Monitoring the In-House Arcade

Are you aware of what you kids are playing?
Daddyderek Withderek
Photo courtesy of Derek James
Derek James with his sons (left to right) Chase and Tyler, who all enjoy playing video games together.

During this month that includes Valentine’s Day, the only thing my kids are in love with are video games. When I was a kid, the only parental controls that existed for video games were either my parents looking over our shoulder or an egg timer. Let’s be real — we were able to play video games for hours on end. One of the reasons for that was that not much was known about the adverse effects of endless gaming.

For years, parents kept their eyes on safeguarding their children against content that was too mature for young eyes on TV, and in movies and music. Little attention, however, was paid to Pac-Man or Mario because games were pretty cartoon-like in the 1980s. A little more than a decade ago, however, things changed. That’s when systems like the X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 allowed players to connect to the internet. It was then that parents really started to take an interest in what their kids were playing and how much time they were spending in front of a screen.

Fast forward to current gaming systems. The three major game-system makers offer mobile apps that allow parental controls based on the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s age and content ratings. The controls can be set in just a minute or two. Nintendo’s newest system, the Switch, is both a home and portable console. It allows Mom or Dad to set a time limit. Kids receive an on-screen warning when their allotted time is almost up.

My kids have a Switch and it’s helped my wife and I from having to use the timers on our iPhones. If you want to be extra cruel, you can have the game system automatically shut off as soon as your kid’s game time is up. We’re not that tough. As we use it, the app lets us know how many minutes they’ve gone over and if it’s more than two, they’re busted. We also know which games they’re playing, which gives us something to ask them about that gets more than a brief, monotone response.

I wasn’t always as aware of our household video game use as I am now. There’s one game that I have never really understood, even though I’ve played it with my boys several times: Minecraft. I’ve played different game modes like Creative and Survival, and I’ve watched my kids create their virtual masterpieces. One day, however, when my boys were playing Minecraft on their own, I heard what sounded like a voice coming out of the playroom that didn’t sound anything like either of my boys. Were they working on their impersonations? Did another kid somehow sneak into my home, ninja style? Curious, I walked upstairs and asked, “Who is that?”

“It’s someone we’re playing Minecraft with,” says my oldest son Tyler.

The microphone on their system allowed them to talk to other players. As a parent, I quickly realized that those “other players” could easily have been adults trying to connect with them. That luckily was not the case. That function is now permanently turned off. That was the first time I realized I had fallen behind and needed to get acquainted with my kids’ gaming and the capabilities of the latest systems.

While many love to vilify gaming, my wife and I take a measured approach to our kids and their video-game hobby. My kids play a reasonable amount of age-appropriate games. We set fair boundaries, give feedback and support. In our house, we play a lot of family video games. I highly recommend any of the Mario Kart or Mario Party games, Rocket League and Just Dance. Your kids really want you to play with them, especially if you aren’t very good. Just tell them you love it too.  

Derek James is a host of WCCB News Rising. He and his wife live in Charlotte with their two sons who are age 9 and 6.