With the holiday season upon us, I thought it’d be nice to come up with a little guide to help parents as they descend upon the mall in search of gifts for their kids, most of whom are no doubt asking for at least one of the hot new releases that have come out over the past month or so. With everything from Modern Warfare 2 to New Super Mario Bros. Wii to choose from, a lot of parents are probably feeling overwhelmed by the whole affair. Gaming may be mainstream but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a whole hell of a lot of people out there who have no idea what their kids are yammering about.

Naturally, the best guides are the simplest ones, so I’ve tried to distill this one down to its essence. No complicated talk about system requirements, no worries about pre-ordering special editions, no wondering about which guitar controller works with which game; just a simple set of recommendations that anyone can follow and that’s guaranteed to make this holiday season a smoother ride for all involved. Ready? Here it is.

Read the goddamn ratings.

Seriously. Just look at them and take the half-second or so you need to digest and comprehend them, and things will go better for everyone. You can’t miss ’em, they’re right on the front of the box: Big bold letters that give you a pretty good idea whether or not 11-year-old Timmy should be popping it into his game box whatchacallit thing on the TV. Interested in more? Flip it over! Details abound: This game has sex, this game has violence, this game has drugs, this game has some or all or none of the above. Armed with this information, you as a parent or legal guardian can make some sort of informed purchase, rather than just stupidly throwing your arms in the air and mumbling about how your pre-teen daughter knows so much more about all this stuff than you do.

Aside from maintaining a veneer of dignity and parental respectability, you do a lot of other good when you check the ratings before you agree to buy your child a game. The clerk behind the counter won’t have to gently suggest to you that maybe the game your kid just bullied you into buying isn’t appropriate for someone his age, which is of course another way of gently suggesting that you have the parenting skills of a stray dog. It could save you and/or your significant other some future aggravation when you witness the game in action and realize that high body counts rendered in lush, lifelike visuals is a central facet of gameplay, not to mention the inevitable blowup that will occur when you leap out of your chair with a cry of, “Jesus Christ, boy, you ain’t playing that!” And you might even save some lives by helping ensure that your child doesn’t grow up to be a psycho thrill-killer trapped in an endless fugue of game-fueled unreality.


Okay, I might be chain-yanking a bit with that last one but the simple fact is that some games just aren’t suitable for kids. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the back-and-forth battles with hyperbolic spittle-flingers who’d like to see videogame boxes covered with health hazard labels, but the flip-side of the “adult games for adults” coin is “kid’s games for kids.” Dragon Age: Origins contains blood, language, intense violence, partial nudity and sexual content; do you really want your kid playing that?

Ay, there’s the rub. Every parent has different ideas about what’s their kids should be playing and I’m sure there are at least a few folks out there who think Borderlands is perfectly cool for their 12-year-old. I have no problem with that at all, as long as it’s coming from an informed position. It’s ignorance – willful ignorance – that really gets on my tits. Let’s face it, if you can’t even be bothered to look at a videogame rating label, then you are one truly lazy piece of crap. It’s not even a word, it’s a freakin’ letter. It takes about as much effort to read the big black “M” plastered on the front of the box as it does to remember to breathe.

And if you happen to exist in that happy, smugly self-satisfied place where you’re old enough to buy whatever games you want but young enough that you haven’t yet inflicted your offspring upon the world, this is still relevant to your interests. One of the big reasons we’ve been able to keep the anti-gaming jerkwads at bay despite their nay-saying vehemence is the fact that videogames have been proven time and again to enjoy a higher level of compliance with age ratings than any other entertainment medium. It’s hard to mount an effective argument about the need to protect kids when it’s been conclusively demonstrated that the kids are in fact being protected. The ESRB is far from perfect but it’s effective and it ain’t Australian, and that’s a win in my books.

So if you’re familiar with videogames, don’t dismiss ratings as unimportant or unenforceable when you’re talking about them with the less-than-knowledgeable. If you happen to work at a games retailer (and I know some of you do) pay attention to the ratings and talk them up with customers before things get awkward at the register. And if you’re a parent, for God’s sake, learn the ratings and use them.

See? I told you it’d be easy.

Andy Chalk spent a lot of years in the retail trenches watching parents buy laughably inappropriate games for their kids, and it left him a bitter, angry man.

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