I decided last week that I wanted to check out the Assassin’s Creed 2 collector’s edition, that big bundle that comes packed with a bunch of nifty stuff that unfortunately doesn’t include any kind of sharp weaponry. I cruised over to the Asscreed website and naturally it demanded to know my age; I told it I’m 33, which while technically a lie isn’t actually meant to subvert the system, it’s just quicker than telling the truth.
But something went wrong. Rather than being tossed headlong into the world of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, I was tossed out on my ass with a message telling me, “You must be at least 18 years old to view this content.”
Confident in the knowledge that I am in fact at least 18 years old, I reloaded the site, only to be met with more of the same: I had told the site I was under 18 and that’s how it was going to stay. Exited and restarted my browser; no change. Resistance was futile. I was trapped by the age gate.
Not all that hard to get around, really. Flush some cookies and I’d be off to the races, assuming I didn’t somehow screw it up twice in a row. But unlike a lot of netizens who treasure archaic concepts like privacy, I like my cookies. Hell, I rely on them, and I don’t much appreciate the idea of having to refill my blanks just because some random game site screwed up my age. (And as a matter of fact, I do blame Ubisoft for this. I know what I clicked.)
I eventually managed to get what I wanted by going to the U.K. website instead but my irritation remained unsoothed. The so-called “age gate” is quite possibly the most pointless and futile exercise in online inconvenience ever to exist and yet its ubiquity is undeniable. Everywhere you look, it’s the same old question: How old are ya, pal?
My original intent was to consider the age gate from a positive perspective, to examine its necessity and explain how, despite all outward appearances that it’s a complete waste of time, it ultimately functions as a force of good. But the more I thought about it, and the more I grasped for straws to back up that point of view, the more I realized that I was wrong. Age gates don’t just appear to be stupid and worthless; they are stupid and worthless.
Age gates exist solely to fulfill the legal and/or ethical obligations of game makers to ensure that nobody sees anything they shouldn’t see. Of course, “ensure” in this case is a relative term, akin to replacing the guy behind the counter at the liquor store with a money jar and a sign that says “DON’T BUY THIS IF YOU’RE UNDER 19.” It’s a matter of the letter of the law being complied with, rather than intent; the kids aren’t being kept out, but by asking for an age the game companies are deflecting responsibility onto the user.
That might sound critical, but it’s not, at least not in the sense of blaming the game companies for being evasive. The fact is that ultimate responsibility for viewing this material does, or at least should, lie with the user. Game publishers are simply doing what they have to do and if a meaningless gesture like an age gate is sufficient to protect them from the pitchforks-and-torches (and litigation) crowd, then I’m all for it. But isn’t it sad that we’ve come to that?
When I was a kid (and the fact that I’m telling “when I was a kid” stories should be more than enough proof that I’m old enough to look at whatever the hell I want) we had a more effective way to ensure proof of age. We called them “parents.” They didn’t always work but when they did, they were infinitely more effective than current technological solutions. “What are you doing?” “What are you looking at?” “Who are you talking to?” “What’s that?”
Jesus Christ, mom, I’m playing a game with Larry from Delhi and it’s not like I can do anything I shouldn’t be doing anyway because you made me set up the computer in the goddamn living room.
See how that works? Amazingly simple, and yet amazingly effective. There is no greater disincentive to doing things you shouldn’t than the hovering possibility that your mother is going to walk into the room and ask awkward questions. But for some reason, we’ve gotten away from that. We’re at a point where we not only want these automated systems to protect our kids, we expect and demand it, and as a result we’ve come full circle: We’ve ended up with an age-restriction system that protects not the kids, but the content creators.
That’s really what age gates are all about. Nobody is thinking of the children, they’re thinking of the parents who haven’t got quite enough time to keep an eye on what their kids are up to but can certainly manage to squeeze into their schedules some righteous indignation and outrage toward the game industry. There’s really nothing more to it and from that perspective, I suppose we should be a little thankful every time we lie to the internet about our age.
Why? Because the other options are even less palatable. Game-makers could begin demanding more rock-solid proof of age, like credit cards, before granting access to their sites, which would leave both privacy advocates and plastic-free gamers of all ages out in the cold. Or they could simply stop putting online anything that might push the PG-13 envelope. In either case, gamers lose.
The other option, of course, is to eliminate these ridiculous age checks altogether. Post a warning that this website contains mature content and leave it at that. Let the parents decide what they want their kids to see online and if they can’t be bothered, let that be their decision.
But who are we kidding? That ain’t gonna happen. As long as parents can convince themselves that some great, faceless entity is watching over their kids online, and as long as the game industry feels obligated to make some token effort to meet that expectation, age gates are here to stay. They’re utterly useless in every possible way – and under the circumstances, they’re also the best option we’ve got.
Andy Chalk always lies about his age.