All forms of entertainment – including books, magazines, movies, the Internet and video games – include a subset of content that is unsuitable for children. Exactly what is and is not suitable is a matter of opinion, although it is widely accepted that parents should shoulder most of the responsibility for monitoring what their children are exposed to. I can think of several reasons why you might deem a game unsuitable for your children.
Some games feature violence, usually implied rather than portrayed graphically. Conflict simulations (war games) are just one example, in which casualties are inevitable, even though victory is usually judged on other criteria. In some games, such as those featuring gangsters or the Roman republic, player advancement may require transactions of violence (hits or assassinations). As long as the violence has thematic relevance, I have no objection to its inclusion in a game. I cannot think of any violent games that my children have played so far, but I imagine Bang! would be an excellent game for a 7 year old.
Games about horror or the supernatural might draw objections from parents with strong religious beliefs or those concerned about scaring their children. My fellow contributors here at Father Geek enjoy zombie games and, like them, I see such games as harmless fun (although I have to admit, at the risk of being shunned by my colleagues, that I personally do not care for the genre that much).
Depending on religious views or moral code, some families might object to games featuring gambling, prostitution, or illegal activities. Just this last weekend, I introduced my 6 year old son to Vegas Showdown, an auction game in which players compete to build the most successful casino. I consider this a great game, in which the theme and mechanics match perfectly. On the other hand, I would draw the line at a game such as Pimp: the Backhanding, a card game about managing prostitutes. While I am not suggesting that the game paints prostitution in a good light, it is clearly not a game for children!
Racism and sexism appear in some games, although generally in a way that acknowledges discrimination without glamorizing it. For example, slavery is a feature of Puerto Rico, Vinci and Endeavor, but is also historically relevant. Wench! and Anima: Shadow of Omega include cards with caricatures of scantily clad women and hence also qualify for my not-for-children category (or at least, they would if I owned those titles).
On a related note, stereotyping (by gender, race or religion) is reinforced in games, such as some with special player powers. Again, sometimes this is historically relevant and accurate: for example, in World War II games, the military forces of different nations usually have quite different characteristics. I am not suggesting that all stereotyping is wrong, but sometimes it can encourage lazy thinking and faulty assumptions.
Does this really matter? Let us examine that classic, The Game of Life. While some of the details have no doubt changed over the years, in the version I played in my youth, the following rules applied to the game:
- It was better to attend rather than skip college
- Doctors earned the highest salary
- All players married a partner of the opposite sex
- Most couples were blessed with children (the more the better)
- Victory goes to the player with the greatest wealth/status
So is The Game of Life a bad influence on your children? I very much doubt it. Whatever your views are on materialism, marriage and contraception, I very much doubt that playing The Game of Life had much to do with shaping those views. Unless, of course, your entire life experience was limited to playing games. (Here at Father Geek, we encourage gaming, but everything in moderation, folks!)
While we should strive to protect our children, uncomfortable realities like sex, prejudice, and violence cannot be avoided forever. If a game (or book or movie) features an issue that prompts me to initiate a challenging discussion with my children, then so much the better.* I would rather “get in on the ground level” before their minds are contaminated by half-baked ideas from other sources.
All things considered, I believe it is exceptionally rare for a game’s theme to influence its suitability for children.
*Stated with the absolute confidence of a father whose children are nowhere near adolescence.