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August 12, 2009 > Catching Up with Video Games

Catching Up with Video Games

By Daniel Yu

The video game industry has grown from a mere curiosity some twenty years ago to a multi-billion dollar, world-wide market. Perhaps once unimaginable, video games are now considered on near equal footing with other popular forms of mainstream entertainment, such as movies and music. Children today are just as excited and well-informed about the latest big-budget video game as they are about the next summer blockbuster movie. Television ads for games are starting to become as common as ads for the latest popular music CD. All of this exposure has really come to the forefront in the last two decades, unlike music and film, which had a much longer time-period to grow into mainstream popularity.

With such accelerated market growth invariably comes the occasional misstep. In the high-profile video game industry, some mistakes have resulted in revealing controversial aspects of today's games, such as mature content. In 2005, a game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas made headlines in the US due to a feature that got left in the game that showed adult-themed subject matter inappropriate for younger children. Some parents who grew up in a time where exploding vector-drawn asteroids in games were considered sophisticated were understandably surprised - mainstream games could have adult content? When did this start happening?

The reality is that the fast growth of the industry means that games, and their audience, have changed. What was once an endeavor of a handful of engineers is now a full-scale effort that demands manpower and costs similar to that of motion picture productions. Game companies now employ professional artists, designers, writers, musicians, and producers, in addition to engineers, and the resulting complex product reflects this. The audience has changed as well, with many video game consumers being older that the traditional teenage market. Games are now more technically advanced, and often, much more realistic than before. The U.S. Army currently uses titles such as America's Army or Full Spectrum Warrior as training and recruitment aids, as examples of how effective game realism has become. Games have, in essence, grown up.

So how does someone who has not been following this breakneck growth get up to speed on what games are appropriate for children or adults? Simply browsing the video game section at a local large department store or online can be a daunting task, with hundreds of titles for different systems on display. TV and print ads tend to be slick on presentation, but light on information. As it turns out, there are several resources for researching what sort of content a video game has.

Every game sold in stores is rated for content, just like movies. A non-profit self-regulatory organization called the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB for short) has been reviewing and rating video games since the mid 1990s. The ESRB uses a letter system for ratings, similar to films. Common ratings to be aware of include: "E", which stands for "Everyone" and indicates the game is suitable for most ages, "T", which stands for "Teen" and indicates the game is not appropriate for children younger than thirteen years of age, and "M", which stands for "Mature" and indicates the game is not appropriate for children younger than seventeen years of age. In addition to the letter rating, the ESRB also provides a helpful list of potentially objectionable content for each game, with labels such as "Blood and Gore", "Language", "Suggestive Themes", and many others. More information on ESRB ratings is available here: http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp.

Other good resources for information are professional game reviews, on websites such as www.ign.com, www.gamespot.com, or many others. Since these are in-depth reviews, some of the information presented therein will contain useful descriptions of content and intended audience. Reviews also usually have screenshots and videos of the games. There are even aggregate review websites, such as www.metacritic.com, that regularly collect and organize all available reviews on games from most of the major websites and print magazines, often with helpful links to the reviews themselves.

Parents should be aware that some video games support online multiplayer features, which means that these games may have live player-generated content such as text and voice based chat, or user-supplied pictures. Live content may not be monitored or filtered, so parents may need to observe and control who their children play with online. Games that support online features will indicate this on the product packaging.

Once an appropriate game is found and purchased, it may also be worth actively participating in games with younger children, to make sure that the child is enjoying and understanding the game, and perhaps even gaining some beneficial side-effects, such as developing their problem solving skills and exercising their imagination. As noted before, resources are freely available to determine what games are about, and what games are appropriate for children, and prudent parents will take advantage of these resources to ensure that games can be enjoyed by the entire family.



Daniel Yu has been writing articles and fiction for over ten years. He spent over a year as the primary interview journalist for the Adrenaline Vault, a professional video game website, and has done several freelance writing jobs for various game industry clients. He also regularly writes short stories and other forms of experimental fiction. He considers writing one of the most important forms of self-expression and communication, and believes everyone should take the time to write. He can be reached at: dsyu@hotmail.com

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