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A letter won't force parents to care about video games

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A group of teachers who "threatened" parents with reports of neglect for letting their children play the equivalent of Mature-rated games had the gaming world talking a few days ago.

"If your child is allowed to have inappropriate access to any game or associated product that is designated 18+, we are advised to contact the police and children's social care as this is deemed neglectful," the letter read, as reported by Eurogamer.

A follow-up story posted today by a teacher, supporting and explaining the letter, gave some context to the discussion..

The reality is that it's unlikely a parent is going to get in trouble for allowing their children to play certain games, but the bigger problem is how hard it is to get parents to think about games at all.

"The teachers who wrote that letter don't want to be making threats. But this isn't the first attempt at communication. This letter is more of a last resort," the teacher wrote on Eurogamer. "This is the first gaming culture has seen of an interaction between teachers and parents. Some people seem to think this is the first thing teachers have done, that their monocles have fallen out into their cups of tea and they've gone, 'goodness me, this is horrific, we must write a letter.'"

This is the reality of this issue, and why people both inside and outside the industry get so disheartened. It can be hard to get parents to care. But this isn't an issue with games.

Letters won't help

The act of playing Mature-rated games or their equivalent isn't damaging by itself. The parents who know what games their children are playing and why, even if they are rated for adults, aren't the problem. It's the parents who don't care what their kids play, or don't pay attention to the content in the games.

In a sense this isn't about gaming at all. You could argue the same thing about children who mostly eat fast food, or who don't get enough exercise. You could make the issue about guns in the house, or even drug and alcohol use. It's a question of parental involvement, and that's a hard problem to solve with a sternly worded letter.

This isn't about gaming at all

Parents who don't pay attention to what their children are doing don't compartmentalize; it's rare that you find a household where the kids eat well, are up on their homework, get plenty of rest and also play whatever game they want. Or rather, if that's the case they have enough of a support structure that the games are unlikely to affect them in a negative way. If a child plays too many games, or the wrong games, in an environment without the proper guidance things, can begin to go wrong.

Which is what the letter was trying to point out: This isn't a problem with games, it's a problem of parenting. But as anyone who has worked retail and talked to parents about ratings can tell you, it's an uphill battle. Many parents ignore your warnings about certain content, and others can become actively hostile. I worked retail selling games for years before I wrote about them, and it's very easy to get the "we need to talk to parents" impulse beaten out of you.

But it's hard to blame the parents as well. Many are dealing with long hours at one, maybe two jobs. If you're worried about keeping the lights on? Video games are the least of your concerns. Being able to pay attention to what your children are playing assumes the time and money it takes to gain that sort of knowledge while being available to watch them playing and see their reactions.

If you're worried about keeping the lights on? Video games are the least of your concerns

We're not talking about games; we're talking about parental involvement, and that's a much trickier issue. You're talking about minimum wage, and you're talking about regular work schedules. You're talking about maternity and paternity leave. You're discussing societal issues that won't be fixed with better adherence to game ratings. You're talking about changes you can't make with a letter shaming parents.

The teachers would have likely gotten the same response if they sent a letter home talking about a child's weight and their diet. Junk food is both cheap and fast; it's not always just a matter of making a better choice, as if that choice existed in a vacuum.

Until we fix the greater issues of parental involvement in ways that empower parents themselves, the symptoms, such as video games, will continue to be a problem.