    But the premise may be wrong. What if the cup itself is an illusion?

    The result is an argument of dogma.

  5. I apologize for distracting, but I found Danc's initial statement regarding Linux-users disturbing. I rather like the open-source culture; of course, Open-Source doesn't necessarily mean Linux.

  6. I like your stuff, Danc, and I recognize that this article is pretty old, but I gotta play some hardball with you. Mostly about the contentions you make at the beginning. I have no problems with parents knowing more about what their kids are playing, just as long as the parents are the ones doing the parenting.

    For myself, I think that any positive morality - that is, any definition of moral behavior the adherence to which may require certain actions, rather than forbidding them - is, at the very least, contradictory to the ideological basis for the United States' existence (Locke's Natural Rights of life, liberty, and property - specifically, liberty), and therefore is something that ought not be written into law lightly. Compulsory behavior is fundamentally at odds with the very ideals that created this country to a degree that even forbidden behavior (reprehensible as it is when arbitrary) is not. While I have no objection to a definition of morality that includes compulsion, I find it difficult to stomach when it is written into law. By and large, the law has stuck to this - it's why you can theoretically be fined for jaywalking, but not for failing to vote.

    In your example with the child and the glass of poison, I fully agree that you'd be a terrible person for not warning the kid. But making it illegal not to do so? I can't support that. For a person to be punished for failing to act - save that sort of law for the military.

    I don't know if that was even what you were talking about, or how much it matters to your viewpoint, or how accurate you considered that analogy to be, or if anyone even cares about some comment on an article that's half a year old. I just thought I'd put my two cents out there, though.

    There was one other thing. Before asking for government intercession - before you do something that could potentially use my money, in short - I would say that it's better to pursue creating an economic incentive for retailers to inform consumers, or inform them yourselves. Boycotts, perhaps. Demonstrations. Hand out the fliers personally. If you (and I use the term to refer to "anyone") can make game retailers take a more responsible attitude to their sales, and do so without making the government interfere with their hiring practices - creating at best an ineffective but minor sinkhole and at worst a bloated and invasive bureaucracy - then I applaud you.

  7. "For a person to be punished for failing to act - save that sort of law for the military."
    This is a law in many US states - Failure to Stop and Render Aid, though the application is limited. It is certainly the case that a person with police, medical, or emergency training (even when off-duty) WILL be nailed for failing to act.

    "The result is an argument of dogma."
    The argument in this article is one based on reason and evidence. Dogma - and religion - is not.