Real Gambling Inside Your Kid’s Video Game

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By Desmond Brown

A while ago, I posted a blog about how the ESRB can help you make better decisions about games your kids. However, I failed to look into how they actually rate their games. It turns out, the ESRB does not actually play the games. Instead they watch a trailer of the game produced by the video game maker. Per the ESRB’s official page, it must be “a video showing typical gameplay, missions, and cutscenes, including the most ‘extreme’ content. Unplayable content (i.e., ‘locked out’), if it is pertinent to a rating, must also be disclosed.”

Why is this important?

Because I think, based on the ESRB’s own review procedures, developers might slide features like gambling and pay-to-win loot boxes past the reviewers’ eyes. I’m not saying every game developer does this, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.

I think it’s a problem when raters don’t actually play the game. Recently, some games have been called out for having predatory practices towards a younger audience. NBA 2K20 revealed gambling style mini-game complete with roulette and slot machines to win certain items in-game through a trailer prior to release. 

This game was rated E for Everyone. 

If children play this game and have access to a credit card, they can spend real-world money to gamble for items with in-game currency. While this may come down to a parent’s decision, I wanted to bring this to your attention. You may want to be even more careful about what games your kid plays than just relying on the ESRB rating. 

Personally,I don’t think gambling should be allowed at all. It has no place in a game that allows real-world money to be used. And I think any game that is rated “E for Everyone” should not require parental oversight. 

If you would like to read more about how the ESRB reviews their games you can read their FAQ page here: https://www.esrb.org/faqs/#do-esrb-raters-play-the-games-they-rate

For a more in-depth look at why loot boxes are so addicting, check out this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xu6pXCxiRxU

Links:

Overly Connected but Feeling Socially Alone

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By Desmond Brown

In today’s always connected world, we have the means to contact other people with the click of a button. But though we may be more connected than ever, it doesn’t mean feelings of isolation are gone.  For kids growing up in the modern “Internet Age”, isolation may even be worse.

Unfortunately, a recent study at the University of Pittsburgh in 2017 confirmed this. It found that young adults who are the most frequent users of social media experience more social isolation compared to those who use it the least. The authors believe this may be due to a variety of factors. These include viewing friends online having fun and not being invited, seeing people doing things that seem fun and sparking feelings of envy, and spending more time online than having real life experiences. All of these, they speculate, contribute to feelings of isolation.

Social isolation can have big effects

As children grow up today, I think this “social isolation phenomenon” is something to watch out for. Maybe particularly during the tumultuous time of adolescence. Kids are more susceptible to feelings of being left out when their friends are doing things together without them.

One source says that the effects of social isolation are very negative. They include less restful sleep, an increased stress response by the body, more alcohol and drug use, and even a greater risk of suicide.

I remember feeling socially isolated at times when I was in middle school and high school. My friends would post what they were doing on Facebook (which had just started getting widely popular) and I would see how happy they seemed. To teenage me, it was disheartening to see people having fun without me. Sometimes they were meeting up with my friends in real life I’d have to hear or see the stories later.

I’m old enough that this was before Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat blew up. Imagine how your teen might feel today with all of these social media outlets at their disposal. They might see their friends having fun. Maybe they’ll see other people doing an activity they wanted to do.

What can parents do?

One source suggests five things parents can do about this. One is to encourage volunteering. This improves mental health and can be very pleasurable. Does your kid like animals? Or small children? Can they help out at an aging facility? The possibilities are endless.

Also, make exercise a priority. We all know about endorphins and how they help our mood. Don’t just rely on physical ed at school, or team sports. Encourage them to hike with you, or take a family bike ride. Again, the possibilities are endless.

Third, schedule some “off screen” time. Eat a family meal with no phones allowed. Watch a show together. Maybe game with your kid (without the head set).

Also, get them outside. Nature has lots of good effects on our mood and mental health. And finally, talk to your kid. Have repeated meaningful conversations about their friends, about life, and about their mental health. What are they thinking and feeling? Learn how to be patient and helpful, not judgmental or authoritative.

The bottom line

The Internet is a wonderful tool to help connect with others, but it has the potential to make us feel bad also. Parents, try to help your child understand that social media interactions are not the only interactions they can have. And that seeing other people having fun doesn’t mean you’ve been left out. You’ll have that fun when you see them next time.

We have numerous posts that talk about activities you could do with your kids, as well as what you should do to protect your child online. Check out our links below.

Links:

http://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/35420/

https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/empowering-teens/teenage-isolation/

The New Switch = Your Kid Gaming Everywhere!

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By Desmond Brown

Parents, have you ever thought “Well, at least they’re not gaming here in the (car, restaurant, doctor’s office, bathroom, …)!”

Kiss that thought good bye. Maybe you’ve heard of or have a Nintendo Switch. It’s built to be portable, but mostly people still hook it to their TVs. However, Nintendo is about to release its Nintendo Lite. It cost $100 less, and it’s really meant to be portable. It doesn’t hook to your TV and it maintain’s its high graphic quality on the go.

But now you’re thinking, “Well, what’s wrong with that? Mario Bros.? Zelda? Donkey King?”

