Hand of Fate [Fun Friday]

The rise of indie game development leads to all kinds of strange and fascinating mashups of game genres that no major studio would ever put together. There’s a good reason for that: shoving deckbuilding, choose-your-own-adventure, and arena combat into one game will result in a hot mess unless it’s done with great skill. IMG_3061-1.JPG

Well, the folks at Defiant have that skill, because Hand of Fate (Defiant Development, Teens and up, Xbox One/PS4/PC/Mac: $25) all three of those things in one package, and it’s a blast.

The game shifts between a card-playing engine and third-person combat. You sit across the table from a dealer who controls the game. He places cards on the table to form the steps through a dungeon, with different cards triggering encounters and attacks. In addition, he’ll play cards to throw some extra challenges your way, and deal out a kind of three-card monty that can increase or diminish your chances for success.

Meanwhile, you have your own deck, which grows as you go through different levels and defeat a sequence of bosses. This deck can be customized at the outset of each game, allowing you tailor your approach. Cards feature different game elements that are drawn, such as food and health to keep you going, weapons and armor, and other features. As you progress through the story, your character gains more sophisticated attacks and better equipment to meet the challenges of increasingly fierce foes.

Different stages of your journey are accompanied by text descriptions of characters or events, allowing you to choose an action than can draw you deeper into an side adventure, or just letting you trade for a special item.

The final major element in this strangely appealing soup is the combat engine. When it’s time to fight the battle indicate by the cards in play, the game drops into a respectable-looking 3D combat engine. The system plays like a simplified version of the Batman games, with turns, attacks, and blocks timed to counter a variety of monsters. Some might find this a jarring transition, but it really adds a bit of flavor and excitement to the card play, even if the encounters grow slightly repetitive in the long haul.

The total effect of all these elements is to draw the player into a randomly generated duel with a dungeon master and then bring that duel to life with combat and storytelling. It’s quite a neat feat.

The State of Games

As I mentioned last week, late summer tends to be The Busy Season in long-lead media, since we’re working on our Christmas issues, which traditionally are larger. Ours contains our annual game awards and buyer’s guide. so I’ve been deep in the gaming world for a while now, looking at the whole range of mobile, video, and computer games and trying to find the little diamonds worth noting. This means that I face the same problem that any Catholic media critic faces: I’m exposed to a pretty steady stream of culture-rot. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s important to step back and look at just what’s being pumped into the culture by this important new medium.

Honestly, most of it isn’t that bad, as long as you look at things in context and understand that games are not just for kids. Once a game gets an M-Rating, it’s usually pretty safe to assume it has the same content as an R-rated movie, and usually a “hard” R, often well on its way to an NC-17. There is an “AO” (“Adults Only) rating beyond the M, but like the old X-rating, it’s never used because stores won’t carry the games. For more details, you can refer to my primers on understanding modern video games: “Videogames and the Family” and “Choosing the Rights Games For Your Kids.”

Not much has changed since I posted those a few months ago. There’s a tendency to push the content envelope, not always in a good way. This year, The Darkness II was one of the most obscene, excessive, and casually blasphemous things I’ve ever seen.  It was also brilliantly designed, well scripted, and even touching at moments. The Call of Duty series remains hugely popular among gamers both young old, but it’s become unnecessarily violent for a military shooter that was once teen-friendly. Games like Max Payne 3 show how extremely mature content can be handled in a creative way, but you just have to remember: not for kids. Parents need to get that through their heads. If you won’t sit your 14-year-old down in front of the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, then he shouldn’t be spending a whole lot of time on Modern Warfare 3.

In The Darkness II, you can kill enemies using a hell-spawned imp, who then urinates on his victims.

Parents need to keep in mind that this is a medium, just like TV and movies. It’s for everyone, with the same diversity of content. It’s the same as TV, which goes from Sesame Street to The Walking Dead, or film, which goes from Brave to Ingloureous Basterds.  The new generation of Gens-Ys and Millennials don’t see this as kids stuff. They were raised on games and often prefer them to television. TV, after all is, passive. Games are interactive.  (Except for Doctor Who, my teenage son doesn’t watch any TV at all: his entertainment is games.) Plus, the most popular games usually have a strong multiplayer element, meaning they’re social as well.

