Top Ten Videogame Tips for Noobish Parents

7 10 2009

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Noob (n.): Gamer slang for a new, inexperienced player

As gamer and a writer who’s also a Dad, one of the things I don’t get to write a lot about is my relationship with my kids and the things I’m learning about gaming, kids and how to find a balance between sharing my love of gaming with them and not turning them into addicts who spend most of their lives staring into a screen like — well, like their Dad.

That’s why I was thrilled when L.A. Parent magazine asked me to be a guest blogger at I Don’t Have Time for This, Editor Carolyn Graham’s official blog for the magazine. They asked me to put up a “basket of kittens” which is three little mini-reviews all on a similar theme. This time I did a thing on movie games — and trying to find three movie games that weren’t terrible wasn’t easy. You can check it out here.

With that in mind, I also wanted to quickly put up a list of 10 things I always want to shout at parents whenever I see them wandering about cluelessly in a GameStop. It’s not their fault, really. If you’re immersed in the culture, it’s tough to realize just how weird an intimidating and alien gaming looks like from the outside. Add to that the time pressure of modern life and the fact that kids are quiet while playing the games, it’s no surprise that most parents just choose to ignore the world of gaming despite the fact that it’s now so ubiquitous that it’s become the lingua franca of childhood. That’s a mistake. As parents, you need to know what your kids are playing and what they’re into. If it’s important to them, it should be important to you.

Still, if you don’t know your Mario from your Master Chief, these little tips should help:

1. Know your ESRB ratings!

This is a-number one the single most important tips for a parent. Look in the lower left hand corner of any game box and you’ll see a little white box. There’s a rating system similar to the movies that lets you know what age groups the game is recommended for. I’m not going to going into all the details here (you can get everything at the official ESRB Web site) but here’s a quick guide: Most games are rated E or E10+. that’s approximately a G or PG rating. If you see an M, that means “mature” — roughly the equivalent of an “R” rated movie. If you see an “AO” I don’t want to know what shop you’re in because those are the gaming equivalents of porn and most retailers won’t carry them.

2. Check the screens on the back of the box!

Game companies aren’t exactly shy about advertising what’s in their titles. The blurb on the back of the box will usually give you a pretty good indication of what’s inside and if that isn’t enough, look at the screen shots. If something in them gives you pause — a disturbing monster, a scene of bloody violence, a character dressed in a skimpy outfit, the rest of the game doesn’t get any better. Game companies put their most provocative stuff right out on the box for a reason — it sells.

3. Do some research.

In the age of the Internet, there’s simply no excuse for not knowing what kinds of games you’re bringing in your house. Games are extensively previewed and written about for months and sometimes years before they’re released. A quick perusal of a site like GameSpotwill load you down with everything you need to make a purchase decision. One site I particularly like is What They Play, a guide to games for parents.

4. Set time limits!

This is a biggie. Like any other form of entertainment, videogames can fill as much time in your kids lives as you allow them to. So don’t. Have kids schedule their game time the same way they would schedule anything else. How much time you allow them is up to you as a parent but what we’ve found works best in our house is a couple of hours on Sunday morning and that’s it for the week. That way Lily, David and I can look forward to “our” game time while mommy’s still sleeping.

5. Let your kids save their games!

This goes along with number 4, but it’s important. When time for playing games is up, it’s up. Don’t ever just shut off your kid’s game though. Give them five minutes or so to save their game, warn them and stand over them while they do it. Nothing gets a gamer more upset than losing progress in a game because it wasn’t saved. Give your kids a few minutes leeway and you’ll find it’s much easier for them to stick to their time limits.

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6. Try some games out yourself.

Don’t worry about looking clueless — you will. There’s nothing a gamer like more than sharing their passion for games though and you’ll definitely score a few points if you’re willing to try out their favorite games. Ask to start on a tutorial level (almost all games have them) and be willing to ask your kids for advice (and ignore it). You might even want to fire up the games they’re playing after they go to bed just to see what kinds of images they’re exposed to.I know you’re tired, but why not TIVO Dancing With The Stars in favor of being aware of what’s in your house?

7. Don’t surprise your kids with a game as a gift.

This is a biggie. Games aren’t fungible. If you don’t know exactly what game your kid wants, don’t buy it. Gamers have definite ideas about what they want and will often plan purchases months in advance. In the same vein, if you go looking for a specific game, be sure to bring home that game. Don’t listen to the sales clerk that holds up another box and tells you that “This is just like that game, only better!” It isn’t and it’s not.

8. Be aware of games with a significant online component.

Even if a game has no objectionable content, be aware that many games these days have significant online components — even consoles. Players can now play with real people from around the world and that means that kids need to exercize the same level of Internet safety and awareness playing Halo ODST as they would while surfing the ‘Net on a PC. No personal information should be revealed, no phone numbers, no locations, no real names and if something uncomfortable happens, they need to tell you immediately. Ask them to remember people’s Xbox Live Gamertags or PSN IDs!

9. Monitor your credit cards!

The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have excellent online services that allow gamers to immediately buy new games, videos and downloadable content online. Be sure you know which of your credit cards these services are attached to and monitor them. Since these services charge “points” rather than actual dollar totals, it’s really easy for kids to forget they’re spending real money.

10. Monitor trashtalk and teach your kids to be good sports.

Gamers have a tradition called “trash talking” where they make fun of and try to “psyche out” an opponent by distracting them with insults. How much of this you allow is up to you, but if you allow it at all, make sure your kids understand that this is all in good fun and that feelings should never be hurt over a game. Trashtalking should never extend beyond the game and shouldn’t cross the line from mocking someone’s playing skills (“You shoot like may Grandma!”) to the personal. Finally, when all is said and done, players need to be good sports. That means being good winners and good losers and telling opponents “GG” (Good Game) when you’re finished.

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Get Out of My Wallet, My Bedroom and My Videogames!

30 08 2009

You know, once upon a time, I thought that there was a real significant difference between the major political parties in this country. As I’ve gotten older however, I’ve learned that what unites them is far greater than what seperates them and what unites them is best summed up in the immortal words of River Tam in Serenity — they’re meddlers. The details of what they want to meddle in vary. Republicans seem to hate that people have sex, Democrats seem to hate that people have money and both of them do their level best to stop it from happening. Case in point: the FCC is considering imposing a single content rating system.

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The irony here is that the leader of this particular movement is a Democrat, though anyone paying attention really shouldn’t be surprised. For all their reputations as moral scolds and bluenoses, it’s been Democrats,not Republicans, who have led the crusades against gaming. Whether this is because the Democrats think they can pick up a few cheap “family values” points against a politically weak constituency or because Republicans are generally clueless when it comes to technology and the culture I’m not sure. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say it’s probably a bit of both.

The worst part about this is that this is exactly what the ESRB rating system and the ESA were founded to prevent — and man oh man, don’t we miss Doug Lowenstein! By all accounts, the ESRB system is fair, relatively well managed and pretty easily understood — though they could do a better job on outreach. For the chuckleheads at the FCC however, I guess that simply wasn’t good enough. I guess a bureaucrat’s hands get itchy unless they’re regulating everything in sight so now comes yet another ham-fisted government attempt to put safety rails around existence. That’s why I’ve reach the “pox on both your houses” stage with both major parties. When it comes to voting, I look for an “I” for “Incumbent” and then vote for their opponent.

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