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Parents Are the Ultimate Game Controller

by Patricia E. Vance

Patricia E. Vance

Patricia Vance is president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board and a mother of two. Read more »

Sorry, Patricia E. Vance is no longer taking questions.

If you have a child between the ages of 3 and 17, chances are there is some video game playing going on in your house. And these days, it's more likely than ever that most of you parents are gamers as well.

A whole generation has now grown up playing video games, which is why it isn't all that surprising to find that the average age of a gamer today is 34. This also helps to explain why some games are not intended for kids, and underscores why it's important that parents play an active role in making sure the games their children play are ones they consider age-appropriate.

We recently asked PBS Parents to invite questions about kids' video games via Facebook and Twitter. Based on what we heard, we created these tips to help you be the "game controller" in your house:

  1. Violent games aren't going anywhere, but that doesn't mean you have to let your kids play them. Some parents lament the violence in many of today's games and the fact that these seem to be all kids want to play. Whether we like it or not, many adults enjoy these games and that's not going to change. However, video games have ratings for a reason.
    Thumbnail image for ESRB_yellow_box.gif
    At the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), we assign age ratings and content descriptors that give an indication of what's in a game and which ones are suitable for different ages. We also provide rating summaries that offer a detailed description of a game's content, and a free mobile app that lets you look them up right from the store. Use these tools along with your own judgment about what you consider appropriate, and don't be afraid to enforce some basic ground rules. Some parents forbid all M-rated games. Others allow them case-by-case depending on the content descriptors, the age and maturity of their kids (and how reliably they finish their homework and chores) or the type of game. Find what works for your family and stick with it.

  2. Today's games have online features that parents can and should manage using parental controls. Every game system comes with parental controls that let you restrict certain games and content, typically by ESRB rating. Some also provide tools for managing online features including whether games can be played online, with whom, when, and for how long. I highly recommend becoming familiar with the parental controls on your system and setting them in a way that suits your family's needs. Being aware of how your kids are engaging via online games is becoming increasingly important given features such as "microtransactions" (buying virtual goods right from within the game itself), downloadable content (add-on items like new game levels that can be purchased and downloaded directly to the game system) and live in-game chat via text, voice or even video.

  3. There are plenty of great games that are not in the "first-person shooter" category. Nearly 75% of the ratings we assign are for games that are suitable for kids 12 and under, and these games are frequently among the top-sellers. Parent-focused game review sites can be a big help when it comes to finding fun and popular options for different ages. Websites like Common Sense Media and What They Play both provide helpful game reviews.

  4. Moderation in all things - including video games. Video games are fun, and of course kids will want to play them for hours on end. By their very nature, games motivate you to keep playing. There is always another level to beat, bonus feature to unlock or achievement to attain. (If only we could get our kids to attack their schoolwork with the same level of single-minded dedication, right?!) As with the types of games you allow for your kids, try setting some reasonable time limits. Let your kids earn video game time instead of it being a given. And finally - and this is something I always tell parents - keep the game system in the living room or some other common area. This is an ideal way of keeping tabs on how much gaming is going on, what that gameplay is like, and just as important, reserving the bedroom space for schoolwork.
  5. Sorry, Patricia E. Vance is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Nicole writes...

This is so timely for me, as I struggle with the amount of time my 8yo spends on video games. It's like that's the only thing he wants to do. If only he wanted to read as much!

Susanne writes...

Well, most video games contain text that kids have to read in order to play, so he is reading some :) My 6y/o daughter is learning to read by playing video games.

IMHO it seems better to trust that they are getting something out of it (even if we can't currently see what that is) than lamenting the number of hours they want to play.

My husband insists that he was able to drive machinery and equipment (in real life) with no experience because of all the video games he's played. And I just read an article that stated that surgeons who play 3 hours per day make 37% fewer mistakes in surgery! Those are important benefits of gaming that may not be so obvious. So, it makes me wonder what else there is. :)

Patricia? writes...

That’s such a great stat, Susanne! It’s definitely easy to get swept up in perceptions about the potential downsides of playing games, but in actuality there’s plenty about them that can be very beneficial – everything from learning to work together with others to critical thinking, strategizing and persistent problem-solving (playing a level over and over again to try and figure out the answer). There are even studies that show that video games tend to help support the development of skills that are valued in business. If we as parents look at games through that type of lens perhaps it becomes a bit easier to choose games that we feel will have other benefits than just having fun!

tyler writes...

Why can you censor the dead island logo, all that the logo is, is a hanging zombie. That is in no way offensive to anybody except for people who want to be offended by it.

This is not china or Australia, we shouldn't have to put up with your dictatorial censorship.

Kelly writes...

My 4yo is playing "Sarge's Heroes" right now on an old Dreamcast a friend gave us. It's a beautiful, sunny spring day, but he throws a fit when I make him turn it off (which I do anyway.) My boys still love to dig in the dirt, but man, I want to just get rid of that thing.

Ben writes...

Is there any research that would tell us specifically which type of video gaming is worst for your eyesight? My 7yo son has access to a PC (computer monitor), a Playstation 3 (HDTV), and a Nintendo DSi (built-in screen). He's only allowed to use screens on the weekends, but I'm wondering if all screens are created equal as far as eyestrain is concerned?