Nintendo has that game?

But did hear? Nintendo is growing up. Yes, that’s right. Nintendo now has games on the Switch like Batman, L. A. Noire, Doom and Skyrim. All dark cop or monster type games. And they even have South Park: The Fractured But Whole.  Want your kid walking around Wendy’s repeating lines from that TV show?

Of course, you don’t have to buy those games for them. But see our other gaming blogs to learn how easy it is for kids to get games.

The New Switch Lite

So how does the Switch Lite differ from the regular Switch? As well as being smaller, it is lighter, has a more traditional directional pad, has a slightly longer battery life, and does not have the HD rumble or IR features. It will come in new shades of yellow, grey, and turquoise. The Switch does use cartridges but it can also download games straight onto the system from the Nintendo E-shop.   The Lite will be available worldwide September 20th this year.

The New Nintendo Switch coming out Sept. 20th, 2019

It’s important to recognize that these systems have far higher fidelity graphics than even a decade ago. You’ll want to set up the parental controls on your child’s Switch in order to limit what your child is able to play or see.

And remember, the trend of high-quality 3D games being played on the go is not going to stop – it is only going to grow.

Useful Links:

You can see more Switch details here.

If you want to explore what’s available, you can find games for the Switch on these sites:

https://www.nintendo.com/games/switch/

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=switch+games&rh=p_89%3ANintendo&dc&encoding=UTF8%3F&qid=1562883628&rnid=2528832011&ref=sr_nr_p_89_1

Where is your kid purchasing their video games?

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By Desmond Brown

You may know that video game consoles are not the only machines that games can be played on. PCs and Mac computers can also play many of the same games available on PlayStation or Xbox. However, the most popular places to buy games for computers are not the typical places that you might know. Over the past decade, gamers like myself have purchased thousands, if not millions of games through the online game distribution service known as Steam. Steam is owned by video game publisher and developer Valve and is the primary source of game purchases for the PC or Mac.

When I was 12 years old, I would chat with friends on Steam’s voice chat system late into the night. I had my own account and my parents had no idea what Steam was. I asked for gift cards and bought games to play with my friends. This included mature games that I would have had to show ID for if I were buying it at GameStop. So, this is something you’re going to have to look out for.

Steam is not only home to AAA (big budget and marketed video games like Call of Duty or Madden) but also independent video games – indies for short. Indie games are usually made by smaller, lesser-known developers They like having full control over their games and don’t have any need for a big publisher if they sell directly on Steam.   Steam is popular because it has a wide variety of game types. Some of these are exclusively sold on Steam. But through just Steam these developers can reach thousands and thousands of players.

screen grab of a page from the Steam store
Screen grab of a page from the Steam store

Steam and “indie” games

However, if you purchase an indie game, there is a risk. These games can be crass, crude, or a variety of other things not appropriate for a pre-teen/teen. However, indie games can also be some of the most creative and imaginative games on the market. I think you’ll have to do some research on each game before you decide if you want your kid to purchase. Though not all of these games show up on the ESRB rating system (see our blog about that system here), Steam does have it’s own rating system.  It requires extensive vetting of both the game itself and the intentions of the developer.  This means each developer has to explain the type of content that the game will contain.  Steam/Valve then places a specific age rating on the game when it releases. Steam restricts access to these games by asking the user to verify their age.  Truthfully, it’s not too hard to lie at this step. (Though I’ve read that Steam will track if the user is under 18 and will block any further attempts at accessing games of that nature. I don’t know how it does this.)

Screen grab of Steam age verifier
Screen grab of Steam age verifier

Family-friendly Steam(?)

As I mentioned, Steam has chat functions, friend lists and other social functions that can connect users worldwide. However, these options do not have explicit parental controls. Even on games with age restrictions, these functions might still work.

Thankfully, Steam does have a parental control you can put on your account called “Family View”. There are step-by-step guides for parents to follow when accessing this feature. From Family View, parents can set parameters for the content their child can access. This includes specific items like gore or violence, games with chat functionality, profile pages, access to the game catalog, and much more. You can even use the Family Game Library to restrict access to specific games for your kid to play on that account. Each of these features is PIN protected.

Screen grab of Steam "Family View"
Screen grab of Steam “Family View”

The Epic game store

Steam is not the only place PC and Mac games are distributed. Last year, Fortnite developer Epic Games created the Epic Games Store, a platform similar to Steam but without a lot of the social media and chatting features that Steam possesses.

The reason I even bring up the Epic Games Store is that if your tween plays Fortnite on a computer, they already have the store installed as well. Epic included the store with the launcher for the game.

Screen grab of the Epic game store
Screen grab of the Epic game store

 The Epic Games Store has no parental controls whatsoever. There is no way to keep your kid from accessing a mature game. However, there is a significant difference in the availability of games on the platform. There are less than a hundred games up for purchase on the Epic Games Store and many of those are still not available to play yet. However, Epic has offers for free games twice a month, giving access to potentially inappropriate games at no cost to your pre-teen/teen.

Also, every game on the platform has an ESRB classification. This means Epic doesn’t have a rating system…yet. In order to protect your kid from playing a game you feel inappropriate, it is best to view more information about the game yourself like you would if they were buying it in a store.

