Rated E for Everyone

So on the train trip up to Napanee for March school break Oliver and Catherine ended up overnight in a train car filled with sophisticated Ontario kids returning from their school break. And they all had handheld video games, which captivated Oliver. They didn’t actually share, but that seems to have only heightened his curiousity.

Upon their return home I conducted a full debriefing with Oliver, and, aided by Google Image Search, we were able to determine that the handhelds in use on the train were of the Ninetendo DS variety.

Now given that Oliver already has unfettered access to 100 Prince Street iMac, and his own $100 laptop, it seems a bit absurd to be debating the ethics of bringing a Nintendo into the house — the bridge over the Rubicon away from a peaceful electronics-free childhood was crossed long ago.

But we wrung our hands nonetheless. And ended reasoning that the “being a regular kid” upsides of the pro-Nintendo argument outweighed the “buying into a lifetime of brand-focused consumer entertainment” downsides (I realize that the same arguments can be made in favour of teen smoking).

And so on Saturday we got in our car, went out to Future Shop, and plonked down our (my) $139 for a brand new Cobalt Blue DS Lite. And with $20 off the first cartridge included in the price, we spent an agonizing 20 minutes poring over the selection before picking out Dora Saves the Mermaids (Dora at least has the “he’s learning Spanish!” sop for we theoretically brand-averse parents).

Reasoning that we might as well dive in completely, we stopped in at microplay on the way home and rented a couple of additional games so that we could get a better lay of the land.

And so, after 7 years of parenting, I was forced to confront the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the body that video game publishers outsource their “content ratings” to.

On the surface I should appreciate the help: one of Catherine’s provisos when agreeing to open our home to the Nintendo was a blanket “no war” policy on incoming video games, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from the game title or box alone.

The ESRB tells us, for example,that the DS title The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, contains “Fantasy Violence,” which they describe as “Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life.” Hmmmm. Does that mean Mr. Tumnus gets his still-beating heart ripped out by Maugrim, or that cartoon Aslan goes down to the White Witch on an animated Stone Table?

While I don’t necessarily begrudge the information the ESRB provides, as you scratch beneath the surface of their self-described “concise and impartial information,” you quickly realize that their rating system and “content descriptors” reflect a particular world-view and set of “inappropriate” behaviours.

So we can find out whether a given game has “Use of Drugs,” “Use of Alcohol,” “Use of Tobacco,” or even “Comic Mischief,” but there are no descriptors for “Strong Religious Themes” or “Imperialist World View” or “Extreme Anthropomorphism.”

Browsing through the Nintendo DS titles, it was hard to find any that weren’t Rated E for Everyone — it is, after all, a device that tilts at a younger demographic — and so ultimately the ESRB was of little help in finding out which games were any good.

So we guessed, ending up with MySims (Rated E, with the “Simulated Gambling” descriptor) and the video game version of Over the Hedge (“Mild Cartoon Violence”).

So far, even though it involves the most reading, and is somewhat hard to figure out, MySims has been getting the most gameplay. Dora and her Mermaids, which is simple to figure out, and requires no reading, is getting almost no play at all. And Over the Hedge seems to have a 3D environment that Oliver, at least so far, finds a little dizzying.

I’ve a feeling this is only going to get more challenging from here…


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on March 30, 2008 - 16:40 Permalink

Bypassing the significant points made in your post, New Super Mario Bros. for DS is one of the best games I’ve played in years.

Jevon MacDonald's picture
Jevon MacDonald on March 30, 2008 - 18:55 Permalink

Also completely ignoring the fact that you seem to have had some sort of moral and/or ethical dilemma here, Nintendo Wii is about the most fun I have had playing video games since Lunar Lander and that Toothpaste game on Atari.

The great thing about Wii is that at least it is not solitary.

Has he had a chance to use the Crowbar in Half-Life? If not, then you aren’t such a bad parent.

Pat Garrity's picture
Pat Garrity on March 30, 2008 - 20:58 Permalink

Mario Kart! Mario Kart! Mario Kart!

Marian's picture
Marian on March 31, 2008 - 00:41 Permalink

My husband plays ‘learning’ video games with my son online, but I am determined never to buy an actual game player.

DerekMac's picture
DerekMac on March 31, 2008 - 11:11 Permalink

We are currently wrestling with whether or not to buy a DS-Lite for our soon-to-be-six year old. We have seen other kids who play theirs at the dinner table, in restaurants, etc. (kind of like the BlackBerry for the younger set!), and are quite concerned about the anti-social and, possibly, addictive aspects. He has a Wii, which we can more easily set limits on, particularly since we have only one TV. He argues that the DS would eliminate boredom on long trips (agreed), but we don’t really take many long trips. We are really concerned about the possibility that he will not be able to keep the play to a reasonable time limit. Has anyone had any experience with youngsters and the DS Lite?

Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on March 31, 2008 - 12:31 Permalink

It’s hard Peter — we banned Nintendo ourselves and James instead dug in under the hood of his PC. But today I feel that many of the “skills” that kids learn gaming may be the kind of skills that will be at the core of how they work in the future too????

Alan's picture
Alan on March 31, 2008 - 19:56 Permalink

We took the kids to the Syracuse zoo yesterday where they got to see a large cat eat the fresh steaming meat of another animal and also see an elephant poo while pissing about 40 gallons out of a gynormous erection. Compared to that, I’d have an easier time explaining use of the flashbang followed by a knife to the throat in Half-Life…seeing as that was all in the movie (granted 1777 style with real simulated Oneida scalping) they saw the day before at the interpretation center at Fort Stanwix in Rome, NY.