Friday, January 20, 2012

Thinking: Rating Troubles

Right, so we're going to watch
this film till you rate it correctly.
Our eldest offspring is 10 later this year, and his growing interest in games, and movies and the like has left me with a problem I've not faced for a couple of decades - that of age ratings. In some ways he's determined to like his own things, not things that his terminally uncool parents like, but in others he's growing into a geek, child of geeks, and is therefore despite himself interested in the films we are into, and games we are into. Which is leaving us with a problem - what do we let him watch when? 

On the face of it, it's all very simple, right? Some nice man or woman at the BBFC (in the UK at least) watches all this content and plonks a sticker on it that says an age advisory and there you are. Except that the ratings don't make a lot of sense to me in some ways, especially for games, and suddenly things don't look so simple after all. 

Lets start with films. Most modern action films aim for the 12A rating (or the US PG-13 rating) for the simple reason that its the most lucrative, allowing it to be pitched at the teen market which would probably turn its nose up at a straight PG as being too "kiddy" and allowing "R-Rated" to be a marketing tool in and of its itself. This system is pretty well understood in Hollywood, (for example, you can use certain words only a certain number of times, hence the pretty inoffensive The Kings Speech getting an R) and films can easily produced from the ground up for a specific rating. This, incidently, is why a film that exudes raw violence and savagery like The Dark Knight is a PG-13 and so is pulp love-letter Captain America, despite the latter being the sort of film I have no qualms about showing to a 9 year old and the former is staying safely up on the DVD shelf. 

It gets even harder when comparing the films of my own childhood - Revenge of the Sith got a 12A in the UK due to the whole "thowing whiny teenage wife-beaters into Lava Pits" finale (which lets face it, is the sort of moral message you want to be getting through to your kids) but Raiders of the Lost Ark has a pretty graphic "Nazi Head Melting" finale that got it a PG. In our house we've come to use the "Doctor Who" test - is it likely to be as scary/affecting as an episode of Doctor Who, and if so, then thats fine. It's not perfect, but by and large it works, although defeats the object of ratings at all, and relies on us doing our own research into some of these movies when they come through from Lovefilm. 

Your children will not sleep for a week. 
Games however are a different kettle of fish. I have a conversation with our eldest when I got Arkham City, in which he posited that although it was a 15 rating so of course he couldn't play it, I could play it (being older than 15) and he could watch. Right? Well no - Arkham City follows the movie trend of a brooding, violent atmosphere and crunching combat, but the similarly rated Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception is a different story. If it was a movie, it would be a 12A; no swearing, no nudity, a lot of shooting but hardly any blood, so I can only assume that the rating comes from the sheer volume of digitized humanoids you shoot with facsimile weapons. And the Modern Warfare 3's of this world come in at 18 ratings, which leads to the odd position where in some parts of the US you need to be older to shoot virtual guns on your xbox than you do to shoot real ones. 

So with games I'm back to playing them a bit myself and using my parental judgement, which is why he can play cartooney splotch-fests like Magicka and Orcs Must Die! despite their older ratings - and because they're actually great games for kids, the right sort mix of action and light thinking, and seeing an orc explode into a red splodge before fading from existence isn't going to keep him awake at night or turn into a serial killer any more than watching Captain America will. 

But at the same time I'm aware that the parent that goes into Game and gets his or 8-year-old Battlefield 3 may well be thinking the same thing.  Ratings surely have a purpose as a useful advisory, but if there was any surer indication that they're not working properly it's the proliferation of rating material that cover DVD cases now - not just a single badge but content bars, summary boxes, and in some cases competing ratings boards showing slightly different things. 

And you may not think this bothers you - after all, if you're adult you can watch what you want, right? 

But there is a relationship being producers and ratings boards, and it is in everyone's interest to make the system work and the more I think about it, the more I think it doesn't, and the more I think that people like me make informed choices to disregard it, not just ignorant or uncaring ones. And when that starts to happen,  the system is in trouble.