A Grownup Gamer’s Guide To Kids And Video Games

kids-internetAs 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:

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.

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!

How Much Of Our Children’s Narratives Should We Share Online?

Social networks abound with the intimate details of our lives. Family photos, vacation plans, concerns and celebrations – all of it becomes part of our ongoing online identities. It’s one thing when you’re posting about yourself, but what about when you post about your kids?

As I browse various social networks, I’ve come to realize that people are just plain sharing too much stuff. I cringe when I see baby pictures because I know pedophiles steal them. I wince when a friend posts “Greetings from vacation!” because I know burglars use the same social networks to find empty homes to rob. I want to scream when people say, “I only friend people I know” or “I use the same password on Facebook and Twitter” because I know cybercriminals create fake profiles and hijack real ones.

My question is this: How much of our children’s narratives should we share online?

I find myself coming down hard on this issue, as a writer and as an adult adoptee and advocate for adoptee rights. I believe the narratives of minors should be not be shared, or should only be shared minimally, until the minor is of an age to make his or her own decisions. I’ve spoken on my adoptee rights blog 73adoptee about the question of who controls adoptee narratives (here and here, for example). Many adoptive parents and prospective adopters blog intimate details about an adoptee’s origins before that adoptee even has a chance to know for themselves! I know how I’d feel if the personal details of my origins had been spread around in public before I was old enough to voice my opinion. It’s up to me to decide what to share of my story, and how much, and when. (It’s also up to me to decide what I should know about my adoption instead of having agencies or governmental bureaucracies deciding for me, as eloquently described by my friend Amanda over at Declassified Adoptee.)

We can also see this in the furor over Liza Long (the “Anarchist Soccer Mom”) and the intimate details she shared about her son in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut. Some have lauded her efforts to improve mental health, while others have chastized her for oversharing her son’s story. I have to say I’m leaning toward the latter. How would you like it if you were in that kid’s shoes – unable to share your version of your own story? How would you like it if your parents were telling the universe about your academic problems or physical ailments or mental health?

When you talk about your children online, you’re not making private comments to your Aunt Martha over tea in her parlor. This is the Internet. It is global, and it is permanent. What happens when that child becomes an adult and wants a say over how his or her narrative has been shared? How can they reclaim their narratives later on? Will Facebook take down the posts? Will Twitter and Blogger and Instagram delete that information? Will all the engines that have archived the data also delete that information? The backup tapes? The locally cached copies?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Such information can also be used for cyberbullying. Let’s say you’ve got a kid whose parent posted about a bitter divorce. Don’t you think, when that child is a teen, that other teens might try to dig up as much dirt about them as possible? How is that going to make the kid feel? How would YOU feel knowing the information you shared was later used against your own child?

As an IT expert, my advice to parents has always been: Share minimally. Don’t post family photos on social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – not even with the privacy controls locked down. I don’t care how convenient it is or how many of your friends are doing it. Those privacy controls never stay locked down. Bugs are found or hacks occur or switches get flipped and you suddenly discover that your precious five-year-old’s face has been Photoshopped onto raunchy material and spread around the underbelly of the Internet.

I try not to blog about my kids except in a generic way. I occasionally describe events, like our family Doctor Who cosplay for Halloween, but I don’t share their names or personal narratives. I ask questions, as any parent does. Sometimes I do it on the Internet. But I strive not to badmouth my kids or speak publicly about private information. No, not even in private chat. No, not even in email. It’s basic common sense.

Kids may not be adults, but they are still people, and when they become adults they have to deal with the repercussions of the decisions made for them. So do your kids a favor. You’re the caretaker of their information, not the owner. Safeguard it until they are able to take care of it themselves.

What do you think about the sharing of childrens’ information online?

(Comments welcome but moderated against spambots. And if you’re only here to argue with me over adoptee rights, don’t bother – go over to 73adoptee or other blogs like Declassified Adoptee and Musings Of The Lame and First Mother Forum to learn about the adoption reform movement.)

