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How Good Grows: Playing it safe online

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How Good Grows

We might be reckless when it comes to hitting the high notes in Rock Band, but when it comes to online gaming safety, you can never be too careful.

Yahoo's own How Good Grows program (which is currently honoring International Women's Day by encouraging users to share tales about amazing women) is all about the safe, smart sharing of info online -- and if you've got kids who play video games, that's a pretty serious concern. The good news is that there are all sorts of ways to ensure your kids are safe when gaming with friends -- or foes.

Here are a few handy tips:

Learn your E-S-R-Bs

Before you let your kids hop online, make sure you're cool with the games they're playing. Though the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) doesn't use the same age suitability symbols as you'll see in movies, the ratings are consistent across all consoles, handheld platforms, and even the PC. A full description is available on the ESRB web site, but here's the Cliff's Notes:

- EC: Early Childhood. In the ESRB's opinion, this game
is suitable for kids 3 and older.

- E: Everyone. Should be suitable for everyone over 6,
but may still have mild cartoon violence or language.

- E10: Everyone 10+. One step up from the E rating;
suitable for over-10s.

- T: Teen. We're into the heavier stuff here: violence,
gambling, minimal blood and infrequent strong language will all earn a title a
T rating.

- M: Mature. In practice, this is the highest rating
you're likely to see. For ages 17 and up, these games might contain intense violence, sexual content, blood and gore, and bad
language.

- AO: Adults Only. You won't see any titles with this
stamp on shelves, and in fact you're very unlikely to see any at all, ever.
It's essentially restricted to explicitly pornographic computer games, and
those simply aren't distributed in the USA to any significant degree.

- RP: Rating Pending. You'll see this on publicity
materials for unfinished games. It means exactly what it says: the publisher
hasn't yet submitted it for rating, because it's not yet finished. If you're
looking up info on an unreleased game, you'll just have to wait until the ESRB
gets to it (which will always happen before the game releases), and if you know
the game in question is already out, then you are looking at outdated material.

You'll usually see a set of "content descriptors" next to
the age-rating stamp. These are a valuable source of detailed information on
exactly what potentially objectionable content a game may have. For example,
Halo 3 (which carries the M rating) has the content descriptors "Blood and
Gore," "Mild Language," and "Violence." Other descriptors can warn of drug use,
gambling depictions, or sexual content.

Use parental controls

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to password-protect a console so it wouldn't play
games above a user-definable age rating? You'll be pleased to hear that each
major console has such a capability. Each one has its own way to set it up:

Set up your Wii

Set up your Xbox 360

Set up your PlayStation 3

Once you've made these changes, the system will be effectively safeguarded. Even if a friend brings over a game that doesn't meet your standards -- or if older kids (and adults) keep more mature games in the house -- your kids won't even be able to load them up without your consent. Understanding these controls is your most secure line of defense against age-inappropriate titles -- and it's by far the least hassle to maintain, too.

Online services: Handle with care

Lots of kids enjoy the sociability and competition of online gaming via services like Xbox Live. But despite the valiant attempts of the designers, they still remain a rather "Wild West" scenario, especially when voice chat is thrown into the mix. Although it sounds draconian, the only way to be completely sure that your kids aren't being exposed to bad language, racial abuse and/or homophobic slurs is simply to prevent them going online.

That's a pretty extreme measure, however. Instead of keeping them offline, consider limiting them to playing online with friends you already know. Removing
voice chat from the equation is an excellent option, too: just take the headset
away. Many popular games can be played perfectly well without the chatter,
although your offspring may plead otherwise. And no matter what the case, it's imperative you make sure they're aware that it's never appropriate to give out personal information to online friends.

These days, there's also no shortage of online games built specifically with kids in mind. If they're itching for the T-rated World of Warcraft, first introduce them to free-to-play alternatives like Free Realms or Star Wars: The Clone Wars Adventures. The subject matter -- and the chatter -- should be appropriately innocuous.

Stay educated

Of course, every online game experience is different. Understanding exactly what content a game has is key to deciding whether or not it's appropriate for your online gaming offspring, and the only way to do that is to do a little research.

Search engines like Yahoo! will give you a good overview, but other good strategies include checking out game trailers, because if a game is looking to trade on its controversial content, you can bet it'll be in the trailer. Specialist sites like What They Play are well worth bookmarking as well.

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