|Among other things, my son and I enjoy tackling video games together, which is a great way for us to connect. But these days he can just as easily use his gaming console to connect with friends halfway around the world and compete in high-def, widescreen war games. So not only are we parents the gatekeepers of our teens' TV, movie and music choices but, unlike our forebears, you and I must also worry about this new gaming world and its cornucopia of options. It would be nice to know that someone out there is trying to make our job easier.
The game console makers certainly want us to think they'll help in that regard. The latest-gen consoles, such as the Wii U, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One all have built-in parental controls that allow parents to restrict most aspects of their kids' access by age, game rating and the like. And they're pretty sophisticated setups. Which, of course, they need to be in this day and age when everything is so interconnected and accessible with the touch of a button—or a mere word, in the Xbox One's case. On the other hand, parental controls on your game console don't mean that your kids can't still find nasty content on a friend's console which might not be so carefully watched. Nor does it mean that the manufacturers really care what's being created for their hardware. As Microsoft division president Robbie Bach once told me in an interview about Microsoft game content, "We're not in the censorship business."
For that side of things, the game manufacturer hands things off to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the volunteer organization established in 1994 by the industry to rate games and assuage criticism. The board assigns one of six letter ratings to a game: EC for early childhood; E for everyone; E10+ for everyone 10 or older; T for teens; M for mature (17+); and AO for adults only. But there's a problem: The ESRB doesn't actually play the games. The publishers submit data and videos with self-picked examples of what they think might be inappropriate content. Our kids, on the other hand, play through every level.
Do I sound ungrateful? I'm not. Some information is better than no information when I'm trying to make wise choices for my own family or choosing titles to feature on pluggedin.com. We need to use everything we can get our hands on to foster a healthy environment for our children. For example, before renting or purchasing a game, check for a Plugged In review, look for game clips and trailers online and ask other parents if they've had any experience with it. Then, if it passes muster:
• Establish rules and time limits for gameplay.
• Be sure to have extra controllers. Gaming should be a social event in your home where friends, siblings and you can join in the fun.
• Keep gameplay out in the open. Nobody wants a cave-dwelling teen playing endless hours of games that no one else sees. Set things up in the family room. Even if you're not playing, you'll know what's going on.
• Invest in appropriate games everybody can play. Multiplayer sports and racing titles can be a lot of fun, and they're less likely to become a time bandit with long, drawn-out levels.
• Blaze your own trail. Learn to play games at least well enough to see what your children find so enjoyable. You may be surprised by the bonds you forge.
The video game industry wants us to think it has our best interests in mind. But despite ESRB ratings and some parental controls, it's safe to say game manufacturers are paying far more attention to profits and market share. Don't take it personally. It's just business. The music industry, Hollywood and the TV networks worship at the same church. What that tells me as I game with my teenage son is this: It's up to me to stay involved.
Updated May 2014