5 Steps to Smart Video Game Choices

by Patricia E. Vance

5 Steps to Smart Video Game Choices

Are your kids video game fanatics? If so, you’re not alone. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of American kids play video games. You’re also not alone if you take pleasure in seeing your young ones squeal with delight while racing mini-mushrooms through tangled forests.  And, let’s face it, having your child immersed in playing a video game can be an equally welcome break for you, too! 


However, as you’ve probably noticed by now, not every game that your child wants to play is “kid-friendly.” The average age of a gamer today is, believe it or not, 35 — so it stands to reason that, just like movies and TV shows, some games are simply not intended for younger players. Here’s how to ensure that the games your kids play are age-appropriate.

Know the Rating
To determine if a particular game is right for your child, start with the rating on the package.  The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a nonprofit organization, assigns the ratings that appear on virtually every game available for purchase or rental. The front and back of the package carry one of six age ratings, ranging from Early Childhood (EC) to Adults Only (AO). (Click here for more information about each of the ratings.) On the package’s back, next to the rating, content descriptors such as “Comic Mischief,” “Violence,” “Strong Language,” etc. explain what might have triggered the rating, and indicate what may be of interest or concern to parents.

During the process of assigning ratings, the ESRB considers many different aspects: What is the degree of intensity and realism? How much control does the player have over the action? What is the reward system? These considerations, among many others, figure into the rating that is ultimately assigned.

A complete list of ESRB ratings, content descriptors and their definitions is available at ESRB’s website, where you can also search for a particular game’s rating before going to the store. Or you can download ESRB and’s rating search widget featured right here on and find ratings for the games your kids are asking for right from your personal homepage or social networking profile.  

Go Deeper
After you’ve looked up the rating, you can conduct an online search for reviews, screenshots, and video trailers of the game your child is interested in buying or renting. If you need help finding information, you can consult the Resources section of ESRB’s website, which provides direct links to a variety of helpful websites.

Stand Your Ground
Most parents have heard their children say something like: “All of my friends get to play it!  What’s the big deal?  Don’t you trust me?  It’s just a game!” It’s natural for kids to want what the older kids have. However, as compelling or passionate as your child’s plea may be, you shouldn’t hesitate to say “no” when a game doesn’t seem appropriate for your child. You’ll be in good company: Studies show that the overwhelming majority of parents say they never allow their children under 17 to play Mature-rated games (a rating that warns a game’s content is appropriate for ages 17 and older), although they do become a bit less restrictive once their children enter the teenage years.

Sure, many kids will argue that all the “cool” games are the ones you don’t permit, but that’s not necessarily true. There are plenty of fun, popular, and suitable games for kids of all ages to play. In fact, despite the disproportionate amount of media attention they receive, Mature-rated games made up only 6% of the 1,600 ratings issued last year (2007).  E for Everyone has always been ESRB’s largest rating category, and is currently its fastest growing one, too.

Set Your Parental Controls
No parent can hover over their child all the time, so activating parental controls can make managing your kids’ video game playing that much easier. All new video game console systems (Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii , PLAYSTATION 3) have this function, as do the newest version of Microsoft Windows Vista and handheld devices such as the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP). Similar to the V-chip for television, parental control settings allow you to restrict the games that can be played on your system based on the ESRB rating you choose.

The way these settings function may vary a bit — see the step-by-step guides linked above for help — but the premise is essentially the same.  For instance, say you have an 8-year-old who you feel isn’t ready for E10+ games (those appropriate for ages 10 and older). Just set the parental controls (which are password-protected) to allow games that carry ratings up through E (for ages 6 and older). This prevents your child — and his friends — from playing games rated E10+ or above on your system.

Get Involved
And of course, talk to your children about the games they play. Be adventurous and try playing with them. Go on! Stop being so intimidated and join them on a journey into their virtual world. Playing games can be a fun way to actually learn new skills, spend some quality downtime with your kids, and maybe even earn some bragging rights in the house.

Patricia Vance is president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a nonprofit organization that assigns age and content ratings for computer and video games. She is an interactive media expert and mother of two. For more information visit

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