Video Games: A Guide for Parents

The days when video games were local-only, cartridge-based systems are long gone. Many of those experiences required a great deal of imagination on the part of the player, as the graphical power of those older systems was not what it is today. Things have certainly advanced over the years – video games are far more complex than most people are aware, and as a result of that complexity, there are a lot of unknowns for anyone that hasn’t kept up. So I thought I’d provide a guide for parents that have not had much experience with video games beyond the ’80s and ’90s. This will cover what games your kids might be interested in (including associated costs), the kinds of games they will play, social interaction, and online purchases, which will hopefully help you understand things a little better!

What are the options?

Currently, there are a few hardware options out there that your kids may be interested in. Some may be better suited to younger kids than others, and some are far more expensive. I’ve listed them below with some notes for reference.

pc

PC Gaming – by far the most expensive, asking for a Gaming PC is not the same as asking for a computer to browse the Internet. An entry-level PC will not do what your kids will be wanting it to, so you would at the very least need to look in the mid-to-high range (AUD $1500+) to find something worthwhile. Furthermore, a PC will likely last around 3 years before it either needs to be upgraded or replaced, so it’s not a cheap investment. It certainly has access to the most games, but it’s also the hardest to “police” if that’s what you were after.

3ds

Nintendo 3DS/2DS – This is a handheld device only and is likely one of the most cost-effective on the list. It’s made by Nintendo, so there are a bunch of great games for it, and you can trust that the content isn’t likely to be too adult (but I’d recommend you note the game rating). There’s not much social interaction to speak of, as most games are self-contained. That said, this would appeal more to younger gamers, or kids that already have a home console and want something for on-the-go. These range in price from $100-250 (second hand -> brand new) for the base console, although there are several options within that range.

switch

Nintendo Switch – Another Nintendo machine, this has less processing power than the other current home consoles, but it makes up for this with “Nintendo-ness”. This is the only place you can play Nintendo games on your TV, and as you likely know, Nintendo doesn’t tend to make bad games. A second selling point is that this can not only be played on the TV as a home console, but it can also be played as a handheld on the go. Currently, there isn’t much social interaction, but this is evolving, although the social apps are phone-based and not on the system itself. How this all works still remains to be seen, a year after the system was released (at the time of writing)… An added bonus is that the Switch has a great Parental Control app (also for iOS and Android) that can send updates to parents as to usage. However, a massive negative that should be considered is that this system is a game console only – at present, there are no video streaming apps on the Switch, so no Netflix, no Youtube, no Stan (or Hulu, or whatever). Approximately $450 for the base console.

PS4XboxOne

Sony PlayStation 4/Microsoft Xbox One – The PS4 and Xbox One are (arguably) the more popular home consoles available on the market today (although the Switch is challenging this with good software). This is due to their comparably higher compute power, as well as their capacity to do much more than just video games – they can play DVDs (and BluRay), they can stream Netflix, YouTube, Crunchyroll, WWE Networks, Spotify, whatever it is you are into, and they both have a built-in web browser. They have voice chat built in, and many games are designed to make good use of their online connectivity. In addition, they have annual service charges for this online connectivity, so keep that in mind if you are looking to make a purchase – the unit will come with at least one month free, but you’ll need to fork out an additional $50-80 AUD per year if your child is expecting to play online with friends. These platforms have advanced and well developed Family Management systems, but each differs from the other slightly. (Pricing ranges between $300-$600, with a whole bunch of options within).

What’s right for your child, if they are in the market for one of these two machines? Realistically, you should be looking to provide them with the machine that most of their friends have – these consoles are just another form of communication after all, and the goal is for them to enjoy themselves (the days of kids tying up the phone line talking to their friends for hours on end are over – now they can do it on their console). Note that both systems also have a premium option on offer that has improved graphical and computing power at a premium price (“PS4 Pro” and “Xbox One X”). These premium consoles do provide some additional benefit, particularly if you are using a 4K TV, but if this is a console just for your child to use for fun and games, save your money for now. Yes, they are better machines compared to the base variant, but they are really aimed at the older generation with money to burn.

psvr

VR (Virtual Reality) – If your child is asking for VR, know that there is no cheap entry point. There is no standalone VR system – they all need some sort of compute, whether it’s a PC, a console, or an Android phone (this WILL change over time as technology improves, but this is as it stands today). The cheapest option is probably a PlayStation 4 plus PSVR, but even this will set you back around $1000. If your child is asking for an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive (I feel for you and your wallet), know that these require a high-end PC as well as the expensive VR kit (which will set you back at least $2500 AUD), but that this is the best VR tech currently available on the market.

