Why parents should be on the lookout for racist and sexist messages in video games

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WATCH ABOVE: More than half of Canadians play video games and the number of game developers has never been higher. Violence in video games has long been an issue, but what about sexual assault and racism? Kim Smith has some tips to help parents trying to keep up with their tech savvy kids – Sep 6, 2018

Violence in video games has long been an issue for parents, but less overt messages of sexual assault and racism might not be on their radar.

“Parents are typically concerned about a small range of things like violence and obviously explicit sexual content or language,” said Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts.

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“Subtler things, like how relationships are portrayed, things like notions of consent, things like whether violence is presented as a way of solving problems, may be a little under the radar.”

Over the past decade, video games have evolved to include more complex characters with intricate storylines.

While many games will come with a rating and the option for parental control, Global News spoke with three different experts who all agree: parents need to sit down and play video games with their kids to understand what they are consuming.

Kim Smith, Global News: How would you describe the current video game scene?

Dana DiTomaso, president of Kick Point in Edmonton: I think one of the things that’s really cool happening with gaming right now is there are more developers than there have ever been before. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of the kind of games that are published.

There’s this huge variety now. I think gaming is a lot more accessible than it used to be, especially with the rise in mobile gaming. And I think that means a lot more people are playing games than there used to be.

KS: What kind of variety in messages are we talking about?

DD: All games have the bias of their developers. If a developer wants to put out a game that involves violence or first-person, shooter-style games, that’s going to be in there. But another game could not have those messages. So I think it’s important to look at the game just like you would a TV show and decide if you are happy with the messaging that’s in there.

KS: Do you think in some cases kids aren’t aware of what they are consuming? Is the messaging obvious?

DD: I think kids are pretty savvy these days, savvier than, say, we were when we were looking at this stuff. I think they get exposed to this stuff way earlier than they used to. It becomes a case of, ‘Do I tell my parents or this is normal?’ And that’s because it’s there and everyone is playing it, it becomes the new normal. But certainly, if you see certain images or ways of thinking or doing or saying presented to you regularly in these games, then you think this is how things are.

Chat is generally just a trash fire wasteland of terrible things said by terrible people to other people. That’s something that I think you really do need to monitor. Some games allow you to turn off chat, but some games require chat.

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KS: What can parents do in that situation?

DD: I think honestly, play games with your kids. Be part of their team. I used to play World of Warcraft for a number of years. You would play with a bunch of other people and we did have some parents and kids who played together in our raid groups. And it was a fun thing for the parents to do with their kids.

If your kid was playing soccer or hockey, you would go with them to the games. So why not play games with them?

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Kim Smith, Global News: What are the biggest concerns for parents when it comes to video games?

Matthew Johnson, director of education with MediaSmarts in Ottawa: One thing is screen time. Video games can be a major issue when it comes to excessive use because they are made to be absorbing. They’re made to make us want to play them more.

Something else parents might not be aware of is the sheer number of games online that are either accessible online or accessible through platforms, many of which were created by amateur creators. One of the challenges is simply because these aren’t going through traditional channels, they’re not going through video game retailers … these really don’t have any sort of oversight. There’s no real way to know in advance what kind of content you’re going to find there.

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KS: Would you say there are hidden messages in games?

MJ: I wouldn’t say there are hidden messages in games, but like any media, games have social and political implications. If games are a big part of your children’s lives, then they are going to have an influence on how your children see the world.

It’s important to know what the game is about. It’s important to talk to your kids about it. It’s important to try and do it in a way that’s with respect to what your kids like. Because we know if you’re negative with the things they enjoy, they’re just going to tune you out.

We do want to get them in the habit of thinking you can enjoy something, but still be critical of aspects of it.

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Kim Smith, Global News: What might parents not know about the games their kids are playing?

Marc Saltzman, technology and gaming columnist in Toronto: Video games are not just for kids anymore. In fact, over half of Canadian adults say they identify as a gamer, 52 per cent, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. The average age of a Canadian gamer today is 36 years old. So that’s probably twice as old as the cliche teenager in their parents’ basement. So that means graphics and story lines have matured.

KS: Would you say there are instances of hidden messages in games?

MS: I write for a publication called Common Sense Media. When I review a game, I’m looking through the lenses from a parent’s point of view. Even if it’s not overt violence or nudity or something front-and-centre, if they’re subtle messages, they’re indirect things that the player can discern from playing the game, such as how one race or colour is portrayed, or how women are talked to in the game or touched, or something like that.

We all call this out. Anyone who reviews games for publications like Common Sense Media looks at all of that carefully.

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KS: What’s your advice for parents feeling out of touch?

MS: It can be very overwhelming and intimidating for parents to control it, let alone understand it. Having open communication is important. Putting that game system or the computer in a high traffic area of the home. Maybe leaning on some software, some tools to help limit screen time to prevent inappropriate games from being played.

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