Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Safe family gaming

We are taking part in a family gaming campaign called: Control, Collaborate and Create.

The first challenge we were set was to research the various ratings and warnings that come with computer games, and put what we learned into practice by navigating the parenting control elements on an Xbox 360.

I’d seen the PEGI ratings on games before, like this one.

And had always simply assumed – correctly as it happens - that they represent a recommended playing age, much like movies carry to guide a parent’s decision.

The Pan-European Games Information (PEGI) is the sole system used in Europe to rate new PC and console games.

It is based on five age categories: 3, 7, 12, 16 and 18.

The first two for younger children (3 & 7) are advisory only and not legally binding for retailers.  For the older age groups (12, 16 and 18) they are legally binding, rather than just being a guide.

When a game is deemed to only be suitable for older children and adults, there are then eight PEGI content icons that describe why the software has been awarded that age rating.  These are much like the warning you get at the start of a film or TV show, you know, “this contains sex, swearing and violence right from the start” (which, as an aside, am I the only one who cheers and rubs his hands together upon listening to these words?).

Some of the content descriptor icons are very self explanatory, like for violence (a fist) bad language (a speech bubble ‘@*!’) and drugs (a syringe).  But there’s this one.

Any guesses?

I didn’t know.

If means FEAR, and therefore may be frightening to younger children.  And being the parent of a young child I should probably be aware of it.

Pages on Ask About Games - a website sponsored by the gaming industry to provide parents and players answers about video games and playing them safely - make all this information clear and easy to navigate.

So, once you know about the ratings, helping you make better informed judgements on which games to allow your children to play, what other controls are available?

Well, on the Xbox 360 you can control the content that it will play, the amount of time it will allow gaming for, as well as restricting the online elements of games.

My son is 8-years-old and his gaming started with the retro classics.  We were lucky enough to have a table-top arcade machine, that was loaded with hundreds of old skool games like Pac Man, Galaxian and Track & Field.

Most of the games were fine for him to play, and for him to show his friends when they came round.  But then there were others that I wasn’t happy leaving him access to, like Double Dragon (you can pick up knives and throw them) and some other classic fighting games like Street Fighter.

So I had to police what was played on this unit manually, not overly difficult, and by always having the machine in a communal room which I’d pass to and from the kitchen, there weren’t really any major mishaps.  But it would have been fantastic to been able to switch the availability of those games off automatically.

Which is what you can easily do now.

You can also limit playing time.  There’s a load of study been put into how much time playing computer games is healthy, and I’m guessing it becomes more important to control this as a child gets older or more obsessed with playing the latest games.

I’m lucky in this respect, as my son isn’t a great fan of playing console games on his own, and prefers to play things like Skylanders and Batman Lego 2 with me or a chum as a multiplayer game.

And because of that I have a good handle on how long he, or we, are playing for.

But there are rare times when I’ve got lost in games, nearly burning our dinner, when it would have been good if the machine had told me how long I’d been playing for.

You can use the settings on the Xbox to control game time, even if just to tell you you've been playing for a certain amount of time.

Online engagement is also something you can control with the Xbox.

The Internet can seem like a really sinister place for parents, but it exists and there are plenty of advantages to taking your gaming online.

At present we don’t really take our game playing online, there is little point, as we find enough competition amongst ourselves at home.  But it is reassuring to know that you can actually switch that element of games off, so even unwittingly, a child doesn’t find his way to somewhere you’d rather they didn’t.

We made a short video demonstrating how easy it is to access the parental control on an Xbox 360.

And look forward to our next family gaming challenge.