Other devices – there are a bunch of cheap devices available as well, many of which state they can play 1000s of games – but don’t try to save money by purchasing these unless they are what your child is specifically asking for. If you’re being asked for a video game console, ask which one they want, and don’t just go buy the cheapest because it will be a waste of money and you’ll still end up buying something else eventually anyway. There are also “nostalgia machines” that play older games, but it’s unlikely a modern child would want one of these – it’s more likely that you may want one to relive your own childhood. Keep in mind that your kids can probably play better looking, more complicated games on their phone than you played when you were younger, so trying to get them interested in your old games will probably not go the way you expect! If you are considering these machines though, note that the Nintendo Classic Minis are excellent, but everything else (to date) hasn’t been very impressive in terms of overall quality – this includes the Atari, Sega Megadrive, and Intellivision devices that you might see at the local department store.

Aren’t games bad for you?

No, actually. There seems to be a trend these days for people to comment on their childhood about how they never sat for hours staring at an iPad, and how they read books, or studied, or *shock, horror* played outside! But the reality is, while that is true to a degree, there were plenty of indoor things we did as children that were very imaginative and probably not an ideal use of time, comparatively. Like army men and toy cars, for example. Think of video games as the modern version of these toys – rather than having a physical toy to play with, you can have a number of different virtual toys in a virtual world. Not only are these games a form of interactive storytelling, but they can also help foster your child’s imagination.

minecraft

Take Minecraft, for example. In that particular title, players are essentially put into a big sandbox with a bunch of materials. These materials can then be used to create tools. The tools can then be used to create more complex building materials. And from that – the sky’s the limit. Kids may spend hour upon hour in the loving arms of Minecraft, but if you took the time to watch and listen to what they are doing, you’ll note they are learning about different real-world materials and their real-life function. On the one hand, kids are really flexing their imagination, and on the other, they are learning about how the world works (from a certain point of view). It’s win-win.

On the topic of army men, though, perhaps shooting games aren’t appropriate for your 8-year-old. However, no matter what anyone may say to you, there is no evidence that violent video games have any impact on behaviour. Conversely, there’s no evidence that they have NO impact either – the reality is there just isn’t enough research, and the research that DOES exist just isn’t sufficient. But if you wouldn’t let your child watch a violent movie, don’t let them play a violent game.

Keep in mind that science isn’t as simple as performing a study and writing up a report. The study itself has to be effective – and how do you verify this? The only way to achieve this is by printing the study in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Here, your peers will evaluate your study and determine its shortfalls. Some may look to replicate your study to verify your outcome. From there, you refine and undertake a new study. Over. And over. And over again. To date, the studies that have been performed have not reviewed well, and couldn’t be replicated. In fact, several have not even been peer-reviewed, and yet they are still used in many online arguments. Unfortunately, though – there seems to be a common zeitgeist within society that games are bad – part of this is perpetuated by the mainstream media, and part of it is strengthened by politicians that use this argument as a way to deflect from other issues. It’s rather unfortunate, but hopefully, the facts will win out. As with everything these days, you just can’t take anything at face value anymore. If you’d like more information on this topic, there is a very detailed summary of the situation that you can read by clicking here, and this article contains links to all of the claims made within.

TL;DR: There needs to be more research in this area, and the research that is effective should be getting more support, as currently the reports getting airtime in the media have effectively been disproven. From my perspective, I can’t imagine that the violence we see in some games WOULDN’T have ANY impact on young players, but exactly what that impact is hasn’t been defined. It may simply be a form of desensitisation. It may result in increased levels of activity, or aggression, or something else – there may not even be an impact. But I expect they’d have the same impact as violent movies (of course, these games are more interactive than movies) – and most parents pay attention to the rating when choosing movies for their kids to watch. This brings me neatly to my next topic.

What exactly is my kid playing?

Good question! And do you know how best to answer that? Find out for yourself (cheeky, I know). Too many parents give their kids games as a measure to shut them up and keep them out of the way so they can do other things. And when they find out that their child is playing something untoward, or talking to people they maybe wouldn’t want them to, whose fault is that?

fortnite

It’s simple, really. Take 15 minutes, sit next to your kid, and ask them to show you the game that they spend so much time playing. You might find your kid gets excited that you are showing interest and they’ll be happy to walk you through. Look at what they are doing. Look at what makes them happy. Look at who they are playing with and how they are engaging. Ask questions. For the most part, games are innocuous, but there is an air of mystery among non-game-playing adults because of all of the hullaballoo and misinformation that others spread – and nobody takes the time to actually sit down and confirm if the stories are true.

