V-chip for Video Games

If you’ve done your homework, and have enabled your "shields," your TV’s V-chip should be helping you manage what your children watch and your DVD players should have their content rating features activated. But what about your video game system? You may have decided your kids won’t be playing any M or AO rated games, but how can you enforce that when you’re out on Friday night?

This may seem like a "no brainer" issue, but currently the only console game systems offering this ability are the original Xbox and the new Xbox 360. Neither Sony’s PlayStation 2 nor Nintendo’s Game Cube are able to prevent someone from playing a particular game based on its rating. In the portable gaming area, Sony’s handheld PSP unit is reported to include a rating control function. Nintendo’s portable, the "DS," does not.

(See the "additional notes" after this article for further details on how to set the controls on your Xbox.)

Considering the technology crammed into a console game system, the fact they cannot read a coded rating from a game disc is rather ironic, and leaves a large hole in the ESRB’s otherwise highly regarded rating system.

However, according to a press release from the ESRB, the other two major manufacturers will be offering a rating restriction option on their new upcoming console systems—Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Revolution. (Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, all three major game manufacturers are upping the technology ante again, just like they did five years ago when the game consoles that are now cluttering your family room were first introduced.) This single feature of being able to control game ratings may act as a small incentive for some parents to consider spending more money on yet another new entertainment box.

Life on your personal computer isn’t any better. A company called SmartGuard Software developed a parenting program that would allow you to control what games were played on your computer based on their ESRB rating, but founder Dr. Jerald Block says a lack of funding didn’t allow them to continue developing the product. He’s hoping that may change in the future, and his product will be one of the first to allow parents of PC gamers to have some control over what Dr. Block calls "compulsive computer use."

For now, parents of kids who enjoy games on the family computer will have to hope rumors that Microsoft’s new operating system—Windows Vista, due out later in 2006—will have parenting controls included, are true. Research on this topic revealed plans for more advanced Internet filtering in the new operating system, but nothing was found that detailed a way of blocking a video game with a certain rating from being played. Considering Microsoft has been touting how Vista will revive the personal computer video game market (which has been diminishing over the past few years), a ratings control would be a welcome and necessary option.

The V-chip, which is a legally mandated addition to all televisions built since 2000 with screens 13 inches and larger, was the beginning of basic media control that didn’t require continual parental supervision. DVD players have also included a similar blocking method since the very first players came to the market. Hopefully, with game manufacturers finally recognizing this need, the many other entertainment devices coming into our homes and children’s lives will also include similar tools.

The next goal will be to encourage electronics manufacturers and media industries to make these parental control features unified and easier to use. But, for now, we should be willing to learn to "play the game" and activate these protective options.

Additional notes: If you are an original Xbox owner, and want to activate the unit’s rating restriction feature, it’s buried in the unit’s operating system menus. To find it, turn on the Xbox without a disc inserted, and then use the game controller to go to SETTINGS and then PARENTAL CONTROLS. However, there’s one huge drawback to the Xbox Parental Controls—an easy search on the Internet will reveal a master password that will defeat the password you have set. If you’re serious about keeping the Xbox secure, check the password option frequently to make sure it’s still set.

If you own an Xbox 360, the Parental Controls are more flexible, and offer some on-line restrictions as well. They are accessed via the SYSTEM "blade" on the left side of the Xbox 360 menu. At the time of this writing, I couldn’t find the master password for the Xbox 360 on the Internet, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life that it will likely appear soon. I’ve also heard rumors the 360’s password can be connected to your Hotmail password, making it more difficult to compromise.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…