Video Games are Taking on Mental Health

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By Desmond Brown

The Electronic Software Association considers video games a stress reliever for all ages, though some are still skeptical. Many who are not immersed in the gaming world only hear about the violent, shoot-‘em-up type of games.  But recent years new games and new game character type have emerged. And studies are showing that these innovative games can be a new way to treat mental disorders. In fact, later in this article I’ll introduce the first game to be approved by the FDA to help with ADAD. Fur first, let’s talk about the new character types that are representing real life, including mental health issues, in a new way.

New Mental Health Characters

It’s true that previous games depicted characters with mental illness as either comedy or horror types (see Outlast or Borderlands). However, the gaming industry has moved past this way of thinking. Allow me to introduce you to Celeste. On the surface, Celeste is a platform-type game. In this game you have to overcome a series of challenging obstacles by jumping and climbing (think Super Mario Brothers). However, in this story there is a young woman named Madeline.

Madeline has an anxiety disorder. Throughout the game, you see her character experience panic attacks. When this happens, the music becomes sinister and the environment gets darker. She also starts to breath heavy and begin to shake. Although this is a 2D animated character, and very much a game, this is an experience many people have had in real life, including myself.

Having a character such as this has given me the sense that others might be able to feel or know what I have experienced. That representation is important for anyone, but I think it’s especially important for kids growing up. I grew up with and still have depression and mild anxiety. Certain things can trigger panic attacks for me, in addition to the depressive episodes I have where it feels like the weight of the ocean is on my body. Seeing a character in this game who is overcoming a mental barrier just as much as a physical one is very rewarding and comforting to me.

Seeing Someone Like Me

One outcome of this is I think it helped me understand that I needed to be the one to make the changes in my life if I wanted to feel better. I think these games can help children and teenagers figure out things about themselves. Maybe it’s easier to see what you are going through once you project your problems onto a character you are playing. But, fortunately, the game is also still fun to play!

Other games are also depicting real life mental health issues. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice puts you in the shoes of a woman who has a psychosis. Sea of Solitude looks at depression in a metaphorical way as inside a woman’s mind. Arise: A Simple Story is about a man dealing with grief and depression. Auti-Sim places you in the shoes of someone with autism. Each of these games is a way for players, both with and without mental illness, to understand a bit more about others and themselves.

Video Games are Helping with Mental Issues

Recently, games have been built specifically to treat people with mental health problems. For example, EndeavorRX, is the first FDA approved video game that is targeted toward children eight to 12 with ADHD. Studies show that one in three patients who play the game for 25 minutes a day for a week can reduce their attention deficit problems for up to a month (compared to those who did not play). Note, the developers and the doctors who helped with testing both say the game is a supplement to therapy and other medications, not a replacement. But it is widely encouraging that we’ve come this far. You can sign-up for their newsletter to find out when the game will be available at https://www.akiliinteractive.com/get-endeavor

I wanted to write about this topic for parents who may have children with mental illnesses because it is hard to truly understand what someone is going through when they say they have depression or anxiety. Games like these can help everyone understand what your child is going through, or even help treat their symptoms.

Games for Change

If you want to learn more about games like these, I suggest visiting Games for Change. Games for Change is a non-profit that helps bring attention to games like these I’ve mentioned. It also helps produce them by working with developers.

Go to

Home Page

You can also take a look at The Insight Project, a collaboration between Hellblade developer Ninja Theory and Professor Paul Fletcher of the University of Cambridge. The Insight Project’s goal is to create gaming media that helps alleviate mental distress.

The Insight Project

I know many parents are worried about the negative effects of gaming on their kids. But it’s important to recognize that not all games are created equal. Do the research, set some boundaries, and I’m sure you’ll find that gaming can become a healthy part of your kid’s lives.

Other Links:

More on the game that helps with ADHD:

Great Ways to Learn During the Pandemic

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By Desmond Brown

In this age of the internet, getting educated online is nothing new. But while your students may be using Zoom or other video chat services to connect with teachers during the ongoing pandemic, there are several other ways to learn online.

What I am talking about are “skillsharing” sites like Udemy, Skillshare and Masterclass. These websites offer paid classes that teach everything from English to ethical computer hacking to everything in between. Many of these sites have been around for several years, but they’ve jumped in populating now that we’re all stuck at home. They’ve become places for people to learn new skills and even start new careers – all without having to learn in a face-to-face environment.

However, these sites are not all the same. I will analyze three of the most popular sites for you, as well as suggest some exciting courses for you or your kids to learn.

