Today I went to a nearby supermarket to buy some bread. At the checkout the line was stalled by a group of 10 years old boys trying to purchase Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I know that they were 10 year old because one of them said “he’s 10 years old, I’m 10 years old, so together we’re 20 years old”, probably because that’s the sort of argument that is likely to work in children media that are more appropriate for 10 years olds than GTA, which over here is rated 16+. But, of course, the 10+10=20 was not their main pitch. It was “my father has allowed it”. To which the cashier, who looked to be in his twenties and generally somewhat shy and awkwardly taken by the situation, at first correctly replied that it doesn’t work that way and the father needs to be personally present for that. And so the little boy produces his cell phone, dials his father and tells the cashier to ask him. The cashier, understandably weirded out by the entire situation, talks to the alleged father (maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, who knows), explicitly asks and receives permission and sells a game with good reason rated 16+ to a handful of 10 years old boys who proceed to behave exactly like a bunch of kids who just successfully stole a lollipop.
The following is what I wish I’d told the cashier when it was my turn in line, except most of it – as usual – formed in my head when I was walking back home already.
Selling the game that way was against the law. Let us, for a moment, leave aside my own personal moral reservations I always felt towards the GTA franchise. Let’s leave aside that this, if any, is probably one of the games least suited to be in the hands of children not even old enough to be called “teenagers”. Let’s just look at the legal part.
The person on the phone may or may not have been the father. Even assuming it was, he may or may not also be a legal guardian. Assuming he was, he may or may not be aware of the nature and content of the game in question. He may or may not be drunk, on drugs, or generally give a fucking shit.
The attentive reader may at this point be objecting that most of these points do not really change with the physical presence of the father in the store. In fact, the only thing that changes is that the father receives the opportunity to actually personally inspect and evaluate at least the information printed on the cover – about the content and the proposed age restrictions, for example. But while this is a very, very, very important factor, the other possible factors still remain uncertain. It’s not like the cashier is going to ask for a birth certificate and a written brief essay on why the father considers GTA to be an appropriate medium for his son – and, importantly, for several other children whose parents now get effectively bypassed in their right to allow or disallow their child to consume that content.
What’s the difference? The difference is crucial. Not understanding the difference led the cashier to making the wrong decision. When a game (film, book, beverage, whatever) is purchased by a minor in the presence of an adult, it is not the minor purchasing the game, but the adult. It is a huge difference in legal responsibility that renders the above questions moot.
The law forbids anyone but the legal guardian(s) to grant minors access to rated media. Even after having received permission via phone, the cashier still sold the game directly to a minor, thus granting him access to a rated game, thus committing a felony. If, on the other hand, an adult – any adult – who accompanies the boy purchases the game, the responsibility passes on to that adult. If he is not actually the father, then it is him – and not the store – who is committing a felony by passing the game to the boys. If he is the father and grants access to the other boys without consulting their legal guardians, it is, again, him who is breaking the law.
By selling the game to an adult – and this is what is taking place when a child purchases something in the company of their parent(s) – the store passes the legal responsibility on to the purchasing adult. By selling the game to a child – which is what you do when you play along to a “permission via phone” – the store breaks the law.
The sad thing is that mishandled events like this make you understand a little bit more where those people are coming from who claim that rating is not enough but everything needs to be censored and forbidden. In the end it’s always the irresponsible actions of adults.