As excited as the gaming community is about the impending release of GTA IV, sadly, a new Grand Theft Auto title tends to mean bracing ourselves for a new round of anti-gaming attacks from the uninformed. Fortunately, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board is more than prepared to head 'em off at the pass, joining with the Parent-Teacher Association for a series of parental education initiatives kicked off with a webcast tonight.
ESRB president Patricia Vance, PTA president Jan Harpe Domini, and Andrew Bub of GamerDad.com spared nothing in an accessible, deliberate explanation not only of the ratings system, but in clarifying for parents how to open a dialogue on media exposure with their kids.
Vance reminded the webcast's audience, comprised in large part of parents and PTA members, that the average age of gamers is actually 33 years old — just as with books and movies, she said, there are games for all ages. It was noted that, despite M-rated games receiving the largest share of attention in the media, only about six percent of titles on the market receive that rating. The largest portion of available titles fall under the "E for Everyone 10+" umbrella.
In addition to checking the ratings, Vance noted that parents can reference content descriptors on a game's package to learn what elements earned the game its rating, and encouraged them to check other parts of a game's package, like its title or display screenshots, to inform themselves.
"We want parents to understand the important role they play in their children's video game activity, and it's their responsibility to ensure they have every opportunity to seek out every help they can get to make sure their child's safe and secure in what they're doing, and that they know what they're doing," said Harpe Domini.
Added Vance, "It's never been easier to get control over what your kids are playing... it's just a very easy thing with ratings and parental controls... there's really no excuse for a parent not to be informed and not to be involved."
The partnership between the ESRB and the PTA has produced a comprehensive booklet for parents of school-aged children, which features in-depth explanation of games ratings, content descriptors, online play and tips on discussion topics through which parents can engage their children, Vance explained.
Harpe Domini, Bub and Vance also explained parental controls on current consoles - in particular, how the Xbox 360's Family Timer feature can help parents restrict what types of content can play on the console and for how long. The booklet offered through the initiative explains step-by-step how to set up such controls. They also discussed why online interaction cannot be rated by the ESRB - "It's user-generated content," Vance summarized - and recommended that parents supervise their children's friends list and maintain awareness of who they are playing with online, while at the same time noting positives: online play can be a good way for family members to stay in touch.
Harpe Domini had a refreshingly realistic assessment of the value of online play to some kids. "Players have built a social reality in the online world," she explained - and urged parents to watch for signs of cyber-bullying the same way they would observe signs of face-to-face bullying in their children.
A more sophisticated element of parental involvement beyond just glancing at ratings was the theme of the webcast. "Most parents understand that it's their job to teach their children the ABCs, how to tie shoes or ride a bike. But it's just as much parents' responsibility to make sure that their children are consuming media that is appropriate based on their age and maturity level," said Harpe Domini.
"Every family is different; we don't make assumptions about what's appropriate for you," Vance added.
According to the ESRB, research indicates that 9 out of 10 parents are aware of the ratings and 3/4ths regularly use them. But, Vance conceded, "there's always more we can do" about that 25 percent of parents who don't pay attention to the ratings of the games their children play. She added that she hopes the initiative with the PTA will knock out those last few from the statistics.
During the webcast, audience members could answer poll questions that popped up. Only 51 percent of the audience responded that they always check game ratings; 10 percent said they never check. When it comes to parental controls, 50 percent responded that they had never set any up. 44 percent of parents monitor their kids' online play, 44 percent claim their kids do not play any games online, and 10 percent don't monitor at all.
Altogether, the team webcast went quite a bit beyond the usual degree of information and encouragement available from the already-forthcoming ESRB. Numerous times, the panellists stressed open communication and participatory dialogue between parents and children.
Harpe Domini added that, despite the priority of safety, "Parents should make sure kids aren't scared about these kinds of conversations. We don't want children to be frightened of different types of media." Parents should talk to kids, she urged, listen to their concerns and leave communication lines open on any topic.
In other words, concluded host Alex Goldfayn, "Parenting video games is exactly the same as parenting everything else."