Gaming The System: Do You Know What Your Kids Are Playing?

Video games are prevalent among children, but does the type of content they contain really matter? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

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According to a recent study by, more than half of parents allow their children to play video games intended for adults 18 years of age or older, while nearly 90 percent of those surveyed reported that they don’t follow the suggested age limits posted on video game packaging. These results should not necessarily come as a surprise considering the sheer volume of games sold in recent years; 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, for example, sold some 95 million copies and has earned about $6 billion, making it one of the top-selling games of all time and one of the highest-grossing entertainment products. However, the aforementioned study and others like it still raise important points, not only about exposure to adult video games, but also about the safeguards taken to protect vulnerable children online in general. In an increasingly digital age where YouTube, Netflix, and their ilk are more accessible—and kids are more attached to their devices—than ever, it’s important to know how (and to whom) adult content is marketed, as well as the long-term effect it might have on the millions of young kids who watch, listen to, and play it.

How much do video game guidelines matter?

Lisa Sarafidis’ two sons, ages 7 and 11, play popular video games like Minecraft and Fortnite, sports video games such as Madden, and one of the top-selling video game franchises: Call of Duty. “When my older son was younger, I did monitor their content and have a lot of rules. But then he started playing with older neighbor children, and it was easier to keep him occupied that way,” said Sarafidis, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland. “With my 7-year-old, I let them play games rated T for Teen, but I say no games that are rated M for Mature.”

“Age guidelines are a good starting place. There’s no reason not to follow the suggestions, but there’s no substitute for a parent’s own judgment.” —Scot Osterweil, creative director of the Education Arcade, on children’s media consumption

A study from Iowa State University found that video game ratings can work if parents use them. According to the study, nearly every video game sold or downloaded came with an age-appropriate guideline rating. The study found that the guidelines are effective when parents use the recommendations to choose games that are best-suited for the age of their child.

Scot Osterweil, creative director of the Education Arcade and a research director in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program, says that video game ratings are a good barometer for parents to follow if they are unsure about the appropriateness of the game at hand. Osterweil is an advocate for letting children explore their imaginative playtime—including time spent playing video games. “Age guidelines are a good starting place. There’s no reason not to follow the suggestions,” he says. “But there’s no substitute for a parent’s own judgment.” He advises parents to start with those ratings, but stay involved to find out whether or not they agree with them. Continuing the conversation and keeping the lines of communication open when it comes to content and kids is key, according to Osterweil.

Should you be worried about violent video games?

Staying engaged in the content kids consume is necessary, but Osterweil recommends doing so at a distance. The types of video games kids are playing isn’t as big of a deal as you might think, either. “Generally speaking, parents should be involved with their kids’ lives. Although, I don’t believe in parents micromanaging their kids’ play lives,” he says. “Play—including video games—is a way in which kids explore the world and they need to be free to follow their own impulses and imaginations so that they can fail and come up with their own general outlook on the world.” According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom, there is no link between violent video games and a child’s behavior. Osterweil is quick to point out that play has always been somewhat violent even in the absence of video games—think childhood fantasies of slaying dragons or killing monsters. “In adult literature, we regard tragedy as one of the highest forms of literature, and a lot of tragedy is quite violent,” he says. “Violence in literature has always been a way of struggling with human conflict and video games are, in that sense, no different from the films and literature that have come before them.”

Stay engaged—with all types of content consumed by kids.

In Ramsey Hootman’s household, video games reign supreme. Hootman’s husband is a senior software engineer in the video game industry, and her family even subscribes to Gamefly. Gamefly is a subscription-based video game rental service that allows users to try out different video games without paying full price. It’s similar to Netflix’s DVD subscription service. Her children, ages 5 and 8, like to wake up early and play video games such as Minecraft, Yokai Watch, Mario Maker, Yoshi’s Woolly World, and Splatoon. “If they’re quiet, they’re allowed to play for about an hour in the morning when they get up while my husband and I shower and get breakfast ready during the week,” she says. “Weekends are ‘free’ screen time, but the kids are expected to prioritize family time and activities.” According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, most children in the U.S. spend an average of five to seven hours a day watching TV, using tablets, playing videos games, and other types of screen time. Researchers note that too much screen time can make it hard for your child to sleep at night and increase chances of obesity, as well as put them at risk for attention problems, anxiety, and depression. Experts recommend limiting screen time to one to two hours a day for children over the age of 2—and no screen time for children under the age of 2. “They may get more screen time during the week, but it’s at my discretion and they are often required to earn it somehow,” says Hootman. In Hootman’s opinion, video games can be used as a motivation tool to teach her children anything—from potty-training to reading. “I literally potty-trained my older son when he was 2 because I let him play Angry Birds whenever he was sitting on the toilet,” says Hootman, who also grants screen time in exchange for reading lessons. The trade-off was worth it for her children. She says they both started kindergarten already knowing how to read. Although Hootman uses video games as a negotiating tool, she does monitor the types of content her kids are viewing on a regular basis—at least when they’re at home.

“I’m trying to parent children who will one day become adults capable of making good choices, and the only way I can do that is allow them safe opportunities to make their own choices, fail, and learn from those failures.” —Ramsey Hootman, mother of two

When it comes to TV versus video games, Sarafidis also feels there are positive effects from video games. She would much rather her sons play video games than veg out in front of the tube. She doesn’t feel that video games lead to violence in at all—except for maybe the occasional grumblings over who gets the video controller, she jokes. “Video games are more engaging than just staring at a television,” says Sarafidis, who encourages setting time limits if video games become a problem for a child. “I try and make sure that my kids are also active outside, but I think video games can be a good way for them to relax and hang out with friends.”

Should you monitor content on playdates?

Sarafidis and Hootman do not monitor content when their kids are over at a friend’s house. “I view my kids’ time away from me as their opportunity to experiment and exercise the values I have taught them or choose not to,” says Hootman. “I’m trying to parent children who will one day become adults capable of making good choices, and the only way I can do that is allow them safe opportunities to make their own choices, fail, and learn from those failures.” Hootman puts her full trust in her children when they are at a friend’s house when it comes to content. “It’s up to them whether they want to join in or not,” she says. “They are very aware that other people have other rules and standards, and they know they can always come to me to discuss anything they don’t understand.” That’s not to say that Hootman isn’t an advocate for monitoring content. She and her husband have established several rules in their home when it comes to playing video games. “We do not allow them to play anything that allows them to connect with strangers on the internet,” says Hootman, referring to in-game text chats and audio communication.

“The challenge for all parents is to always acknowledge that by the time their kids are 14 or 15, they are on the path to adulthood and we can’t exercise the same control we did when they were 5 or 6.” —Scot Osterweil, creative director of the Education Arcade

Recently, Hootman began allowing her 8-year-old son to play “limited contact” in multiplayer mode. For the most part, her children make it easy on her. “We don’t have to monitor content much since our kids are really only interested in kid-oriented stuff anyway,” she says. “But at this point, we don’t let them play or watch anything with realistic people killing or maiming other people.” Osterweil feels it’s important to allow children the freedom to make their own decisions outside of the home based on the guidance they have received from their parents, saying it’s a crucial step to preparing a child for adulthood. “The challenge for all parents is to always acknowledge that by the time their kids are 14 or 15, they are on the path to adulthood and we can’t exercise the same control we did when they were 5 or 6,” says Osterweil, who has grown children of his own. “The only way they are going to become healthy, functioning adults is by learning from the choices they make. Authority tends to be better exercised through conversation and reason than fiat and censorship.”