Paper on children and game ratings in SA

I thought I’d share this, bearing in mind that we should go back and work on this some more. Reader comments and insights much appreciated:)

Sex, violence and harm in games: An analysis of the guidelines for classification of the Film and Publication Board of South Africa

Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town (UCT)

Marion Walton, Nicola Pallitt & Muya Koloko


Game ratings are intended to protect children from potentially harmful experiences by defining categories for disturbing, violent or sexual material. This paper analyses assumptions about video game play as revealed in the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board. We focus specifically on the interpretation of guidelines used to rate games according to the presence of ‘classifiable elements’ such as violence and sexual content, the use of public input, and raters’ interpretations of the guidelines. Currently, young people have no input in this process and adult perceptions set game ratings agendas. This paper explores how young people respond to game ratings in relation to their experiences with different game genres. We identify how rating practices and policies make particular assumptions about games – what games are, the contexts in which gaming takes place and how they construct a specific narrative of childhood. This paper argues that the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board in regulating the distribution of games have  emphasized ‘protection’  and reinforced parental and state power to the exclusion of paying attention to the voices of young people and respecting their rights to freedom of expression.

(Download unpublished 2011 conference paper draft)


Angry Birds – SERIOUS business?

Wired magazine April 2011

I decided to dedicate a blog post to the Angry Birds phenomenon to remind myself of interesting episodes I observed with the children playing this game on my laptop during their time at a holiday club (my field site). If you’d like to know more about Angry Birds or are interested in flash and mobile games, read “In depth: How Rovio made Angry Birds a winner (and what’s next)”, a recent feature published in Wired magazine (this month’s copy, it’s cover is graced with our feathered friends too:). For the journos out there, this is a very well-written feature article  – except for the lead which says that games are a waste of time, but that’s probably an ironic lead because the article expands on the time it took for Angry Birds to reach the average Joe as well as how profitable this little loveable app has become. Not to mention the comments – they’re quite funny but also provide evidence of the kinds of things people think about in relation to Angry Birds. One of the first comments said ‘wish it was a little less violent’… You’re ‘killing’ pigs (that magically pop/explode without blood) because they stole your eggs. The moral of the story: don’t steal other people’s eggs. Just joking, but come on – Angry Birds being violent?

The six/three (you get less birds the further you progress through the levels) birds to complete a level made for some interesting turn-taking which the children came up with all on their own. There was also lots of competition, which led to the kids finishing more levels than I have. Mainly, I found it remarkable how they transformed the game, which although it can be played as a flash game online and many kids do so, is designed for a single user – as a flash game and more recently as a mobile app. One of the boys even reported playing the game on his dad’s iPad. So Angry Birds took on a new social meaning at the club – it was no longer a game designed for a single user or even casual gaming. For primary school kids, Angry Birds became serious business…

Feeling Gameful anyone?

A fellow postgrad student told me about created by Jane McGonigal. She created the site to connect people interested in creating games for good. She believes that if we approach real world problems via the dedication of games we can do good things.

Gameful means “to have the spirit, or mindset, of a gamer: someone who is optimistic, curious, motivated, and always up for a tough challenge. It’s like the word “playful” — but gamier.” According to the site, “Gameful is an online Secret HQ for gamers and game developers who want to help change the world and make our real lives better. Think of it as a cross between a professional network and a creative brainstorming space. The goal is to make it easy for anyone making or playing world-changing games to find collaborators, mentors, jobs, ideas, and funding. And of course, to discover fun new games to play.”

Which games count as gameful: “As long as the project has a stated goal of making our real lives, or the real world, better — and not just to entertain us — then ANY kind of game counts: computer games, videogames, mobile games and alternate reality games; commercial games and indie games; serious games and art games; board games and iPad games; crowdsourcing and innovation games; street games and new sports; education games and activist games; health games and productivity games; and just about any other kind of game you might think of!”

It’s basically for people interested in making games that are making us “happier, smarter, stronger, healthier, more collaborative, more creative, better connected to our friends and family, and better at WHATEVER we love to do when we’re not playing games”.

As a media scholar, of course I am very analytical and I don’t think that all games or particular games ‘make us’ anything – it depends on the context and people’s individual interests.

Here are some games that have been labelled as ‘gameful’: EVOKEFold It!The Epic Win AppFlowerCode of EverandSuperBetterThe MP Expenses GameBudgetballthe PokéwalkerQuest to LearnLittle Big Planet: GamechangersWorld Without OilSeek ‘n SpellGoal Mafia,and Conspiracy for Good.

I have just been packing in my games for fieldwork with the kids tomorrow – Little Big Planet and Create are in the bag! I do not necessarily choose them to be ‘gameful’, I chose them because I want to look at how children negotiate customization. I do not wish to claim anything in terms of effects, but maybe some qualitative analysis can shed some light on how ‘gameful’ these titles are for particular kids in particular contexts.

