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.