One worry a lot of parents have when buying games machines for their children is – will my son or daughter be able to access unsuitable content?
Not everyone grew up playing Pac-Man and there are plenty of parents who've been given poor information about video games by inaccurate newspaper and TV reports. Recently, Microsoft commissioned a survey on this subject, and found that while 77% of UK parents are aware of the PEGI ratings system (which provides games releases with age certification), only 25% set the age controls available on their Xbox 360 consoles. Indeed, more than a third of those questioned hadn't put any set any sort of parental controls on their PCs or game systems.
These parents could, of course, trust their kids not to search online for adult material, or to play violent games; they could also be waiting for Ed Vaizey to invent his magic internet bad stuff filter. On the other hand, a lot of parents may just not know about the controls they can put in place on the Xbox and PS3 consoles to prevent their children from playing games meant for adults.
To help out, Microsoft has launched a new website, Play Smart, Play Safe, to provide information on what it calls "safer gaming". There are hints on how to monitor your child's gaming and how to set parental controls, and teenagers can read a few short tips on safer internet use.
It's a nice idea, but the site is a little under-populated at the moment. Eventually, Microsoft hopes to build a community overseen by volunteer Ambassador Families who'll blog about their gaming expeiences, but that hasn't taken off just yet. I guess that they want is a sort of video game version of Mumsnet – a place where information is exchanged between variously experienced users.
That's all fine, but I'd like to see more actually game-related content on there. It shouldn't just be about trying to ban your kids from playing Grand Theft Auto IV; it should be about locating games that are safe for kids, or even better, that the family can enjoy together. For example, I write about games for a living, but even I've found it difficult to track down Xbox titles that boast splitscreen two-player modes – a vital feature if you have two or more kids who want to compete against each other (and local multiplayer is much easier to monitor than allowing your child to go online and find people to play against).
Also, there are very few Xbox Live games aimed at younger children, or even at families, so there are few easy entry points for parents who want to provide safe gaming experiences for children without having to pay out £40-£60 on a retail title. This site could at least point out a few suitable XBLA or Xbox Live Indie Games that suit younger players.
Ideas like this site are important because the industry must been seen to be making gaming a safer pursuit – at the very least it takes some of the wind out of the sails of shameless scaremongers such as Keith Vaz. But Microsoft needs to do more than make a token gesture toward parents who don't understand gaming; it needs to make them feel at home, give them engaging content, and encourage them to discover games for themselves.
I may feel differently when my two sons get older, but I think parental controls are a last resort – they're the nuclear option of gaming vigilence. A much better idea is learning about the games themselves and knowing that what your children are playing is suitable for them.
But how about you? Do you use parental controls? Do you know what your children are playing?