The creative aspect of gaming is still in it’s DW Griffith phase. We have yet to find our Orson Welles. But we will, and the format right now is populated by the same range of creative approaches that characterize movies: big studio projects for a mass audience, B-listers, small art house items, wholesome family entertainment, plucky independents, and weird and wonderful individual visions. It’s all out there, but like every other thing you let in your house, you need to be a discriminating consumer.

State of the Industry

Video and computer games are not in a happy place right now. Once thought to be recession-proof, the videogame industry has been rocked by plummeting sales over the past year. The numbers have been terrible since the beginning of the year, with sales off by about 25% from 2011. Compared to the same months in 2011, January 2012 saw a 37% drop, February: 24%, March: 26%, and so on, straight down the line.

When you add in aging hardware systems, aggressive competition from mobile platforms, a creativity deficit that’s causing developers to coast along on the successes of aging franchises, and a simple shortage of interesting titles, and you have bleak picture.

This will not be a permanent thing, but it’s pointless to blow sunshine at a point when the news is quite bleak. With the entire gaming landscape undergoing a radical shift into unknown territory, 2012 could best be characterizing as a lull between what was and what might be.

Here are some of the big issues of the last year.

Mobile

Apps are still going strong, and even gaining strength due to the ever-expanding installed base of mobile and tablet users. The big news has been the aggressive entry of big companies like EA into the microtransaction world of “free” mobile gaming, which is netting huge profits and causing a seismic shift in the way they do business.

Amazing Alex (iOS/Android) challenges you to solve increasingly complex puzzles by making Rube Goldberg devices

On the flipside, all of this seems to be accompanied by a bit of a creative lull from developers. Up until this year game-makers were hitting wildly innovative designs out of the park on a regular basis, with small, quirky, wonderful little games creating new forms of entertainment we’d never before imaged. Now mobile, too, has settled into a comfy niche of big franchises (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where’s the Water, Temple Run) and fremium games. We’re simply not seeing the same outpouring of creativity we did in the beginning, which is probably to be expected with a new format.

Mobile remains the most family-friendly platform for content, with very few games even rising to the equivalent of a “Teen” rating.  The most popular titles are puzzle-type games and social games. The puzzlers don’t have any content issues at all. As for the social game, just remember that it’s possible for kids to inadvertently connect to total strangers in some games. Most publishers limit the interactions so that no real problems arise, but it’s always a good idea to check out just what they’re doing. Draw Something is a cute little version of Pictionary, in which people draw clues to words. Unfortunately, some people (particularly in the PC version) must think every word can be guessed by drawing a giant penis. So … caveat emptor.

“Free” to Play

The mobile gaming world is thriving thanks to another new passion of the big publishers: free to play. Once thought to be the last stage in the life of online games no one wanted to pay for any more, free to play is being considered one possible savior of PC gaming. I covered this in more depth last week.

The Future of Consoles

All eyes are on Nintendo as they roll out their new Wii U, which we covered last month and which includes an innovative new tablet controller. Nintendo is getting most of the blame for the steep drop in game sales. Just like subprime mortgages and inflated real-estate prices created a housing bubble, so did the “Wii-effect” of drawing non-gamers into the gaming world create a “Wii bubble.” Wii scaled such heights that it had a longer way to fall, and when new and interesting titles started to slow, the resulting 50% sales drop dragged the entire industry down with it. Wii made a lot of new gamers, but they weren’t really in it for the long haul.

Nintendo’s new handheld also failed to build a strong US audience, proving that mobile handsets have permanently realigned the handheld gaming landscape, and not in Nintendo’s favor. Despite putting out a decent piece of hardware and some truly exceptional games, Nintendo just isn’t offering a compelling reason to own the 3DS.

Thus, everyone is holding their breath and waiting to see what the Wii U does. Can it repeat the success of the Wii? Since a rising tiding lifts all boats, the hope is that a Wii U success could kick off an industry-wide sales surge and set the stage for new consoles from Microsoft and Sony in the upcoming years. We should know by January.

