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Playing Video Games Online: A Parent-Friendly Guide (page 2)

By — Video Game Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Jul 23, 2010

Key Safety Tips for Playing Games Online

In general, here are some basic online safety principles for you to follow:

  1. Block. By activating parental controls built into most gaming devices today, you can block out strangers and sometimes even restrict the people your children can play with to only a select group of approved friends, kind of like a Gamer Buddy list.  
  2. Mute. The in-game "mute" feature allows you to disable the ability to chat with other players during a game, whether it's text on-screen or voice chat over a headset.
  3. Monitor. Frequently checking to see what your child is playing and who they are playing with is essential. Some online services provide parents with the option to view a list of players their children have interacted with during an online session, which can be helpful in determining whom they can and cannot play with.
  4. Speak Up. In addition to blocking a player who behaves inappropriately, you can also notify a game's publisher or online service about the offender. Check the online service's or game publisher's Terms of Service for instructions on how to file a complaint about another player, and be sure to include as much information as possible about the player in question.

Beware of Mods and Cheat Devices

While it requires little technical sophistication to chat while playing games, some gamers have the technical know-how to modify or introduce elements into a game that can change its content from that which was purchased in the store, sometimes in ways that are not consistent with the ESRB rating. For example, these gamers, also called "modders," can change character "skins" (i.e. altering the appearance of characters, sometimes to make them appear nude), "maps" (which change the setting in which people are playing), weapons or other elements. Modders usually offer their altered or newly created content to other players in the form of a free downloadable program called a "mod" (short for modification), although games can also be modified using special cheat devices sold at retail, such as the GameShark or Action Replay Max. A general rule of thumb is to periodically and literally look over your child's shoulder when they are playing games, and this is particularly helpful when it comes to mods.

Best Practices for Parents

Here are a few additional common sense practices you can adopt to help manage your child's online activities:

  1. Stay Informed. Educate yourself and your children about the virtual worlds and communities they're exploring. This could mean anything from video games to social networking websites. Technology and how it gets used evolves rapidly, so it's important to keep up to date. Numerous resources, both online and off, offer an abundance of information to help navigate the waters and keep your family safe.
  2. Be Involved. Being involved, vigilant and proactive is crucial to online safety. Many recommend keeping the game console or PC in a common area of the home instead of in the child's bedroom. This allows you to keep an eye and ear on the action. More importantly, establish ongoing dialogues with your children about what they are doing and with whom they are playing online. Use this Family Discussion Guide to help structure conversations with your child.
  3. Set Limits. Set and discuss limits on what your children can do on the Internet and how long they are allowed to play games online or off.  Establish rules you are comfortable with. You may even want to consider signing a Family Internet Safety Pledge with your child.
  4. Don't disclose. Ensure that your children know not to divulge personal or financially sensitive information about themselves or other family members when completing profiles, purchasing items, or interacting with others online.

Maintaining safe Internet habits for your family requires little technical know-how. It all boils down to common sense. Don't let yourself feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the Internet, speed of change or lack of comfort level with new technology. Since experience is often the best teacher, I encourage you to try playing games with your child to get a first-hand understanding of the ones he or she enjoys. At a minimum, you'll learn about the games themselves and what draws your child to them, or even get to know their online gamer community. And who knows-don't be surprised if you end up on your child's Gamer Buddy list!

Patricia Vance is president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit organization that assigns age and content ratings for computer and video games. She is an interactive media expert and mother of two. For more information visit www.ESRB.org.

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