A second suggestion? Do your own research – it won’t take long. Jump onto YouTube, and do a search for your kid’s favourite game. I’d recommend watching a review – you’ll hear a lot of information that won’t make much sense to you about why this is a good or bad game, but the point of watching a review is that the reviewer will often take the time to choose video that gives a good overall idea of what the game is – the good and the bad. If it’s a violent game, you should see some of the more violent aspects. If it’s a social game, the reviewer should go into some of the social aspects (think more HOW players play together, and not so much WHAT or WHO). I plan to follow this article up with posts dedicated to specific games (Minecraft and Fortnite, for example), so keep an eye out for those as well.

Paying attention to what your child is playing will help to dispel some of the mystery. Finding out exactly what it is they like doing in that game is another important thing, and you can really only find that out by asking. Sure, there are plenty of hyperbolic videos out there showing the bad things people CAN do in certain video games, but the reality is – most people DON’T do those things. It’s not the point at all.

Just quickly, though – there are many kinds of games available today, from racing and sports games to action games, to fantasy role-playing, first-person shooters and many more. However, many of these games have a lot to say aside from just the action within. Returning to movies for a second – would you suggest that something like “Saving Private Ryan” was just a movie about violence? Even within violent video games, you will find themes that are aimed at education and context – for example, the recent WWI game, Battlefield 1, contained both heartbreaking and uplifting stories about the individuals that get caught up within a war. This may not be appropriate for a younger player, but for older players, there can be a lot gained by paying attention to the story. But these games are the tip of the iceberg – there are plenty of wonderful experiences to be had, many of which do not include violence or horror or anything besides.

Who are my kids playing with?

This is a far more difficult topic to cover, and possibly a point of concern for many parents, with good reason. Not so much for fear of predation, but more for online bullying. On top of that, there are plenty of people out there looking to scam naive gamers out of some cash, or just to cause mental anguish. Here’s the skinny on all of these threats.

rig

Predators – for the most part, the threat from online predators is extremely small, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t exist. In reality, the identity of your child is hidden behind a GamerTag that they provide themselves (MadCapsules, for example). There is no age or gender-related information tied to that, so strangers that your child may encounter while playing will have no way to know if they are male or female, 13 years old or 45 years old, english speaking or not. Many gamers will play in a party with their friends, but note that there are plenty of games out there that encourage people to play and chat together – Overwatch is an example of this (although you can opt out of chat). Players can choose to report others if they are doing something untoward, or you can block certain players, but unless you take the headset away from your child, it’s not easy to restrict this kind of interaction. For the most part, the interaction lasts as long as a single match may take, and may not go further. However, players can choose to become friends and continue to play together. This is where you may want to step in. There are only a couple of options, really – take the headset, make sure your child only plays in a party with people they actually know, and review their “friends list”. Most of these options are a little “big brother-y”, but it depends on your parenting style. Probably the best option to take here is education. Your kids likely aren’t dumb – let them know there are people out there that may not have the best intentions. Tell them not to befriend strange adults that don’t seem to have other friends of their own. But most importantly, know that there is some threat, and keep this in mind. It’s not something that happens a lot, but the threat exists.

Online Bullying – Think of the game console as simply another social network. They can add friends from school in much the same way as they can on Facebook or Snapchat. It’s even possible to share real names with trusted friends (but this is not a default option, thankfully). The truth is, wherever bullies can find your child, they will have the opportunity to attack, tease, spread lies, and so on. This is just another vector for that. Realistically the only way to police this is the same way you would for any other social network platform – talk to your kids. Try to understand their issues. If they are having problems with a specific child, find out what platforms they are friends with them on, and see if they are open to removing that friend. That won’t, of course, stop them from spreading lies to others, but it will stop the direct attacks. This is a relatively new threat that parents and children need to confront so it will take time and education, and often parents will need to discuss these issues with the school and other parents as well, but this is probably the most common online threat your child is likely to encounter. Keep in mind, though, that this is not the CAUSE, it’s simply another vector for the abuse, and it’s one that’s more apparent to you because it happens at home. The underlying issue is larger, and well out of the scope of this article.