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure [Game Review]

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is insidious. I almost hesitate to recommend it because of the potential cost should a child become seriously hooked on the game, but it’s hard to deny just how fun the whole experience really is. Activision took a huge risk with Skylanders, and it paid off with a unique game that the whole family can enjoy.

Skylanders comes in various versions for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC/Mac, and Nintendo DS. Some bundles have different figures, but all of them are essentially the same. At the heart of the experience is the game itself: a colorful adventure which involves exploration, fighting, some light puzzle solving, and plenty of funny characters.

If that’s all Skylanders was, then it would be a perfectly good example of a juvenile action/adventure game, and nothing more. But Skylanders adds toys to the mix create something fresh. Each starter set comes with the game itself, a “Portal of Power” base, and three little figures representing characters from the game. The portal attaches to the game machine either via a wireless USB receiver or a wired connection, then lights up. For a character to “enter” the game, its matching toy must be placed on the portal, whereupon it pops into the landscape.

Thus, every base package comes with three playable characters, each representing a different kind of elemental power: fire, water, air, earth, life, tech, magic, and undead. Only certain powers can unlock certain areas of the game, and here’s where the insidious part comes in. Although it is perfectly possible to play the entire main plot of the game with just the three basic characters, certain other areas of the game world are locked off, and can only be accessed by purchasing toys with a particular power.

Right now, there are 37 different characters representing the 8 different elements, and more to come. At $8 a throw, simply unlocking the entire game will cost as additional $40, and let’s not even talk about kids who want a complete compliment of figures.  And good luck even finding the figures. Since Skylanders was a huge Christmas hit, it is impossible to buy some figures without paying scalper’s prices that can go as high as $50.

But does this serve any purpose other than driving parents insane and separating people from their cash? Actually, yes, it does. Each character can be upgraded as he goes about his adventures, and that data is saved to the figure itself using an RFID chip. A child can then bring a favorite figure to a friend’s house and it will retain all its levels and progress. Even better, swapping out figures is not merely integral to the gameplay, it’s fun. Kids love developing their little characters, and then watching them warp from the real world and into the game world, where each has some skills that are necessary for different parts of the adventure.

A lot of the action involves traversing various landscapes, collecting things, opening gates, and fighting foes. The game functions equally well as a solo game or in co-op mode, and feel a lot like the Lego game series. Different characters function better in certain environments, so as you enter a wet area, for instance, the narrator will inform you that a “Skylander of the water element” will function better there.  There’s a straight path through each level, culminating in a sequence of arena battles that pit the player against waves of enemies, traps, and other Skylanders.

There are also plenty of hidden areas, bonuses, money, hats, and other items to discover, adding greatly to the replayablity factor for those who want to earn a perfect score. None of it is terribly hard, although some encounters may take a few repeat tries. If a Skylander is knocked out during a level, it can be replaced instantly by putting a different figure on the portal. Because of this, some levels (particularly late in the game) become wars of attrition, with the game who owns more figures able to last longer.

Some special expansion packages even come with “powerup” figures and whole new levels than can be added into the game. Thus, the Darklight Crypt ($20) includes Ghost Roaster (a powerful Skylander), the Crypt level, an hourclass figure that slows time, and a potion figure that heals characters. For example, if you place the potion toy on the portal along with Ghost Roaster, he’ll heal over time.

Production is remarkably slick, with a script by Toy Story co-writers Alek Sokolow and Joel Cohen, and a musical score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Voice acting is very strong, and the script is often quite clever and funny. And, although Spyro’s supposedly the star of the show, you’d never know it. He’s one of the playable characters, but his name is never mentioned and he’s not particularly powerful.

Skylanders integrates the collecting/upgrading mania of Pokemon into the game realm using toys, which is a marketing trifecta. Parents may justifiably rage at the cash grab it represents, but kids (and quite a few adults) are just loving it. It’s just about the best game on the market for parents and kids to play together. If it wasn’t so darn fun, it would be unforgiveable.

Rating Summary

Artistic Quality: B+

Content: Cartoon Violence

ESRB Rating Summary: This is an action platformer in which players assume the role of whimsical creatures that must save their world from an evil villain. Each playable character uses elemental attacks (e.g., Magic, Water, Earth, Fire) to defeat robots, elves, and giant bugs; for example, dragons can spit fireballs, water creatures can shoot ice blocks, and plant creatures can fire pineapples at enemies that generally disappear amid puffs of smoke. During some sequences, players can toss “cartoony” projectiles at nearby enemies, resulting in small explosions.

