When I first started playing MMOs in the very earliest days of EverQuest, I never quite understood my husband's rantings about the con system (i.e. to "consider" a monster's levels in relation to the player's). He can only take on light blues? Say what?! My magician's pet was putting down dark blues and whites while I ran to the kitchen for a drink. What was his problem, anyway?
Unfortunately (for my husband and monks everywhere), no matter what they say, what's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander. And when it comes to choosing MMOs for your family, what's appropriate for one child and one family might be off the rails for another. Like keeping kids safe on the internet, the best strategy for choosing suitable games is a combination of tactics tailored to your family's likes, dislikes and needs. How can you best con the games your kids are begging to bring home?
Even though we're all experienced gamers here, don't be too hasty about writing off a little assistance. If you're into shooters and sci-fi, you may not have the faintest clue about fantasy games. Then along comes your freshly Robert E. Howard-injected teen, bristling with energy and begging to leapfrog Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft to play Age of Conan instead. An appropriate match of personal interest to game content ... or not?
Check the ESRB rating. Like movie ratings, ESRB ratings are far from a fool-proof system for deciding what's right for your kids – but they're a great starting point.
Read outsider reviews. Game reviews from sites that specialize in media and reviews, not in games themselves, can sometimes miss context and nuance within a game. However, that doesn't render their insights worthless. Reviews from sites like these are often conscientious, thoughtful analyses.
Read insider reviews. Here's where you get a whiff of what a game smells like once you're inside. Start out here at Massively and then run through other gaming sites around the 'net.
Read other gaming parents' reviews. It's the best of both worlds: reviewers who both play video games and have children of their own.
Watch trailers and game play footage. Trailers all too often bear little resemblance to actual game play, but they do illustrate a game's overall tone. Videos of actual game play may be of more use. Google and YouTube liberally for both official and player-made footage.
Read up. The Book of Games provides in-depth reviews plus handy features for parents, including ratings on each game's complexity, required reading skills and even morality (to what extent the game rewards positive behavior). Print media does become outdated fairly rapidly. Still, with all the supporting material that's included, books like this one can be a decent value (and an interesting read).
Don't make systems-based assumptions. As the gaming industry continues to wolf down new demographics, you can no longer afford to make sweeping assumptions about individual games based on the gaming platforms on which they appear. Just because it's on Wii (or Nintendo) doesn't mean it's appropriate for your child. Even though it's also on XBox, it might not be evil incarnate. Review games, not gaming systems.
Is it sandboxable? Kids want to play what everyone else in the family is playing. Many young players enjoy supervised play in smaller "sandboxes" within larger MMOs. Newbie zones, cities and crafting can be fun, smaller-scale ways of playing the big-boy stuff. You can keep an eye on things with precautions such as restricting chat and player interaction, or you can join the fun and play along with them. Would that work for the game your child wants to play?
Know your child. Only you can match your children's age, abilities and personality to the games they want to play. Would your devilishly intelligent grade-schooler latch onto pervasive innuendo? Don't buy the game. Might your homework-laden teen be likely to get sucked into endless faction grinding? Choose another game. What makes this principle so difficult to put into action is that it demands some level of familiarity with the games kids want to play. Beyond the storyline and general goals of the game, ask yourself what sort of activities players are doing on a daily basis. (Are they killing monsters or other players? Playing mini-games? Chatting?) What are the other players like? (How old are they? How much will they interact?)
Let's collect and share your favorite methods of sniffing out the best (and worst) games for your kids. How do you decide if a game is a good fit for your family?
MMO Family offers advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family. Connect with author Lisa Poisso on Twitter at @emused, and e-mail your questions and observations about gaming and parenting to lisa (at) massively (dot) com.