So, my recommendation is to get the “Family View” account set up before you let your kid get on Steam, do not give them gift cards or a credit card to make their own purchases (you should purchase each game individually), and monitor their use of the social media functions of Steam. If they are purchasing through Epic there are not as many indie or mature games (yet), but you will still want to monitor every purchase.

If you do all of this, you should be good. And, hopefully, you’ll join in on the games. Video game playing can be a great way to bond with your kid. But more on that another day.

Here are some useful links:

Steam information:
https://store.steampowered.com/

“Family View” on Steam: https://support.steampowered.com/kb_article.php?ref=5149-EOPC-9918

Epic game store: : https://epicgames.helpshift.com/a/epic-games-store-and-launcher/

Read out review of the ESRB system: http://www.decodingtodaysyouth.com/do-you-understand-the-esrb-video-game-rating-system/

Do you know the ESRB? And how it relates to your tween’s video games?

By Desmond Brown

Have you seen these images on your kid’s video game box? It is the symbol for the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating system. Like movies and television, video games have a rating system. It signals to everyone which games are “age-appropriate” for various ages.  

In the United State, games are given ESRB ratings before they are sold. The ratings are based on the content. Below I explain the various rating categories.

But before I do, allow to me explain that this system is pretty much voluntary. With one exception, the rating “AO” that means essentially “pornography”, stores don’t have to check the ID of a teenager or restrict sales of games because of the ESRB rating.  The courts in the United States have ruled restricting video game sales is the equivalent of restricting free speech. So, in theory, your tween can “buy” a violent, mature-only video game. Fortunately, all national retailers voluntarily restrict sales to minors for “M” games. This is probably because they would suffer a severe public backlash if they didn’t. However, any tween that really wants a game, and can play it without their parent’s knowledge, can just “aquire” it from someone older.

So, here’s the rating system:

E – For Everyone

These games are for everyone and are typically family or party-type games. Think Wii Bowling or Super Mario Cart. Common descriptions include Comic Mischief, Mild Fantasy Violence and Mild Cartoon Violence. “Cartoon Violence”, by the way, means the artwork looks very flat and cartoony. “Fantasy” means the artwork is more realistic.

E 10+ – For Everyone Ten and Up

This means the game is more suited for children aged 10 or up. These games typically have: Crude Humor, Mild Violence, Suggestive Themes, and Mild Language.

T- For Teen

“Teen” means “13 or higher.” These games feature Crude Humor, Mild to Moderate Violence, Mild to Moderate use of Language, Suggestive Themes, Sexual Themes, and Mild Realistic or Animated Blood.  Please note, these games are allowed to feature the use of tobacco or alcohol. As I said above, tweens are still able to purchase these games without the presence of an adult.  Most stores won’t check for an ID if the customer looks like they are in their teens.

M – For Mature

“Mature” games are typically the most controversial games because of their violent and suggestive content. Games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty are associated with the “M” rating. They feature Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Sexual Themes, and Partial or Full-Frontal Nudity. Parents or someone above 17 are typically required to be present when a “M” rated game is purchased. However, websites usually require just a button is pressed that “certifies” the purchaser is over 17.

A – For Adult (or AO – Adult Only)

“Adult” rated games are the most severely rated games by the ESRB. These games are only available for people 18 or older and often have pornographic content. Very few games today are given an “A” rating and very few stores like GameStop or WalMart even sell these games.

While the ESRB rating system is important for parents to know (the ESRB provides its own “parent discussion guide” here), parents should also consider going online to look at how other parents view a particular game. Try “Google-ing” the game name and “parents” or “parent reviews”.

You should also know that another important element of games that many manufacturers will display is the Interactive Elements of the game. These can include In-Game Purchases, Users Interact, Shares Location or Unrestricted Internet. Unfortunately, these labels might not be detailed enough. Does “In-Game Purchases” mean buying skins for a character, buying loot, adding powers, or turning off annoying features?  Does “Users Interact” mean only text chatting, or is voice added? Or video? Parents will have to do additional research whenever they see these markings.

You will also want to know if a game is an online multiplayer game. In many cases, game manufacturers do not filter the online connections by age group, so your tween could be playing a game with a complete (adult) stranger, if you are not careful. Dr. Lauber told us a story of walking by his tween playing an online game and hearing, through the kid’s headset, several adults swearing. He immediately changed the “game playing while online” rules at his house.

I don’t want to imply that all game playing is harmful. I don’t think it is. I’m an avid video game player myself.  But, I’m not a tween, and many of today’s most popular games were not around when I was young.  Parents, you must be careful. Not “every game” is for “everyone”.

Links:

For more information on ESRB’s policies and how they rate games, you can visit their website at http://www.esrb.org/

To see what the ESRB has to say directly to parents, try

https://www.esrb.org/about/familyguide.aspx

To see the Federal Trade Commission’s discussion on what parents can do to limit the access of children to video games, try

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0270-kids-parents-and-video-games

The Family Online Safety Institute also offers this advice: https://www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting/tips-help-manage-your-kids-games-and-apps/