Two Age-old Questions with a Brand New Twist: The Video Game has Grown Up

I am pleased to introduce the first post, of hopefully many, from Dr. Kevin Burgert. He will share a different view of parenting and pediatrics "from the other end of the hall," that I am sure you will enjoy. NB

“WHERE are you going and WHO is going to be there?”

Did your mom ask you these questions when you were growing up? Mine sure did. Every time I went anywhere, I had to answer these standard parental questions.

And Mom had good reason.

Why? Because as parents, we are responsible for knowing what activities are children are attending, as well as the company they will find once they arrive. We use our best judgement to determine if both the event and the crowd is appropriate and safe for our children.

In my pediatric practice, however, I am noticing a distressing trend.

Moms and dads are neglecting to ask these questions about the video game experience, putting their children at risk.

When your child is playing a video game, what do you see on the TV when you walk into the room?

Is your child’s character breaking glass, shoving it into a bound hostage’s mouth, and then punching him repetitively in the face to obtain the information needed to progress to the next level?

That describes an actual scene from one of the most common video games being played  by children that I see in my office.  And, no, these are not 15 and 18 years old kids. These kids are 10, 8, even 6 years old.. and their preschool siblings are in the room, too!

Although this scene is horrific, the video game content is NOT the only thing I am concerned about when I talk to patient families about gaming.

I am most concerned that parents simply do not understand that by allowing their child to play a mature game, they are playing against a mature audience online.  The audience of strangers is REAL, they are LIVE, and their voices are streaming through the speakers into your home.

And, now, your son is part of that environment.  He has joined an online community of adults and minors who are unregulated, raw, and influential.

When Mario was rescuing the Princess, our gaming community was our buddy sitting next to us on the couch, and our brother waiting his turn to play.

But that’s not how games work anymore.

The Internet allows an online, real time opponent.  So when your child pushes that power button, they have instant access to every person in the world currently playing the game.  And if given 15 seconds your X-Box or PS3 can connect you with 1, 4, or 20 of them.

Your child’s exposure is more than the graphics on the screen, who is on your son’s virtual couch?

Is it an 8 year old, 18 year old, a drunk college student, a 40 year old?  What are they saying to your child?  Are they yelling, swearing, taunting, using racial slurs? Are they distracting your child enough to obtain sensitive information? Are they inviting him to other areas online, more “private?”

Now, I know what you may be thinking...

“But my kids only play with their friends when they are online.”

This is simply NOT TRUE.  The vast majority of these mature multi-player video games require more than a few friends to populate the game.  It takes 20 or 30 players to create a fighting force. And while your son may walk into the online game room connected to 2 or 3 of his buddies, strangers will be showing up to fill out the team.

Controlling parental settings and limiting online access are a great start to protecting your child’s gaming experience.  But the best way to encourage a healthy online community is to ensure that the game being played is age appropriate.

So, think about it. Would you sit your adolescent son down at a table of 20 men at a Vegas strip club; advising him to cover his ears if the conversation is inappropriate, or to look away if scantily clad women were serving drinks?

No, that’s silly. You would avoid the strip club. It is the same with online games.
  • Avoid games that are not age and developmentally appropriate.
  • Remember, the content of the game will determine who is playing it.
  • Use the video game rating system. It is printed on the front of every box. Get more information about the game experience by visiting trusted sources.
  • With the games you child already plays; sit down unexpectedly, watch them play. If they are wearing a headset, put it on, and listen for yourself.
  • If the gaming TV is in their room, remove it.  Get it out into a public space so you can hear and see what is going on.

Ask the “where” and the “who,” trust your judgement, and enforce it. Your child’s gaming experience and exposure depend on it.