As my partner-in-crime EBongo and I are both gamers and fathers, (he's got 2 kids; I've got 3) often we find ourselves trying to decide what games for kids our brood should be allowed to play/watch. If it were up to me, I'd probably do nothing but play whatever games I'm interested in during my leisure hours. The kids put a wrinkle in this plan, as most of my entertainment is adult-oriented and they are young and impressionable. My wife likes to play as well, and she can usually make informed decisions about what the kids shouldn't watch. However, as the resident gaming expert of the family, it's usually up to me to decide - "What games should my kids play?"
Factoring for Your "Personal Parenting Preferences"
I don't want to try to tell you what your kids should or shouldn't be exposed to in general. If you're OK with graphic violence, drug use, nudity, etc, in your kids' entertainment, then that's your choice. I had a friend once who was considering buying a Grand Theft Auto game for their 8 year old son. I told them the game was full of foul language, racial slurs, violence towards women, even drug use and bestiality. They seemed uninterested in whether or not I felt this was appropriate for children, and we just sort of stood there staring at each other, incredulous.
By the same token, I'm OK with a measure of cartoon or fantasy violence in the games I let my kids watch and play. I will play RPGs where people thwack each other with sticks and cast fire magic and so forth at each other. I can imagine there are people who would deem this inappropriate, just like I would deem a GTA game inappropriate.
What level of each of these things is appropriate for your kids depends heavily on your preferences and what's acceptable in your culture. I can't really tell you that there is or isn't an offensive amount of violence in a game, for example. Even watching old Disney movies, I'm struck by the level of adult content and violence they contain, yet they are almost completely deemed appropriate and safe entertainment for children of all ages.
The bottom line is that although I can give you the tools to evaluate games, you may or may not agree with my evaluation of any particular game. What I'm OK with, you might not be, and vice versa.
Review Board Ratings
Your first line of defense when it comes to any game is the rating. Various countries have different rating scales, but the major ones for those of you in the English-speaking world are probably:
- The ESRB Rating, which is a rating from the Entertainment Software Association, which you could consider the "USA" rating board.
- The PEGI Rating, which is the European counterpart to the ESRB rating.
- There is also the Australian Classification which is a service of the Australian government, and is notorious for denying classification (and thus, effectively banning) certain games.
I'll stick with the ESRB ratings, since those are the ones we use where I live. Just know that there are several different ratings boards, so your icons and rating text may vary.
The ESRB Rating is roughly equivalent to the MPAA rating system for movies.
- E for Everyone is roughly similar to a G-rated movie.
- E 10+ for Everyone 10 & up is roughly similar to a PG-rated movie.
- T for Teen is roughly similar to a PG-13 rated movie.
- M for Mature is roughly similar to a R-rated movie.
There is also "AO" for adults only, which is roughly NC-17, although most games (and movies) try to avoid this rating and will typically cut or censor content in order to keep an M rating. Also, there's a RP rating, which means "Rating Pending," similar to "This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated" warnings you'll see on movie trailers.
So, when you pick up a game box at the local game shop, your first instinct should be to find the rating. ESRB ratings are typically in the lower right hand corner of the front cover. This will give you a general idea of how mature or potentially offensive the content of the game is.
That little logo isn't all the ESRB rating tells you, though. If you flip the box over, you'll find the rating again, next to Content Descriptors - these are little blurbs about what type of content gave the game the rating it got. For instance, you might see Mild Cartoon Violence or Nudity - these help you make decisions about what the game exposes your kids to.
The Online Element
Many games nowadays contain online multiplayer elements. PC, Playstation, Xbox, and even Wii games all can have online elements.
The problem with the rating system is that it can't cover the things other people do while playing the game. In fact, most games will start up with a disclaimer that essentially says "we rated the content of the game, but we can't promise there aren't worse things being done by other people online."
Even the most innocent games in single player can turn ugly when other people are involved. Depending on the game, other players may be able to type or say things that are offensive, they may transmit images or video of offensive content, and so on.
Many games can be modified by downloading and adding new content to them, and this may introduce things to the game which were not rated or not intended to be seen by the game developers. Thus, your kids may intentionally crank up the offensive level of a game, or someone else may do it for them.
This is something that is really hard to deal with on the whole. Keeping track of your kids online, both in games and out, is a tough thing to do. I suggest keeping your game consoles and gaming PCs in areas where they can be easily observed by you, restricting access when you can't supervise, and carefully keeping track of what they do online.
Even if you've selected safe, fun games for your children, and you've kept a watchful eye out for any online shenanigans, there are still potential issues afoot. Games can be fun escapism, but it's also easy to lose yourself in them and neglect your other responsibilities. There are quite a lot of games nowadays that are specifically designed to keep you playing.
It's important to keep track of the time your kids spend playing, and make sure that they understand that entertainment is a lower priority than things like schoolwork, chores, food, sleep, and other essential activities.
At our house, the time after dinner but before bedtime is reserved for playing and watching games. If we're having a quiet day off or weekend day, sometimes exceptions are made. But the kids know that they only get an hour or two of games a day, and that time only starts once dinner has been eaten and all the chores are done.
