So it’s Christmas and you’ve bought your kids a video game console – for a few sweet hours you’re going to be the greatest parent on the face of the planet. Congratulations.
But, to be honest, your work has only just begun. Like any new technology, you can’t just let them get on with it – even if the mere sight of a games controller sends shivers of terror (or boredom) down your spine. You need to step up and take an active part in this. Giving a console is like giving a pet: it’s a long term commitment and it can be tricky and demanding. But at least a console won’t pee on your carpet when it gets over-excited.
Anyway, here are the five golden rules of family console ownership.
Set the parental controls from the outset
It’s no good just handing the new console over to your kids and hoping for the best, you need to take control – and that means overseeing the set-up procedure, registering as the main user and then setting up the parental controls. The PS4, Xbox One and Wii U all walk you gently through this process (Microsoft has even produced a video on setting up your Xbox One this Christmas) – and each of them allows you to limit access to games and DVDs with older age ratings. You can also control access to the internet and online multiplayer gaming. The important thing is, you need to do this right away. If one of your kids registers as the master account, they have all the power.
Understand the Pegi rating system
Some games aren’t suitable for children. At all. Every game you buy has to have an age rating provided by Pegi on the box, and when it says 16+ or 18+ it really does mean those games aren’t suitable for younger kids. They will contain graphic violence, explicit language and sometimes also scenes of a sexual nature – exactly like movies.
The problem is, however careful you are, there will be parents who’ll happily let their eight-year-old play Call of Duty. If you have a young child who is going to play games at a friend’s house, it’s worth checking what they’ll be playing – you don’t have to be judgmental, just say you’d rather they didn’t play certain games. It’s tricky, but then so is getting up at 3am because your child is having a nightmare about eviscerating an alien monster with a chainsaw.
Set playtime limits
It’s really up to you to decide how long your children can play on the console. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have no more than two hours of screen time a day, which includes watching TV and/or playing games. It’s a good idea to have some sort of timer device so your children can see how long they have left: this is very important when they’re playing a video game that has long levels with few save points. Give a 15-minute warning before the end of the session, so they can save their progress. Don’t just walk into the room and switch off the power without checking. That’s cruel.
Keep the console in a social space
If you can, it’s best to have the console in a family room rather than in a bedroom. There are practical benefits here. All the major consoles offer extra features such as apps like the BBC iPlayer, Netflix and YouTube, and the Xbox One and PS4 will play Blu-ray discs, so they’re pretty useful to have under your living room TV.
Keeping the console somewhere visible means you can monitor access and make sure no one is playing Skylanders until four in the morning. It also gives you a better idea of what your kids are playing and it means you can ask questions or, heck, even join in.
Even if you haven’t played a video game since Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive, it’s worth taking an active interest in what your kids are doing with their new machine. At the very least, Google the game they’ve asked for, or look up reviews (Metacritic is useful for this) – find out if there are any issues with the game: does it have challenging themes? Are there technical problems? You should make an effort to find out.
There are plenty of games that you can play together, too. The Lego titles are brilliant for parents with younger kids, and Minecraft is a vast creative sandbox that you can easily enjoy together.
When you’re buying a new game, check on the back of the box to see if it has a local multiplayer option – that means more than one person in the room can play at the same time (everyone will need their own controller of course). Co-operative games like Yoshi’s Woolly World and Rayman Legends are great fun, but so are titles like Mario Kart 8 and Fifa 16, which get you competing against each other.
The key message is, don’t see a games console as something your kids do that you don’t need to understand. There are a lot of reasons why you need to know how it works and what it plays, but the most important one is that games are fun and something you can share.