Guest Blog by Susan Long
Child playing video game
Way back in that other life, the one before kids, I’d spend long evenings building Roman cities or searching for treasure while my husband shot zombies and eluded the police. We were dedicated gamers and with no kids, we had plenty of time to indulge our hobby. Now that we have kids, we’re constantly surprised about how little quality information is available for parents. Like drugs and sex, parents are being told that the only safe way is to tell them “no way”. It’s true that there are risks you may not have considered but if you are armed with accurate information and educate yourself and your child, there are some definite benefits too!
Gaming – It’s Not All Bad….
Gaming can actually assist children with developmental stages. Depending on the game, children develop problem solving techniques, analytical thought and logic skills as well as developing better hand-eye coordination. It’s a relatively safe, fun activity that allows awkward teens to “fit in” without exposing themselves to risky behavior. It’s also a fairly affordable source of entertainment for long school vacation periods.
The Real Hidden Danger…. Literally!
Most parents are unaware of “Easter Eggs”, “Cheat Codes” and “User Generated Expansions”. These are the real dangers to look out for and there is surprisingly little information out there for parents. Games that seem perfectly acceptable on the surface can contain unseen dangers!
Like the chocolate treat, gaming Easter Eggs are something the child must hunt for, it is hidden from sight and often missed by a parent testing out the game. In G and PG rated games, it may be something like a familiar cartoon character that goes unnoticed until the game has been played many times or a little feature that can only be seen after clicking certain background objects.
As the ratings move into M, R and AO, the Easter Eggs can get a little more adult. The most famous example of this is in the AO rated Grand Theft Auto modification where a series of codes unlocks graphic sex scenes.
Arguably, the first ever software Easter Egg may have been in a less exciting program. In an early version of Microsoft Word, spell checking the phrase “I’d like” came back with the suggestion “I’d like to see Bill Gate’s head on a plate” proving that it’s not just the cool game programmers that like to express themselves!
A cheat code is a command that kids can type into the game to “unlock” advantages. Perhaps typing a line of code will give them unlimited money or allow them to skip to the next level. Usually these are pretty harmless but it’s worth investigating them before choosing a game for your child.
A good example is the EA Games best seller “The Sims”. Although it carries an M rating, it’s about raising families, buying nice clothes and pets, getting good grades at school and building a lucrative career. It can make game play feel like you are “virtually” playing dolls, and it is a favorite with 8-15 year old girls. Most parents are happy enough to allow their girls to play The Sims even though there are “implied” sex scenes. However, the built in game cheat “Censor Grid” allows the player to see the characters in a “mock” nude state and to kill the characters in strange and bizarre ways.
User Generated Expansions
Online Sims fan sites allow kids to download expansions for the game – letting them perform tasks or buy objects that are not condoned by EA Games. Unfortunately, some of this user generated content contains sexually explicit scenes and objects and anatomically correct skins. In other games, children can commit especially violent acts and engage in other activities with adult themes attached. This is especially common for PC games (it’s much harder for console games) so it is vital that parents thoroughly search fan sites, forums and any other game related site that their child visits. It may be possible also to block downloads from these sites using some parental lock software packages.
Most parents are now aware of the physical downside to gaming. The rising childhood obesity rate is partly blamed on “screen time” and more and more kids are suffering back pain from sitting still at a desk or in a lounge chair for long periods. Like anyone sitting at a PC, it is important to make sure that the desk is ergonomically correct for your child. If they are playing on your computer, you may wish to purchase an adjustable desk and chair.
While the Wii Console is a bit of a revolution in gaming, it appears to be the main offender for gaming related injuries. Before you think about putting the Wii up on Ebay, you might want to re-assess how you think about it. If your children are playing active games on their Wii, treat it as a low level sport. Make sure they warm up a little first, that they don’t overdo it, that the playing area is free from dangerous obstacles, ensure they take plenty of breaks and that overall, it plays a healthy role in their lives (don’t let school results or social interactions be dictated by it). If your child starts to show signs of RSI, see your doctor immediately.
Although the experts don’t yet agree on how hard, too much screen time is definitely hard on little eyes. If your child shows any symptoms of eye strain, speak to your doctor or optometrist.
With any online activity, children are at a small risk of being approached by inappropriate people. The same rules apply to online gaming as any other online activity:
- Mom must approve all new friends
- Mom must have all passwords
- Mom must monitor any conversations with people the child doesn’t know
- The child may not friend any adults, even ones they know well
- Mom must be able to monitor any “chats”
Most parents have the “stranger danger” talk with their children at quite a young age. As kids become interested in online activities, it’s time to have that talk again.
As with any game your child wishes to play, you should thoroughly investigate the online game to ensure it is age appropriate and that it does not allow user generated content. Popular online games like Second Life are not appropriate for young children for this reason.
On the flip side, online gaming is an especially good outlet for shy children and children who struggle to connect with friends. Children participating in multi-player online role playing games work with other kids to achieve quests and goals. This can be a wonderful exercise in building self esteem and social skills through feeling accepted.
This social aspect is however, one of the main reasons that online gaming is also the major growth area for “video game addiction”.
Video Game Addiction
It’s a controversial new topic but more and more, the experts are agreeing that video gaming can become an addiction. It is now listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders so is at least technically, an official mental illness. Kids get the same release of endorphins as they would gambling or taking drugs and any parent of a serious gamer will tell you that it can impact on their social, family and academic lives.
However, the addicted behavior is far less risky than more extreme examples like drug taking so it is probably more similar to the notion of television addiction than heroin addiction. The word “addict” has a tendency to create panic and over reaction in parents.
With any activity, it is vital to set boundaries and teach proper behavior early. Allowing children to explore gaming from a young age also allows parents to educate them about dangers and risks so that they can make informed decisions through to those especially difficult teen years.
If you feel that your child has a serious gaming problem, and talking, negotiating and setting boundaries have all failed, there are now support groups and psychological help available.
Video games are not all evil! Electronic entertainment is a phenomenon so great that it is definitely here to stay so, like anything in life, the best you can do is provide guidance and protection while they explore the big cyber world out there!
Susan Long is a mother of two mad gamers and one gamer of the future, when she finally has access to her computer, she writes about happy family holidays and Car Rental.