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Gaming 101: A cheat sheet for parents

Is "Grand Theft Auto IV" inappropriate for your 9-year-old kid? What about Nintendo's "Wii Bowling"? TODAY tech guru Paul Hochman decodes the video game rating system and spotlights the season’s newest software — so you can learn to “talk the talk” with the gamers in your life.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

As the newspapers print frightening tales about American economic woes, one industry is doing quite well, thank you: the video game business. According to the Entertainment Software Association, video game companies posted record sales in 2007, selling 267.8 million units, bringing in $9.5 billion, barely behind Hollywood’s $9.8 billion box office number last year. On average, nine video games were sold every second of every day in 2007.

Why is this no surprise? Because, in uncertain economic times, Americans have historically spent their shrinking discretionary income on entertainment. During the Great Depression, the movie business thrived, thanks to entertainment’s unique ability to distract citizens from their troubles, if only for a few hours. And one reason video game sales are booming is, they’re often even more economical than movies: One $49 Nintendo Wii game can entertain the entire family for months, even years; taking a family of four to the movies can cost $50. And that’s just for the popcorn.

With that in mind, and with the rush of holiday buying just around the corner, here are a few tips on great games for the family … and how to make sure the game you’re buying is appropriate.

Know the ratings system
Just because 9-year-old Johnnie looks at you with his doe eyes and says he is ready for “Grand Theft Auto IV” doesn’t mean he’s right. On the other hand, just because Nintendo’s “Wii Bowling” involves knocking down helpless pins doesn’t mean it’s too much for little Johnnie to handle. And it can get confusing, especially if you want to be responsible about buying a video game for someone.

So, in much the same way the Motion Picture Association came up with a rating system for Hollywood movies, the ESRB, or Entertainment Software Rating Board, also created a guide for parents and friends of kids who want to make sure they are buying an appropriate game for their children, nephews, nieces, cousins and pals.

Unlike Hollywood’s rating system, however, the ESRB has gone one step further … making sure that there is not only a clearly marked rating on the cover of each video game, there is also a so-called “content descriptor” on the back of the game, detailing the game’s basic level of appropriateness.

For those of you who haven’t seen them, there are a total of seven ratings symbols:

  • eC: For early childhood
  • E: For everyone
  • E10+: For everyone 10 years of age or older
  • T: For teen
  • M: For mature (17 years of age and older)
  • Ao: For adults only
  • RP: Means “Rating Pending,” and you’ll only see it in ads before a game goes on sale.

I won’t waste space here with the seven content descriptors that the ESRB provides, because there is an incredibly useful Web site that does a great job of listing all of them in one, easy-to-follow place. The ESRB teamed up with the world’s largest video games retailer, GameStop, to create the guide, and it works. Here’s the Web site:

The great thing about the site is, there are other parent resources, too, including suggestions about how to handle online video games, suggestions about how to monitor your child’s video game use and so on.

Now before I give you a bit of a heads-up on the hottest games this coming season, you may be thinking, well, why should I worry? All video games are for boys anyway. The things are played by disgruntled, anti-social teenagers who have nothing better to do but blow things up on their computer screen. Here are a couple of surprising stats from the ESA: Forty percent of all gamers are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a larger portion of the game-playing population (33 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent). And, according to Nintendo, women represent more than half of all Nintendo Wii and DS users. So, your daughters need your guidance, too.

The hottest games this coming season
Word has it that the Activision company, which makes “Guitar Hero,” will be tops on gamers’ lists. They have two new “Guitar Hero” offerings. One is actually for the portable, hand-held Nintendo DS, called “Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades.” A small attachment called a “Guitar Grip” lets you “play” the guitar on your portable DS, no matter where you are, and share the game with others.

Another Activision title, “Guitar Hero: World Tour,” now comes with a drum set and a microphone (no more being limited to the guitar), and this cool little add-on software called “Guitar Hero Studio,” which allows you to compose your own rock anthems and upload them for others to play along with.

Then, for Nintendo Wii fans, one of the coolest games out there will be de “Blob,” made by a company called THQ. The game is distinguished by what so many other video games aren’t: creativity. The mission of every player (up to four can play at once on one screen) is to add color, life and music back to a city that has been sucked dry of it by the evil INKT corporation. Building things up instead of blowing them up? Who knew?

And finally, for those M folks out there (17 and up), a game publisher called Ubisoft has created “Far Cry 2,” which has something known as a “dynamic” storyline, meaning the story changes depending on the choices you make as a character. Word has it that the game’s creators played it for almost a year straight and never had the same story twice.

Playing video games for a living? Now there’s a great job in a tough economy.

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: