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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Pride Goeth Before Sony’s PS3 Fall

20 08 2009

There’s all kinds of stupid in the world, but there’s a special place in my heart for the kind that comes out when stupidity mixes with hubris. Case in point: Sony’s genius decision to not allow backwards compatibility on the PS3 Slim. Seriously, what’s the thought process that’s going on here? “Well we’ve got a really expensive console here with a slim software library that getting it’s ass kicked by the Wii, the 360 and our own PS2. Why don’t we put out a cheaper version of the PS3 that doesn’t bother to leverage our single-greatest asset, the PS2’s back catalog? That’s the way back to market dominance!”

It seems to me that Sony’s biggest problem is that it took a couple of stupid competetive decisions and fortuitous timing in the last console generations as an indication that Sony was filled with infallible geniuses and would be the dominant gaming platform forever. The original PlayStation leveraged the favorable economics of the then new format of CD-ROM into a gaming powerhouse. They faced off against the Nintendo 64 which was dealing with the massive cost-of-goods mistake that was sticking with the cartridge format and Sega’s 32X decision not to cut the Genesis off at the knees. The PS2, on the other hand, was a great piece of hardware, but it was also launched at precisely the right time into a gaming drought, becoming the defacto platform of choice against a weakened Sega and a Nintendo who, as always, operate in their own little pocket dimension.

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Things have changed. It’s now Microsoft’s 360 that holds the dominance amongst the hard-core and Nintendo who is blazing a new trail amongst casual gamers. That leaves Sony with a firm grip on exactly one asset — the past. Specifically the absolutely enormous PS2 back catalog. Perversely, that’s actually not a bad place to be. The PS2 is a pure profit engine at this point and the fact that new games continue to come out for it every month means the the PS2 is hardly a dead platform. A PS3 with backwards compatility provides a clear upgrade path for people who don’t want to lose the investment in their PS2 games and create an instant (and cheap) gaming library for people who want to take the plunge at the lower price point.

Heck, if it were me, I’d take a few lessons from Microsoft’s Arcade at this point and start investing in re-issuing some of the classic PS2 titles revamped with new downloadable content and whatever the Home equivalent of Achievements are. What exactly is the rationale for not leveraging the huge marketshare that the PS2 continues to command? We’re in a worldwide recession and the huge PS2 library looks like an awfully good bargain these days. If I can get that plus new PS3 games plus a Blu-Ray player, suddenly the PS3 looks a lot more competetive against a 360.

As it stands now, I have a 360, a Wii and a PS2 and a PC and all my gaming needs are met for the forseeable future. There simply aren’t enough compelling reasons to buy a PS3 when I can get a cheap Blu-Ray for about $100 less than a PS3. No, the PS2 catalog isn’t the way forward, but it’d be enough to make the PS3 viable until they figure out what to do. This decision basically throws away one of the few weapons Sony still has. Like I said — hubris. Sony’s not the king of the world anymore. It’s time they started acting like it.

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