The ESRB, Community Standards, and the Future of Parenting


I had CBC newsworld’s The Fifth Estate on in the background while I was tinkering with my computer. It’s kind of like our 20/20. The episode was called “Top Gun: When a video gaming obsession turns addiction into tragedy“. If I had to sum up the tone of the program, it would have to be something like “Has your death simulator software stopped killing children: yes or no?” It mostly surrounded the affair of Brandon Crisp, who after losing his Xbox priviledges, ran away from home and was found dead several weeks later from falling out of a tree. I really felt bad for the PR reps for the ESRB and Major League gaming. The reporter, Gillian Findlay was essentially expecting them to take responsibility for what happened. Much Kudos should go to the Crisp family for simply setting up a foundation to help boys like Brandon instead of waging a zero tolerance campaign against video game violence that likely would’ve helped no one.

Now, I guess you could call me a gamer. Some of the games I do enjoy are rated M by ESRB, and should not be played by anyone under 17. I find attempts to legislate censorship of these games as morally abhorrent as the parents who let their kids play them. However, in between all the finger wagging of that news program, an interesting question popped up. Why are kids under the age of 18 allowed to play competitive video games for money? Never mind that most games played at these competitions are rated M. These kids will be practicing in front of xbox for hours on end when they could be studying or just getting in some natural light. A signed parental consent form cannot disguise that this is a bad idea. Why is this allowed to go on? Call me crazy, but I have a theory.

Take a look at the two countries that Major League Gaming calls home: USA and Canada. Both countries are based on the principles of Western European Democracy. In the US we have no taxation without representation, in Canada, when someone tells us we can’t have socialized health insurance, we just simply have to prove them wrong. Unfortunately, we have taken the concept of personal freedom to its logical conclusion. People not only have the freedom to do what they want, but we frown on people that even imply otherwise. If Major League Gaming enforced age restrictions of any kind, its advertising cred among red-blooded North American young men would be null and void. Teams with younger members might be split up. Parents would be robbed of their responsibility over their children. It would be so unfair! Yes, but does it make it wrong?

During my trip to Japan, I noticed that community standards were in full effect there.Restaurants wouldn’t serve students if they were cutting class. If a train was so much as three minutes late, it was considered scandalous! If a child bought a pack of cigarettes from a vending machine, anonymous passersby would think nothing of stopping him. Despite having the appearance of a nation of busybodies, activities that are considered “vices”, like drinking, pornography and gambling seemed to enjoy a greater degree of freedom there than in North America. I learned that this was due to an understanding that the owners of those businesses wouldn’t serve kids for a quick buck. We just don’t have that level of trust here.

I’m not suggesting we depend on centuries-old Asian commercial traditions to frame our community standards. Our values are currently in flux right now. It wouldn’t be us to accept any idea that’s not backed up by empirical evidence or good old fashioned critical thinking. The problem is that no discussion is happening. When someone tells anybody no, it’s easy to vilify them as that mythical creature known as “The Man”.  The only community standard we feel comfortable upholding is personal freedom. What we need is a way to politely hold the debate over what standards the community has. If you are giving advice, give it kindly and clearly, without any dirty looks or other non-verbal emotional baggage. If you receive such advice, particularly if it’s free, just say, “that’s interesting, I’ll think about that,” and kindly go on your way. If you get enough free advice on the same topic, maybe, just maybe, you should consider changing your behavior. Human relationships are complicated and painful, but removing our ability to make assessments on each other’s behavior is not the solution. We don’t have the right to control the habits of others, but we can certainly work on the right to have our say and be listened to.