Scammers – I’ll get into the different kinds of things that your kids might want money for, but scammers tend to take a slightly different approach. Rather than offering specific things that can actually be purchased online, they’ll tend to offer help, or some kind of service, or a cheap boost, or something along those lines. The big flag is someone that asks for access to the account so that they can do … whatever it is they need to do. Often this will sound legit – they need access to the account in order to help with a certain achievement, or to unlock something, or to connect a license or something. This will then give them free reign over the account – they could change the password, locking your child out entirely. At this point, they will have access to your credit card (but not your credit card details – these should be hidden). Alternatively, they could just troll your child, and delete save games – while this is less of a major threat, it can be heartbreaking to your child. There are several ways to combat this – parental controls being the obvious best choice (I’ll go into that in the next section), followed closely by education. Education is hugely important, for everything related to the Internet.

How can I use Parental Controls?

I plan to write separate articles for each of the platforms outlining their parental controls because realistically, it’s not as straightforward as just turning them on. For example, you likely need a primary account (a “parent” account, if you will) from which you can lock things down. Once you’ve set that up, you can then apply rules to sub-accounts listed underneath that primary account. This includes restricting access to certain functionality on certain platforms, or simply restricting the ability to make purchases, or play certain games. In some cases, you can even set time limits for play.

parental-controls

If you’re interested, do a quick Google search for parental settings for your child’s platform. This will help you get underway while I work on outlining the specific details. Realistically, though, I wouldn’t recommend relying solely on the platform’s controls – your own house rules should also apply. Homework before gaming is a pretty obvious one that I use, but the most difficult to control is when kids can play and when they can’t – particularly if you have provided them with a TV and console in their room. You can easily control this by removing power cables or restricting access to wifi, but you may not be aware of what your kids are doing while you sleep…

Why do they keep asking for money?

So you bought your kid a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, and they downloaded Fortnite for free, which seemed like a bonus – but why is it that they keep asking for money? While a lot of games are fairly self-contained (particularly games you pay full price for at the shops), many game developers are realising they can recoup additional revenue by providing Downloadable Content (DLC) at intervals following release. These updates can be major game content (including hours of story-based missions), or cosmetic (in-game skins to make their character look cooler), or a whole bunch of other possibilities. Some DLC costs as much as a standalone game ($50-100), while some could be as little as $2-5. As with everything, it always depends on the game. Whether or not you give your child the money is up to you, but I would recommend you ask what it is that your child wants to buy – is it something they will use for a long time, or do they just want to look cool today and tomorrow they’ll want something else?

loot-box

Another larger issue? Loot boxes. These are essentially blind packs – like the football cards that many of us collected as kids. Loot boxes, when opened, randomly provide either a single cosmetic, or multiples, from a pool of available items. These range in rarity, so sometimes you may get something you’ve already received, and the most sought-after items are much less likely to drop. In some cases, the rarity is in the order of 1%, meaning it could take up to 100 attempts (or more) to acquire. So if your child is chasing something specific, and they can only get it via loot box, this could set you back a pretty penny. In these cases, it’s best to look into whether or not it’s possible to acquire the item in any other way – some games will offer the ability to directly purchase the item using an in-game currency. This may be a more cost-effective way to achieve this (in some cases, it can even be done without spending money). Loot boxes are currently under scrutiny within the industry – there are many that see them as a form of gambling. In fact, many gamers are deeply upset when a game is released with Loot boxes, so they may even be phased out over time. The issue, of course, is that developers do make quite a lot of money from these sources so they would be reticent to move away from a solid source of income. Time will tell.

But probably the best tip I can give you with regards to money? Don’t save your credit card details to the system. Yes, you can set the system to prompt for a password whenever anyone attempts to make a purchase, but kids are clever – they’ll guess your password eventually if they really want to, so it protects you from both persistent (and clever) kids, and scammers alike.

What else should I worry about?

I guess the most important thing to stress is that you shouldn’t really be worried in the first place. Gaming is not a bad thing, it’s just complex, and there are certain things to keep across. But for the most part, it wouldn’t take much time to look into. Most importantly, games have ratings that are very similar to movies – if you wouldn’t let your child watch an M15-rated movie, don’t let them play an M15-rated game. Secondly, don’t put your credit card details into the system unless you have parental controls enabled – you can buy your child pre-paid cards from the local EB Games or supermarket if they keep pestering you. And lastly – know they will be talking to people, and be aware of the kinds of conversations they may be having. It’s all pretty straightforward to me, being a gamer myself, but I can understand that it’s almost like a different world for many.

As a result, I plan to continue these parent’s guides! Not only will I cover parental controls on a platform-by-platform basis, but I’ll also write guides to well-known games that kids and teenagers like to play (such as Fortnite, Minecraft, Call of Duty, Overwatch, and so on). If there’s anything specific you’d like me to cover, let me know!

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