I was born in 1978 in a little town called Ironwood. With a population of about 6,000, it’s situated on the border of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan – which, while still considered Michigan, doesn’t actually touch the main landmass.
Ironwood is a rustic, quaint town white as the winter snow. Seriously, the closest thing they have to “foreigners” is Polish-Americans. It’s a good-ol’-boy place with lots of bars, pickup trucks, and deer hunters. I moved away quickly, and have been blessed to live in many large cities and meet many types of people.
Some 22 years later, another boy was born in Ironwood. We’ll call him “Jay.” Not only did we come from the same 6000-person city, but we came from the same man. Jay is my younger half-brother.
I texted with Jay today, the first time we’d communicated not in-person. He told me he was playing Xbox 360. I asked for his gamertag, since last time we talked it was a complicated sequence of 1s and Xs and I never did get it down right. His current one is much easier, and I sent him a friend request.
Then I looked at what he plays. Nine of the last 10 games he’s played were M-rated. The ESRB – the non-profit, self-regulatory body that assigns ratings for video games – defines those games as “Content [that] is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”
What Jay plays at 12
Jay is 12. He’s a smart kid, but still 12. I’m not so old that I don’t remember when I was 12. I bought NWA’s “Niggaz4Life” on cassette, and memorized every word before my mom would eventually steal it from me and keep it for six years. It was the year my friends and I strolled up to the box office and got tickets for Boyz N The Hood despite it being rated R.
Watching and hearing content is one thing; you’re an observer. Video games are different, because you are interacting and in some ways controlling the action. It is your finger that fires the gun, or kicks the downed bystander. And most adults and I’d even guess the majority of teens can handle it.
What I played at 12
At 12, I borrowed my mom’s friend’s copy of Super Mario 3. I saved up for Sonic The Hedgehog 1. About the most violent game I played was Road Rash, which entails punching opponents in cross-country motorcycle races. Mortal Kombat wouldn’t be ripping out spines on my Genesis bloody for another 3 years.
Not all M-rated games are created equal. Dark Souls, for example, is a dark and mythological action game. Sure, you dismember already-dead demons, but that’s about as objectionable as it gets. When I saw that on Jay’s Xbox activity, I smiled; it’s a great game. The fact that he conquered it shows his gaming prowess.
Then there’s Modern Warfare 2, Rainbow Six Vegas, Grand Theft Auto IV, and the newly released Grand Theft Auto V. Again, I’d consider all of those great games (though I’m less than 2 hours into GTAV), but the difference is I’m an adult. I can handle the very adult themes and the violence and the humanity. I think of “No Russian,” the famous mission in Modern Warfare 2 where you’re undercover with a group who shoots up an airport full of civilians. Could Jay handle that? Could he realize the context of it? The fact that I’m asking means maybe he shouldn’t be playing all those (and Battlefield, Black Ops 2, etc.). And this isn’t even accounting for the annoyance many gamers feel when they get capped by obnoxious, high-voiced preteens in multiplayer. I hope my brother isn’t one of those.
Meanwhile, a look at my recent Xbox activity – which, to be honest, has been overtaken by the less-loud PS3 – shows that 4 of the last 5 games I’ve played have been rated Teen or lower: Castle Crashers, Rock Band 3, Doritos Crash Course 2 and Robotron. Only Duke Nukem Forever is M-rated (and a $5 purchase at Gamefly long ago so don’t judge). I’m 35 and playing less mature stuff than this kid! Heck, overall I’ve played more Animal Crossing and an iPad Picross clone (iPACROSS) than anything else the last few months!
Jay’s parents are divorced. Our dad has the same cassette boom box since 1990 and never owned a DVD or CD player. He describes people as “colored” when he’s on his best behavior. That is to see, he’s not very worldly or tech-savvy. Jay’s mom has another child and a new husband who’s a couple years older than me at most, so I’m going to guess Jay’s gaming activity is not closely monitored.
The ESRB ratings are a good thing, and content descriptors tell you just what you may see/experience in each game. But you need employees that are educated; you need parents that care. As Ironwood only has a K-Mart and Walmart, I don’t have faith in them. Of course, his mom could have just bought Jay a game from Amazon and never seen the ratings. Or she could have been lectured by a studious employee at a brick-and-mortar and shrugged her shoulders.
Here’s something to ponder: The only time Jay has seen Middle Eastern people is while shooting them in the head in Call of Duty.
I think I’ll leave it at that.
— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)