Editorial: The Activision Uvalde Suit is a Painful Reminder of the Need for Parental Supervision in Gaming

The ESRB exists to protect consumers, but it won’t work if parents don’t pay attention to the labels.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 05/29/2024 20:28 Comment on this     ShareThis

Last week, the survivors of the 2022 Uvalde school shooting sued several companies, including Activision and its owner Microsoft. The lawsuits allege that Activision, via its Call of Duty games, markets assault weapons to consumers and that the company’s actions directly led to the circumstances that compelled Salvador Ramos to take the lives of 19 children and two teachers, and wound 17 others. This lawsuit has once again fired up the debate regarding the culpability of video games in impelling violent behavior in the people who play them. While I of course sympathize with the survivors and understand they’re seeking what they believe to be justice by initiating this lawsuit, I disagree with the conclusion they’ve come to.

In 1993, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) created the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) as a response to the senate hearings led by Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl. The hearings had called into question the appropriateness of the realistic violent content in video games, most notably in titles like Mortal Kombat, which were being marketed towards and played by children. The creation of the ESRB meant that video games finally had a standardized content rating system in place so that consumers could make informed purchases.


That was 31 years ago. Three decades for consumers to learn the difference between a game having an E rating versus an M. Yet, while consumers have adapted to the similar MPAA content ratings on films, where G is clearly a movie for kids while R is for adults, the black and white ESRB boxes are yet to be taken seriously by many parents. Ask anyone who has worked at a GameStop, Best Buy, Walmart, or any other retail store that sells video games about how frequently parents come in and buy their children, some as young as five or six, M-rated titles like Grand Theft Auto without batting an eye, and you’ll get a lot of responses saying “all the time.”

What’s more, store regulations generally require clerks to inform the consumer that they’re buying an M-rated game and what that entails, as well as ask for ID to confirm the purchaser is an adult. Stores don’t even do that for R-rated movies, yet with games there are multiple safeties in place to try and ensure that consumers are informed before making a purchase. Yet, despite these measures, countless children regularly play games like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and other titles not appropriate for them. Which leads us to a critical point here, which is that kids aren’t the ones buying these games—their parents are.


Children don’t have incomes. Children don’t have cars. Children don’t have IDs. That means when a kid winds up with a copy of Assassin’s Creed for his Switch, the responsibility lands squarely on the shoulders of the person who bought the game for him. There are numerous excuses made as to why this happens, but that’s all they ultimately are—excuses. Even if, somehow, a child sneaks the game into the house, the question then becomes, why isn’t the parent paying attention to what their kid is playing?

When I was growing up, my parents knew every game my sister and I owned. They didn’t sit and watch us play every second we had a console turned on, but they would be mindful of the fact we were playing and would pay attention to the content. My mom and dad would also monitor how long we were playing, making sure we weren’t engaged for too long. As far as I’m concerned, this is common sense parenting. My parents both worked full time jobs but never used it as an excuse for being “too busy” or “too tired” to be mindful of what their children were up to. I was even banned from playing GoldenEye when it came out because my dad thought it was too violent—that’s how attentive they were.

Unfortunately, this is not the mindset of many parents. There’s either minimal or zero consideration given to the content that their children are ingesting, whether it’s video games, movies, music, or even their interactions on social media. The TV and the smart device are glorified babysitters for whole swaths of moms and dads who prioritize getting home to pull up Netflix and binge a TV series versus properly checking in on their families. In this day and age, where every form of violence and pornography is within a couple of thumb strokes on a smartphone, it’s more important than ever for parents to be vigilant, yet in some ways it feels like many have become more negligent, instead.

I once got into a debate about this topic while I was a freshman in college. A classmate brought up that language barriers are sometimes a reason why M-rated games get into the hands of children. I immediately pushed back and said that if I was in a position where I didn’t speak the language of the writing on the box of the game my kid wanted, and I couldn’t discern from the box if it looked age appropriate, then that was a game I wouldn’t be buying them. A language barrier doesn’t mean that whatever box a child comes up with in their hands is an instant purchase—in fact, it should mean just the opposite.


Yet, despite the inherent responsibility that parents have to monitor their kids, we continue to see situations like this, where blame is shifted elsewhere. Don’t misconstrue my point here—I am in no way saying the parents were responsible for the tragedy at Uvalde. What I’m saying is that to blame Activision for Call of Duty being played by kids is like feeding your child McDonald’s every day and then wondering why they have health problems. The chicken nuggets didn’t teleport into your daughter’s hands any more than CoD did into her Xbox.

And even if the game somehow did pop up out of thin air, because some will say that’s exactly what a digital download is, I will in turn say—why is your child’s console not better secured? Why does you kid have the ability to make purchases without you? Do you have the parental controls initiated on the system? And supposing the child somehow circumvented protective measures, why isn’t the system in a place where you can see what they’re playing at any given moment? At the end of the day, the buck stops with mom and dad, and no one else.


The other aspect of this debate, that games turn people violent, is baseless. There have been multiple studies over the years debunking games as causation for aggression and violence. It’s like claiming that watching porn will make a person go out and have sex with countless people, or that watching Game of Thrones will turn someone into a killer. It just doesn’t happen. But what bothers me most about this angle of attack is that it’s so insidious in its framing. It leans into people’s stereotypes about video games and the people who play them, scapegoating us as these boogeymen who fester in dark places, thinking dark thoughts, waiting for something to drive us over the edge and start killing.

According to the ESA, 65 percent of Americans play video games, which comes out to roughly 212 million people. Nearly 75 percent of players are adults. It’s also estimated that 80 percent of people play games with others. None of this sounds like the generic, isolated basement dweller with violent delusions that things like these lawsuits make gamers out to be. 212 million people aren’t reenacting murder fantasies every day because they played Gears of War or Fortnite. The sheer volume of non-violent players overwhelms the narrative that games are “grooming” anyone to do anything. There simply isn’t the data to back that this is happening, otherwise millions of people would be heading into gun shops around the country and buying firearms because they saw a cool gun in a Call of Duty loadout.


That all said, the video game industry does itself no favors with some of the merchandise it sells. 11 years ago I was writing about how stores like Toys “R” Us were selling child-sized Call of Duty backpacks. Even today, it’s common to walk through a Spirit store during Halloween season and find kid-sized Master Chief costumes. This is tantamount to Anheuser-Busch selling Budweiser dresses in the Target children’s clothes section. It makes zero sense that the industry continues to enable any of its licensing partners to do this, yet here we are over a decade later and it’s still happening.

For one thing, it’s blatantly inappropriate, but for another, it gives activists ammunition to use against the industry. It’s hard to claim grooming isn’t happening if publishers are actively marketing their M-rated content at children. In many ways the industry has matured, but in others it’s still struggling to grow up. But while gamers wait for the industry to get its act together, it leaves them open to attacks such as this where they’re all lumped together and labeled potential killers. It is, frankly, a lie, and one that I and countless other gamers are tired of having hurled our way. I sympathize with the plight of these complainants, but video games are no more grooming children than any other form of mass entertainment.

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