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Playing it safe – how best to control your kids’ computer gaming

When it comes to choosing video games for the kids, 40% of parents are not confident about what they are buying, according to recent research by the Game chain store.

Certainly, identifying the best-value and most appropriate games for the family is more complex than it first appears. In-app purchases sell players additional content during play. They can change the total price of a title and fly under the radar of parents who assume games are a one-off cost.

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In fact, concerns about games that “exploited children’s inexperience, vulnerability, and credulity” triggered the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to publish a set of best practice principles for online and app-based games last year. Since then, there have been several positive changes. Apple’s App Store has swapped its description on the purchase button for games that incur charges from “Free” to the blunter, but more realistic, “Get.” Similarly, the Google App Store now uses “Download,” Nintendo cites its free games as “Free to Try.” Going further, Apple now lists the top in-app purchases for each game. The high profits that Game of War makes are understandable now we can see its £79.99 in-app purchase is the most popular.

The Competition and Markets Authority extended the OFT report with a guide for parents advising they check device settings before handing it to a child and keep an eye on bills. Parents should now expect games to provide “all the important information – including how to ask questions or complain – before [their] child starts playing.” Additional console game content is also increasingly tied to physical toys. Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and newcomer Lego Dimensions each link character and level upgrades to toy sales. They are described as “collectibles” discloses their potentially high cost, but parents should know that starter packs provide everything needed to complete the games. Additional toys are optional extras rather than must-haves.

At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, Skylanders and Disney Infinity pushed the value angle with cheaper downloadable versions that reuse old peripherals. Disney Infinity went further this year by abandoning its “blind purchase” foil packs and offering better character compatibility across new Star Wars levels.

Over-spending isn’t the only pitfall. Appropriateness of content, and violence, in particular, can cause parenting headaches. The awareness gap here is more surprising as excellent advice has been available for some years. The PEGI system (see box) offers simple traffic-light age badges. However, some of this confusion stems from the UK’s history of multiple video-game rating agencies.

Gianni Zamo, the spokesman for the Video Standards Council (VSC), admits “it needs to establish more in the way of communicating its ratings to video game consumers.” He also points to the additional consumer information that “describes precisely what the pertinent content issues in a game are and how they are presented.” For example, Batman: Arkham Knight (reviewed on the previous page) describes the “infrequent scenes of violence towards defenseless persons. In one, a man is tied up and beaten across the face by an armed thug.”

Ukie, the game’s industry trade body, partners with VSC to run AskAboutGames.com, which provides video guides on high-profile games. For Dr. Jo Twist, CEO of Ukie, the message is simple: “Children should not be playing games that contain content that is not appropriate for their age. Parents need to take the time to understand the games that their children are playing – just as they would with any other media – and be aware of the age rating symbols that accompany games.”

This is a good message, although parents can still be tripped up. Provisional ratings applied to marketing materials sometimes remain on store shelves displaying different age ratings to the final product. This was the case for Batman: Arkham Knight, provisionally a PEGI 16 but raised to PEGI 18 before release.

Games are becoming an integral part of childhood, and that’s no bad thing as they enrich our lives with powerful interactive stories, creating new worlds, and fresh ways to play. But assessing value and violence remains complex and needs time and involvement from parents. A lack of information is really no longer an excuse to ignore the issues. Instead of simply believing the hype about gaming, parents should now engage with their kids to make informed, positive choices.

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