The last computer game I played was Nibbles on our family’s IBM 286.
So when I discovered while researching this story that park bench sex and violent beheadings were all part of today’s gaming world, it became clear I had some catching up to do.
In 2017, 80 per cent of young people played games online. eSafety research shows that while concerned about it, parents and carers don’t always know how to manage their child’s gaming.
ABC’s Good Game is exploring the world of classifications for its new series aimed at parents, Help! My Kid is a Gamer. It’s all about offering advice to adults like me stuck in the land of DOS and helping us get up to speed.
Why paying attention to game classifications matters
Tony Fitzgerald is virtual services manager with Kids Helpline and dad to two teenage boys.
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Streaming video games online might sound like a dream job. But for many aspiring streamers, the reality is long hours, isolation and little — if any — money.
He says when a child is exposed to inappropriate content in gaming, particularly on a regular basis, it can be damaging to their wellbeing.
“A lot of the contacts we get to Kids Helpline and Parent Line from parents concerned about their child gaming will be in relation to being exposed to inappropriate content.
“That ongoing exposure to content can certainly have a negative impact, particularly if it’s not developmentally appropriate for a young person.”
But it’s not just the elements like violence and sex parents need to be worried about. It’s also the interaction with other gamers, especially as online gaming becomes more common.
Regardless of what classification of game a child is playing, if it’s multiplayer or has chat rooms, they could be exposed to adults who are potentially dangerous.
“For example, some games or apps such as Discord enable children to chat with others over the internet while playing a game. The eSafety website has some resources for parents to help them manage gaming risks to their children.”
G: General, very mild impact
PG: Parental Guidance, mild impact
M: Mature, a more mature perspective is required and moderate impact
MA15+: Mature Accompanied, a legally restricted category (anyone under 15 may not purchase, hire or view this game without being accompanied by an adult)
R18+: Restricted, (anyone under 18 may not purchase, hire or view this game, even when accompanied by an adult)
How the classifications work
Margaret Anderson is the director of Classifications Board. She knows her stuff.
“Games are really interesting because you’re not just having that more passive experience you may have with a film, it’s more interactive,” she says.
“You very often are responsible for making choices in terms of how that game plays out, what direction that game goes in.”
Last year the board classified about 450 games that you could buy at a retailer.
“I want to reassure parents that we don’t just randomly look at a few bits of the game,” Ms Anderson says.
“We impose an onus on the person who is applying to get the game classified, to tell us the most impactful parts of the game in relation to six classifiable elements: themes, violence, coarse language, sex, drug use and nudity.”
Because not all games are sold in a box in store shelves — we have digital games and mobile games too — not all can be classified by the board.
But this game seems OK to me?
Ideally you should research, watch and play (if possible) a game yourself before deciding if it’s right for your child.
When your child sees distressing content online
Internet safety experts share their advice on how to help a child who’s stumbled across graphic footage, explicit images or other inappropriate sites online.
But just because you think an MA15+ game seems suitable for your 13-year-old, doesn’t mean it is.
“The classifications are there for a very good reason … there can be some really disturbing content in some of those more mature games,” Mr Fitzgerald says.
“We don’t want to normalise those kinds of experiences for kids.”
And it can go the other way too. A G-rated game might not actually align with your family values.
“It’s important that families and parents bring their own values to this [process],” Mr Fitzgerald says.
“There will be families who have certain values that mean even the games that might generally be acceptable might not be so for them.”
How to monitor what your kids are playing
The Department of Communications and the Arts recommends complementing the classification information by using a range of other strategies such as:
- Reading reviews of games on the internet
- Talking to other parents
- Having their children play games in a common room where parents can supervise them.
Mr Fitzgerald recommends adopting parental controls, and getting involved with the kids and their games.
“Take an active interest rather than a passive interest,” he says.
“Being involved provides the opportunity for conversation and discussion and that’s always healthy when being exposed to some of this content.”
If your child does see or experience something inappropriate, perhaps while playing a game at a mate’s place, for example, embrace the chance to discuss it, Mr Fitzgerald says.
“The most important thing is to not shut down the conversation. Use an opportunity to talk about what they were exposed to and talk about why it was really inappropriate, why that doesn’t reflect the values of the family and potentially of society.”
You can check out Good Game’s new iview series Help! My Kid is a Gamer.