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Gaming has changed a lot in the last ten years, and thanks to the rise of smartphones and tablets, it’s easier for children to play games online than ever before. And this means that parents, more than ever before, need to pay attention to what their kids are doing online.
There is no substitute for hands-on parenting
You can’t rely on box covers, ratings systems, server admins, game developers, or anybody else to protect your kids — especially when you’re playing online. When other players are added to a game, everything changes and it’s easy for your kids to be exposed to something you might not have expected, whether it’s a swear word or a shock credit card bill.
But playing with other people online is also a hugely rewarding and wonderful collaborative experience that can bring great joy to you and your family. It can also help kids develop important skills they’ll need as they grow up, like planning, decision-making, creativity and teamwork (especially if they’re playing alongside you!). So it’s important that you know what to look for when allowing your kids to play online.
Watch out for hidden costs – no game is ever truly free
There are a lot of Free To Play games out there in the world now: it’s a great business model, and it allows people to play games while spending as much or as little money as they choose on them. But make no mistake: no game is ever truly free.
Some Free To Play games are just thinly-veiled “micro-transaction machines”, which limit how much the player can do in one day in order to encourage them to spend money rather than waiting. Many of the games on Facebook, or on the Apple and Android app stores are like this.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and if you want to avoid spending money you can just wait and play again later in the day or tomorrow, depending on the game. But this isn’t always an easy concept for kids to grasp, and some games do their best to make it easy to accidentally spend real money.
Thankfully, many of the big Free To Play games on PC don’t suffer from this problem. Games like League of Legends or DOTA 2 for example are completely free and you don’t need to spend a dime to play them, but if you want to customise your character with shiny new outfits you need to pony up cash.
This is a much easier business model to come to grips with, but setting aside ‘computer time’ for your kid, or even giving them their own computer to play on, can be a lot harder than giving them their own tablet or smartphone.
The important point to remember is this…
Don’t save your credit card information
Never, ever, save your credit card information on any device that you want your child to play on. Whether it’s a smartphone, a tablet, a PC, your Xbox or PlayStation: just don’t do it. The potential for things to go horribly wrong far outweighs the inconvenience of them nagging you when they want to buy something worth $1 or $2.
Look no further than this story in March this year, where an executive of the World Bank discovered that his son had run up a $4,500 credit card bill making purchases inside FIFA 15, a soccer game. He didn’t get his money back from Microsoft and you probably won’t either if it happens to you.
Need an alternative? Many popular games, like League of Legends, offer vouchers in stores like EB Games or even supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths, now! This can be an easy way for you to give your child some spending money while still knowing exactly how much it will cost you. And it’s something they can save up their pocket money for.
You can even purchase vouchers at EB Games for credit on services like Steam, which is an online games service that allows people to buy games online for (usually) good prices and then download and play them. Making a Steam account is free, and if you’re with an iiNet Group ISP then most* of your Steam downloads will be unmetered and won’t count against your monthly quota (which is good, because games can be upwards of 30 GB in size nowadays!).
Do your research on the online community
The great (and sometimes not-so-great) part about playing games online is that you get to play with other people. Different games breed different communities, and the reality is that some of the more competitive online games might have a community that isn’t ideal for your child’s age group.
Set aside some time to Google your way through community forums, through news sections of gaming sites and other places where you can get a feel for what sort of community the game fosters. Some games like League of Legends are intensively competitive, and even though the developers work very hard to weed out bad and toxic players, playing a game like this means that your child may be exposed to people whose idea of “constructive feedback” is ridicule and verbal abuse.
If this is the case, it can often be helpful (and rewarding) for your child to team up with friends they know in real life and play together, to ensure that they don’t need to play with strangers. This is a great way to learn teamwork and cooperative, supportive behaviour. It’s also a good idea for you as a parent to investigate options for muting in-game chat or reporting other players who might be abusive.
When the stakes are high people tend to get stressed. But many other games, like Minecraft, usually foster a more collaborative and cooperative approach. Again, however, you need to do your research because some Minecraft servers online are designed to be competitive “player vs player” experiences.
In cases like this, do your research before deciding which server to join: we offer a child-friendly Minecraft server for exactly this purpose (more details here). You can even pay for your own Minecraft server with Minecraft Realms.
Finally, the absolutely most important thing you can do is…
Play some games yourself so you know what it’s going to be like
There is absolutely no substitute for first-hand experience.
You never know, maybe you’ll like it! And if you do, that gives you a great opportunity to share a wonderful new hobby with your child and be a part of their life in a very real and meaningful way. But most importantly, it gives you the skills and experience to make a first-hand judgment.
If you can’t do this, the absolute least you can do is watch a bunch of videos on YouTube or read as many resources as you can. But there really is no substitute for getting your hands dirty and playing games yourself. It’s a brave new world, so jump in!
What other gaming topics would you like to see covered on the iiNet blog? Let us know in the comments below.
*Not all Steam downloads are guaranteed to be unmetered. It’s impossible for us to control where your Steam client on your computer will choose to download from, but chances are very good that it will choose to download from our servers inside Australia, which means it’ll be unmetered. For (unsupported) third-party programs that can force Steam to connect to iiNet download servers, take a look at Steam Limiter.