Image courtesy of pat138241 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why Is Gaming Considered Unprofessional, And What Can Gamers Do About It?

Nerddom has achieved an unprecedented popularity of late, but there are still some aspects that remain anathema. Case in point: gamers, who are supposed to keep their video game playing in the closet.

Making the rounds is this tidbit about a Maine lawmaker who discusses her gaming in public instead of keeping it behind closed doors.

 Colleen Lachowicz is a Democratic candidate running for State Senate in Maine. She’s also a level 85 orc in the massively popular online game “World of Warcraft.” And for that, the Republican party says she is unfit for office.

[Lachowicz's response] “I think it’s weird that I’m being targeted for playing online games. Apparently I’m in good company since there are 183 million other Americans who also enjoy online games. What’s next? Will I be ostracized for playing Angry Birds or Words with Friends? If so, guilty as charged!”

Many gamers, myself included, have experienced That Look when we mention we happen to like video games. Ironically, it’s the complicated role-playing and strategy games that get the most grief. If you profess a love of Farmville or Bejeweled, you’re in the clear.

But if you like fragging enemies in Halo or strategizing your way through Mass Effect, forget it. You’re a weirdo, a loser who belongs back in your parents’ basement eating Cheetos and lamenting your lack of social skills. You can’t POSSIBLY be a rational human being with a job and a life.

BBC News, reporting on the Laschowicz incident, quotes a gaming researcher:

“In my work, I’ve spoken with many people who in their regular lives have roles of significant responsibility (as doctors, managers, or educators) but who choose carefully with whom they disclose their gaming activity,” she told the BBC. “And disclosing their gaming activity is often accompanied by a degree of apology or embarrassment.”

But, she added, having a gamer run for office was a “heartening” development. ”This would seem to run contrary to the other stereotypes that we love to assign to gamers: that they are lazy, antisocial people who don’t have a ‘real life’,” she said. “Maybe this will trigger some dialogue about our perceptions of gamers and the role that games can and should play in modern society.”

People can and do lose their jobs for being gamers – not for playing on company time but because their personal hobby supposedly shows they’re not “professional” enough. That’s when stereotyping nerds moves from simply not-funny into the realm of discrimination.

I was with a bunch of other parents at a school event recently. I didn’t know these parents well, and because I tend to live in a universe where gaming and cosplay and incessant watching of Doctor Who is considered “normal”, I sometimes forget that to other people, it isn’t.

One of the parents begins complaining about her teenage son. “He’s playing all these video games. I don’t know what to do.”

The other parents nod. I make the mistake of asking, “Which ones?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Which video games?”

“Um… some military ones. Call of Duty, I think. And some fantasy game.”

I give the wise nod of a gamer. “Skyrim, probably.”

“Huh?”

“Skyrim. It’s a very popular fantasy RPG.”

“What?”

“Role playing game. Skyrim is a popular fantasy role playing game. Not one of my personal favorites, I’m more into Dragon Age and Tales of Symphonia.”

By now the other parents are staring at me like I’ve got leprosy. The parent I’m talking to edges away. “So anyway,” she says to the other parents, “I’m trying to figure out how to get him to stop.”

I figure I’ve already put my foot in it, and it sounds like the kid needs some backup. “Video games are fun. As long as he’s meeting his responsibilities, why not let him play?”

Blank stares all around.

“Have you ever played a video game?” I ask. “A real video game, not Tetris or Scrabble. Not all of them are violent gorefests, you know. Not all of them are appropriate for every age level either, but that’s no reason to ban all games.”

The parent asks, “You actually play these games?”

“Yes. I actually play these games. They’re fun and I enjoy them. Your son probably does, too.”

Silence. The topic quickly turns to something else. I shrug and silently wish the kid luck because it sounds like he’s going to need it.

As a female gamer, I’ve noticed women are especially ridiculed for their gaming. Adults are not supposed to play video games. Women are not supposed to play video games. Middle-aged moms with kids are especially not supposed to play video games, much less brag about how they trounced the Arishok in single combat on nightmare level as an apostate mage in Dragon Age 2.