Udemy

Udemy was founded back in 2009 and is the most popular of the three by far. Udemy boasts over 150 thousand courses and millions of students worldwide. Note, I believe all of the courses are done by taught by volunteers, chosen because of their expertise or because of the reputation of the company they come from.

For example, one of the classes I bought was for a C# coding language course specifically for the Unity Game Engine. Unity is a free game development software platform that offers tons of tools for users to build any kind of game they want. However, many people, like me, don’t know where to start in game design, let alone how to code or “script.”

This course taught me not only a beginner’s knowledge of how to use the C# language but also basic game design. The instructors were industry veterans for over a decade and they worked with Unity to deliver this comprehensive course. Each lecture is broken up into several parts that I could rewind or pause at anytime. I’ve been told that instructors at Udemy do go back to older lessons and update them. They also provide material for students to download and host open QA sessions for students that are having trouble. In general, the community for each course is made up of students that can communicate with each other and they help each other out as well.  Udemy also offers a certificate of completion for finishing a course.

The downside to Udemy, I think, is that each course is volunteer taught, so, therefore, the results may vary. Some might be perfect, but some might also need a lot more work. Fortunately, there is a rating system in place for students to give feedback. It helps new users decide which courses are trustworthy or not.

Pricing wise, the average course costs $200+ each. But, Udemy hosts many sales that knock that price down to about $9.99.  I suggest waiting for one of these sales and buying multiple courses at once.

Recommended Courses:

  • Coding Classes

These classes are some of the best on the entire site. Many coding languages are available for purchase. Thousands of users have cited how easy it was to pick up and start coding with clear and concise instructions. Challenges in these courses are practically based and will push you to test what you’ve learned during a lecture. I highly recommend these classes for any age that wants to begin their journey into coding.

Masterclass

Masterclass is a newer site. Unlike Udemy that has volunteer teaching, Masterclass has many known celebrities teaching classes in different subjects. You can learn creative writing from Margaret Atwood, cooking from Gordon Ramsey, or even filmmaking from Martin Scorsese.

Each lecture is about 10 minutes long and each class is at least 20 lessons long. However, to access any of the classes, you must buy an annual all-access pass for $180 a year. This gives you access to all of the instructors on the site at any time, but it is a bit steep considering there may only be a couple of instructors/courses in the topics you want.

Recommended Courses:

I haven’t bought the pass, so I cannot recommend any of the courses. However, Dr. Lauber says he has taken the Malcom Gladwell course on writing and thoroughly enjoyed it. It wasn’t too advanced for anyone to take and learn from it, but it did offer insights he had never heard – and he teaches writing himself. I think it sounds enticing enough for me that I want to try it out. But I’m waiting for a free trial to pop-up – it’s a little beyond my college student budget.

SkillShare

SkillShare is a bit older than Udemy and is nearly as popular. It offers many of the same things that Udemy does, but its course library is more limited. The main difference is the price. SkillShare is currently offering a free trial for a full month and users can purchase access to all of the courses either monthly or annually. It is significantly cheaper than Masterclass and costs either $100 a year or $15 a month.

Recommended Courses:

I think the strengths of SkillShare are the writing and practical skills courses. I would take advantage of the free month and find some of the results for yourself. I would advise parents to take a look and see if they can find a course they might want to take with their kids?  Nothing says quality bonding time like learning how to write a short story together!

Overall, any of these sites I think can be used to further someone’s journey into education for a relatively low cost. If you would like to check out any of the sites I mentioned the links are below.

Stay Safe.

Links:

SkillShare:

https://join.skillshare.com/jan2020-general/?coupon=google2free&utm_source=Google&utm_medium=paidsearch&utm_campaign=Brand_US_2Free&utm_term=skillshare&matchtype=e&gclid=CjwKCAjwte71BRBCEiwAU_V9h85eT-5urnckCZ-zxeYBr-DtSPoenz5oxgsqV3iDAeQeqyhRGOr0_BoCD8AQAvD_BwE

Udemy:

https://www.udemy.com/

Masterclass:

https://www.masterclass.com/

Gaming Addiction May Go Up During the COVID-19 Crisis

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By Desmond Brown

It is a confusing and strange time we find ourselves in. COVID-19 has essentially put a pause on all of our regular activities and pastimes, pushing everyone to use the internet. Whether it’s using Zoom everyday like us college kids or binge-watching shows on Netflix, everyone is using the internet for something. However, the most significant users of internet bandwidth at the moment are gamers, and that could be a concern for parents.

