Should there be age ratings on books?

Wednesday May 16, 2012

What is the relationship between art and real life: it sounds like a high falutin' question, but it has taken on a new relevance with recent controversies about the sexual content of music videos and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik's revelation that he honed his shooting skills by playing Call of Duty.

In both cases content industries feel unfairly blamed for societal problems, yet there seems little doubt that many parts of the entertainment industry are constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptability.

Some music videos have been accused of co-opting the visual language of pornography into the mainstream in a way that would have been simply unacceptable not that long ago. One senior games industry commentator confided that even he, a committed gamer, can no longer stomach some of the more gratuitous outpourings of his sector. Films, which in the past would have received a 15 rating, have more recently been given a 12A rating, meaning that even under twelves are exposed to the same content.

The extent to which popular culture reflects or leads cultural change - of course it does both - is an age-old discussion, but a study from the US last week suggests that this may not be a debate which should be restricted to electronic media.

According to Science Daily, "Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own -- a phenomenon the researchers call "experience-taking".

"They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later."

The report goes on: "Experience-taking doesn't happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading…In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.

"The more you're reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you'll be able to take on a character's identity," (researcher Geoff) Kaufman said.

"You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character's identity."

The Ohio study focused on the capacity for immersive fiction to generate positive social attitudes. It does not discuss whether books can have more negative effects. But it seems unlikely that you would have one without the other.

And if it is the case that books can lead readers to adopt the attitudes of characters with whom they empathise, it seems unlikely that equally if not more immersive electronic media are immune from such effects.

The film, tv, video games and music industries have long adopted age ratings and parental guidance regimes. The the book industry has not.  

Watch this space: there may yet be calls for age ratings or at least guidance notices on books.

With increasing public concern about the impact of the apparently relentless pushing of boundaries, the issue of the impact of art and entertainment on society is not going away.

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