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What they play: Kids and video games

Gaming is now an $18.8 billion part of the entertainment industry and kids are enjoying every minute of it. But many parents are clueless when it comes to what their children are playing. John Davison, a founder of explains three tips to get parents smarter about video games.
/ Source: TODAY

Call it a generation gap or a digital divide, if you're a parent who is a little clueless about what video games are appropriate for your child, you are not alone. John Davison, one of the founders of What They Play, offers tips that help take the mystery out of the video games your children are playing.

For many of us parents, our kids taking an interest in video games can be an intimidating moment. When it comes to movies, or television, or music we can guide them based on our personal experience, but for many of us, video games are a complete mystery. They’re probably something we’ve not taken a serious look at since we were teenagers ourselves.

So how do we know what’s appropriate or not? How do we even know what to look for? Gaming is now an $18.8 billion part of the entertainment industry, and our kids are increasingly turning to games rather than just plopping down in front of the TV when they get home from school. Not that we were completely okay with that either, but at least we understood it. We can’t just hope that games are a passing fad, and that they’ll grow out of it. It isn’t, and they won’t.

So, what do we need to know? Our kids are demanding things with names like Gears of War 2, or Rock Band 2, so what information must we arm ourselves with before venturing to the stores with our credit cards?

1. Know the games your kids are playing
To start with — and this may seem like something simple, but it’s very important — we need to know what it is that our kids play games with. If they’re demanding a copy of the latest Guitar Hero game, it’s not enough to just wander into Wal-Mart and ask for it, we need to know which version of it they need. The latest game in that particular franchise, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, which has players playing along to the band’s (and others’) songs with a plastic guitar, is available for four different games systems; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, and PlayStation 2. Other games, such as the game based on the movie “Wall-E” are available in seven different types: they include the currently available consoles, the PC, and two different handheld systems. Knowing which system is parked under the TV is vital. Picking the wrong one can lead to frustration and disappointment for everyone.

2. Familiarize yourself with the rating system
Secondly, we need to familiarize ourselves with the rating system for games, which is very similar to the systems used for movies, and for television shows. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is an independent organization that rates every single game that you can buy in a store and their labels are clearly printed on both the back and the front of all boxes. The rating system begins at: “Early Childhood,” for kids aged three and over, “Everyone” which are suitable for kids six and older, “Everyone 10+”, “Teen,” which is for kids 13 and older,  “Mature,” which is only suitable for those aged 17 and above, and finally “AO” for “Adults Only.” But “AO” is rarely seen and none of the console manufacturers allow games with this rating to be produced for their systems (there are a few games for the PC with this rating, but not many.) Along with these ratings, the ESRB provides “descriptors” that give an indication of why the game was given the rating it carries. Games can carry any of 29 different descriptors that the ratings board uses, and they vary from warnings for “violence”, the depiction of the “use of alcohol,” and “strong language.” A full explanation of the rating system is available at the ESRB Web site.

3. Talk to your kids and set limits
Knowing what kind of video game content you are prepared to allow into your home and communicating this to your kids is an extremely important consideration, just as it is for movies, or for television shows. While kids no doubt have very strong views on what games they want to play and what they should be allowed to experience — it’s important to set limits for the household and bring everyone into the conversation. While the ESRB ratings and descriptors are a good starting point, it’s important to understand what it is that the games are about and how the content is portrayed. Because of the enormous amount of variety that video games offer, the “violence” in one game can be very different from that found in another. One can show adversaries spewing buckets of blood after being hit with a sword, while another may show robots falling apart after being shot with a laser gun. Both are “violent” but in very different ways. To help navigate this challenge, turn to the Web site What They Play, which serves as a parents guide to video games. It explains what each game is about, puts the ESRB rating and descriptors for each game into a context so families can make the right choices.

For more information on video games and talking to your children, visit