With millions of kids staying at home with no clear indication of when they will return to in-person classes, many parents are struggling to keep their kids from playing games all day, every day during this crisis. Gaming addiction, which has been recently confirmed as a mental disorder by the DSM-5, has been the subject of extensive discussions by those in both the medical field and the gaming industry. We all know it is essential that kids and teens take adequate breaks when playing games. But it’s also essential to look for signs of dependence on video gaming, as opposed to real-world relationships or interactions.

A recent article from the Bloomberg news service warns people about the uptick in gaming addiction. Experts say every risk factor for gaming addiction is on the rise. And many call-in centers have seen a rise in calls, including an increase in gaming addiction patients by psychiatrists. It’s created a real problem for health officials, but right now, combating COVID-19 is the bigger issue. But many expect a big wave in gaming addiction as this carries on.

The American Addictions Centers website lists a set of behaviors to be on the lookout for if you are concerned about gaming addiction. They include:

  • Poor performance in school, work, and other responsibilities.
  • Neglect of other hobbies or friendships
  • Ignoring basic hygiene
  • Irritable mood when not playing or forced to stop
  • Playing games with increased intensity or length to reach enjoyment
  • Symptoms of withdrawal when the game is removed; sleeplessness, loss of appetite, emotional

I offer these up as helpful suggestions to all of you parents out there. But, honestly, I don’t think gaming is as addicting as people make it out to be. When I play, I do find it hard to break away from at times, but only because I’m so engaged in what I’m. But I think gaming is a great pastime. There are countless games and storylines to play through. For many, gaming acts as a way to escape. Whether winning a battle royale or goofing around online with some friends, gaming can be useful in a variety of ways.

For your children, I think they act as something to focus on while they’re sitting around the house. That’s not to say they should sit in bed and play games all day. But gaming can be mentally stimulating. The “Independent,” a British newspaper, recently cited a study of 1,000 gamers.  It showed that most people who play games report they feel gaming helps them relieve stress, make friends, and help them have a feeling of accomplishment.

Now, you can argue that relationships made in games or online cannot rival the ones made outside. However, connecting with friends, whether indoors or outside, is still engagement. It still allows one to have a sense of social interactivity.

Given the circumstances that COVID-19 has placed under, I feel that having a connection with friends online through gaming is a benefit and not a detriment.

But – do be careful. If the medical community it right, some will fall victim to the disorder of gaming addiction. You do want to keep your kid safe.

For more information about gaming addiction:

https://americanaddictioncenters.org/video-gaming-addiction

To read more on the studies referenced in this story, visit these links:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-07/video-game-addiction-poised-to-spread-during-coronavirus-lockdown

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/video-games-stress-playing-strategy-key-gamers-study-a8202541.html

Other blogs we’ve written on gaming:

Should You Worry About Screen Obsession? One Guy’s Take

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By Desmond Brown

Parents, have you ever honestly thought about what your children are doing with the technology that’s in their hands every day? Guess what: Chances are they’re doing the same things you are.

You get up in the morning and check your phone or the TV for the weather and traffic reports. If you have an office job, the majority of the day is spent on a computer or laptop. If not, you still use your phone when you go on break (or while you’re working, we don’t judge here). And then you come home, turn on the TV, check your feed, text your friends, or read some articles on your device of choice. If you’re like me, you use your phone or TV until you pass out and go to sleep.

Let’s look at it from the kids’ perspective. They wake up, check their phone to text their friends (or call them if they are like my sister) and check the weather. Then on the school bus ride over, everyone around them is either half asleep listening to music from a device or still texting. When they’re at school, they use laptops to work on projects and papers and read off of a projector screen to write down notes. Then they go to lunch and text, or look at the latest YouTube craze, or play Fortnite. Then after more lessons, they go home and text, talk, or play with their friends until it is time to do it all over again the next school day.

Notice how similar their day is to yours?

Newer generations are growing up with technology, but everyone says need protection from the dangerous and addictive nature of social media and “screen time”. The older generations need to be on the lookout and reduce kid’s exposure to screens.

But how much time do adults spend on screens?  How much time do YOU spend looking at a screen each day? 

Sure, there are things to be worried about. And we’ve written about lots of them (see some links below or just search our blog). We do recommend taking the time to learn how your kids are using the Internet, their cellphones, various social media sites. Maybe have them show you how they use it. That way you can understand why they use certain social media and you can work on ways to limit their use, if necessary.  

If you feel the need to cut back their screen time, why not make it a family thing? Start a competition and see who can stay off social media the longest. Suggest ways to keep people’s attention away from the phones. It would be great if you role modeled how to avoid “screen obsession” instead of not “practicing what you preach”.

