Parenting Help

Move Over Mario 

With summer in full swing, teenagers can finally do what they’ve dreamt about all school year long: play weeks and weeks worth of video games.

You weren’t thinking “summer reading lists” were you???

Pong is Long Gone
In my day, the coolest video games either featured a guy named Mario climbing up ladders while a big monkey threw barrels at him…or allowed you to use cheat codes to get extra lives(Yes, you’re seeing correctly; our game controllers only had two buttons. Nostalgic, huh?)

During my adolescence, video games introduced a generation of young people to characters such as Link (Zelda), Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Ryu (Ninja Gaiden). These heroes crammed fun and action into the eye-popping (and cutting edge) 8 bits of graphics heaven that entertained us daily.

But gone are the simplistic days that required video games to merely allow two people to play at once. Now video game designers spend (literally) millions of dollars creating an interesting character, a twisting plotline, stunning visual graphics, and overall playability…with people from around the world! Today’s video games run at 60 frames per second, in full HD with surround sound capability, and offer players a host of customizable options. The budget required to produce one of these games is akin to NASA’s cost of sending someone to the moon…around Neptune!

Now you know why they cost sooooo much. 

Whether they are handheld (and totally mobile), linked to online social networks like Facebook, played on gaming consoles, or played on PCs that are connected to the Internet, the video game industry is a huge one. $22 billion was spent in 2008 and $25 billion was spent in 2009 on this form of media entertainment alone.

Those kind of numbers make me ask, “What recession?” 

Good Clean Fun?
One of biggest differences between video games of yesteryear and those of today have nothing to do with cost, coolness, or quality, but instead, focuses on the potentially negative effects that today’s video games produce.

Twenty years ago, there was always a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” The good guy was always controlled by the player, and if that teenager was persistent enough – or had parents who were willing to let them play long enough – the good guy always won. Always. 

Now, it’s not so easy to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. In fact, in some games, players actually control the “bad guys” and the more damage and destruction they can do, the better.

While the list of “greatest games ever” will always be heavily contested by anyone who’s ever thrown a controller across the room in disgust…at 2:00 a.m.…currently, there is little dispute about the country’s most popular video gameRed Dead Redemption. Set in 1911, “RDR” follows ex-outlaw John Marston as he tries to rescue his wife and son kidnapped by lawmen who want Marston to do their dirty work of killing off his former gang members. This action-packed, violence-laden, six gun-shooting thriller is set in the Wild West, and has the geniuses – or evil scientists – from Rockstar Games behind its design and production.

Rockstar Games is essentially the Mercedes Benz of video games; their designs make millions of players around the world gawk and drool. Their handiwork can be seen and played in what is arguably the world’s most popular games of all time, Grand Theft Auto series…which may be the world’s most despised games, as well.

But even if today’s video games pit the good guys against evil aliens who want to invade earth, and omit internal “mini games” such as the controversial and sexual Hot Coffee, there are still other factors to consider.

Unfortunately, video games have totally consumed many kids in America and around the world. In my earlier article on the lure of the glowing screen, I shared Kaiser Family Foundation’s research claiming that kids played 1 hour and 13 minutes of video games every day, and 51% of those games were played on handheld/mobile devices like cell phones and the Nintendo DS. Though some of the claims in this article from the UK seem slightly exaggerated, I’ve observed most of these habits in the lives of teenagers I’ve met across the country. Video games are the cause for too many kids to skip meals, schools, and even sleep.

I don’t think we’d be here if Tetris was still at the top of the list. 

Video Games’ Certain – But Delayed – Future
With as much money as the video gaming biz generates each year, it was slightly surprising to hear that there are no plans for new game consoles among the leading manufacturers (Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation) to sell to the frenzied masses. But really, how much more Hi Def can you make something? And, how much faster can it actually process?

Maybe that’s why British gazillionaire Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group are seizing the opportunity to launch their own brand of online gaming that boasts tournament purses totaling $1,000,000.

And to think, back in the day, we believed playing for the last popsicle in the fridge was high stakes.

But fear not. Just because there are no plans for new gaming consoles (the system on which video games are played) there will still be plenty of software upgrades, accessories, and video games available for sale.

Knowing that games featuring music (such as the Guitar Hero franchise and Rock Band series) are sought after by kids who listen to 2 hours and 19 minutes of music every single day, Ubisoft has recently announced a video game that highlights the music and dance moves of the deceased King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

MJ seems to be making as much money after his death as he did in the last decade of his life. You know video games are money makers when the likes of Forbes weighs in with their list of Top 10 video games arranged by “units sold,” of course.

With these kinds of numbers, the video game industry is guaranteed a solid future, even if kids have to play 3 and 4-year-old technology like the Wii or PlayStation 3.

Is Big Business Good Business?
The incredible advancements made by designers in the last two decades are only half of the reason for the video game industry’s exponential growth.

Our willingness to buy whatever they produce is the other half.

Just because the video game world is big doesn’t mean its all good. Parents and youth workers have the important task of helping teenagers make sound decisions with their gaming entertainment choices. Don’t forget to:

  • Pay close attention to game ratings. The Entertainment Software Rating Board offers this complete list of rating possibilities that are assigned to all games set for release in America. You may want to note the descriptions for “mature” (M) and “adult only” (AO). The substance of these video games will always be the most extreme in areas such as violence, sexual content, language, and other vulgarities.
  • Use them to your advantage. We sometimes have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. That’s never a good idea. Yes, the gruesome and vile video games usually steal the headlines…and make many cringe at the idea of bringing a game system into the home or church, but don’t forget…there are tons of great games that are family friendly as well as church friendly. No outreach event is complete anymore without the help of Rock Band or Guitar Hero(just be somewhat cautious over song selection). And pretty much anything “Mario” is still a winner with kids from my generation as well as kids today.
  • Stay informed. When you visit your local Blockbuster store, take note of the game posters that are hanging in the windows. Peruse the “most rented” games to see what kids in your area are playing. Ask your own teenagers what’s hot. Obviously, you’ll want to personally oversee what games your kids purchase and bring into your home, but also ask about what games they may be playing at friends’ homes.

These ideas can help you steer clear of the pitfalls associated with the gaming industry these days. After all, kids “aren’t in Kansas anymore,” and it’s not just Pac Man that’s for sale.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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