On Confused Media Ratings

As everyone know, many forms of media, including video games, television shows, and movies, are reviewed and rated to assess their appropriateness for consumption by different age groups.

Cole and I have been talking about this quite a bit recently as he argues to play what are inarguably age-inappropriate video games (he’s particularly focused on Halo) and I’m working to convince him that he’s just not ready for these types of games. The surprising fact that several of his peers are permitted by their parents to play games like Halo – often alone in their bedrooms for hours on end – doesn’t make things any easier.

Of course, ratings are only one form of assessing the appropriateness of media for one’s own child. A more primary and important method is, of course, parental review and approval. This is the method I prefer and exercise much more vigorously.

In a sense, I treat the organizational reviews as indicators more than absolute guides.

One can never fully trust large corporately-backed organizations that purport to measure any quality of information, and we all should remain vigilant on a local and personal level about such things as media consumption.

The boards that review and assess media are, by and large, populated by representatives of the very companies that produce the media itself. Objectivity in such a situation is hugely questionable. For example, the company that produces Halo, Microsoft, sits on the board of the both the Canadian and US arms of the Entertainment Software Association, the very organization responsible for rating games.

Since Cole and I have been talking about media ratings so much lately I’ve begun to pay a lot more attention to them as they might inform my decision-making process. What’s begun to strike me is the degree of dissonance between the way similar content in different media is rated.

Cole’s heavily into Star Wars (like father, like son, I suppose) and he both watches the (kick-ass) television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and plays the associated video game. (It’s worth noting at this point that we always consume both forms of media together; he’s not permitted to watch the TV show or play the game alone.)

Remarkably, the two media have very different ratings.

The television show, for example, received a “C8” rating:

(I’m sort of surprised by the “little … sex or nudity” qualification, myself. For 8 year olds? Maybe I’m just a prude.)

On the other hand, the video game, which is very similar to the television show, received a “T” rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board:

Here’s a link to the ESRB’s Game Ratings & Descriptor Guide. Here’s the CRTC-approved Ratings Classification schedule on the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council website: Ratings Classification for Canadian English-Language and Third-Language Broadcasters.

That’s a five-year age different between the two ratings, for content that differs, visually and thematically, very little.

One reason that the television show might be rated for a younger age group might be because, according to the CBSC, “broadcasters rate their programs…” It is, of course, in the interests of a broadcaster to expand the appeal of any program for commercial and financial reasons. (The broadcaster of Star Wars: The Clone Wars in Canada is Teletoon – a joint venture of Astral Media and Corus Entertainment.)

One might argue that the video game gets a much higher age rating due to the degree of active interaction a child might have when playing, compared to the more passive nature of the TV show. It’s worth, then, taking that argument one step further and assess the age rating for the franchise’s toys: 3 years. Several of the toys are full-size replica guns that actually fire projectiles. It doesn’t get any more interactive than that, and any kid can pick up a clone rifle at Wal-Mart.

It makes you wonder…

Anyway, I consider neither rating to be truly accurate. Cole (who is almost 7, by the way) gets freaked out to a much greater degree by the TV show than by the video game due to two qualities that are very hard to replicate in interactive media: drama and suspense. Whereas, yes, the video game enables him to abstractly run around and blast droids, the television show consumes his consciousness in an eery, futuristic world with highly moralistic storylines.

In other words, he asks a heck of a lot more questions about the television show than he does about the video game. Actually, the video game he generally just gets frustrated with because it’s so badly designed and developed, but those are qualities the ESRB can’t assess, I’m sure.

What’s my take? In the cases of both media, parents should be directly involved in consumption up to age 10. I’d advise no child under age 6 be permitted to consume either. And, since I brought it up, I’d say no child under 8 should be permitted to play with a replica toy gun that actually shoots something. But that last assessment makes me a hypocrite, so please disregard it.

But this is all highly subjective, of course, and based on my own assessment of my own child’s emotional and intelligence qualities. But I don’t gauge my assessment to be any better or worse for the population at large  than either the ESRB or Teletoon. It’s just one assessment among many. I’m sure those parents that let their 6-year-olds play Halo long into the night would have an entirely different assessment altogether (though theirs would likely fall into the lack-of-discrimination category).

The I’m trying to make, is two-fold: first, the ratings of media review boards are always subject to personal discrimination; second, parents should actively and constantly apply that discrimination on media their children consume.

Your Take

Without engaging with either media, actually, you can get a pretty good feel for their qualities by watching the previews online. Click on the image under each of the headers below to open a new window with a video preview of each of the media. Nothing replaces sitting there for hours on end with your kid, playing and watching, but it might at least give you a feel if you haven’t seen either media.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars Television Show

Star Wars: The Clone Wars Republic Hero Video Game