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Behind the headlines: Why game age-ratings matter

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New research by has found that over half of parents surveyed in the UK let their children play 18-rated games.

As reported by UK video gaming site Eurogamer, that set of guardians do so without providing supervision, and sometimes without knowledge of the content of the game. The survey of 2,171 parents saw that while some 23 per cent ignore film age ratings in general, 86 per cent of the same group largely ignore video game age ratings.

By contrast to the majority of parents happy to let children play 18-rated games, the research found that a considerably smaller 18 per cent of those surveyed confirmed they would let 10-to-14-year-olds watch an 18-plus-rated movie.

Despite the findings, it is not appropriate, fair or helpful to point the finger of blame at parents and guardians. The solution is to educate; not stigmatise. Relative to the likes of films, video games are a fairly new medium. Many parents and guardians are faced with policing video game consumption in their own homes despite having little or no experience of playing games themselves. Many more did not grow up with games in their own family home. You will also on occasion come across a sense that games' status as playthings means they are associated with toys, and thus not deemed as potentially harmful as adult films. And, inevitably, children will sometimes make powerful pleas to parents that they 'need' to play the latest popular game; regardless of age rating.

Educating families, of course, is the very reason AskAboutGames exists.

Looking at the survey, it appears there is a sense that games containing adult content are less likely to have a negative impact than films. This is something of a misconception.

There are certainly many benefits to playing age-appropriate video games, including social, educational, health and therapeutic-related gains.

But adult games are rated 18-plus for a reason. A helpful way to think about it is that if an 18-rated film with scenes of a violent, sexual or otherwise mature content can disturb or otherwise impact your children negatively, so can an 18-rated game. Games are not so different from films. Both present the moving image and audio. Games at a fundamental level simply add interactivity; a fact that some feel makes them even more powerful and impactful. And just like and adult film, an 18-rated game can also contain violence, scenes of a sexual nature, and depictions of difficult and upsetting incidents.

To an adult audience member, that type of content can be powerfully thought-provoking. To a child, those scenes could be profoundly upsetting or disturbing.

Games are absolutely not always digital toys or virtual playthings. They are 'just' interactive stories and experiences made from pixels and sound. That basic foundation presents a spectrum that lets games be many things. Some are adult while some are family-friendly. Games can be mainstream, experimental, complex, simple, silly or serious. Just as with films, just because many games are family-friendly, many are not.

So what can you do, especially as a parent? The simplest thing is to talk to your children about games; and not only when you are trying to stop them playing. Take an interest, be enthusiastic, ask questions, and even join in when they are playing an age-appropriate game. That lets you develop an honest, open dialog that makes the difficult conversations with your children around games more productive.

The other thing that can have a huge impact is to take a little time to research the games your children are playing, or are keen to play. Read reviews on gaming sites, watch trailers online, and, of course, keep visiting AskAboutGames. As well as spotlighting popular games with our parents' guides and highlighting the most popular releases by age rating, we also provide details on how the ratings work, and explain many things such as the extra information available to detail why games are given a particular rating.

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Will Freeman