Focus on the Family

Parents' Guide to Video Games

Adapted from "Choosing Video Games for Kids," a Focus on Your Child Web site article by Vicki Caruana, Chris Caruana

The vast majority of people who play games do so with friends and family. Almost 60 percent of frequent game players play with friends, 33 percent play with siblings and about one-quarter play with their spouse and/or parents. This trend will only increase.

The content of greatest concern is graphic in nature. Hand-to-hand combat, shoot 'em up and blood-and-guts are just inappropriate for children and desensitize them to violence.

Regardless of the content, parents need to make an effort to educate themselves about video games so they can model appropriate choices for their children and protect them from the possible ill effects.

In this series, you'll find out:

Types of Video Games

Get informed about the major video game categories.

by Vicki Caruana, Chris Caruana, Olivia Bruner

There are eight major video game categories:


Action games tend to have a large amount of violence due to their fast-paced nature. This is the category that most "M" (mature-rated) games fall under which are inappropriate for children. Some games are milder but may contain suggestive themes. Action games may pit person against person or person against animal/alien. Some examples of such problematic games include Halo, Star Wars: Jedi Knight and Enter the Matrix.

Adventure and Role Playing

Adventure and role playing games are usually less graphic than action games and typically have an element of surrealism and/or fantasy. Many times these games are combined with a role playing element and allow the character to initiate dialogue. While less intense than action games, they often do include violence. It should be noted that these games tend to be among the most addictive due to the narrative fantasy themes. Examples of this genre are Starfox Adventures, Final Fantasy, Legend of Mana and Billy Hatcher.


Arcade games can be almost anything from the violent Street Fighter to the classic Pacman. This category includes games that cover the entire spectrum of ratings. Many older arcade games have been updated and turned 3-D. Some examples are Pacman, Soul Caliber 2 and Frogger.


Strategy games most often involve tactical movement of troops and/or players. These games may be warfare based or may be as simple as chess. The content of many of these games can be appropriate for children but they tend to be difficult to play. Combat is often slower paced and allows time for strategic thinking. Some examples are Advanced Wars I & II and Chessmaster® 2000.


Simulation games are often aircraft simulations. You get to fly a jet or a helicopter. Most have nothing more to them other than the destruction of enemies; rarely they use excessive language. Some games in this category include Secret Weapons Over Normandy and SimCity.


Driving games are most often racing, but some are also crash derby or mission-based. Players usually get a choice of car and get better and better cars over time. Some of these games are Project Gotham Racing, ATV Offroad Fury, and the highly offensive Grand Theft Auto.


Puzzle games are almost never rated higher than ‘E’ (for everyone). They all take thinking and logic skills. A common puzzle game is Tetris. Many others are Tetris-like or involve color matching skills. Many games incorporate puzzle aspects but are not true puzzles. Some of the puzzle-incorporating games fall under Action or Role-Playing.

How Computer and Video Games Are Rated

Like movie ratings, video game ratings are helpful tools for parents who want to make informed decisions
about what their children see.


Almost all games sold are rated by the Entertainment System Rating Board (ESRB). "... Ratings are designed to provide accurate and objective information about the content in computer and video games so you can make an informed purchase decision," according to their Web site.

There are two parts to the ESRB rating:

Another factor to consider is the Online Rating Notice. This notice tells players if a game contains user-generated content (for example, chat, maps, and skins), that the "Game Experience May Change During Online Play," and warns consumers that content created online has not been rated by the ESRB.

These ratings were created as guidelines. But parents still need to know which games their children are playing, who their children are playing with online, and how much time is spent doing so.

The following sections describe the ESRB rating symbols and content descriptors. The ESRB Web site* has a great search window, if you have questions about a specific game. You can easily search by title, publisher, rating platform or content.

ESRB Rating Symbols

Early Childhood 
. Titles rated EC (Early Childhood) have content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.

. Titles rated E (Everyone) have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.

. Titles rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) have content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.

. Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

. Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

ADULTS ONLY. Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.

. Titles listed as RP (Rating Pending) have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting final rating. (This symbol appears only in advertising prior to a game's release.)

ESRB Content Descriptors

Detriments of Video Games

As you might expect, there are several common drawbacks to video game play.

by Vicki Caruana, Chris Caruana, Olivia Bruner

Parents use video games as a babysitter and, therefore, don't interact with their children as often. It is tempting to allow your children to play video games so that you can get chores done or engage in your own pastimes. Parents who have a game console should keep it in a high traffic part of the house rather than a location such as a child's bedroom because it is easy to lose track of how much time has gone by. In fact, it is wise to consider only allowing children to play video games with the family as a group activity.

Children spend more time indoors and do not get enough exercise. Obesity in children is at an all-time high in the United States. Children have more and more reason to stay in doors. After school some children find themselves home alone. Video games keep them from exerting any calorie burning energy. With the advent of live, online gaming the draw toward hours in front of these games is becoming even worse.

Playing the games can take priority over responsibilities at home or school. A good rule is no video games during the school week in order to avoid the mental distraction. In fact, a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children who play more than one hour of video games per day tend to get poor grades and be less content in life. Surprisingly, no similar tendency was found in those who spend four hours per day watching television.

Children who play games that are mature or violent may act inappropriately at home or school. Parents should carefully monitor what, if any, video games they will allow their children to play since a high percentage reinforce aggressive behavior and violence.

They can be expensive, and children tire of them easily. New games can range from $30 to $50. Used games are more affordable and are usually "gently" used. Kids either conquer or outgrow them quickly. Many video game outlets also sell used games. It is a more affordable choice.

More and more children, especially boys, are becoming addicted to video games. One of the key reasons video games are addictive is the physiological effect. A study at the Hammersmith Hospital in London found that playing games triggers release of dopamine in the brain. Researchers discovered that dopamine production in the brain doubles during video game play. The increase of the psychoactive chemical was roughly the same as when a person is injected with amphetamines. (For more information, see "Hooked! The Addictive Power of Video Games.") Still, parents who limit video game play time to appropriate levels will likely consider the expense per minute of fun much higher than other entertainment alternatives.

5 Mistakes That Can Turn Your
Child Into a Video Game Junkie

Avoid these common mistakes to help protect your child from video game addiction.

by Olivia Bruner, Kurt Bruner

A growing number of parents are concerned about the obsession their kids have with video games. Like many parents, we resisted buying video games for our children for some time. But when a friend offered us their old system, we hesitantly accepted — determined to limit the time our kids played so that it remained a small part of a balanced lifestyle.

Before long, however, we noticed our once-active sons being enticed from normal, healthy childhood activities into a digital universe. Board games remained on the shelf. Outdoor activities waned. Even relationships with friends and family changed, dominated by game chatter or conflicts over why they couldn’t play “just one more level.”

The battle to limit their game time seemed pointless. Before throwing in the towel, however, we decided to check out what research said about video games. Though the American Medical Association doesn’t classify it as a formal disorder, more than 20 percent of kids in the United States are considered addicted to computer and video games, which produce physiological reactions in the brain similar to those associated with substance abuse.

Research shows that the chemicals triggered by about 30 minutes of play rival an amphetamine high. Eventually, a process called “habituation” takes over — rewiring the brain and creating a physiological dependence similar to cocaine addiction. In fact, the first detox center for video-game addicts opened in the Netherlands recently.

Avoid Common Mistakes

While most conscientious parents screen games to protect their children from violent and sexual themes, few understand the dynamics causing their sons and daughters to become hooked on “the digital drug.” They may have a bad feeling about the influence of video games but can’t imagine kids living without it in a culture where every child plays. What’s a parent to do?