Avoiding Just-Plain-Bad Games
Above and beyond the question of "What games are appropriate for my kids?" is the question of "What's games are worth the money/time for my kids?" You don't want to waste money on bad games that your kids won't play.
One decent site for getting a quick overview of how fun a game is is Metacritic. Metacritic collects reviews from around the internet into a score out of 100. They also provide snippets of the reviews, so you can get a quick overview of how good a game is, and what makes it good or bad.
Beyond just checking Metacritic, there are a couple of other good rules of thumb to abide by.
First, games that are tie-ins, either featuring movie or TV show characters are almost always bad. Usually they're rushed out to cash in on the popularity of the property, rather than being quality games themselves.
Second, anything that requires a special add-on controller or device tends to be pretty bad. Again, the game is typically secondary to the gimmicky add-on device. There are exceptions to this (Rock Band, for instance) but you probably want to spend the extra time doing research before shelling out the cash.
Similarly, when new consoles come out, the first crop of games is usually pretty sub par. Again, there are exceptions (EBongo, having read the previous sentence, is right now writing an angry comment reminding me of Halo for the first Xbox, but read this list and tell me what percent of those titles you recognize and/or love...). Each console generation tends to have winners and losers, and it pays to sit out the early months while everyone gets their acts together and the "good" games start to trickle out. This can be hard to avoid given that the consoles usually launch right around the holidays, when we're buying new stuff for the kids for Christmas and so forth.
agent86ix makes some excellent points, all of which I agree with (except that launch title thing...). However, I thought I'd add a few more thoughts from my perspective.
I love technology
It can be daunting, but one of the really cool things about the time we live in, is that there are so many technology solutions to common problems. Despite this fact, cool inventions often go unused because folks either don't know about them, or are intimidated to try them out. Just like cameras, computers, or washing machines, when it comes to game consoles you need someone in the house to take a few minutes to understand the device settings. The parental controls vary a little by device, so here is a break down of what to look for:
- Password - Almost all variants of parental controls will have a password. This is something you know and your kids don't, often four digits like a PIN number. Pick something easy to remember a long time in the future as you may not use it again for a long time. For older kids you may also want to avoid easy to guess codes like 1 - 2 - 3 - 4.
- Content restriction - Many devices offer the ability to place a blanket ban on the device (no content with a higher rating than E, T, etc). Some devices also allow "per user" restrictions. This allows you to limit content for your kids accounts, but still play whatever you want on the parent accounts. While this setting is great, keep in mind agent86ix's recommendations. The rating does not tell the whole story, and a blanket ban will not be a silver bullet, it's just a tool.
- Usage timers - Some of the newer devices now offer usage timers either for the entire device or per account. Some of these timers merely provide statistics, while others will lock down the device if the limit is reached. As with my previous comment, remember that this is just a tool - but it can be very useful to keep track of overall game time if you have multiple kids doing different activities, but still want to maintain some level of oversight.
- Online Access - This is an extremely important setting. If you are not a gamer yourself, you may not realize just how vile a place the internet can be. Personally, I accept the fact that at some point I'm going to have to release my babies into that infected hatepool, but I will decide when... and it will come with a thorough review of my experiences with the colorful personalities I've met in my web travels.
- Purchase Control - For some devices this is listed with parental controls, for some it is listed elsewhere. Regardless, investigate what options are available to you to block your kids purchase of content. A large majority of games now support additional downloadable content (DLC), and many of the more social games also support in app purchases (IAPs). Advertisments for these add-ons can be very pushy, and to young kids simply pushing the "buy more gems" button may be an entertaining game... at least for the first few thousand dollars. Even though some big names have been punished for this recently, you can bet they'll keep working the angles, because it is very profitable.
When you were young
As a parent one of my goals has always been to not forget what it was like to be a kid. One of the really cool things about having kids is that they take you back to those times and places when you were their age. I do think it is important to try and relate to their age-based perspective though, both when you choose games and when you play them. A few simple tips that apply here:
- Graphics matter - Our kids grow up in a world where Pixar is 25 years old. For their entire lives they've come to expect graphics that we once couldn't even imagine. As such, pixelated 8-bit nostalgic indie titles can be a harder sell than games in the Lego franchise. Keep in mind that graphics can play a bigger role for the younger audience, and a game can be a hit with them, even if the gameplay isn't very deep.
- Together is better - Even with low difficulty and attractive art, most games get dull fast for young kids when played solo. Your kids may tolerate more alone time, especially as they get older, but remember that it is a really big treat to them when you step in and engage. Some of the best moments in gaming for me as a kid and an adult were playing games with my dad (and he is not a gamer).
- Fun is fun - You may not realize all the limitations you bring to the table, but your kids will be happy to show you how fun it is to forget them. If your kids love a story from a particular game, work it into a bed time story where they are part of the cast. If a game calls for dancing and you feel stupid doing it who cares.. stand up and bust a move. You'll soon realize (if you haven't already) that being with your kids is the best excuse to forget the rules and just have fun.