Each year, this space presents a parents guide to video games as the holidays approach. It can be a tricky subject to write about since there are as many theories of good parenting as there are kids, and interactive entertainment, online play and the issues they raise can seem like they are moving at warp speed.
The goal, therefore, will be to find a balance between extremes and offer some hands-on tips and tricks for parents with younger children facing an increasingly digital age.
In 2008, there has been a marked increase in the number of reputable studies into video games, online interactions and their effects on young minds.
In March, the Byron Review, a wide-ranging study commissioned by the British government, released a must-read report called Safer Children in a Digital World. In it, Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist, laid out three main areas of concern about games: They eat up time, perhaps keeping young people from engaging in other activities; online games can expose young players to potentially harmful outsiders; and children and young teens often play games meant for an older audience. (The report and a special section for kids can be found at http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview.)
Practical advice for dealing with those issues is the subject of this year's best book about interactive entertainment, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Games and What Parents Can Do (Simon & Schuster; $30). It was written by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, co-founders and directors of the Harvard Medical School's Center for Mental Health and Media, and it cuts through much of the divisive rhetoric and misinformation presented by video-game bashers and boosters. If video games are causing more stress than enjoyment at home, this book will probably help - children looking for gift ideas for mom and dad take note.
For parents who just want to figure out which games are safe buys for the holidays, retail boxes display ratings similar to the ones for movies: E is for Everyone, T for Teen (age 13 and up) and Mature games are aimed at the 17-and-over crowd (check out esrb.org for the full rundown). There are also some excellent websites with family-oriented reviews such as GamerDad.com and Commonsensemedia.com.
THE EARLY YEARS
What most of those studies and experts will tell you is that parents need to spend more time sitting down with their children in front of their screens. This is especially true as kids experience new technologies and media for the first time, and it is games that are increasingly being used as gateways to digital literacy.
Unfortunately, a lot of those would-be gateways consist of crappy make-work projects or advertisements in disguise. I could list some of the awful titles for the very young that I have tried recently, but it might be more productive to single out three games that get it right.
The first is Didi & Ditto Preschool: Mother Nature's Visit ($30) from Montreal-based Kutoka Interactive. This is a newly released game for preschoolers - the box helpfully provides an age range, from two to four years old - and it plays on most PCs and Macs. Didi and Ditto, both colourful beavers, have appeared in other titles, and here they are part of a community organizing a special party. The game is absolutely beautiful to look at, and it rewards curiosity, providing a range of interactive results for young users getting used to moving the cursor around.
The activities are enjoyable and sneakily educational, too, introducing math and science concepts along with the music and art. It is, in short, the perfect steppingstone game, and its artistic presentation will probably keep parents engaged as well.
Since kids are social beings, the next step is to play with friends, and that is where games such as Animal Crossing come in. It could be called "My First Multiplayer Game," and a new version for Nintendo's Wii console, Animal Crossing: City Folks (rated Everyone; $50), just hit stores. ( Wild World, for Nintendo's portable DS system, has been out since 2005.) In these games, players move to a new virtual town where they must find jobs to pay for customizable houses, furnishings and clothes, much of which can be designed by the user. Once you are set up, other players can visit your town over the Internet only after you exchange 12-digit passwords, or friend codes, a system that keeps the community closed until young players have learned the basics of online safety.
City Folk is also the first game to allow Wii users to chat remotely with each other thanks to Wii Speak, a microphone add-on that is packaged with the game for an extra $30. For far-flung friends and family, games like this provide a comfortable, creative place to interact and keep in touch.
If your kids are like millions of others around the world, they'll reach the ages of 7 to 12 and find their way to online worlds that function much like Animal Crossing, with monetary systems and avatars (animated stand-ins) to clothe and house. There's long list of these sites - Club Penguin, Dizzywood and Webkinz are among the most popular - and most of them attempt to insulate players from strangers and filter inappropriate language, with mixed results. Some charge monthly fees or sell virtual items, but usually the funding comes from advertisers.
For those who think this sounds like consumer training at its worst, there is Ecobuddies.com, from Vancouver's EcoBuddies Interactive. It presents an environmentally friendly message in a game world that is charming and free, for now, but also controlled. Online interactions are moderated, and there are different stages of chatting available: "Buddy chat" allows typing between members but no numbers, to prevent personal information from being passed around, and "super buddy chat" gives kids the chance to choose from a set list of replies.
None of these games or websites are foolproof or completely free of safety concerns, but some are better than others and parents and children will certainly benefit from exploring them together. Feel free to send in your tips and experiences, and stay tuned for a roundup of family-friendly games before the holidays really take hold.