Last night I was a guest speaker during a PTA meeting at my son’s school. I spoke about video games, ratings and the importance of paying attention to what your kids are playing. I thought it went really well and I figured I’d break down my talk here in case anyone wanted to take some of my ideas and do something similar at their kid’s school.
This was an elementary school PTA and this particular meeting (I’m told) had a much better turnout than most. It was advertised as a night discussing kids and games and it seemed like a lot of parents are very interested in the topic. Before I went up to speak a woman came over to talk to my wife. This other Mom mentioned how excited she was to hear me speak because her son wants to play Minecraft on the “game system” and she was concerned about it. I knew at that point my talk was going to be a big help.
I started off by talking about the ESRB. I explained that video games are rated in much the same way that movies are. I talked about each of the ratings and broke down the sorts of things they implied. I also talked about how two games can have the same rating but for very different reasons and that you still needed to pay attention to what your kids are playing. Then I went on to talk about the idea of “online content not rated” and what that means.
For many parents this seemed to be the really scary part. What are my kids being exposed to when they play online? I said that personally I let my ten year old play Halo but I would never let him wear the headset when playing online. I don’t have a problem with the content of the game but I’m very concerned about him being exposed to the voice chat in many of these multiplayer games. I suggested to parents whose kids play online games to sit with them one night and ask if they can wear the headset for a bit. My guess is the kid will look horrified.
Next I went into Minecraft since that’s the most popular game when it comes to kids in elementary school. Almost all the parents in the room had kids who played it or wanted to play it. I told them what a great game Minecraft is and how chances are their kids are building things in the game that would blow them away. I told them to sit down with their kids sometime and say “hey show me what you’re making in Minecraft”. Not only will you as a parent be amazed at your kids imagination but the kids will love showing off their creations.
Next I talked about the three main ways kids play Minecraft. That is single player, Realms, and public servers. After explaining single player I broke down how Realms work. This is a private play space and your kids will only play with friends they invite to the game personally. I took this opportunity to explain that even though these are groups of friends playing in a virtual space it’s still important to pay attention to your child’s behavior in this space. Many parents would be concerned to hear about their kids causing trouble on the playground but if told their kid is messing with their friends pretend world don’t really care. I said that it was important for parents to make sure their kids are good virtual friends as well. Pay attention to their behavior online like you would if they were at the park playing or shooting hoops at the gym. Are they a good sport? Are they kind and conscientious players. Do they speak to their friends with respect? This stuff matters whether they are playing baseball or Minecraft. In fact if more parents took the time to monitor their kids online behavior maybe that whole “online interactions not rated” thing I mentioned earlier would not be such a problem.
Finally I talked about Public Minecraft servers. I explained that many times the game they are playing on these public servers isn’t really what you would think of as “minecraft”. Lots of the most popular public servers run modified versions of the game that could have kids shooting each other with guns, fighting zombies or even playing something like Pictionary. Also playing on a public server can expose them to a chat channel full of strangers. It’s important to talk with your kids and explain how to be safe in these situations. Don’t tell anyone your real name, don’t talk about how old you are or where you live. This is stuff most parents will tell their kids about meeting real strangers on the street but might forget to apply to online interactions as well.
I ended my speech by talking about how it’s gotten much harder for kids to buy M rated games in physical stores. Chances are your fifth grader isn’t going to be able to buy a copy of GTA at target and that’s a good thing. The problem I explained is that most modern consoles allow for online purchasing of games. If you have set your kid up with an Xbox Live or PSN account and don’t have any restrictions on it, then they will have access to pretty much any game they want. Once again I said the most important thing is to be involved in your kids lives and pay attention to the games they are playing.
At this point I opened it up to Q&A and I got a bunch of great questions. I’ll do my best to remember them all and post my responses here. You might think these questions are silly or my answers are too simplistic but remember that most parents are not hooked into this industry like we are.
Q: My child plays a lot of games that he tells me are free but then asks for money. What are they paying for?