Anyone a part of modern society is surrounded by technology. There’s just no way around that. But I do think how much time we spend with it is in our control.

I don’t think screen time is “wrong”.  Technology enables children to interact with friends, and create unique experiences. When I was growing up, some of the best times I had were when my friends and I on a Friday night would play our favorite games together online. With technology, I was able to break out of my shell and talk to my friends about anything and everything. Screens are not a bad or good thing. They are necessary to our lifestyles in the 21st century. So, rather than limiting a now normal part of the modern child’s life, I think we should all learn to embrace and understand it. Teach them how to use their time online for creative or productive tasks in addition to the social aspects.

Some of these ideas come from Director of Digital Civility, Laura Higgins. She gives tips to parents on what to do in their households. A link to that article can be found here.

Meanwhile, explore our numerous other blog posts on technology, including social media, video games, online gambling and more.

Links:

Article by Laura Higgins

Parents: Gaming is all over America

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By Desmond Brown

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) recently released a study on the nature of gaming in America. I’ll say upfront, the ESA is an association made up of the biggest gaming companies and therefore has an interest in portraying the gaming industry in a positive light. With that said, it is probably not surprising that they found that Americans of all ages and all races play video games.

What I found surprising in their report was that most gamers are not just the stereotypical teenage or college boy lying on a couch. It turns out many Gen X’ers (ages 35-45) and Baby Boomers (ages 55-64) play. Many of these having been playing for years or even decades.

What I also found interesting was the information about parents and their child gamers. ESA says that 87% of American parents are aware of the ESRB ratings. I recently wrote a blog post explaining the Entertainment Rating System Board. The Board’s rankings are supposed to help parents decide if a game is too mature for their kid. ESA says that most parents believe the ratings are accurate and that they regularly use these ratings.

The ESA also found that 50% of the surveyed parents limited the time their child could play video or computer games. This was a greater percentage of parents than those who limited their kid’s time browsing the Internet, streaming TV shows, using social media, or watching TV. I found this a bit surprising. However, I think the ESA might be trying to make parents feel safer about gaming. In another area of the report I did see that 9 of the top 20 best-selling games in 2018 were rated “mature.” Maybe the ESA knows parents are worried about the content of video games.  And maybe parents do have a reason to be concerned. “Mature” rated games are very, very popular, even though they are only 9% of all of the games released or available in 2018.

An encouraging statistic I thought was that 57% of parents report playing games with their kids at least once a week. Also, 74% believe video games can be educational. These are healthy numbers in my opinion, and I agree that playing games with your kids is great. I wrote a blog on that a few weeks back. Games can be educational and it is awesome when parents play with their kids.

Another statistic that stood out for me was that 75% of American households have at least one gamer in them. That tells me that gaming is very widespread and we should be paying attention to how parents are coping with child gamers. It doesn’t look like that stat is going to go down anytime soon.

Gaming is now mainstream and the report confirms that gamers come from all age groups. The ESA found that while 21% of gamers are under the age of 18 and 40% of gamers are between the ages of 18-35. This second cohort is the largest group and also the audience that buys the most hardware and software. Gamers between the ages of 36-49 make up 18% and the 50+ age group makes up 21%. Note, the age brackets are not equal – the second group spans a 17-year age range while the third only an 11-yr age range. Not sure why the ESA broke the data down that way, but it does say that less than a quarter of all gamers are high schoolers or younger.

While the ESA did break down the type of game each of the older three age brackets purchased or played, for some reason they did not do it for the under 18 category. This seems like a suspicious omission to me. In another part of the report they say that 26.9% of all games sold are “action” games, and another 20.9% are “shooter”. It stands to reason many of these players must be from the under 18 age bracket. And I’ve already mentioned that 9 of the top 20 games are rated “mature” by the ESRB. I’ll have to leave it to you parents about whether you are concerned by these stats.

What I am glad about is that there is some data about the diversity of American gaming. It’s a huge phenomenon and one that I participate in heavily. I hope that we can all navigate the growing popularity of gaming, including parents and their children. Gaming is going to be around for a long time, and though the ESA is clearly an industry support group, it’s statistics have to be considered when deciding how to react to the new gaming culture.

Links:

For more information about the study, visit this link:  https://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019-Essential-Facts-About-the-Computer-and-Video-Game-Industry.pdf

For a more in-depth breakdown, this site has an extensive amount of statistics on different aspects in gaming but you’ll need to set up an account to view the charts: https://www.statista.com/topics/3070/us-gamers/

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/