To start, educate yourself and your children on the research regarding video-game addiction. Then work to avoid these common mistakes:

Mistake No. 1: Starting young. The earlier a child begins playing electronic games, the sooner he or she is exposed to the patterns that lead to addiction. Children who become accustomed to junk food lose their appetite for healthy eating. Similarly, kids also acquire a “taste” for certain kinds of recreation. Those who develop patterns of natural play rather than virtual play are more likely to become well-rounded, happy adolescents. Those who are introduced to the dopamine-inducing high of prolonged video-game play often become bored with any other recreation.

Mistake No. 2: Creating easy access. Four out of five children over 8 years old own a video-game system. The risk of video-game addiction increases dramatically when your child owns a system, because then it is much harder to control the amount of time spent playing. As with any other behavioral addiction, easy access to the object of obsession makes it difficult to avoid pitfalls.

Mistake No. 3: Using video games as a reward. While the benefit of motivating kids to complete school assignments and other tasks may seem like a positive aspect to video-game obsession, the long-term consequences far outweigh any short-term gain. Using video games to motivate kids reinforces the notion that working, reading and learning are necessary evils rather than rewards in themselves. Other motivational rewards — such as an ice-cream date with Dad or an outing with Mom — are more effective and avoid feeding video-game obsession.

Mistake No. 4: Allowing “just one more level.” When asked to shut off the video-game system, most children rarely obey without first trying to prolong their play. Invariably they respond with a plea for just one more level or more time to defeat the current villain. As a result, many parents end up allowing their child to spend much more time playing video games than they intended.

As one recovering video-game addict said, “If you say you intend to restrict the amount of time a child spends, you better ask yourself whether you can really do it. Kids are very good at pushing for more time.”

Mistake No. 5: Ignoring your gut. Many parents have a bad feeling about the amount of time their child spends playing and talking about video games. They have a nagging sense that allowing so much video-game time may have long-term consequences. But they second-guess the feeling, writing it off as old-fashioned or too strict. Besides, they would rather avoid the inevitable conflict that comes from restricting or removing the game system.

You know your child better than anyone else; trust your gut and intervene to help your child live a fulfilling life.

How to Choose Video Games Wisely

In the ever-changing landscape of video gaming, take the time necessary to ensure that your child engages in �safe� games.

by Vicki Caruana, Chris Caruana, Olivia Bruner

The video game industry has a self-regulated rating system that, unfortunately, is less than reliable for parents trying to protect their children from offensive content. A recent report by the National Institute on Media and the Family gave the current rating system a grade of B- with regard to accuracy, and a grade of D on enforcement with minors.

1. Check the rating of the game.

2. Read reviews.

By reading reviews, you can know what a game is like and what a game may have in it. If you read reviews, then you can tell whether or not it will appeal to your children. Many reviews also include the opinions of expert gamers who judge whether the game is well made and appropriate for children of younger ages. Sometimes, reviews are biased rather than based on facts. You should always try to find a friend who has video-gaming children.

3. Rent video games, if possible.

You should always follow a try-before-you-buy policy. Whether you rent it from a game rental outlet or play it in the store, try to test a game before you spend good money on it. Some stores will have a customer service representative who can tell you whether a game is appropriate for young children.

4. Play/watch with your child.

It may not always be your first choice in entertainment, but spend some time at least watching your child play a video game. If there is objectionable content, you'll see it for yourself and be able to comment on it.

Hooked! The Addictive Power of Video Games

Find out what makes game play addictive and the physical effects it can cause.

by Tom Neven, Bob Hoose

It was a dynamic air show any boy would love. Displays of cool military equipment. Periodic fly-bys of vintage aircraft and modern jets. The main event, a performance by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds flight team, commenced with F-16 fighters taxiing close to the crowd, engines roaring. Enthusiastic oohs and ahhs erupted from everyone — except for one boy, about 12, whose attention remained fixed on his hand-held Game Boy.

“Jason, put that down!” his mother ordered, exasperation rising in her voice. “Look at the jets!”

“Hold on, Mom,” he responded, never looking up. “Just let me finish this level.”

