Family Gaming Guide

Video games are more popular than ever and it’s never been tougher for parents to keep up with what their kids are playing and with whom. That’s why we’ve created this user-friendly guide to help provide you with the key information you need to manage their gameplay experiences and keep peace of mind.

It’s always a good idea to start by checking the ESRB ratings when deciding if a video game or app is appropriate for each of your kids. You can easily check for the rating on the front and back of the game box, on the product page when online shopping, in advertisements, through a title search at esrb.org or using the ESRB mobile app (available on Google Play and the App Store). ESRB ratings have three parts:

  • Age rating categories – suggest age appropriateness (such as E for Everyone or T for Teen)
  • Content descriptors – indicate content that may have triggered a particular rating and/or may be of interest or concern (such as Violence or Strong Language)
  • Interactive elements – highlight interactive or online features that may be of interest or concern but do not influence the age rating assignment of a product, such as:
    • In-Game Purchases
    • In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)
    • Users Interact
    • Shares Location
    • Unrestricted Internet

A significant majority of parents say all three parts of the ESRB rating system are important in deciding which video games are appropriate for their kids.

Many parents and caregivers say they use ESRB ratings as an initial guide for appropriateness before checking the Content Descriptors and Interactive Elements for more in-depth information to help finalize their decision. For physical (boxed) games, parents can also consult ESRB Rating Summaries which provide additional context and details by conducting a title search at esrb.org or using the ESRB mobile app.

ESRB ratings are just one factor for determining whether it’s appropriate for your child to play a certain game, though many parents say the ESRB ratings are the most helpful factor in finding appropriate video games. That said, there are several other approaches that parents should consider, such as:

  • First playing the game themselves
  • Finding a specific brand you trust
  • Sticking to a specific genre (e.g., sports, racing)
  • Looking at gameplay videos and/or reviews online (e.g., on YouTube, Twitch)

Establishing and enforcing household rules comes with the territory if you’re a parent. And most parents have rules to manage what their kids play, how much money (if any) they can spend on video games (including in-game purchases), who they can play with online, and what they can do if they encounter uncomfortable situations when playing with others. In some cases, like spending money, these are hard and fast rules, with little to no flexibility. In others, like time spent, parents may want to reserve the right to be slightly more flexible.

Here are the most common rules parents say they set to manage their kids’ video game experiences. The good news is that in each of these cases parental controls on your child’s device (or through a device’s mobile app that you can download onto your phone) can help enforce these rules.

Most parents tell us they trust their kids to follow their household rules, but it’s always helpful to have backup in the form of parental controls – especially when it comes to managing their friends list and in-game purchases. Parental controls are available on virtually every video game device (and through a device’s mobile app, which allows parents to manage their children’s gameplay remotely).

You can use parental controls to:

  • Block video games based on the ESRB rating
  • Limit (or block) in-game purchases
  • Manage when and for how long your kids can play
  • Choose with whom or whether your kids can communicate while playing video games (via text, video, or voice)

You will need to set up parental controls separately on each of your child’s devices (e.g., each game console, mobile device, and PC).  In certain games (e.g., Roblox, Fortnite), there are in-game parental controls that you can use to manage your child’s gameplay.

For more information on how to set parental controls on the devices in your home visit ParentalTools.org.

About 83% of parents set parental controls on at least one video game device in their home (PC, console, mobile device, etc.). This is especially high among parents with children under 13-years-old.

Many popular games can be played online with other players. Most of those games allow you to choose with whom to play but in many cases your child may be playing with others they don’t know in real life.  There are numerous measures you and your child can take to help ensure that online gameplay stays positive, fun, and safe, including:

