Real Gambling Inside Your Kid’s Video Game

Desmond Brown pic
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:

What are today’s teens and preteens streaming into their TV?

By Seth Woolcock

It was the summer of 2011. The final episode of Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life on Deck,” starring Dylan and Cole Sprouse, was on. It marked the end of my childhood, as I knew it.

I was 13-years-old and three years removed from my other favorite tween cable shows, “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide,” “Drake & Josh” and “Zoey 101”. All ended, I might add, prematurely.

Growing up, my parents weren’t always around when I got home from school. So, with my Spaghetti-O’s or Easy Mac in hand, I watched them every afternoon. I felt like I grew up with these actors and actresses.

When they were over, I felt lost. Like a chapter of my life was suddenly over. All the laughs, all the stories and all the countless life lessons – gone!

I knew it was time to find new show, even though the constant reruns on “Teen Nick” were some comfort. Of course, I could just wait around until ESPN decided to start speculating again if Bret Farve was going to come out of retirement. But in July, football season seemed so far way. (Yes, even at 13 I was hooked on football.)

I began exploring new channels. What I stumbled upon was a collection of great ‘90s, coming-of-age series, like “Saved by the Bell” and “Boy Meets World”. Thanks to Mr. Belding and Mr. Feeney I continued to learn valuable life lessons, like, tell a close friend the truth even if it will make them made, and, be very careful of caffeine pills.

I also came across shows more grown up shows, like “That’s 70’s Show,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “How I Met Your Mother.”  Masterpieces, but I was too naive at the time to get all of the drug and sexual references went over my head.  However, kids these days are exposed to more on social media. They might not be so clueless.

Today’s Tween/Teen Shows

Let’s face it. Today’s kids stream. This means they don’t have to choose from just the 5-6 cable channels I had to choose from. They can log into Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc… and find any show they want.

It’s hard to single out what teens are watching from all of the data, so let’s look at the the top streamed shows on Netflix, the hottest service amongst preteens/teens. In January, Netflix released data on some of its most viewed shows. It’s measured as a percentage of all Netflix shows, with the data pulled from web browsers from January 2018- November 2018.

pic of Netflix top shows
Netflix top streaming TV shows in 2018

I’ve pulled out a few of them that I think many teens are watching. Maybe your kid is watching one of these. If so, do you know what’s in it?

“Shameless”

Showtime’s “Shameless” began airing in 2011. It wasn’t until 2017 that the show exploded on Netflix. Suddenly everyone was talking about the ups and downs of the alcoholic Frank Gallagher and his six children.

This show can come across as extremely entertaining and seemingly realistic. However, it is very inappropriate for preteens or teens. There’s swearing, nudity, sex and drug references throughout, make it tough watch for even some adults. While some may say it teaches important lessons, overall, we agree with this review, that parents will find it is best suited for age 17+.

“13 Reasons Why”

Originally released as a Netflix Original in March in March 2017, “13 Reasons Why” builds a story around a topic often left out of popular media – suicide.

The show follows Clay Jensen as he listens to a series of audio tapes left behind by Hannah, his deceased classmate and former love interest. 

Since the show’s release, there has been both praise and disapproval of the show’s premise. Some say it commercializes suicide and mental health related diseases.

Recently, Netflix actually removed two scenes after the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published a study showing that suicide by people aged 10-17 “dramatically increased” in the months following the release of the show. You can check out what some parents are saying about the show and decide for yourself if your preteen/teen is ready to watch it.

“Stranger Things”

Another Netflix original, “Stranger Things,” is a science fiction horror series that has three seasons available for streaming on Netflix.

On the surface, the show is a sci-fi that follows events in a fictitious town called Hawkins, Indiana. It’s set in 1983 and it follows the disappearance of a young boy. Many other supernatural events also take place but there’s also a lot of I’m not diving into the show myself, but I suggest you take five minutes and watch YouTube parent Nick Shell. He has a very interesting take on the show.

“Riverdale”

This show starts one of my early favorite childhood actors, Cole Sprouse (remember, the “Suite” life shows?)   “Riverdale” was released in 2017 but it’s already very popular.  It’s based on the Archie Comics, but it’s much darker than the comic book you might remember. I think you may want to leave this one “on the shelf” for your preteen/teen. Some of the mysteries revolve around the murder of a local boy and an affair between a student and teacher. One reviewer called it “adult content packaged as a kid show.”

Finally

Hey, there’s always going to be new TV shows. And your kid may know about them faster than you. What can you do?  For starters, you can at least look up the title and see what others are saying about the show.

Here are two links we thought were very useful. Keep them bookmarked. Don’t be shy about asking your kid what they’re watching.

And don’t be afraid to have them watch an old favorite. The “Suite Life” series never gets old. Will they ever get out of that hotel or off the boat? I hope not.

Useful Links:

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/reviews

http://w2.parentstv.org/main/

Where is your kid purchasing their video games?

Desmond Brown pic
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/

Venmo: The Payment App of Today

By Morgan Rihn

Venmo is a money sharing app that your kids definitely know about (even if you don’t!)  With Venmo you can pay and request money from people you know. All they need is a Venmo account. Finding your friends’ accounts is super easy: you just sync your contact list from Facebook and it automatically finds them.

The app can be used for lots of things. It makes splitting the bill much simpler, for example. Or you can reimburse someone for buying you a drink. Your Venmo is account is funded by your Venmo balance (what other people have paid you), your credit or debit card, or a U.S. back account. When you connect with your bank account, you can transfer your Venmo balance to your bank account.

Right now Venmo is used by 66% of young Americans (according to expandedramblings.com). Its parent company is PayPal and it has 27 million users, and its growing.  Just in the second quarter of 2018 its payment volume was $14 billion! Venmo is really easy to use. You simply describe what the payment is for (or use emojis) and pick the amount and the person. Click! It’s done. (The names have been changed from the actual screen shot below.)

Purchasing with Venmo

There are companies that accept payment through Venmo. Companies like Uber, Grubhub, Forever 21, and more, use this service. Also, any store that has the PayPal button will take Venmo. And online companies are starting to display the Venmo logo on their payment pages.

Pricing: Is Venmo Actually Free?

Yes, it’s free. Most of the time. You can send money using your Venmo balance, bank account, or debit card, free of charge. There is a standard 3% fee applied to credit card transactions. Venmo’s transfer service (to your bank account) is also free to use, but a 1% fee is charged for each Instant Transfer. Venmo.com also has a Venmo Mastercard, check out https://venmo.com/about/fees/ for more information about it.

Safety Concerns

Like everything else connected to the Internet, safety is not 100% guaranteed, especially when your bank information is directly connected. Investopedia,com says “Venmo uses data encryption to protect users against unauthorized transactions, and stores user information on servers in secure locations. Venmo also allows users to set up a PIN code for mobile application use for additional security, though it does not compel users to set one up, by default.” Of course, there’s always the chance a hacker may break through Venmo’s security measures, but that’s true for your Visa card too.  What I can say is nearly all teens aren’t worried about. Venmo is growing in popularity.  

Oh, and what can you buy with it? Anything. You describe what to call it in the app. If you buy alcohol form a friend, or pot, you can call it a cookie or a soda. So even if your parents see the transaction, or later, someone investigates, there is no evidence of anything other a transfer of money. But we’ll talk about that more in a future blog.

Helpful links:

https://help.venmo.com/hc/en-us/articles/221011388-What-is-Venmo-

https://venmo.com/about/fees/

https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/032415/how-safe-venmo-and-why-it-free.asp