In an article published on the ‘Play with Learning’, website Carlton Reeve, an experienced game designer says,
“Increasingly parents are succumbing to perceived peer pressure and allowing their children to play these games because ‘all their friends are.’ I know lots of parents that have decided it’s okay.” He goes on “I think there are a number of reasons to be concerned. It’s not just the gratuitous violence that risks becoming normalised, COD and alike are riddled with bad language, sex and other adult themes.”
You can read the full article about underage gaming at http://playwithlearning.com/2011/05/23/underage-gaming/
Although they may be familiar with other social media, many parents and teachers may not have had first-hand experience of playing the games these young people play. However, an absence of knowledge isn’t necessarily an excuse for an absence of a duty of care. Because a number of tutorials, trailers and clips of these games are available on YouTube, it is possible to get a good understanding of how these games work (see above).
However, we all know that the more you try to stop your children from doing something, the more they will want to do it! This has been a truth over the years. When it comes to games, the real issue is that many children see their older brothers and dads play 18+ games within the home and so naturally want to play, too. Parents are also under pressure to allow their children to play these games because ‘all their friends are.’
Just as with other areas of safe and responsible use of technology, schools should help parents understand the issue of online games – especially the interactive and chat ability of playing games with others – friends and strangers alike.
Many parents don’t get online games (especially the ones described in this project). They are so far removed from the concept of the games we had when we were young, but many of the key elements which make any game special are also there in video games: total emersion, problem solving, socialising, overcoming obstacles, learning new tricks, knowing how to cheat! Young people also love playing games because it is a way in which they can differentiate themselves from their parents, have some recognised pride among their peers and get a sense of real achievement and skill. Indeed online multi-player games are organised around a passion and users produce as well as consume: An environment where players are not necessarily judged by their age, where newbies and experts mentor informally. Knowledge is distributed, everyone – however experienced everyone is still seen as a learner.
For a really good introduction to why parents should be interested in their children’s online gaming and the reason why kids love gaming see http://www.netfamilynews.org/?p=31146
Here are some good tips and advice for parents in knowing how to manage their kids gaming 
If you really want to understand your child's games, play with them. Almost all games are better when played with or against someone else. While it might take some practice to be a worthy teammate or opponent, it's a great way to understand your child's pleasure and spend time with them. What's more, if the content of the game makes the child feel uncomfortable when playing with mum or dad, that's quite a good sign!
Appreciate that games require a lot of effort. Telling a child to stop playing immediately is as likely to infuriate them as someone telling you to stop watching a film 3/4 of the way through or put down a newspaper mid-article. All games have regular 'save' or break points in them - much better to negotiate to the end of the next 'episode.'
Think about how younger children in a family are influenced by older siblings (or adults) who play these games. Because these games can be played on very large TV screens it is not such a private media experience and younger children can easily be drawn into playing a game that their cool big brother or sister is playing.
Develop some ground rules about what games your children are allowed to play when they visit friends houses. It could be difficult to tell another child’s parents that you don’t want to your child to play those games when around but it is better to be proactive and share than feel frustrated that you didn’t say anything afterwards. You can also explain that it is because you don’t want your child to play with others (through the game) who you do not know.
Empathy, Empathy, Empathy. One of the challenges for young people growing up online is how do they gain an understanding of empathy in their play. Games provide a great way to discuss feelings and for young people to express what they feel when they play these games. It’s important you to empathise with them about the appeal and enjoyment they feel, but also vital that you help them think about the way that they can become numb from the very realistic action which is taking place and desensitised to the violence or activities which are unfolding. Asking questions to your children about how they feel when they play all types of games can be a very helpful way of unlocking their feelings.
Finally remember the value of being consistent. Just like other age –restricted media which children can access (through YouTube, I players, downloading films on their mobiles etc). If you have made rules for your household stick to them, be consistent and fair. Many parents become powerless when they are accused of “You let Sam watch that 15 rated film the other day with his mates some of who were only 12 ...What’s the difference with me playing this 16 rated game especially cause I’m older than him ?”
There is an excellent guide to help parents get a good overview of games produced by Childnet International see http://www.childnet.com/downloads/Online-gaming.pdf
The Association of UK Interactive Entertainment has also produced a special guide for parents including how to use parental controls on PCs, games consoles and mobile devices see http://www.ukie.info/playsafe/parental-controls
I’m grateful to Carlton Reeve for giving advice and suggesting some of these points.
Helping young people make good decisions is a really important part of being a parent. As we hear at the very end of the ‘Digital Bridge’ film: “They will make decisions and we cannot control what those decisions will be.” How important it is, therefore, to support parents and help them think about the downsides of letting their children play playing adult rated games. Of course many younger children see their older siblings play these games which is a real challenge if internet access is in a shared space (something which was encouraged in earlier internet safety advice leaflets!)
Bringing up children is so very challenging so just as we need to be sensitive in talking to children about how they play these games and being careful not to judge, we too need to be sensitive with parents and put this into a context of a child’s rights; to a safe environment, a world without violence, a place where everyone is respected both offline and online.
WHAT CAN SCHOOLS DO TO HELP PARENTS ?
Tackling this issue could be a big step to take for many schools. But schools already tackle tough issues about offline age-restricted activities and do a great job of setting clear standards for behaviour within their school community and encouraging parents to support the school. The engagement may be easier at a primary school level, but many year 5&6 children are playing these adult games.
Of course pioneering new approaches to reaching parents in this area requires resources and staff who have some expertise in this issue. We hope the following ‘small steps’ could be helpful:
- Provide copies of Childnet’s ‘Online Gaming an introduction to parents’ leaflet (see above).
- Getting older children to run a survey across the school (perhaps using an online survey tool like Survey Monkey) is a great way to start a dialogue about games and get a picture of what games students are playing. Once you have this information you can target awareness raising and education programmes for both students and parents (and teachers).
- Encourage a parent or teacher who is knowledgeable about online gaming to run an evening parents’ only session looking at these games and showcasing the tools which are available For example, security levels can be set to restrict access to games depending on age ratings on all games consoles (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii). The results of the survey will ensure that this event is targeted and relevant.
- At such an event – or through newsletters - show parents a range of age appropriate games that they can promote to their children as a positive way of showing the importance of age-appropriate games and examples of games which can revolutionise the learning experience of learners of all ages!
- Get parents to give permission for the school to run workshops with older students looking at the issues and how older young people in the school could support, mentor and advise younger users.
- Include reference to online games and the school’s policy in the school’s Acceptable Use Policy.
- Develop a drama, assembly, school production about the subject of online games and invite parents to come and watch and be informed through the creativity and drama.
- Think about developing a positive workshop for young people to develop their own game or app ideas. See ‘Apps for Good’ for ways in which schools can partner with this organisation.