My flatmate gave me a Sims lesson so I could brush up on my Sims skills. I think it definitely qualifies as ‘gameful’ – you have to buy the most expensive, top quality items for your house (to avoid them breaking later, fires, leaky taps), have to install telephones and security alarms and monitor that your Sims are happy at all times. It’s a real domestic workout that gets you thinking about modern living in a highly self-aware way, but at the same time shows how modern belief systems impact game design. For example, your Sim couple needs to be nurtured all the time – you have to check that they’re showing appreciation, talking, flirting. Additionally, playing Sims is not always ‘gameful’ – you can create Sims just to kill them off or cause chaos just for fun. But on the other hand, even creating chaos can be gameful because it depends on knowledge of rules in society: you need to know them well to know how to break them.

Brief review of games/tech related articles in Child magazine

I found some interesting articles in Child magazine, ‘SA’s best guide for parents’. Many schools in Cape Town distribute the Cape Town one for free to parents.

Six electronic gadgets that will help your children learn in a fun way lists DS Lite, iPad and Kinect. About Kinect, journo Tamlyn Vincent claims: “Why it works: While it comes with the normal assortment of games, Kinect also has a range of games that will help your children learn. Fantastic Pets and Kinectimals have you interacting with and learning about domestic and wild animals respectively. Body and Brain Connection gives the player a range of puzzles to test maths, logic and memory. There are also a variety of fitness and sports games to choose from.” Just the kind of thing parents love to hear.

The magazine’s back issues are easily accessible. The Cape Town Dec2010/Jan2011 mag has an article titled ‘MXit for Dummies‘  which I think is really nice because it’s a great guide for parents, informing them about MXit and how to get involved in their children’s social media experiences early on. This is very different to what I’ve experienced at schools – teachers are very anti MXit and many instill fear amongst parents and children about it. Children are told not to upload pictures to Facebook of them wearing their school uniforms because of the pedophiles out there, etc.

However, and article from the November 2010 edition titled “Fight or fantasy: Are electronic games making your child aggressive?” by Glynis Horning just reinforces moral panic by privileging effects research. However, one of the strengths of the article is that it says parents need to become more actively involved by learning more about games, playing them with their children and paying attention to ratings.

Sidetrack musing: Below is just one of the kinds of images Kinect uses, but Nintendo and Wii have very similar kinds of representations depicting a very idealized family life, most often there are two parents, the families are white, their home is immaculate and the family is shown playing together with big toothy smiles on their faces. C’mon – we all know that’s not how it looks on the home-front…

Shopping for kids

I was in Musica the other day to buy some USB speakers to use in my social media seminar (the lab doesn’t have additional plugs) and I found a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (pc game) for R 30! Games are really expensive consumer items and doing research with kids does not come cheap. I’m going to buy Create (a game that allows kids to design game scenes and be rewarded in the process of being creative) for the PlayStation 3 – it costs R 500! I’ve been very lucky to lend some age-appropriate PS3 games from my boyfriend and I’ve bought a lot of games on special from various stores. I will be doing some more fieldwork with the holiday club kids in April and I want to have a few new titles and genres available for them to play. Games research is expensive, I am starting to understand how parents feel. Your child comes home and has played this new console or that new game and they want it – what do you do?


Anyway, while I was in the store I overheard a mom, dad and their roughly 10 year old daughter. She wanted to get the Kinect (for XBox) and her parents were saying to her that it works out to be too expensive plus “your birthday has come and gone already”. I wanted to introduce myself and offer alternatives, but thought it rude to intrude because it would show I’d been eavesdropping. PlayStation Move? Which consoles do you own already and what do you want to play? However, this is something I do often when I’m in shops with games and I see children and listen to what they say, see what games they pull out etc. and their parents’ responses sometimes. It’s so fascinating! But I haven’t given advice…yet.


I’ve reached the conclusion that parents are a bit overwhelmed. Stores selling games are not organised like bookstores with lovely sections for kids. How, as a busy parent, are you supposed to figure out what’s suitable for your child and more importantly, affordable? For example, the latest Nintendo 3DS (yes, 3D gaming + social networking = ‘I want’) is R 2, 800!  How many parents can afford to buy this for their child or even want to spend so much on a hand-held console?
PS3 is around R 3 500 – a high-end graphics games console.

I think that in the future, shops selling games need to be organised like bookstores with information posters and booklets for parents. This will help families choose games together, more likely more appropriate ones too. Just because you buy your child the latest game at Toys R Us does not mean that it’s a children’s game. I am aware that many parents allow their children to play games rated unsuitable for their ages. I agree that some of the ratings for particular games are ridiculous. Ben 10 is rated age 12, but boys over 12 are much less interested in Ben 10. The conversation between the TV show, movie, merchandise and the games are not speaking the same language. I am not against parents who allow their children to play particular games. I have met many kids who do. As long as you are aware of the games’ content, consider it in relation to the rating, maintain a conversation with your child about the game and answer any questions they may have – wonderful!

For example, in the Sims, having sex is referred to as Whoohoo in Simlish (the language of the Sims). When you let your Sims participate in Whoohoo, their excitement levels go up (=happy Sims). The options are either to select whoohoo or try for a baby. I think that this could generate interesting conversations around sex education. In real life, unprotected whoohoo = 90% baby. Is your Sim wearing a condom? What happens next? What would happen in the real world. The reality is that in SA, children as young as 12 are having sex. Games featuring nudity and allusions to sex are rated 16. I think games can lead to interesting learning moments and form part of a child’s informal media education.