ESRB Rating: Every 10+

Recommended for: Kids and families

UPDATED: Regular reader Victor posts a link to a Make interview with Skylanders tech engineer Robert Leyland that has some great pictures, including a base prototype made from sink and toilet parts. Make is a great publication and site.

Revisiting Bioshock

As details about Bioshock Infinite continue to emerge, it seems clear that the game is shaping up to be every bit as challenging and potentially controversial as the original Bioshock.

How serious is writer Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games about creating worthy sequel to one of the best, most intelligent, games ever made? Well, here’s one of the propaganda images from the upcoming game (due in the Fall), and here’s a tag attached to immigrants in the game world. (Note how the preferred “Partition A” includes anyone of European origins except for “Papist, Gypsy, Irish, Greek, Impaired or Sickly.”) With subject matter including eugenics, race, religion, politics, theocracy, nationalism, transhumanism, and more, Bioshock Infinite is shaping up to be even more provocative than the original.

And that’s going to be quite a feat, because even five years later, no one has come close to making a game that addresses serious issues so effectively. Bioshock was the game that finally got me off the sidelines and into the Catholic writing thing. I’d been thinking about using my long experience writing about games to cover the medium from a uniquely Catholic angle, much like my friend Steven D. Greydanus does for films. I just wan’t sure I had a “Catholic voice” after so many years of toiling in the secular media. I really didn’t know if I had anything to offer.

Bioshock changed that. It demanded serious coverage. It hit a sweet spot among my areas of knowledge: gaming, religion, philosophy, objectivism (I’m a lapsed Libertarian), pulp fiction, and transhumanism. I wrote the piece that follows in January of 2008 and gave it to my blogmother, Julie D., to use on the group blog Catholic Media Review. I used it to pitch the idea of continuing game coverage to the National Catholic Register, where the awesome and much-missed Dave Pearson took a chance and gave me a regular spot. That in turn became a regular gig as a Catholic journalist, and for those who knew me 10 years ago, that’s just … weird. But wonderful.

Anyway, didn’t mean to ramble on so as a simple introduction to a game review, but Bioshock was a turning point not only for games as an intelligent medium capable of conveying ideas and exploring morally complex issues, but also for me personally as a writer. As this blog continues to cover tech, gaming, and transhumanism, I thought it was worthwhile to have the entire review housed over here.

Bioshock

Rated: M
Content: Bioshock is a game for adults. It includes use of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes as a gameplay element; strong, R-rated language; blood and gore; intense violence; and sexual, religious, moral, and ethical themes. Not for kids.

When game journalists and editors sit down to hash out an annual awards issue, the “Best Game of the Year” Award usually takes a least a little conversation and debate.

In 2007, the conversation was short: “Does anyone think any game other than Bioshock is worthy of Game of the Year? Anyone?  Anyone? Let’s move on then.”

In a year flush with fantastic, smart, well-crafted games for consoles, computers, and handhelds, Bioshock stands out as one of the rare game games to transcend its format. Bioshock is a game, make no mistake: you run around collecting things, shooting monsters, enhancing your character, unlocking new locations, and performing all the other functions associated with a role-playing action shooter.  But there’s more here. Much more.

Narrative complexity, character development, and even thematic depth are fairly common coin in modern game design, but Bioshock takes it further, probing issues of morality, bioethics, and the nature of the self, all within the context of a Libertarian/Objectivist Dystopia.

Those who follow computer gaming have been awaiting Bioshock for a long time. Its creators call it a “spiritual heir” to System Shock, a sci-fi game which remains one of the landmarks in PC gaming history. System Shock was a deep, first person experience that offered a vivid world and narrative, then let you progress through combat, stealth, puzzles, or any combination of the three. Bioshock’s developer, Irrational Games, is staffed with some of the original System Shock team, and several of System Shock’s core elements have been carried forth into a new and even better game experience.