  • Know who’s on the other side of the conversation. Start by limiting your kids’ online gameplay and communication to friends from school, extracurriculars, and other activities to ensure that your kids feel safe and comfortable playing online. It’s a good idea to periodically review your child’s online friends list to make sure you know with whom they’re playing online. Parental controls on your child’s game device (or the device’s mobile app) can help you manage their online communications.
  • Review the terms of service and community guidelines. Game companies and platforms have rules about what can and cannot be said or done while playing online. These also explain when it may be appropriate to take measures against other players that are behaving inappropriately. Reviewing a game’s community guidelines or code of conduct with your child may also be a great way to reinforce what is and  isn’t acceptable behavior online.
  • Block, mute, and report. Most online games and platforms empower players to block or mute others who are behaving in a manner that you and/or your kids find inappropriate. Muting allows players to continue to play together without communicating verbally, while blocking or “unfriending” another player makes it so you do not have to play with them at all. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who play video games online want the same thing: To have fun and share a game together! That said, as with other forms of social media, your kids may encounter another user harassing or bullying others in a manner that is unacceptable. For these situations – in addition to muting and blocking – you can “report” them using the in-game or platform’s tools or following the instructions provided, which may result in their suspension or ban if they are violating the game’s terms of service or community guidelines.
  • Keep the conversation positive and ongoing. Empowering your kids to come to you with both the fun and not-so-fun aspects of their game experiences is the single best tool you have. Many kids feel as though they will get in trouble or have their game time suspended if they flag a troubling situation or user to their parents. Help your kids understand that they can always go to you if they don’t know how to approach a situation, which also means keeping the conversation about games in general a positive and fun one. Playing games together as a family can help too.
  • The golden rule. Some people forget that there are human beings on the other side of the screen. Just like in real life, bullying is unacceptable and can cause serious, lasting distress. It can be helpful to discuss these situations with your kids, so they know what your expectations are when it comes to treating others. Respect goes both ways.

Most publishers of online video games monitor and moderate communications between players to help enforce compliance with their community guidelines. As industry leaders, Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox have all aligned on a common set of principles that prioritize protecting the safety of players, especially those most vulnerable.

Managing Multiple
Gamers in the Home

For families with multiple kids of different ages, managing access to appropriate video games can be a challenge. Establishing different age-based rules for each child is recommended. It is also recommended to ensure that younger kids are not using older siblings or parents’ accounts. Most devices enable parents to set up distinct accounts for each child to help you enforce each of their rules.

Here are some general recommendations based on age range:

Under 5 years old
Odds are any child of this age will only be playing games under the watchful eye of a parent or guardian. Furthermore, the experiences made for our youngest children are typically used to educate, as opposed to purely entertain. Still, be sure to monitor game time closely and adhere to the recommendation(s) of your pediatrician.
5 - 9 years old
Now is the time to create individual child accounts. With these, you can manage which games your kids play based on the ESRB-assigned age rating, set screen-time schedules, restrict or block online communication, and manage the amount of money that can be spent for each child individually. It’s also important to continue to monitor things like time spent playing and purchases made.
10 - 12 years old
Kids in this age range may begin to look to video games as a means of socializing with peers. It’s especially important to check the ratings, manage whether or with whom they can communicate online, and block (or limit) purchases. Child accounts will continue to be vital to help you stay aware of your kids’ video game activity.
13-16 years old
Children in this age range will vary in maturity. Online gameplay will become increasingly important, and your kids may crave more freedom to engage with both friends and strangers online. Make sure you continue to encourage conversation around games with your kids, including the games you find appropriate, and adapt your household rules (and parental control settings) as your kids exhibit increased maturity.
16+ years old
Parents may begin to take a back seat to their kids’ judgment around this time. At 17 your kids will be empowered to make their own content decisions, as well as with whom (and how) they engage with others online. But don’t worry! You’ve established that you understand why your kids love games over the years and that you want to keep the conversation going.
Additional Tips
Encourage kids to sign out of their individual child accounts when they are finished playing video games. This way, older kids can enjoy the content they’re allowed to play without accidentally leaving it accessible for their younger siblings. If the video game consoles are in a common space like the family room, you may want to consider a household rule to make sure younger kids don’t walk in on a game that they’re not ready to see. Fortunately, virtually all modern devices have the ability to connect headphones, so if there is mature language or trash talk in a game, encouraging your older child to wear a headset helps ensure the younger ones in your household do not overhear potentially inappropriate audio.

Additional Resources

Unspoken Benefits of Video Game Play

Learn how video games promote mood management, healthy communication skills, education, and more!

What Our Research with Parents Says

Every year ESRB conducts research to see how parents use ESRB ratings, household rules, parental controls, and more to manage appropriate video game experiences in their home.

Family Video Game Database

If you’re interested in more information on games that may interest your kids, the Family Video Game Database can offer suggestions based on your kids’ favorite games, skill level, accessibility needs, and more.