(Cone of cold, baby. I’m just sayin’.)

Honestly I think a lot of the problem is that people decide you’re supposed to give up all that childhood stuff when you become an adult. Unless you happen to live in the fandom world, which I suspect many of us do because it gives us the freedom to be kidlike about things like video games and Doctor Who and comic books.

Pure and simple, these people are jealous. They envy their fellow adults who are brave enough to embrace supposedly child-like things. It’s why people covertly read YA novels instead of admitting they like them. “I’m only reading Hunger Games because it’s so popular.” Uh-huh. Admit it, you keep a copy of A Wrinkle In Time under your pillow… and you STILL cry at the end.

What we as gamers need to do is make it known that you can be a gamer AND a professional (even – gasp! – a professional gamer). I’m a professional freelance tech writer. I’m also a level 35 spirit healer mage. Why is this a problem?

To my fellow female gamer Colleen Lachowicz I say: You go, girl. Kick some serious ass on behalf of gamers everywhere, in World of Warcraft and in the real world. We could use more of that.

 

Bitten By The Costuming Bug – How To Become Addicted To Cosplay

I’m not sure what happened. One minute I’m minding my own business, the next my hands are full of fabric, my mouth is full of pins, and I’m squinting over a pattern that might as well be in Klingon for all the Qapla’ I’m having with it.

(The picture shows all the tools I need to remind myself how to use my sewing machine. Been at it four hours now. The one I’m going to use next is on the left.)

I have become addicted to costuming, in this case the making of outfits for the sole purpose of cosplay. Which is not entirely new to me, but it was a casual pastime. Now it’s a raging obsession. I can’t look at anything SFF-related without thinking, “Gee, could I make that?”

The last time I was bitten by the costuming bug was in high school, when I joined the SCA. The SCA, if you’re not familiar, is the Society for Creative Anachronism, aka medieval re-enactors (as opposed to Civil War re-enactors or WWII re-enactors or all the other re-enactors, bless ‘em). Some of the people in our group were seriously good costumers, on a professional level. How I envied their embroidered ensembles, the crushed velvet, the hand-tatted lace.

If you suspect I enjoyed the Third Doctor’s outfits, you’re right. Especially that hunter green velvet jacket.

But I could never make anything that good myself. I tried a couple of basic dresses. They were horrible but I wore them anyway because I made them myself, dammit, and they were PERIOD. (If you don’t know the importance of PERIOD then you haven’t been in the SCA. And trust me, it’s hard to get there when you suck at sewing and can’t use prefabricated trim or synthetic fabric.) All of my other efforts ended in disaster. I left sewing behind, contenting myself with two PERIOD dresses and a few outfits borrowed from kind re-enactor friends.

As the years rolled by, I would occasionally get the urge to make a vest or skirt, but it quickly fell by the wayside as I reminded myself that would involve *gulp* learning to sew for real. Instead I contented myself by drooling over other people’s cosplay and idly wondering what I might do if I had such talent myself.

Strangely enough, at the same time I managed to teach myself how to crochet, embroider, and cross-stitch, all of which are apparently harder than sewing clothes. Or so other people tell me. Personally I struggle to sew a straight seam but I can fill a room with crochet doilies and afghans. (Somehow that skill has never come into play in my IT career.)

So I’m starting slow, an outfit here, a cloak there, a few screenshots to capture the right look, hours spent searching for the perfect boots.

The costuming bug brought along friends. An idle thought about hair feathers turned into full-blown jewelry making, complete with multiple runs to the craft store for a few more beads, just a few more…

It doesn’t help that my children are all for Mommy’s newfound hobbies. In fact I think my daughter secretly infected me with jewelry-making, because I figured as long as I was buying beads, I might as well buy a few for her… then later she and I are sitting there happy as larks with wire and pliers and lots of sparklies.

It’s too late for me. At this point they’ll have to pry my pretties out of my glue-sticky fingers. If you haven’t succumbed to the costuming bug yourself then run, my friend, far from all the lovely yarn and thread and fabric and notions before they beguile you, too.

