As promised, two weeks ago, I began my journey to find out first-hand what parents today really thought about videogames, and how, as a community, developers and gamers could reach out to them to provide information and support.
I live in a very small town in upstate New York. I have a rural address according to the post office, a status corroborated by the fact that I have to drive half an hour to get to a Target. Yet even out here, when I asked some senior locals about their take on videogames, I received an immediate excited reaction; my first “test subject’s” nephew was absolutely crazy about videogames (shocking, I know) and was making Flash games with three of his friends for a high school project. Far from ostracizing me, she wanted to know what advice I could give him on being a game designer.
My other attempts to find anger similarly fell flat. It should be acknowledged that my “research,” such as it was, was completely informal, and I live in a happy, friendly town, yet I have to admit the response was surprising.
I was looking for cynicism, distrust, anger, maybe even a fight. Where could I go?
That’s right! To the internet!
I forayed into a number of online communities centered on parenting. I started with iVillage, since I’d seen so many hipster mom commercials for it on Albany television, but they summarily kicked me out for attempting to do research. The truth, it burns.
But other communities were significantly more welcoming, and astonishingly huge and active. This is not the internet of 1995. There is an entire mom culture online, exchanging child dietary tips and celeb gossip, debating a wide range of topics from abortion to pacifiers to appropriate age for makeup and more. And when I brought up videogames, they had all the talking points down pat, from relevant legal issues to media hype and beyond. But the outrage I was expecting to encounter simply wasn’t there – I couldn’t even get irritation.
“My son loves video games and wants to be a video game designer when he grows up. One thing that has really struck me is how deeply he identifies with and engages with the mythology of a game. For example, Super Mario isn’t just a game where you hop over stuff and eat mushrooms, it’s a huge backstory, a many-DVD set of cartoons, a game that he plays with friends, and a million video “bloopers” and cheat codes that he searches for online.
For his generation, which will expect media to be completely interactive, video games aren’t good vs. bad, they just ARE.”
– Pseudonymph, Sybermoms
I engaged this particular community because it was known for (and proud of) its aggressiveness. On other issues, debates become exceptionally heated, and though the community is online and therefore demands a certain degree of computer literacy even to participate, it holds members from a wide variety of locations and demographics. This comment came from a woman labeled “Fox News Junkie,” with a yellow ribbon in her signature:
“I love video games, my kids love them. We play them on and off depending on if we have a new game or not. We currently have several different systems including handhelds. I don’t see them as evil at all and really have no complaints about them. I do like the [ESRB’s] rating system.”
– Kathc22, Sybermoms
Direct from the parents that actually observed their children’s behavior, I couldn’t find any worry that these games are destroying our youth; voluntarily, they offered the absolute contrary:
“I believe there are definite ties between certain video games and education. We don’t do TV, but we do video games. I like the games better because they are interactive, involve problem solving, and engage hand eye coordination and small motor skills.
I think some games are more useful than others, but I don’t think a video game has to teach the ABCs or be traditionally educational in order to be beneficial.” –Coralblur, Sybermoms
The one concern I was able to detect, and found across multiple forums, was the notion of videogame addiction.
“More than the violence of video games, as a parent, I’m concerned about issues of video game addiction. I enjoyed playing a lot when I was a kid, but I feel like things are maybe slightly worse now. The games seem to suck you in more now that they are more complicated. I never knew anyone growing up who played for hours and hours at a time like my younger cousins do. Even without the extremes of addiction, I would feel kind of funny about my children playing video games for too long when they could be doing something else with more personal interaction.”
– AnnaBananasMom, Justmommies.com
Limiting the amount of time that kids spend playing videogames also seemed to be a major concern, one currently managed “manually” but with a desire for automation:
“But I don’t have a problem with games in themselves. I don’t even have a problem with violent games provided they aren’t in my home. What pisses me off is other parents who don’t keep up with what their children are playing or don’t think it’s a big deal for little 8 year old Timmy to play Halo.
I would like for someone to invent a parental control automatically cuts the game system off after a certain amount of time. Say I could set it up to only a person 30 minutes of gametime in a 24 hour period. I’d pay up to fifty bucks for that.”
– Kooolaidred, Sybermoms
The suggestion of the automated timer – which sounds a great deal like a physical version of the play schedulers already available for account management on several MMOGs, where addiction has been a longer-standing concern – was very popular.
“I would happily buy a parental control timer thingy regardless of who invented it.”
– Pumpkinsmom, Sybermoms
And general knowledge of the Wii – and support for it – was also very strong, combating the sedentary videogame image:
“We play video games a bit. I have really liked the latest fad to make games more active. For example, Dance Dance Revolution, and most of the Wii games. Now, bowling on Wii isn’t exactly exercise, but I like that it is more active.”