Bioshock begins in 1960, as a plane crashes into the middle of the ocean, leaving only one survivor: you.  Swimming through the burning wreckage, you encounter a strange kind of lighthouse rising out of the deep like some Lovecraftian monolith. Inside, a bathysphere takes you to the bottom of the ocean, and a city of wonder hidden there.  This city is the work of a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan, who named it Rapture.

Ryan is a radical Objectivist millionaire who seeks to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia, He’s Ayn Rand via Charles Foster Kane, with a bit of Howard Hughes tossed in for good measure.  Rapture is his monument to narcissism. Its soaring architecture and burnished brass seem like set designs by Albert Speer for an Art Deco production of Atlas Shrugged. These are not mere monuments to the ego of one man. Although Ryan’s cult of personality is complete and smothering—his voice (acted by Armin Shimerman) blaring from loudspeakers, his mottos carved into stone—Rapture is designed to create an entire city full of narcissists. The worship of self is central, as Ryan makes clear in one of his many pronouncements:

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No! says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No! says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No! says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.”

What is the most vicious obscenity ever visited on mankind? To Ryan, it’s not slavery, the holocaust, Nazism, Bolshevism … it’s altruism. Altruism is the great lie that inverts the proper order of things. All the evils  of the world are brought on because people are conditioned to consider the needs of the other. In Ryan’s (and Rand’s) philosophy, they should think only of themselves. Rapture was created so that scientists would be able to conduct research free of the ethical constrains of civilization, so artists would not be bound by outdated moral codes, where the only rule would be the Law of Thelema: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Ryan builds the city in secret, and populates it with his own special selection of handpicked “brights”. As you’d expect from such a libertarian wonderland untethered from morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long for Rapture to descend into utter chaos. When you finally reach it, it’s already a leaking husk overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and recordings collected in the course of exploration. It’s a technique used to great effect in the original System Shock, and it works even better here.

Rapture’s collapse is an object lesson in what happens when bioethics break down. The city is undone by genetic tampering, as people attempt to turn themselves into Gods with gene modifying drugs. God’s work is imperfect, people are told, so science must step in to improve it. At the top of the crumbling pyramid is Ryan, with his Godlike delusions and warped philosophy. He sees Rapture as a New Eden. Indeed, two of the gameplay elements are “ADAM”, a mutagen which allows people to modify their genetic structure to enhance certain powers, and “EVE,” the fuel for these genetic mutations. In order to get through Rapture, your character needs to become one of these mutants without sinking too far into madness. It’s a dangerous balance, and in the end only love is able to bring you back, if you choose the path of love.

As you need more and more of these drugs to progress through the game, you’re forced to make moral choices. You see, roaming throughout Rapture are a chilling pair of creatures: Big Daddy and Little Sister. Big Daddies are huge genetic mutants in heavily armed diving suits. Little Sisters are innocent looking little girls with ponytails, cute little dresses … and giant needles they use to suck the ADAM out of mutants after the Big Daddies kill them.

The Little Sisters are the work a female holocaust survivor, Dr. Tennenbaum, who creates them to produce ADAM. She thought the girls could be used without consequence, but didn’t count on them retaining their childlike characteristics. They’re still little girls, who sing, and laugh, and play. As Tennenbaum says at one point: “I look at genes all day long, and never do I see the blueprint of sin. I could blame the Germans, but in truth, I did not find tormentors in the Prison Camp, but kindred spirits. These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination… my maternal instinct.”

Life will find a way, however. Dr. Tennenbaum’s maternal instincts win out. She turns into the Sisters’ protector, and find herself on the run inside Rapture. She forces the player to make a choice. As the character, we have been told to kill the Big Daddies and suck the ADAM out of the Little Sisters, a process that will kill them. Tennenbaum begs us to save the girls. Through her process, a smaller amount of ADAM can be extracted, leaving the girls alive and freed of the drug’s control. In return, she offers a vague promise of some reward down the road.

Which do you choose? It’s just a game, after all. The choices don’t matter. Expediency should win out.