A: These are called Free to Play or Freemium games. Often times the game is free to download and many people can play these games and enjoy them without ever paying a dime. The problem is that these games tend to use systems involving timers. For example your kid might be building a castle and maybe it will take a a few hours or even a day to build the castle. They could wait but the game will tell them that the castle could be built right away if they just paid a dollar. (I saw a lot of parents eyes widen when I said this like they were surprised)
Q: I monitor the games my kid plays in my home but what do I do when they go to a friend's house?
A: It’s important to talk with other parents! My house is full of games but I know what each kid’s parents will and won’t allow their kids to play. If a group of kids are in my living room and they want to play Halo but I know one of them isn’t supposed to I tell them no. I don’t call out the kid by name but I say “I’d rather you guys not play that right now, why don’t you play Disney Infinity or Mario Kart today instead.” If your child comes home from a friend's house and they tell you they played some video games there is nothing wrong with calling up that parent and saying “hey I heard they played some games today, do you know what they played?” If the parent has no clue that’s an opportunity to have a conversation.
Q: What do I do when my child tells me that “all their friends” are playing some game but I don’t want them to play it.
A: My home is full of games and the truth is my kids probably play more games than any of their friends. With that said there are games my kids do not get to play. Gabe told me all his friends are playing Five Nights and Freddy’s but I’d rather he not play that one. I explained to him that I wasn’t just saying “no” because I wanted to be a jerk. I didn’t think it was a good game for him to play right now. You can’t let your kids use this line against you. The truth is being the better parent isn’t always the same as being the cool parent.
Q: Do you limit game time and if so how do you decide how to do that?
A: I’m not here to tell anyone how to parent their kids in their own home other than to suggest being more involved is better than being less involved. With that said I can tell you that games are a huge part of my life and so they are also a big part of my kid’s life. We play Mario Party and Mario Kart as a family. I play Disney Infinity and Skylanders with my kids. My wife and I have both spent time playing Minecraft. We do not limit “screen time” in our house. What’s more important to me is what is on the screen not just how long they have been looking at it. If Gabe is playing Project Spark on the weekend and building his own game then I have no problem with him doing that for hours. If my little one Noah wants to play ABC Mouse he can do that as long as he wants. Does Gabe just want to sit and play Clash of Clans by himself all afternoon? That I’m probably gonna stop after 30 minutes or so. Is he playing it with five of his friends though and they are all talking on Skype together and working on something as a team? I’m gonna let that go longer. Arbitrary limits on “screen time” do not take into account the value of the content the kid is experiencing. That’s something you need to do as a parent and for me it’s a case by case thing not a blanket rule.
Q: How do you measure the “value” of that time? Is there anyway to know what my kid is getting out of a game?
A: Yes! You can ask them. When they finish playing a game ask them why they like it. Sit down and say hey I know you love playing Minecraft but why do you like it so much? Your kid might say “Oh I love building things and right now I’m working on a roller coaster!” or maybe they finish playing a game on their iPad and you ask them about it. They might say “Oh I just like shooting the aliens, their heads look super cool when they explode.” These are two very different experiences. Now as a parent you can decide for yourself what sort of experience you want to encourage or limit. You can also sit down and play these games with your kids. If you help solve a puzzle in Portal, or finish a level with them in Super Mario 3D world you will know for yourself what your kids are experiencing.
Q: Do you worry about letting your kids use the computer and accidentally getting viruses?
A: Yeah actually my son ended up getting a bunch of viruses on his laptop. I sat down and talked with him about what a virus is and how important it is to be careful when downloading things. I asked him to show me some of the stuff he downloaded and I explained where he went wrong and how to spot things that might end up being bad for his computer. At the end of the conversation I simply went into the parental controls in his computer and turned off his ability to download. Now when he wants something he comes to me and we get it together. It’s important to remember that all these devices our kids use come with controls for parents to limit what their kids can actually do with them. Use those tools!
By this point I had talked for about 45 minutes and my time was up. I probably could have stayed and answered questions for another hour. Many of these parents are so worried about “video games” but they don’t know where to go or who to ask when they have questions. It felt really good to be that person for them. I’d love to go back and do it again and I highly recommend doing something similar for your PTA. We have an incredible amount of knowledge when it comes to games and that’s something we can share with other parents. We can sit and lament the fact that so many parents don’t know about the games their kids play or we can get out there and help them.