For those who are already addicted… I’ll post some of my finished pieces, assuming they don’t turn out half-finished and forgotten like most of my crochet projects.

Why Video Games Are Good For Your Kids

People are surprised that I allow my children to play video games. I constantly find media-fueled hype like this recent article from the BBC: Pupils ‘made more violent by computer games’

Bradford teacher Alison Sherratt is set to tell the ATL annual conference in Manchester that members of her reception class have been acting out scenes from games well above limit for their age.

“The inspiration for this motion was when I watched my class out on the playground throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies,” she says.

“I followed it up in circle time and talked about what they knew about playing games on the computer.”

She questions how to respond when one of her pupils asks her to join in a game by “stabbing a person in the back”.

Time to party like it’s 1979
For pity’s sake! We’ve had video games for generations and still these hidebound attitudes prevail? Let’s go over it again, folks: Not all video games are violent gorefests. Many of them are not only suitable for children, but can help teach valuable skills like problem solving and cooperative play.

The article eventually gets to the heart of the actual problem:

Ms Sherratt also raises concerns over children having access to games unsupervised in their rooms, and wonders whether their parents are checking on what they are doing.

Exactly. It’s not video games that are the problem, but parental supervision. Except the article only mentions that after we’ve stoked the flames of hysteria. There’s a big difference between My Little Pony and Grand Theft Auto. As parents it’s our responsibility to understand that difference.

Video games are a form of art
I play video games myself. Personally I don’t care for the first-person-shooter variety, but that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with FPS. I simply prefer RPGs like Tales of Symphonia and Dragon Age. I like games with character building, story arcs, and plots worthy of a good novel. In fact, that’s just what many modern video games are – unique universes in a new medium. Rather than television or books, we find art and beauty in video games.

(Art and beauty in video games? Yes. Read this article about the Art Of Video Games exhibit – at the Smithsonian. Good enough for ya?)

The games my kids play are similarly cooperative. We’re fond of the Lego series: Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Harry Potter. I frequently find my kids working together to figure out how they can get beyond an obstacle or find a treasure. This cooperation translates to other aspects of their lives, as you can see when they play board games or build with real Legos.

How families can embrace technology
A former teacher recommended an excellent book which might change your views on kids and video games. The Connected Family: Bridging The Digital Generation Gap by Seymour Papert argues that technology is here to stay, and the only way we can deal with it as parents is to embrace it in ways that enhance our families.

I remember when the Atari 2600 came out, the Apple II, the PC, the family iMac, Sega Genesis. Today it’s Facebook and Twitter and Xbox – same principles, different technology. And every time something new comes out, a certain subset of people have to lash out at it in paranoia, as if this is something new and awful that has suddenly descended upon the planet. Again.

That’s not to say there aren’t dangers on the Internet. Believe me, it’s my job to educate parents on exactly what those dangers are. But you can’t avoid technology for the sake of keeping your kids safe. That’s like never driving your kids anywhere because there might be a car accident.

How our geeky household does it
Here at Chez Guidry, we almost always play video games as a family. The consoles are in the living room so everyone can participate, especially games like Wii Sports. Even if we parents aren’t playing we are still spending time with our kids.

That’s not to say we don’t have rules. Typically there’s no screen time during the school week. We make the occasional exception for important events (like new episodes of MythBusters, which as far as I’m concerned is educational science television). Screen is only allowed on the weekends, and only for limited periods of time. I will also make exceptions for reading ebooks on an e-reader if it’s real reading and not an interactive app that’s more game than book.

Do my kids fight these restrictions? Of course. They want to play video games all the time. (Hey, who doesn’t?) But I don’t let my kids play video games constantly. We don’t take handheld players in the car or to the pediatrician. They know they’ll get to play when it’s appropriate, and they also know that if a punishment goes beyond time-out, the next thing Mom’s going to say is, “You’re grounded from screen time.”

Do you play video games with your kids? What are some of your favorite family-friendly games? Share in the comments!