But time and again, when I’ve spoken to people about it, they always say they left the Little Sisters alive. Since doing so changes the way the game unfolds (and ultimately ends), some may go back and harvest just to see the alternate ending, but most feel uncomfortable with it. (Both endings are easily found on YouTube.) There’s a strange feeling of rightness that comes from healing the Sisters. It becomes a part of the risk/reward cycle of the game. It also leads to an absolutely boffo “good” ending. (Killing the girls results in a “bad” ending, making it clear just where the developers’ sympathies lie.)

From a pure gameplay perspective, Bioshock can be called a first person shooter, but that would sell it short. The combat elements are handled elegantly, with many ways to approach each enemy. As you progress, you pick up Plasmids and Genetic Tonics, which can be loaded into a finite number of slots on your character. These genetic modifications add different kinds of attacks, but also enhance various physical, engineering, and combat skills. By using special stations, you can customize your character with very specific attacks and skills, enabling each player to create a unique character. You can thus customize your character to approach the game in a variety of ways, with an emphasis on hacking, stealth, frontal combat, and so on. The game also incorporates System Shock’s “hacking” mode, which allows users to solve puzzles (styled on the Water Works tile game) to bypass certain obstacles or gain bonuses.

There is much more in Bioshock than this, and a simple listing of features always comes up short in conveying just how immersive and engrossing this game is. The world itself is a richly detailed art deco hell populated with a large cast of characters and creepy enemies. Narrative emerges through recordings and messages left behind, with both major and minor characters sketched through deft little clips pieced together along the way.

Bioshock shows us a stark picture of what Libertarianism and Objectivism would look like in the real world. I spent ten years supporting the Libertarian Party through votes and donations before I finally grew up. It is, and always shall be, a philosophy of children. Unfettered individualism does not lead to an Objectivist Utopia. It leads simply to Rapture, and the hell of a society filled with narcissists trying to make themselves gods. Bioshock puts you in the middle of that hell, and forces you to choose a side.

It’s the kind of choice a radical Objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has an absolutely central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society.  Games just don’t get better than this.

Bioshock is available at Amazon.

Videogames and the Family

This is an expanded and updated version of a story that originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.

We all want to do right by our children: make them happy, keep them healthy, and raise them to be fine adults formed by the values of our faith. Having a nonstop spigot of toxic mass media sludge pumped into our homes 24/7 can make this a daunting prospect.

Catholic families really only have two options: either opt out of the media culture completely, or put a filter on that spigot so that only the good things get through. Neither choice is foolproof. We live in this modern society, and opting out of electronic media—movies, television, games, music, cell phones, computers and the internet—is not merely challenging: it’s probably unhealthy. For better or worse, this is a wired world, and our kids need some basic orienteering skills if they’re going to navigate it.

A recent Pew survey found that 97 per cent of children play video games. The Kutner-Olsen study (conducted at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media and published as Grand Theft Childhood) revealed that children who didn’t play games of any kind tended to have more social problems. Parents may see games as a mind-sucking waste of time that turns normal people into button pushing zombies, but for kids they are a challenge, a bonding opportunity, and a topic of discussion. In contrast to the passive nature of watching television, gaming is active, putting the user in control of how events unfold through exploration, interaction, and problem-solving.

Like any other media, some games are good and some are bad.  And while we often talk about violent games because they are of the greatest concern, it’s important to remember that the majority of games are completely benign: sports, racing, strategy, puzzle, music, and arcade far outnumber those with violent content.

Maintain Control

The question is: do you even let games in your house? Many families already have a PC, which can also do double-duty as a game machine, but your kids would rather be playing a Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or PlayStation3. Teens and adult gamers tend to prefer the Microsoft Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 because they offer high-octane action titles and superior graphical performance.

If you’re looking for an all-around family console, however, it’s hard to beat the Wii’s ease of use and large library of family friendly titles. Once you have a game console in the house, the most important thing is controlling access. In our household, we limit game time to Fridays and Saturdays during the school year, and maintain a 1:1 ratio of reading time to game time. (In order to earn an hour of game time, a child has to log an hour of reading time.)

When I explain our limitations on game time and access to parents, some are flabbergasted, often remarking that their kids “would never stand for that.” What a fascinating statement. If you do not have the parental authority to regulate your child’s access to media, then you have no parental authority at all.  The console should never be placed in a child’s bedroom, and kids shouldn’t have free access to it.