– Juniper, Sybermoms
“The Wii was a stroke of genius on Nintendo’s behalf not only because of the innovation, but because it breached the ‘wall’ and made video gaming a family experience! I expect, one day, a family game night could just as easily be spent with the Wii as it could be spent on board games. And, of course, the Wii also gets people active, which is even better!”
– quietsong, Justmommies.com
One thing parents were also looking for was something beyond the ESRB rating system that could tell them specifically why a game received its rating and what it would involve.
Some of the best comments I received came straight out of The Escapist Forum.
“I think right now video games do need a more than a rating system; they need a way to quantify elements so parents can understand what the game asks a player to do. Reviews are great, but they are so jargon and acronym filled that a non-gamer would scratch their heads and just say ‘no.’ Parents need a medium prepared for the non-gamer, and it won’t matter if it’s spoiler-filled since they won’t be playing the game anyway.”
– LisaB1138, The Escapist Forum
“I think one improvement in packaging would help both sides better determine whether or not a game is for them. That would be screenshots from within the game of the most violent and/or sexual scene at the most ‘adult’ settings the game offers. Even just one picture will tell an interested parent all they need to know about whether that game is for their children.”
– 0over0, The Escapist Forum
The terrific thing about these suggestions is how very executable they are. The ESRB has implemented descriptors on games, but like the MPAA ratings, they suffer from a degree of vagueness and require decoding: “fantasy violence,” “violent references,” “language.” What does that actually mean? You can argue that the responsible parent does the decoding, but the folks I talked to were looking for something pick-up-and-play, something with a simple interface.
“I think for younger kids (say 12 and under), the rating system works wonders. My son already has all the ratings memorized and knows what he’s allowed to play. And I know that if it isn’t E for everyone, then they can’t play it.
It’s when they get a little older, and you actually have to determine, why this was rated T for teen….there needs to be more explanation of WHY it got a higher rating. Like Tony Hawk is rated T, why? Cause they spill a little blood when they fall? Is it the music? I’ve never figured out why some games are rated T when they seem harmless, and others that I would slap a [person] for letting my child even look at is also rated T.”
– Juni, Sybermoms
Dovetailing with this was another oft-repeated theme: Parents were actually somewhat embarrassed by their lack of videogame knowledge. But because of this ignorance, they didn’t know how to find appropriate games in the first place, amid the media blitz.
“If I were going to get my older daughter some games, I’m not really sure where I’d find good information on games she would like. I hate the stupid pseudo-educational games like we had when I was a kid, where it’s basically flashcards only on a computer screen with maybe a dancing animated rabbit. She’s reading, so if she were going to play, I’d want to provide her with story-oriented games that were oriented around logic puzzles and problem solving. But they would still need to be age-appropriate for a seven-year-old — minimal violence / sex / disturbing material. I have no idea where I would even begin to find what I was looking for, or what equipment I’d need for her to play.”
– Naomi, Sybermoms
If a single service website could combine these two desires – accurate, specific descriptors of rating-created content (short phrases that, I suspect, could even be provided as condensed marketing material by the game developers themselves as part of the ESRB submission process) with an indexed database similar to the ERSB’s existing one to make recommendations in response to specific questions. For instance, “I have a 7-year-old girl. She likes dogs. What game should I buy her?” The result would be one hell of a parent-friendly tool.
In the Trenches
All in all, though there certainly remain fronts to be conquered in the more conservative bases (though Halo has apparently made its way into churches already), my conclusions from this very anecdotal “study” indicate a lot of parents really are as down-to-earth as we’d hope they’d be, and as annoyed by the anti-game media and political hype as we are. As Mary Schmich tells us, politicians will philander, but at the end of the day, by addressing real concerns and real problems, the necessary work can get done, and the gaming community as a whole can feel good about what it does.
But this dialogue remains important, especially if we are to combat the negative press that gets so much media face time. And the parents seem to appreciate it, too. When we’re faced with political attack, it’s possible to fight back with return negative rhetoric, but it might be sharper to ask them: Are they really talking to the parents? You know, the people actually doing the work on the ground? Every single person I talked to had birthed a child themselves – something Jack Thompson can’t lay claim to.
“I read your link and I’m so glad to read your opinion on the “bad” parent.. It’s just another example of miminalizing the issue and leading to more dead ends by having those negative stereotypes. (I’m just reading Jenny McCarthy’s book about austim and shocked to hear about the refrigerator mom theory.)”
– Ms. Michelle, Justmommies.com
“More on the issue, I love that this issue is being looked at by the industry. I think that, as video games become more prevalent in our society, and especially as the first generation of kids that played video games moves into adulthood and has children of their own, it is only going to become more of a focal point. I am one of those that grew up a gamer, from the Atari to Nintendo systems and now on to the last generation of consoles (I don’t quite have the money for the newest generation, no matter how much I want a Wii!).”
– quietsong, Justmommies.com
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.