Check the ESRB...
Parents who don't game probably aren't familiar with popular games and what's behind the title. A good starting point is the ESRB label, which gives general descriptions of age appropriateness and what types of content might be found in the game. While it's easy to see the rating on a console game box, it's harder to spot the label for MMOs. Even to a seasoned veteran, an MMO's rating is easy to overlook, but a quick stop to the bottom of the game's website will usually reveal it.
... But don't rely on it
Ratings aren't reliable for MMOs, as we've explored in a previous column. ESRB ratings evaluate the game's content but don't include the community side of it, and with MMOs, two games that are both ranked T for teen might have completely different atmospheres in game. Even within one MMO, server communities might be completely different: One might be family-friendly and nurturing, while another might feel like a virtual version of Bartertown.
Parents of children who play MMOs need to do a little more legwork investigating their children's game choices than parents of kids who stick with single player games. Even for MMOs that are designed to be kid-friendly, parents should take the time to familiarize themselves with the game's community and overall feel.
Find a way to keep the limits firm
If it's a console game, look for parental settings that require passwords for games that have a more mature rating to prevent children from popping into an adult-oriented game while your back is turned. And an egg timer is a parent's best friend when it comes to setting concrete stopping points. It's all too easy for a 20- or 30-minute session to creep into overtime, and it sets a precedent that encourages kids to give a lot more push back over game time in the future.
Keep screens out of kids' rooms
The easiest way to raise a healthy gamer is to insist that gaming should be done only in family areas, like the living room or kitchen. Before computers, parents clashed over TV time, and one simple solution was to not put a TV in a child's bedroom. Children should be raised on the notion that screens in general don't belong in their bedroom. Children often view their room as their "turf" -- a place where they can find a little privacy. By keeping screens in family areas, rather than their bedrooms, you don't have to invade that space to keep tabs on what they're doing online.
Head off peer pressure
There are always kids who boast about playing a certain game way before they should be playing it. And their parents are also probably the ones who went to school and told everyone, in detail, about the terrifying horror movie that they had no business watching. To a child, one vocal kid who boasts of playing GTA V
at the age of eight often feels as if every kid is playing it but him. But if you anticipate it, you can talk to your kids beforehand and help them understand the ins and outs of peer pressure. As a result, he can hopefully keep a level head and choose games without bending to social pressure from others.
Play with your kids
Take a page from Larry Everett's
book and spend a little time gaming with your children
. We've talked before about how it's the best way to not only screen your child's MMO choices but to make gaming in general a more social activity, similar to a family board game night. For parents who aren't familiar with video games, it's even more important to know what makes an MMO tick.
But there's another good reason to play games with your children that goes beyond policing what kids play and how long they play, and it's something that every parent should consider, regardless of gaming experience: If we want to raise healthy gamers, we need to teach them about what makes a good game. Parents should have the same types of conversations with their children that we do here at Massively every day.
Children need to learn to be mini-game-critics, in other words. If there's a particular game that was fun, what makes it fun? And if a child quits a game, what made her walk away? When should a game be challenging, and when should it hold your hand a bit? Is a child playing a game because it's genuinely compelling and enjoyable? Or is he playing it because of those little dopamine hits that certain games are so good at delivering? The better able we are to teach children to look at their games with a critical eye, the better off they'll be. And by extension, the better off we'll all be because as they grow up, they'll have the purchasing power to hold the gaming industry to a high standard.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.