Interactive Isolation

Just let me finish this level. Does that phrase sound familiar? Do your children seem to spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in video games? Do they get jittery if they haven’t played for a while? Does real life take a back seat to screen life?

The scene at the air show is not made up. That boy displayed classic signs of video game addiction. Kurt and Olivia Bruner would recognize the symptoms. Their son Kyle became addicted to what his parents first thought was a harmless activity. As they relate in their book Playstation Nation: Protect Your Child from Video Game Addiction, it started small. They rented video games only as a treat or to keep the kids busy during vacation. Both vetted the games they let Kyle play, careful to avoid occult, violent or sexual content. But they never imagined how the games themselves could dominate a player’s life.

“Christian parents understand the issue of morality,” Kurt told Plugged In, “just as they don’t let their kids go to the raunchy movies. The problem is that most people aren’t aware of the addictive nature of these games, so they’re letting their kids become enslaved to something thinking that it’s harmless.”

That’s why, in a way, they blame themselves for Kyle’s addiction. “We noticed our once-active son being enticed away from normal, healthy childhood activities into a digital universe,” they write. “Board games remained on the shelf. Outdoor activities decreased. Even relationships with friends and family were affected, dominated by game chatter or conflict over why he couldn’t play ‘just one more level.’”

A Different Kind of High

Seeing their son sink ever deeper into his need for video games, the Bruners uncovered numerous studies showing that, for some people, games have the same effect on the brain as habit-forming drugs.

Researchers at London’s Hammersmith Hospital found that playing video games floods the player’s brain with dopamine, a mood-regulating hormone that induces pleasurable feelings. The scientists likened this hit of dopamine to that observed following intravenous injections of amphetamine or methylphenidate, a drug used to treat ADHD. In fact, children awaiting major surgery who were allowed to play video games before the procedure required less anesthesia to put them under and less pain medicine afterward. So it’s reasonable to ask, “Can a person overdose on electronic games?”

South Korea boasts thousands of Internet cafes. One proprietor said, “I’ve seen people who play games for months, just briefly going home for a change of clothing, taking care of all their eating and sleeping here.” That lifestyle isn’t just unhealthy; it is potentially dangerous. A 28-year-old Korean man died at one of those cybercafés after nearly 50 straight hours of playing online computer games.

Fortunately, this new form of addiction is being recognized as a legitimate threat. Europe’s first detox clinic for video gamers opened in Holland in 2005. Hyke van der Heijden, 28, a graduate of the Amsterdam program, started playing video games 20 years ago. By the time he was in college he was gaming about 14 hours a day and using drugs to play longer. “For me, one joint would never be enough, or five minutes of gaming would never be enough,” he said. “I would just keep going until I crashed out.”

The Significant Seven: What Makes Games Addictive

Studying the research and looking at the way video games had come to dominate young Kyle’s life, the Bruners identified seven different hooks1 programmed into games that keep players riveted to the virtual action. Not all seven exist in every game, but the more that are present, the greater the chance of players becoming hooked. They are:

  1. Beating the Game. To conquer a game, one must spend untold hours navigating increasingly difficult levels. “Sports are made for winner, loser, game over, you move on,” Kurt explained. “Board games are made for winner, loser, pack it up, it’s done. Video games are designed to feed a never-ending and growing appetite for more and more and more.” That can require searching every nook and cranny of screen space for hidden bonuses, leading to the second addictive quality …
  2. Exploration. Some titles, like the classic "Myst," are entirely about traversing and studying imaginary worlds. That’s a powerful draw made stronger by the inclusion of secret levels, which have been built into video games since the earliest edition of "Super Mario Bros."
  3. Mastery. Programmers build feedback into the game (hand controllers vibrate, for example, when your player is “shot”) so that players get visual and physical responses to what they’re doing onscreen. Psychologically, this fuels the learning process, making the player even more eager to master elements of the game.
  4. The High Score. Of course, beating the high score has been an incentive since the earliest pinball machines. But video games are different in that the higher you go, the more difficult the game becomes. Players spend countless hours trying to get a new high score, even if the one they’re besting is their own.
  5. Story-Driven Role-Playing. Everyone wants to know how the story ends, whether it’s a children’s fairy tale or a plot-driven video game. Some games let teens control an onscreen figure, but role-playing games go much deeper by allowing the player to create and become the character in a story. Being so personally invested makes it that much harder to quit. This is why more and more games are constructed around a foundational story.
  6. Competition. Boys in particular love to lock horns in spirited contests. With multiplayer options, teens take on both the game and other gamers for bragging rights. Some committed fans go so far as to schedule activities and sleep patterns to accommodate a network of online partners or opponents.
  7. Relationships. Fantasy role-playing games let teens create personas much different from who they are in real life. For example, an overweight, athletically challenged boy can become a muscle-bound superhero in an online world, thus making friends with people who would not normally associate with him. Pressure to keep up with online peers also produces powerful incentives to keep improving.

Pushing Teens’ Buttons

The psychologically addictive elements of video gaming become even more troublesome when you consider that they affect young people precisely at the time when their developing brains are being hardwired for life.

“I observed in Kyle behaviors and agitations that reminded me of pornography, even though morally there was no problem with what he was playing,” Kurt said. “But spiritually there was a profound issue of enslavement to something that will never bring satisfaction. These are the childhood and teenage years, when your children are acquiring tastes for what they’ll enjoy in life. So there’s a dampening of the ability to enjoy music, to enjoy art, to enjoy reading, to enjoy all these other things because their games take precedence over everything.”

There are also physical effects of prolonged gaming. Repetitive-motion injuries. Headaches. Nausea. Or worse. The Korean gamer likely died of a heart attack brought on by game-induced hypertension as well as dehydration and exhaustion. While fatalities are rare, physical trauma isn’t. TV host Jane Pauley once featured a college student who spoke of routinely playing 30 hours at a time. For the show he was hooked up to medical equipment as he began playing a video game, and within 30 minutes his blood pressure maxed out at 190/144 — significant hypertension — and his pulse rate exceeded 120 beats per minute.

Should Video Game-Loving Families Go Cold Turkey? Not Necessarily

In moderation, some titles can provide a fun diversion for people wired to handle them well. Researchers also point out positive effects that can come from gaming (problem-solving skills, coordination, real-life applications, etc.), particularly if families use multiplayer games to bond with adolescents. The Bruners are quick to stress that not everyone who plays video games will have a hard time putting them down, though they do believe as many as one in three gamers will eventually get hooked. In those homes, “game over” may be the wisest strategy.

“One thing is clear,” the Bruners write, aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, “the pattern of addiction associated with electronic games is real, and a threat to the well-being of your child. Other families will make choices very different from our own because every child and family dynamic is unique. But choices must be made.” Or your family’s Grand Canyon vacation may be punctuated by the blips and beeps of a tuned-out teen striving to finish just one more level.

1Olivia and Kurt Bruner, Playstation Nation: Protect Your Child from Video Game Addiction (Center Street, September 27, 2006), pp. 129-130.

8 Signs Your Child is a Video Game Addict

Is your child hooked on video games? Learn to spot the signs of addiction.

by Tom Neven

Some people are wired to become addicted to the unique stimuli provided by video games. In their book, Playstation Nation, Kurt and Olivia Bruner provide a checklist of signs parents should watch for.

Does your child …

If your child exhibits some or all of these signs of addiction, or you just want to help prevent them, consider the safeguards for video gameplay provided in this series.

Safeguards for Video Gameplay

Do you have a child who loves to play video games? These safeguards will help counter the possible ill effects.

by Vicki Caruana, Chris Caruana, Olivia Bruner

In order to diminish the adverse effects that video games may have on your child, consider the following safeguards:

Parents' Guide to Video Games

Popular questions, plus related resources and articles about video games.

Popular questions on this topic: