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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 27, 2011 at 12:45 PM

Violent games for kids: What can parents do

The Supreme Court’s ruling that violent video games can be sold to children puts the onus on parents to protect their kids from offensive games.

Citing First Amendment protections, the court rejected California’s efforts to restrict sales of violent games to children under 18.

The government shouldn’t be trying to decide what’s acceptable content, and politicized censorship is more offensive than any video game. But the ruling is a little troublesome because it’s not a pure First Amendment question and gets into what material should be accessible to kids.

The court basically told California it can’t make it illegal for retailers to sell kids violent games, even games that carry a “Mature” rating that’s equivalent to an R or MA rating on movies. Instead, it pointed toward the industry’s voluntary rating system, which encourages retailers to refrain from selling mature games to minors. The problem is the state being the one to define what’s acceptable.

“This system does much to ensure that minors cannot purchase seriously violent games on their own, and that parents who care about the matter can readily evaluate the games their children bring home,” the ruling said. “Filling the remaining modest gap in concerned-parents’ control can hardly be a compelling state interest.”

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Lots of parents don’t care what games their kids play, judging from my conversations with pre-teen kids.

Maybe parents don’t think the games are a big deal, or they don’t have the time to manage their family game systems.

Perhaps those who are really worried about violent games don’t understand that all current consoles have built-in parental control systems.

This technology has been sitting there all along, enabling families to do what states cannot, under the Supreme Court ruling — block children’s access to violent games.

In other words, kids can buy all the violent game software they want, but they won’t be able to play them at home if parents take charge of the hardware on which the games are played.

“I don’t have time to deal with that” is a weak excuse. Video games increase the amount of time parents have available, because they glue kids to the TV set for an extended period of time.

It takes just a few minutes to set parental controls on a console. Once they’re set, the console is locked down until parents decide to change the settings.

It’s not complicated — it’s far easier than tweaking a Facebook account, and takes about the same amount of time as paying a bill online.

All three current consoles — Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii — enable parents to create a password and decide whether to block kids from playing violent or racy games.

The consoles use the game industry’s standard rating system — “E” games are for everyone, “T” games are rated for teens and “M” games are for mature players 17 or older. The boxes usually specify why the rating is given, noting whether the game has violence or nudity, for instance, and ratings are encoded on the discs.

Here’s a quick overview of how to set up parental controls. For more information, each of the console makers has detailed instructions online that I’ve linked to below.

On the Xbox 360, go to “My Xbox” and select “Family Center” or “Family Settings.” Click on “Console Safety” and click “On.” The First Amendment right to violent video games is now void in your rec room.

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You can click “ratings and content” to adjust the settings further.

On Sony’s PS3, go to “Settings” on the main menu and “Security Settings.” Select “Change Password” and create a password — the system comes set with “0000” as the password. The system lets you choose which rating level is allowed, without having to enter the password. The same password system can also be used to block playback of video discs with mature ratings.

On Nintendo’s Wii, go to Wii System Settings. Click the blue arrow to access additional menu options. Choose “Parental Controls” and select “Yes.” The system uses a four-digit PIN number to access these controls. It lets parents choose the “Highest Game Rating Allowed” on the console.

The Wii parental controls (picture below) can also be used to restrict use of the Opera browser, if it’s been downloaded to the console, and use of its online communication and shopping capabilities.

There are also parental controls that limit what games can be played on the PC, including Microsoft’s free Live Family Safety service.

A footnote: These programs are easy and powerful, but they won’t guarantee that kids won’t see violent video games.

There always seems to be a friend down the street with parents who let them play whatever they want, or with an older sibling who lets them play M-rated games.

Fortunately, most kids turn out fine no matter which games they play. If they go astray, it’s unlikely that bloody video games will be the culprit.

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Comments | More in | Topics: parental controls, PS3, Public policy

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