Friday, August 14, 2009

BAFPA: the ideal rating system

FCC, MPAA, RIAA, ESRB… there are plenty of organizations whose job it is to monitor the media and to ensure our children are safe from potentially harmful material. What is considered harmful? Well, for example, violence is okay for children, as long as there is no blood, or it’s being done to cartoon characters. Some profanity is fine, as long as it’s not one of Carlin’s seven (more, or harsher profanity is sometimes forgivable if the source is considered a “classic”). Some innuendo can be overlooked in higher rated media, but nudity, regardless of how tastefully, artistically, or innocently it may be portrayed, is always forbidden; and sex itself is right out.

At least that’s what they tell us…

The fact of the matter is children are like snowflakes: no two are alike. As much as these organizations would like to clump all children into a single, homogenous group, how a child may respond to such material differs depending on various factors including genetics, upbringing, and social interaction. What may amuse one child might horrify another, while another may be “inspired” to imitate it. For example, I have played Grand Theft Auto games since I was 12 or 13, and have never felt compelled to reenact anything from it. A few years ago, a 13 year old boy a played too much GTA and was “inspired” to take a shotgun, point it at his cousin's face, and fire.

The bottom line is that the ESRB (or any other ratings board) has no clue what would be appropriate for your specific child. What they offer is a generic guideline based on a broad interpretation of the material they are reviewing. While their ratings of "E" for "Everyone", "E-10+" for "Everyone 10 and older", "T" for "Teens (13+)", and "M" for "Mature (17+)" (we needn’t be bothered with the extremely rare "eC" and "Ao" ratings at this point) may be accurate for most children, your results may vary.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I am by no means saying that it is okay to buy your seven-year-old that M-rated game. I am a strong supporter of the ESRB. The problem is that the people who complain the most about inappropriate content in video games are usually the ones most responsible for exposing their children to it. You can’t buy your child God of War and then complain about blood and bare breasts in the game. The game case says, literally in black and white, “Blood and Gore” and “Nudity” among its content descriptors. The ESRB ratings have existed for fifteen years now, and appear on both the game case (front and back, with descriptors on the back) and on the label of every video game. In fact, they are larger, more prominent, and better explained than most other ratings systems; yet probably the least heeded.

Below are examples of typical ratings placement and size. Both the Batman Begins DVD (left) and the PS2 game (right) are shown with their respective ratings highlighted in red as they appear on both the label and disc. Click on the thumbnail images for larger versions:

That’s why I propose BAFPA…

BAFPA is a supplement to the ESRB, which takes the individual child’s levels of maturity, tolerance, and self control into account as well as their chronological age. It is a complex, yet intuitive system that can work in conjunction with any and all of the existing rating systems. It requires little-to-no advertisement. Most people should already recognize it, and those who don’t can learn through word of mouth. BAFPA translates easily into any language, and will benefit not just your child, but every child, and society as a whole.

BAFPA stands for Be A F---ing Parent Already. Its absence is easily the biggest detriment to gaming, as well as most other media. It’s a simple enough system, but many people never take the time to learn it. The advantage of BAFPA is also its biggest disadvantage: its process and implementation differ from person to person. What works for one child, may or may not work for another. The system can never be perfected, but trial, error, and correction are ultimately rewarded.

One of BAFPA’s biggest obstacles is time. It takes time to implement the system properly — a lot of time, and patience, and attention — three things many adults are not willing to give up, it seems. I understand it’s easier to let teachers, lawyers, politicians, news reporters, and retailers make the decisions of what’s appropriate for your child for you, or to assume your child will instinctively make good decisions on their own, but without your involvement, either directly or subconsciously, you cannot expect such things to always be what’s best.

This ties into another important aspect of BAFPA: neither you, nor your child, are ever one-hundred percent right or wrong. You may think to yourself, “my eleven-year-old is responsible enough to play Grand Theft Auto,” then find him acting out violent or destructive activities from the game in your living room. Likewise, your child may convince you he’s old enough for Grand Theft Auto, until you find him getting a lap dance in one of Liberty City’s strip clubs.

The last part of BAFPA (as far as this article is concerned, anyway) is that “what” and “why” are often better answers to “can I have?” than “yes” or “no.” For example:

Child: “Mom, can I get Resident Evil 5?”
[Mom looks at rating on the front of game case.]
Mom: “This game is M-rated. Why do you want this instead of Banjo-Kazooie?”
Child: “Because my friend has it and I want to play it with him.”
[Mom looks at descriptors on the back of game case: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language.]
Mom: “This looks a little old for you. What do you do in it?”
Child: “Kill zombies.”
Mom: “Just zombies?”
Child: “Yeah.”
[Mom looks at screenshots and game descriptions on the back of the game case.]
Mom: “Not today. I’ll have to see it for myself, and if I think it’s okay for you, we can get it next time.”

Obviously, your results may vary, but believe it or not, with the right amount of effort and consistency, most children will respond better to, and learn more from, that conversation than this one:

Child: “Mom, can I get Resident Evil 5?”
Mom: “No.”
Child: “Why not?”
Mom: “Because I said so.”

It is also important that you explain to your child why you think [GAME X] is not appropriate for them. That way, when they are eventually and inevitably exposed to the objectionable content, they will recognize it, and hopefully make a mature, informed, and responsible decision based on what you’ve told them.

(On a sadder note, it is important for us to realize that some children, through no fault of their own, are mentally or emotionally imbalanced, and incapable of separating the fantasy from the reality. It is unfortunate, but it happens. These are the children whose distorted sense of reality and/or morality, often coupled with a lack of positive role models, can inspire them to try to emulate the games they play. Before we blame the games themselves, let us consider the fact that they are just as likely to be inspired by movies, television, music, literature, or other arts and media. In other words, video games do not make killers; ignorance and apathy do.)

Ironically, the people who read this and support BAFPA are probably the people who need it the least. The people to whom BAFPA is geared are the ones who will likely be leaving me the angry comments. Bear in mind, I am not trying to tell you how to raise your child, nor am I claiming that raising a child is easy. All I am saying is the responsibility of raising your child is not the ESRB’s, or the MPAA’s, or the government’s, or Jack Thompson’s, or Hilary Clinton’s, or the game studios’, or game retailers’; it’s yours. It is up to you to monitor, censor, and restrict or allow what games your child plays. That’s part of being a parent.

If you need any more help knowing whether you’re being a good parent, remember this:

If you’re worried that you’re not a good parent, you’re probably the best parent you can be. If you already know you’re a good parent, you’re probably doing something wrong.

So stop letting lawyers, retailers, politicians, and ratings boards raise your children, and Be A F---ing Parent Already!

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