Monitoring Kids’ Media: Video Games

Last time, we talked about films and how you can stay on top of what your kids are watching, as well as the benefits of staying involved. This week, we’re going to be looking at video games.

Part 2: Video Games

Video games can be scary as a parent, especially if you don’t have any firsthand experience, or the last time you played you had to blow in the cartridge first. A lot has changed since then. Video games are more realistic, more engaging, and more visceral than ever before.

Not What They Used to Be

Content and themes skew older now; what was commonly a form for the under 12 and 12-17 crowd is now increasingly an 18-24 and above market. There are more M-Rated (17+) games than ever before, and the most appealing, most popular ones tend to fall in this category.

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Some quick math here – of the 1070 ratings assigned in 2014, 14% were classified as mature. That’s nearly 150 games that were given a 17+ rating. In the grand scheme that may not seem like many, but weight is really what’s important here. In 2014, 4 out of the top 10 best-selling games were rated M. One of those is Grand Theft Auto V, which, if not for its high sales numbers and critic scores, you’ve certainly heard whispers about for its almost mythically high levels of graphic violence, strong language, and sexual content.

What this means is that while the majority of games produced may not be the most adult, the ones that make the most money and sell the most copies are M-rated games. Typically, the high profile, buzzworthy releases every year are intended for the 17+ crowd. But of course, kids hear about them and get excited to play them.

Know The Ratings

These ratings come from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB. Every game you purchase is printed with content information as evaluated by the ESRB. It will look something like this:

[I’m going to take my own photo here]

The category signified by a letter suggests age appropriateness, while the content descriptors (which use several universal phrases) indicate content that was instrumental in coming to the ratings decision or simply may be of concern to a parent. Here’s a quick breakdown of the different ratings that can be assigned to a game.

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You can follow the link above if you’d like a full breakdown of these categories as well as a breakdown of the individual content descriptors.

Something to be aware of: ESRB ratings reflect age-appropriateness in terms of content and themes. Some parents mistake this for a rating based on the assumed skill level required of the player. This is not the case. The ESRB raters are adults with either professional or parental experience with children (or both), not necessarily players, and therefore, do not judge any mechanical aspects, only content. So, decisions should not be made based on the perceived skill of the player in accordance with the rating, but rather to its content in terms of age-appropriateness.

Ratings Enforcement

I’m very familiar with the ESRB ratings and their enforcement. In college, I worked a part time job at a major video game retailer, where we were expected to enforce ratings. Children or those who looked under 30 years of age were not allowed to purchase an M-rated video game without an accompanying adult who was informed of the game’s rating and asked for permission to sell it.

Even adults who looked under 30 purchasing for themselves had to provide an I.D. before we could sell to them. Noncompliance could be met with massive fines and termination –usually both. Young-looking secret shoppers employed by the ESRB would occasionally make their way around to stores to check for compliance incognito.

So, as far as the retail stores are concerned, ratings enforcement is no joke.

In my experience, the main avenue for underage kids to get their hands on games that are wildly inappropriate for their age is simply lax parenting. Many parents didn’t care to even read the labels, or just took them at their word when their 10-year-old told them, “It’s not that bad, I promise.”

ESRB enforcement relies heavily on parental discretion to keep adult content out of kid’s hands.

A lot of parents used some variant of the same excuse: “He sees worse on TV,” or “he’s seen it all before.” The unfortunate truth is that these parents never take the time to look into the actual content of the games that they’re buying for their children.

They assume either that a game is more innocent than a staunch, conservative bunch of suits on a ratings board would have them believe, or worse, that somehow their children have already been exposed to that kind of adult content through less filtered mediums. In both cases, they’re wrong.

Do Your Homework

The all-important question: What can you do? Video games haven’t permeated our culture so much that you’d be sheltering your kids if you decided that they aren’t allowed to play them. Depending on your parenting style, it’s a totally valid choice that wouldn’t make your kid the odd-one-out at school. But games are getting more popular. With the success of games like Minecraft, games are very much poised to stand alongside television and movies and mainstream entertainment.

So, even if you’re not concerned about being the cool parent, you might still want to give your kids the freedom to explore this type of entertainment.

The best thing you can do is read up on the kinds of video games that your kids talk about. There are plenty of games intended for players of any age and there are plenty for just adults, with all kinds of grey area in between. To sort out that middle ground, you’ve got to find somewhere that compiles specific analyses of video games, and their individual instances of objectionable content.

If you’re back after the first part of this series, you know that I prefer the most in-depth source possible. Easily enough, that source happens to be right where the ratings themselves come from. The ESRB website provides the in-depth content analysis that they use to rate their games.

Searching any game with the search tool on just about any part of their website provides a list of games matching the search criteria, with a full rating summary when you click on the info box. Here you can find statements regarding the worst content in the game –expanded descriptions of what earned the title its rating and the universal descriptors found on the box.

Unseen Variables

While it used to be that the content of a game extended to your living room and not much farther, the video games of today are more and more integrated with online experiences. Some games require an internet connection to play, even if you’ve already paid $60 for the software. Others will ship to a store with major issues, possibly even not fully complete, and require an internet connection to download major components that make the game work.

This means that having a game console is almost inherently an online experience. Learning to keep your kids safe online is another post for another day, but just be aware that many games have online components, including online play with people you (and they) might not know. Every console has a messaging system that allows players to communicate, unfiltered. Every console also has robust parental control settings that are meant to help parents in restricting access for their child’s protection. But like I said, that’s another post unto itself.

For now, just know that a game case will list online functionality on the back of the box.

[I’m going to take my own photo here]

It’s Never Too Early

I grew up when games were generally always safe for kids. The occasional T-rated game would reach me and my Super Nintendo, but depictions of realistic violence were something of a far-off concept. Games weren’t voiced and written dialogue was rudimentary, with a few exceptions. Basically, my parents had it easy as far as games were concerned. It was something they didn’t have to worry about (aside from how often I was playing instead of, say, going outside). As a result, they weren’t too involved. As long as they kept me away from Mortal Kombat, everything was okay.

I was a teenager when games were becoming more realistic and my mom got asked the question by a clerk at the game store, “Is it okay for him to buy an ‘M-rated’ title?” I remember her letting me buy the game but having a really stilted and strange dialogue with me on the ride home.

“You know this stuff isn’t real, right?” she asked. “Like, I don’t have to worry about you?” Of course, I laughed, taken aback by the strange way she’d decided to have this talk with me. I was also a little surprised it had taken her so long to enter into that space –I’d been playing video games since I could remember and rarely did she ever make more than a passing remark as to what was on the screen.

Thankfully, I turned out okay. But even that short time ago there was so much less to be worried about. It probably wasn’t entirely necessary for my mom to get involved with what I was playing. Today, it’s crucial. Ratings boards, enforcement, and compliance standards are no substitute for talking to your kids.

If you’re wondering when the right time is to start that dialogue with your kids, it’s now. Creating that shared space of conversation early will normalize it. If your kids are used to you talking to them about what video games they’re playing, you can avoid that “too little too late” talk.

You don’t have to hover over them and watch every minute of what’s happening. But staying informed, at least from the background, is important. It shouldn’t be up to them to tell you what’s happening. And talking with them about what’s in the games they play, the themes they might encounter and the things they might see on screen, will help them to be mindful of what they’re seeing and know how to interpret it when something difficult comes up.

So that’s about it. There is a ton of stuff that I couldn’t cover, so if there’s any questions nagging at you, or you’d just like to get in on the conversation, make sure to leave a comment below.

Next time we’ll tread some familiar territory and look at the changing landscape of TV.

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