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Family Room

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 the gatekeepers of our teens' TV, movie and music choices but, unlike our parents, 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.

In early 2007, software giant Microsoft stepped up and said, "We will!" Its Xbox 360 console now lets parents restrict gaming, videos and online access. The company also educates adults about game safety, offering a family guide and helpful web tips ( as well as a 20-city national bus tour that provides hands-on experience with the Xbox 360 and information about game ratings. Marland Buckner, Microsoft's governmental affairs manager, told me, "We really came to this problem with a desire to provide parents with the tools they need to ensure that their kids are protected and their interests are covered." Buckner admitted, however, that this campaign isn't entirely altruistic. "We have what we believe is a unique coincidence of business interest and citizen interest." Translation? If Microsoft convinces parents that it offers something its rivals can't, sales won't be far behind. Unfortunately, any sense of corporate responsibility ends with information about the product, not the product itself. "We're not in the censorship business," said Robbie Bach, a division president.

This is where 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: E for everyone; EC for early childhood; 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 extreme examples of inappropriate content. Our kids, on the other hand, play through every level.

Lest I sound ungrateful, I'm not. Any information is better than nothing when I'm trying to make wise choices for my own family or choosing titles to feature on 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. 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. 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 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.

Published April 2007