Parents, please don't buy these videogames for your children for Christmas
Published 23/12/2012 | 06:00
A soldier roasts alive in front of your eyes, screaming in pain and banging in desperation on a window in an attempt to get out. A man crawls slowly across a mass grave of mutilated corpses.
An assassin coolly wanders through a strip club, paying little attention to the semi-nude lapdancers.
Scenes from the latest grim straight-to-DVD schlock horrors? No, just a few choice vignettes from the bestselling videogames this Christmas (Black Ops 2, Far Cry 3 and Hitman Absolution), many of which will be bought by unwitting parents to be played by children.
It's not as if the parents don't get any warning. The 18 rating should be a giveaway but unfortunately many adults feel a little baffled by their kids' gaming habits.
Worse, too often they dismiss videogames as harmless fun, despite their brutal violence, vicious language and – more rarely – sex scenes.
You wouldn't permit your children to read Fifty Shades of Grey – and not just because it's sub-literate tosh that makes Dan Brown look sophisticated. Neither would you allow the nippers to sit down with a beer and load Natural Born Killers into the DVD player. Nor plonk them in front of Love/Hate when you need some quiet time of a Sunday evening.
Alas, that's essentially what so many harassed parents do – feed their children adult entertainment in the form of photo-realistic videogames that should only be consumed by those over 18.
Their mistake stems in part no doubt from historic attitudes that games are 'just for kids'. But what used to be cottage industry created by geeks in their bedrooms is now a €50bn-a-year juggernaut that challenges Hollywood for supremacy, at least in terms of profits if not creativity.
This isn't about little old Pac-man any more – the new heroes are franchises such as Call of Duty and Halo that outperform any Harry Potter or James Bond movie at the box office.
These blockbusters are marketed chiefly to the dominant market sector of 18-35 males but through lack of adult supervision are frequently played by minors as young as five.
Many times have I stood beside a store till and watched in despair as a parent marches up with little Johnny in tow excitedly clutching the latest 18-rated bestseller. The shop assistant often warns the adult that it's unsuitable for the child but they're always ignored.
Too often do I hear of acquaintances' kids gleefully recounting dubious tales – perhaps how they slit someone's throat in-game or beat a prostitute with a baseball bat and then robbed her money (yeah, it happens in Grand Theft Auto).
My 10- and 13-year-old sons, of course, find my attitude infuriating. As someone who reviews almost every major title released, I have a considerable library that makes their friends deeply envious but most of which is off-limits to my own flesh and blood.
In playing such games, I get to see a lot of what many parents don't – the relentless cycle of violence and swearing that forms a core of many top sellers.
Lest this come across as a sanctimonious rant, this is not one of those priggish condemnations of pop culture's descent into sleaze and bloodlust. Too many casual commentators draw a link between violence in games – and before that, on video, on TV, on stage, etc – and violence in real life. No studies are very convincing.
Videogames aren't going to turn your little darlings into monsters but they can relieve them of their innocence before they're ready.
Explicit sex and violence are perfectly fine by me but let's be sure it's appropriate to the audience. You could even make a decent argument that some of the box ratings – by self-regulating industry bodies such as PEGI – are conservative.
Your own 12-year-old child might be able for the themes in a 15-rated movie or game. But you owe it to them to find out what exactly they're watching or playing.
Help is at hand for bemused parents being pestered by their offspring for some weird-sounding game of which the adults know nothing.
Ratings agencies such as PEGI (www.pegi.info) and the US-based ESRB (www.esrb.org) provide handy summaries of the content in every new game.
For instance, the weapons in Black Ops 2 "result in decapitated bodies or dismembered limbs".
In Far Cry 3, "a villain cuts off a character's finger". Hitman Absolution features "a wood chipper to dispose of dead bodies". All such scenes are absolutely justifiable in the context of the games and their mature themes.
But for a seven-year-old to play alone his bedroom?
Please, think of the children this Christmas.
What the moral police are fighting to Kombat
Controversy has dogged video games – most unfairly – since the US media got its knickers in a twist in 1976 over Death Race in which a car-shaped blob ran down figures (people, or maybe aliens, hard to tell).
But the increasing realism of game graphics has sent new chills down the spines of moral guardians.
Ironically, one of the most high-profile controversies arose from a piece of programming code that was never meant to see the light of day.
Buried deep in the code of 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a "minigame" called 'Hot Coffee' that enabled the player to have sex (though not explicitly) with their girlfriend.
Ordinary consumers could never access it until hackers released a free download that made 'Hot Coffee' easy to find. Result: the moral storm forced many shops to take the game off the shelves.
Children are far less likely to be harmed by 'Hot Coffee' than by some of the more degenerate behaviour in slasher-style games such as 2003's Manhunt or 2010's Splatterhouse. Both are as unpleasant as so-called torture-porn flicks like Hostel or Saw but remain, thankfully, rare.
That leaves 18-rated video games' mainstay: violence for the fun of it. That's not as nasty as it sounds as even at its most extreme (the long-running Mortal Kombat series or 2010's MadWorld), the bloodthirsty mayhem always comes served with tongue firmly in cheek.
Still, not one of them should be played by children.
FIVE TO AVOID
Assassin’s Creed III
Call of Duty Black Ops 2
FIVE TO PLAY INSTEAD
New Super Mario Bros U (Nintendo Wii U)
Lego Lord of the Rings (PS3/X360/Wii)
Need For Speed Most Wanted (PS3/X360)
FIFA 13 (PS3/X360/Wii)
Little Big Planet 2 (PS Vita)