Patricia? writes...

I apologize, Ben, but I’m afraid I’m not really an expert in that area. I know that the Entertainment Software Association has information about games and health on its website at: Sadly, though, I don’t have any specific info on that topic.

J Hopton writes...

I allow my daughter to choose between 1/2 hr - 1 hr of video game or video depending on her behavior and the day's schedule, then all is off. I know that their is a benefit of hand-eye coordination from video games but I believe in moderation in all things.
My main concern with video games would be the way that they make achievements and basically everything much easier then in real life. I worry that this will demotivate people that play the games to try to do other things because they ARE harder and sometimes the achievement takes years vs a few minutes or hours to master! In my observations, that seems to be the case with many hard core video gamers and what a loss that is to society!
How can a child learn what they are talented at if they devote a large portion of their life to video games?

Patricia? writes...

You bring up some fair points, although games are supposed to be fun, too! And often it’s intended to be more fun (and sometimes that means a bit easier) to do in the game than in real life. If it was as hard to hit a fastball in a baseball video game as it is in the major leagues, I doubt kids would get much enjoyment out of those games! That being said, there are some games which are extremely challenging, and make you work really hard to solve problems and develop strategies to get to the next level. But your point is well-taken, and underscores the important reality that as parents we should encourage our kids to embrace different kinds of activities, and stick with them – even, or especially, when they’re difficult.

Rhonda writes...

While my 10 year old son will NOT win the M rating war (sadly, some of his friends have), we do NOT allow the Wii, DS or Computer (unless for homework) during the week when school is in session (school, homework etc are busy enough), BUT being the "guidelines" are no more than 1.5 (I do let him watch 30 minutes of TV to unwind)firs hours a day of screen time, he feels that since he doesn't get it during the week, he should get the FULL 10.5 hours on Sat and Sun. While I can see extending it MORE than the 1.5 hours each on Sat and Sun, in my opinion 5 hours of Wii, DS or Computer on both of these days are too much, what do YOU think would be a "happy medium". Thank you.

Patricia? writes...

That kid’s a born negotiator! Honestly, I feel as though it’s not necessarily for me to say what is or isn’t appropriate for anyone’s child. Every child is different. For some, video games are a distraction from responsibilities like schoolwork and chores, and so parents should set limits accordingly. And you seem to be doing an excellent job in that regard. In other cases, certain kids seem to have an innate ability to self-moderate. Regardless, five hours of anything in one day is probably more than necessary or desirable, so surely there’s got to be a reasonable middle-ground on which you can come to an agreement with your son. For what it’s worth, I think that your approach is the right one: set some reasonable guidelines but be flexible about it and consider some of those other factors, including what impact these media are having on his behavior, grades, etc. and what other activities your son is making time for, like sports, community volunteering or socializing with friends.

Rhonda writes...

Also, is there a way to block inappropriate content on You tube (or just block it entirely)? Thank you.

Patricia? writes...

YouTube videos aren’t really an area that’s part of my expertise, but you might want to check out some of the tips offered here:

Colleen writes...

Great post! My son is 9 and we allow him 45 minutes of play 4 days of the week and 2 hours of play on the weekends.

We figure he works hard, does fantastic at school and I kid you not has really never broken a rule at home or in school...he's a great kid.

I also feel that video game play helps kids unlock puzzles in real life - if a kid figures out all the "easter Eggs" in a game and unlocks cool things - the see that in life - you keep pecking away at something untiol you figure it out - we see that daily with him :)

He can earn more play time by great deeds - 96 and above on tests and doing kind and true acts to others.

What is disturbing to us is now that he is in 3rd grade, MANY of his friends play Call of Duty and other really violent games and now TEASE the boys who are not allowed to play.

We allow our son 1 M rated game Halo - after talikng to the video store guys, researching it and my husband who is a gamer testing it out a a freinds house, we decided it was ok as the game was about taking down aliens - not people and it has a really cool story to it - he actually spends most of his time building bases.

The boys who play the more violent games -now call it "Gaylo" kinds crazy how this teasing stuff is beginning in 3rd grade.

Court writes...

An excellent article. It annoys me to no end how the media demonizes video games. Every time there's a shooting or something horrible, they want to know what games he played, movies he watched, music he listened to, etc. Parents need to start taking responsibility for lack of parental control/monitoring. Stop blaming media for your innaction.

My mother made guidelines for my sister and me regarding video games. In my family they were a great bonding tool- as my mom, sis, and I would all play games together. My mom was particular on content that we could be exposed to. I don't recall ever being allowed an M rated game, but she really decided what was appropriate based on content. For example, we would all play the Clock Tower series together on PS. However, she bought me one of the first Resident Evil games, watched me play it for a bit, decided it was too much, and took it away.

Now being a grown woman, married, and out on my own, but my sister still being in HS, I have to respect my mom's content wishes when she comes over to my house to play. At one point she learned about some of the more sexual content of Fable III and asked me not to allow her to experience that end of the game, while still being allowed to play the rest of it with me. I think it's just as important for parents to monitor their kids' gaming OUTSIDE of the house as well.

Gaming content, ratings, etc. I think are great tools for parents that they should utilize. It's not so much age as maturity when looking at what is appropriate for your child, in my opinion.

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