Fortunately, all three game machines have parental locking codes, which prevent them from playing titles with certain ratings unless a password is entered. Thus, you can bar all M-rated titles from your home, or lock the system so that you can approve when, what, and for how long your kids play.

Going Online

Another decision is whether or not to allow teens to have an online gaming account. (Don’t even think about it for younger kids, unless it’s a completely family friendly title like Club Penguin or Wizard 101.) This can be a subscription-based PC game such as World of Warcraft, or a general console connection service like Xbox Live. The important thing to remember about these account is that actual people are on the other end, and a significant portion of them are not playing with a full deck.

You have almost no control whatsoever of who your children are interacting with, and unless you lock down the communications controls pretty tightly, it is possible for complete strangers to make contact with your kids. It’s possible for people to “friend” your child in a game session, much like they would on Facebook. They can then send messages and even media files and back and forth via the console system.

Since most systems now integrate things like Twitter and Facebook support, we’re seeing a massive convergence of gaming and social networking. No one is quite sure what this all means for privacy and security, but it can’t be good. If you do allow your kids to have online accounts, you need to limit any personal information that’s included in their gamer tags, and definitely do not connect online accounts to social networking sites for minors. (By the way, your minors shouldn’t be on social networking sites anyway, but that’s a whole other story.)

One other thing to remember: most systems allow for in-game voice support, which means any gamer with a headset attached to his controller can be heard in your living room if they’re in a session with your child. Think about that for moment. I’ve heard what goes on in these sessions, and the language is about as bad as you can imagine. Just turn all voice support off. Period. They do not need to be talking to anyone anyway. If you’re savvy enough to lock it down so it’s “friends only,” and they only friend people they personally know, then fine. Otherwise, just turn it off.

Choosing Games

Picking the right game can be tricky, despite all the tools available for evaluating content. I It’s harder than choosing the right TV show or movie, since games are often large and complex, and may contain elements that are only seen in certain circumstances. Although there is no shortage of completely inoffensive games, many releases are awash in violence.

That violence has a fairly wide range of expression. At one end of the spectrum, you might bounce on a character who then disappears in a puff of confetti, while at the other end you can find mutilation and even torture. In between those extremes, you’ll find everything from mild mayhem to realistic and gruesome dismemberment. As a rule, sex and gore warrant an M-rating, but T-rated games are able to show a fair amount of violence as long as they keep the blood to a minimum. You can refer to yesterday’s post for more information on figuring out the ratings system.

In our house, for instance, we debated allowing our son to play military shooters in the house when my son was getting older Although the action primarily involves shooting enemy soldiers, the player is clearly a hero, the violence isn’t particularly graphic, and the entire experience is rich in historical detail. As series like Call of Duty drifted far from that formula, and started wallowing in nihilism and senseless violence, those games simply were no longer allowed. No teenager should be playing the Call of Duty series any more.

Each child is different and, depending upon his or her age, may or may not be ready for this kind of gameplay. On the one hand, it’s the modern equivalent of playing war, particularly since multiplayer modes allow people to compete against each other. One the other hand, parents may reasonably want to avoid any game which puts a young person in the role of killing another person, even an enemy. It’s not an easy call to make. Do you draw the line at non-explicit violence, or allow only violence only against non-humans (aliens or other creatures, for instance)? How can we reconcile games which include any depiction of killing with our faith? Wouldn’t we do better to avoid such things altogether?

Every parent has to struggle with these questions individually. Certainly, violence is part of even benign entertainment: there is no protagonist without an antagonist. Aristotle’s six principles of drama begin with mimesis (the imitation of an action) and end with katharsis (the purgation of excess emotions). Games function by the same rules: they engage our emotions, and then provide the release.

In the stormy world of adolescence, games may actually play a number of important roles, providing socialization, problem-solving, contained fantasy, and an outlet for tension and troubled emotions. Making the right choices for each child at each stage in their life, however, is challenging. There are tools—such as ratings, descriptors, content-rating web sites like commonsensemedia.org, and parental lock-out codes—that can help, but in the end, there’s no substitute for engaged parenting. Sit down, play with your kids, find out what they’re doing and seeing. Maybe you’ll even wind up as gamer yourself.