Age-Appropriate Play

Mortal Kombat advertisement flyer, 1992, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play. The graphic violence in Mortal Kombat , especially the infamous Fatalities that included ripping out an opponent’s spine , sparked governmental hearings on the ideas of corruption and violence in video games, leading to the creation of the ESRB in 1994.Part of a recent conversation with a friend focused on his concerns about which video games his daughter is currently interested in. Are these the right games at her age? Do they contain violent material that isn’t implied by the title? Will she be able to get online through the game console and chat with people she doesn’t know? As both a curator and a parent of young children, I share his concerns and have given them a great deal of thought.

Electronic games afford families a wide variety of educational and entertainment opportunities. However, the challenge as parents is to ensure our children play age-appropriate games and that we understand the content present within the game play. Given the massive number of games available—and the fact that children are often more tech savvy than Mom or Dad—this can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there are a number of tools to assist parents in making informed choices and to safeguard their children.

Quake 4, detail from PC game package, 2005, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play. All games are not only given a rating by the ESRB, they also provide explanations for why each particular rating was chosen. Games like Quake 4, which are rated M for Mature, are intended only for adults ages 17 and over due to their graphic violence.

Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings are an excellent starting point. The majority of video and computer games sold prominently display an ESRB rating symbol on both the front and back of the package. The symbol on the front divides games into one of six categories based on age-appropriateness, from early childhood to adults only. The back includes content descriptors indicating whether the game contains violence, strong language, suggestive material, gambling, and other potentially inappropriate subject matter. The rating symbol also appears on the game itself. The ESRB website has an excellent search tool that allows users to search games and find ratings and content descriptors.

The ESRB provides ratings from Early Childhood, which are suitable for children as young as three years old, to Adults Only, which can only be purchased by persons 18 years of age or older. As of 2010, only 23 products contain an AO rating. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Parents can also filter content through the parental control settings on contemporary game consoles. The Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 all allow parents to program restrictions based on ESRB ratings and content descriptors. If parents don’t want their children playing games with violent content, they can program the system so that these games cannot be played. Other control settings, such as the play control timer on the Xbox 360 and the play history list on the Wii, are available depending on the console.

Another important consideration is contemporary game consoles’ online connectivity for multiplayer gaming. ESRB ratings address the content shipped by the game publisher but not user-generated content or chat that players may encounter online; an additional notice appears on online-enabled games, “Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB.” Since online play can potentially lead to exposure to inappropriate game content and behavior, many parents use the parental controls on the consoles to limit online access and others opt not to hook the game console up to the Internet at all.

In the conversation with my friend, he commented that he had paid attention to the ESRB ratings when buying games, but knew his daughter had a number of games that neither he nor his wife had purchased for her. As for the parental controls, he somewhat ashamedly admitted that his daughter and older son had been the ones that hooked up the system and didn’t think they were enabled. He cautioned me, “Wait until your children are a little older and know more about this stuff than you do.” I guess I’d better get ready for that…