As a tech support specialist I’m often asked about kids and video games. To a non-tech-savvy parent, the world of video games is as confusing as a foreign language. What are they playing? With whom are they playing? Are they safe online?
So I wrote this guide as both a parent and a gamer. And what I’ve learned is that you don’t need to protect your kids from video games – you need to protect them from the violent video game culture.
Are all video games violent?
No, as those of you who play Words With Friends know. Some video games are fine for kids. I would even go so far to say that some video games are good for kids, and I’m one of those annoying parents who won’t let her kids have “screen time” except on weekends.
You may be interested in Seymour Papert’s book The Connected Family which discusses how families can benefit and learn from technology in positive ways. I like the Lego series, for example, because it encourages cooperative play and problem-solving. Little Big Planet does, too. Even good old Sonic has his place – there’s nothing wrong with letting your kids run a little hedgehog around mazes collecting rings. Studies have shown that playing video games has a relaxing quality to it, producing the same sorts of brainwaves as in deep meditation.
But I’m not about to let my kids play Bioshock Infinite or Call of Duty. Just as I would recommend your kids watch Doctor Who (TV-PG) but not Game of Thrones (TV-MA) even though I watch both, I wouldn’t recommend your kids play the more violent video games out there. It’s a matter of appropriate content.
How can I find out if games my kids are playing are appropriate?
Read up on the titles they like. A web search for “(name of game) parent guide” will bring up the info you need.
You can also go by the ESRB rating on the cover. These work just like movie and television ratings. There’s a nice ESRB Ratings Guide you can use as a reference.
How do I tell my kids that I don’t want them to play a particular game?
Don’t be afraid to say no. If you’re not sure if a game is appropriate, watch them play it. You might even play it with them! Your kids may try to tell you “everybody’s playing this” but I assure you, and them, that they can find games that are just as fun to play without the gore and violence. There are some things that simply have to wait until you’re an adult, and mature-rated video games are in that category.
Can kids talk to strangers through video games?
Yes. These games often involve speaking to other players via headset (voice) or in-game chat (text). That other player could be the kid next door, or some creep halfway across the world.
So how can I let them play with friends but not with strangers?
Um… you don’t, not if they’re playing a multiplayer game across the Internet. Most throw all the players into one big electronic arena. That’s why supervision is essential; it’s like letting your kid loose in a big city without a grownup.
You can, however, run your own game by connecting multiple consoles on your own network (called a LAN party; LAN means Local Area Network). That’s much safer because you know exactly who is playing, but you physically have to get together – oh no, human interaction!
What is the “violent video game culture” you mentioned?
You’ve probably heard of rape culture thanks to the recent high-profile cases that have been making the news. There has been a backlash in the geek community over geek women and the inappropriate comments and situations we often have to face. When geek women complain over sexist remarks in professional settings, we are frequently vilified and even harassed both on the Internet and in real life. It’s a sad state of affairs and, while many people are fighting against this, it is still a very real risk.
You can find more here:
- Daily Dot: Rape, Harassment, and Misogyny in Geek Culture: 2012 In Review
- Geek Feminism Wiki: Timeline Of Incidents
As you can see this culture of misogyny and harassment is widespread in certain violent video game circles. In short, there are people out there who get their kicks through cyberbullying and continual harassment. This is not something to which you want to expose your kids.
How can I make playing video games both fun and safe for my kids?
Encourage your kids to play in a safe, supervised environment. Why not set up a rotating Game Night or LAN party with other parents? The kids can play the games that they enjoy, and you know they’re really playing with friends and not random Internet creeps. Who knows… you might even find yourself wanting to join in!
How do I set up parental controls for video games?
All modern gaming consoles have parental control features. Here are instructions for some of the most popular consoles.
- PlayStation 3: Using The Parental Control Settings
- Xbox 360 Parental Controls
- Wii Parental Controls
- Wii U Parental Controls
- Sony PSP Parental Controls
- Nintendo 3DS Parents’ Information
- PS Vita Parental Controls
On a computer, you can use the built-in parental controls for Windows and Mac, or you can use a third-party service like Norton Online Family (works on PC, Mac, and mobile devices). Bear in mind that parental controls can be bypassed by a savvy kid. If you really want to lock down your network, you can configure your router to block games. You’ll have to look at your specific router’s instructions for that.
How can I make my kids understand the importance of video game safety?
Your kids will probably feel betrayed that you don’t want them to play certain games anymore. They don’t understand why Lego Star Wars is okay but Bioshock is not.
Explain why these changes are necessary for their protection. Visit sites like NetSmartz together. Talk about online dangers and what they can do to avoid them. Explain that you’re going to follow video game ratings just as you do TV and movie ratings. (Put the onus on the ESRB, they won’t mind.)
Meet your kids halfway. Ask to join them in their world of video games so you can see what intrigues them about it. You might be surprised to find you enjoy video games yourself. There’s nothing wrong with Mom or Dad enjoying a game night of their own.
Speaking of which, the number-one question I get about video games is:
Wait… you’re an adult and you play video games? Why would an adult want to do that?
Why do adults like any hobby? Because it’s fun and stimulates the imagination. Many of today’s games are more like novels than arcade shoot-em-ups. You’re missing some good stories by not playing video games. (I’m thinking specifically of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, if you want to know. But there are many others.)
I’ve noticed that, for adults, video games are classified as socially acceptable or not acceptable. If I mention that I play FarmVille (which I don’t, simply because it’s not my cup of tea), that is socially acceptable. If I mention that I play Tales Of Graces (a Japanese fantasy role playing game) that’s not acceptable.
Part of it is that most non-gamers aren’t familiar with the latest titles. But another part of it is that grownups playing anything beyond a select few games is apparently weird. I don’t get that, but I never stopped playing video games. I’ve been gaming continuously since the days of my Atari 2600 and I still do so today.
Do you have questions about kids and video games? Ask in the comments!