Mary Mitchell O'Connor: Who would buy a violent video game for a child? Terrible parents, that's who
Perpetrating acts of violence against women, shooting police officers dead and picking up prostitutes may not be everyone's idea of how best to entertain themselves – but for the 25 million people expected to buy the latest instalment in the Grand Theft Auto series, that's exactly what they have in mind.
The release last week of Grand Theft Auto V, estimated to be the most expensive game ever made, saw people queueing through the night to ensure they secured their copy. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that grown men, the length and breadth of the country, took sick days from work to give them time to enjoy their new purchase.
The Grand Theft Auto series, while probably the highest profile game of its kind, is not unique in its negative depiction of women, its misogynistic tone or in displaying graphic acts of violence. While some games of this ilk, such as Manhunt and Dead Rising, have been banned in the UK and Germany, the approach taken in Ireland to video gaming is to rely on the European rating system, PEGI (Pan European Game Information), to assist consumers in the choices they make.
Grand Theft Auto V has been rated over-18s by PEGI, whose ratings are legally enforced in more than 30 countries. In Ireland that is not the case and no legislation exists for legal enforcement of PEGI ratings here.
Despite the fact that the game's producers, Rockstar, have been quoted as saying that "if you're a parent and buy one of our games for your child you're a terrible parent", the simple truth is that a huge number of children are accessing this, and other games, either via older siblings or through sheer pester power which browbeats parents into buying what they want.
When it comes to the long-term psychological effects that violent games are having on our children, the jury is still out.
Some research suggests a link between violent games and violent behaviour and incidents such as the one a number of weeks back which saw an eight-year-old boy shooting his babysitter in the back of the head while playing Grand Theft Auto IV or the Batman massacre in the US do nothing to dispel these myths. It has also been strongly suggested that children who play violent video games are more likely to show signs of aggression and are less likely to be able to control their emotions, with some of the most recent research to support these claims being unveiled at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Conference in Dublin just last week.
The bottom line is that the onus is on parents to keep a keen eye on the computer activity of their children. There is a responsibility too on the part of retailers and games companies to ensure that parents are aware of what they are buying and to strictly enforce age ratings.
With Grand Theft Auto V expected to gross €1bn in its first week, games companies can well afford point-of-sale leaflets to adequately inform parents.
NOT only do we need to make sure that unsuitable content is not reaching our kids, we need to sit down and communicate with them what exactly is wrong with these games. Unless we take the proper steps to protect our children, we will end up creating a society full of children who are incapable of empathy and understanding and who believe that the subjection and objectification of women is okay. It is up to us to also ensure that our teens do not become desensitised to horrendous acts of violence.
The gaming industry is one which has been signalled for significant future growth and development here in Ireland. It employs thousands of people and has contributed billions to the Irish economy. This year, Grand Theft Auto V will most likely be on the top of many boys' and some girls' Christmas lists.
I am calling on everyone to take a closer look at what they are buying their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. In order to protect our young people from future harm and to ensure we are not storing up problems for the future, we have to be mindful of gaming content and the audience it has the potential to reach.
Mary Mitchell O'Connor is a Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire.