Are your kids video game fanatics? If so, you're not alone. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of American kids play video games. You're also not alone if you take pleasure in seeing your young ones squeal with delight racing mini-mushrooms through tangled forests. And, let's face it, if we're being totally honest with ourselves, having your child immersed in playing a video game can be an equally welcome break for you, too! 

That being said, when those same kids enter their teenage years, their video gaming habits can and often do change in fundamental ways.  Driving solo won't cut it anymore.  Teens prefer social interaction and heightened competition. For video games, this can involve more intense multi-player competition, oftentimes with edgier content. As parents, we understand that this is normal and inevitable, and we do our best to set and enforce ground rules. That means educating ourselves about games, which are not in every case "kid-friendly," setting limits and agreeing on some basic household rules.

Did you know that the average age of a gamer today is actually 35? That's no typo. People of all ages are playing games, and so it stands to reason that, just like movies and TV shows, some games are simply not intended for younger players.  It's important for you to make sure the games your kids play are appropriate for their age. Here's a guide that'll help you do just that.

  • Know the Rating

    To determine if a particular game is right for your child, start with the rating on the package.  The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a nonprofit organization, assigns the ratings that appear on virtually every game available for purchase or rental. The front and back of the package carry one of six age ratings. On the package's back, next to the rating, content descriptors explain what might have triggered the rating, and indicate what may be of interest or concern to parents.

    Using these ratings as a guide, parents can employ their own judgment about what they consider appropriate for their family. During the process of assigning ratings, the ESRB considers many different aspects: What is the degree of intensity and realism? How much control does the player have over the action? What is the reward system? These considerations, among many others, figure into the rating that is ultimately assigned.

    A complete list of ESRB ratings, content descriptors and their definitions is available at ESRB's website, where you can also search for a particular game's rating before going to the store. Or you can download the ratings search "widget" and find ratings for the games your kids are asking for right from your desktop, personal homepage, or social networking profile.

  • Stand Your Ground

    Most parents have heard their children utter something like: "All of my friends get to play it! What's the big deal? Don't you trust me? It's just a game!!!" It's natural for kids to want what the older kids have. However, as compelling or passionate as a child's plea may be, parents shouldn't hesitate to say "no" when a game doesn't seem appropriate for them. If you do, be assured, you will not be alone. Despite your kids' denials to the contrary, studies show that the overwhelming majority of parents say they never allow their children under 17 to play Mature-rated games (a rating that warns a game's content is appropriate for ages 17 and older), although they do become a bit less restrictive once their children enter the teenage years.

    Furthermore, many kids will argue that all the "cool" games are the ones you don't permit, but that's not necessarily true. There are plenty of fun, popular, and suitable games for kids to play. In fact, despite the disproportionate amount of media attention they receive, Mature-rated games made up only 6% of the 1,600 ratings issued last year, and are sparsely represented on the list of top-selling games week in and week out. E for Everyone has always been our largest rating category, and is currently our fastest growing one, too.

  • Set Your Parental Controls

    No parent can hover over their child all the time, so activating parental controls can make managing your kids' video game playing that much easier. Similar to the V-chip for television, parental control settings should be your second checkpoint, allowing you to restrict the games that can be played on your system based on the ESRB rating you choose. All new video game console systems ( Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, PLAYSTATION 3) have this function, as do the newest version of Microsoft Windows Vista and handheld devices such as the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP).

    Familiarize yourself with how your system's controls work using the step-by-step guides linked above, because the way these settings function may vary a bit. However, the premise is essentially the same across the board.  Say you have an 11-year-old who you feel isn't ready for Teen-rated games (those appropriate for ages 13 and older).  Just set the parental controls (which are password-protected) to allow games that carry ratings up through E10+ (for ages 10 and older). This prevents your child - and his friends - from playing games rated Teen or above on your system.

  • Dig Even Deeper

    For the motivated and more inquisitive parent, a great third checkpoint should be the Internet, where you can find plenty of resources to get better acquainted with a game.  Conduct a search for reviews, screenshots, and video trailers of the game your child is interested in buying or renting. If you need help finding information, you can consult the Resources section of ESRB's website, which provides direct links to a variety of helpful websites.

  • Get Involved

    The fourth and probably most important checkpoint of all is your child. There's nothing that compares to going straight to the source! Talk to your children about the games they play. Be adventurous and try playing with them. Go on! Stop being so intimidated and join them on a journey into their virtual world. Playing games can actually be a fun way to learn new skills, spend some quality downtime with your kids, and maybe even earn some bragging rights in the house.

Patricia Vance is president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a nonprofit 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