Don't rely on ratings
Ratings for video games are spotty at best, and when it comes to MMOs, they're not of any real use. As I wrote about previously, the ESRB rating for EVE Online actually makes the game seem milder than World of Warcraft. Furthermore, the ESRB rating only applies to the game itself, and as we know all too well, that doesn't cover in game chat. A game might be rated safe for kids, but in reality, there could be an internet boogeyman lurking. More likely, though, is a bevy of young gamers who cuss like sailors, drop racial slurs left and right, and think girls have cooties.
The thing about MMOs is that two people can have two completely different experiences in the same game. I played EverQuest II with my daughter when she was four, and because we stayed in the relative safety of my home and the guildhall, she was able to explore and not come across inappropriate chat or behavior from others. Meanwhile, I can give plenty of examples of players saying all sorts of inappropriate things in chat in popular kid-friendly MMOs, and lots of examples of players being scammed as well. Even with the strictest whitelists and heavy-handed moderation, kids (and grownups) who play family-friendly games will find a way to circumvent that. It's because of this that parents can't just assume a kid-friendly MMO is a safe place to let their kids play unattended.
There are two important rules to consider when judging how much is too much. First, if it's infringing on any real life obligations, like homework, after school activities, or social interactions, it's time to log off. Second, if it's affecting a child negatively, such as causing him to withdraw, creating tense stand-offs when it's time to stop playing, or changing his emotional demeanor, then it's time to unplug. Video games can sometimes be more intense and consuming than other more passive forms of media, and because of that, it's important to keep an extra close eye on how it affects kids. It's always best to err on the side of caution.
Crossover to RL interests
Video games aren't all bad, but there are some clunkers out there to avoid. There's a tendency, particularly in non-gamers, to lump all video games together and wrap them in caution tape, but that's yet another example of how absolutes don't work. Every form of media has gems and lumps of coal, and at the fringe are the examples of media that are at best not family-friendly and at worst harmful, especially to children.
Video games can be a great bridge toward valuable real life endeavors, however. My son's experience with playing Kinect tennis got him interested in the real thing, and there are plenty of sports games and even MMOs that can introduce a young child to the ins and outs of the sport. Sport video games can't provide hands-on practice of the skills needed to play a sport, but they can teach the rules and give visual instruction on the basics of playing. Kids pick up the finer points by watching pros on TV (which is why I cringe every time a basketball player carries the ball or a baseball player catches with only one hand), and watching a video game gives a similar experience.
There are plenty of other areas where MMOs can be a positive influence on kids, including encouraging kids to read more through games based on literature like Harry Potter, educational disciplines like math and science, and even a first hand view of a historical period. It takes time to find it sometimes, but there are video games that are diamonds in the rough.
I grew up on board games, and the kids have grown to enjoy them as well. I view video games in the same way when it comes to introducing them to kids. If you play it with them, you get to see what exactly your kids are playing, but more importantly, you're sharing that experience with them. In fact, MMOs in particular give kids and grownups a chance to swap roles for a bit, so that the child is the one leading and teaching and the adult is the one following.
Balance the positives and the negatives
I'll be honest, there's a lot I really don't like about the digital age that the kids are growing up experiencing. I'm not active on Facebook and Twitter, and I'm not looking forward to the day when the kids ask to create accounts. And I'm troubled at the sheer volume of devices that kids today can hop to and from all day long. Children can lounge around on laptops and consoles at home and then leapfrog to tablets, phones, and iPads when out and about. It's way too easy to stay plugged in, whether it's social media or video games, and it's that much harder to live offline.
At the same time, I'm excited about the volume of information available to children today thanks to that same online bridge. I think it's helping us rethink our overall approach to education
, and it's giving children a way to learn more about their world than ever before
-- instantly. We can't have one without the other, so the best we can do is carefully evaluate the positives and negatives of online worlds, whether that's social media, or MMOs. That might mean playing a little catch-up, but even if it's unfamiliar territory, it's well worth it if we can help our kids navigate through it all.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to email@example.com.