What video games are unsuitable for children?

They just want to play

Surveys show that even elementary school students have considerable hardware equipment, have a number of computer and console games and regularly use the Internet for surfing and communicating. What is often missing are parents who are really interested in what their children are doing on the computer.

When it comes to the minimum age for starting computers, the recommendations of media educators vary between four and six years. Parents can wait quietly until the child shows interest of their own accord. The professional future of a kindergarten child is not endangered if he prefers to dig in the sand or look at picture books than to deal with the keyboard and mouse.

When the time comes, preschoolers should not sit alone at the computer, but always have an adult next to them. In this way, you can ask questions and do not end up on unsuitable websites. Even the first time you click around in a game, you don't leave children alone. What bores some of them at the age of five, others will not succeed even at the age of seven. The constant under- and overstrained by a game leads to frustration, so you should intervene in such cases.

Almost a third of children between the ages of six and seven play a computer game at least once a week. This is borne out by the figures from the most recent study by the Media Education Research Association Southwest (mpfs) on the use of media by 6- to 13-year-olds in Germany. For the KIM study 2008 [1], the scientists questioned 1206 children and their parents in a representative survey. The charts in this article are based on the data collected. The entire study is available for download (see link at the end of the article).

Gentle entry

Educators advise setting a daily time limit for television, computers, and the Internet, called media or screen time. If a six-year-old child watches a program on television in the afternoon, the computer is taboo that day. A time span of 20 or 30 minutes is given as a recommendation for children under six years of age, for elementary school students the daily media time can gradually increase and for children from twelve it can be around 90 to 120 minutes. It is advisable to make clear agreements in which the child undertakes to comply with media hours - possibly even in writing.

It is completely different whether you occasionally look over your child's shoulder at the hustle and bustle on the screen or really get involved in an exciting detective story. Adults who have no computer gaming experience will notice how quickly half an hour goes by when you are busy with a seemingly unsolvable task. Such game situations can lead to conflicts, in which one as a parent is best willing to compromise. If the abortion of the captivating Jump & Run with an annoyed “Now shut the box off!” Is forced when the hero starts the final jump to the next level, the child rightly feels misunderstood. It is better to tolerate the overdraft and then talk to the child about the pulling effect games can have and why this is so.

As long as time constraints are strictly observed and friends, family and school do not suffer as a result, there is nothing to be said against a played-out weekend for children from the age of twelve. If, however, the jointly agreed limits are exceeded a little from day to day and this tendency continues over a longer period of time and at the expense of other leisure activities, parents should take countermeasures. It takes a lot of instinct to judge whether the excessive computer use is simply a temporary enthusiasm for a new computer game or possibly the beginning of a gambling addiction.

During puberty, children and adolescents develop their own interests and increasingly choose their own computer games - just like their friends or their clothes. Conflicts are then inevitable and quite normal. If parents and children have been used to sharing their likes and dislikes, they can keep talking. This is also why it is so important to work together with computer games and the Internet in preschool and elementary school.

Suitable employment for small computer beginners can be found in many places on the web. For example there are funny flash games with the tiger duck, Bob the builder or the mouse and the elephant from WDR.

Conscious choice

The classic offline computer game for first-time clickers is the so-called game story. In a friendly environment that can contain familiar, but also fantastic elements, the child wanders around using the mouse or arrow keys as they please, represented by the figure of a boy or girl or as a dog, bear, elf or magician. It often encounters characters from picture books or TV programs for children. Sometimes there are jobs to do and small tasks to be solved, but they shouldn't create time pressure, but give the child the opportunity to explore everything at their own pace.

Regarding the PC titles for small children, unfortunately it has to be said: Everything was better in the past. At Terzio, Willy Werkel and the bizarre knight Rost always invited new games, at Tivola Max and Oscar titles were regularly released, whose wonderful adventures can usually be played in two to four languages, and at Oetinger interactive games with popular characters were released Children's books. Pettson and Findus, Mama Muh and Pippi Longstocking come to life in it. All of the titles mentioned are still available, but often no longer usable for the current versions of Windows and Mac OS; new titles of this kind rarely appear for the PC.

For the target group of four to six year olds, the manufacturers almost only offer titles for the Nintendo DS mobile console. The name DS stands for "Double Screen". Usually, information about the game and operation appear as - often very lengthy - reading text on the lower screen of the console, while the corresponding figure on the upper monitor moves its mouth in silence and makes more or less appropriate contortions. Kindergarten children and school beginners only have fun when a game is completely set to music because they cannot yet read help texts with certainty. Exemplary in this respect are the pink Princess Lillifee titles from Tivola, the great animal quiz “Animal Genius” from Ubisoft or the puzzle game collection “Maus DS” from Braingame / Koch Media.

Younger children appreciate NDS games that allow you to blow hard into the microphone, for example to drive away clouds or inflate balloons. The stylus turns into a baton and a magic wand. However, the delicate stylus is a challenge for the fine motor skills of preschoolers and the two DS screens do not offer as much space as the monitor on the computer. In addition, media educators do not recommend providing kindergarten children with their own mobile console. The small boxes can be carried in your pocket at any time. It is hardly possible for the parents to keep an eye on the period of use. If there is a DS in the family, the device should be kept in a central location and not disappear indefinitely in the children's room.

Confusing offer

The variety of consoles makes the choice of game hardware and software confusing for parents. Three manufacturers currently offer stationary devices: Sony sells the older Playstation 2 and Playstation 3, Microsoft sells the Xbox 360 and Nintendo sells the Wii. In the case of mobile consoles, the decision has so far been made between the Playstation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo DS, but recently the iPhone and iPod touch are competing with these two consoles. The overview article from c’t 25/09 [1] gives the technical details of all current console models.

The range of games on Xbox is aimed primarily at young and adult gamers with sports simulations and action titles. The fabulous “Viva Piñata” from Microsoft proves that there is another way, in which the player can cultivate a wild piece of land, tame wild animals and cross with one another in order to breed imaginative new species. Small children cannot do anything on their own with the demanding simulation, which is now also available for PC and NDS, but they can have a lot of fun gardening with their parents. The range of games for the PS3 is also primarily popular with young people and adults, for example, it stages fast car races in a particularly realistic way. A family-friendly highlight among the PS3 titles is “Little Big Planet” from Sony. The imaginative game with jump & run elements can be used like a construction kit to create your own jumping course. Both consoles have an Internet connection, which can be used to exchange Viva Piñata varieties or obstacle courses created in Little Big Planet with other players.

The older PS2, which is available for less than 100 euros, has no usable Internet connection and far fewer games to choose from, but it is still popular with music game fans. Girls in particular like the SingStar karaoke game from Sony, which is now available in numerous versions, from the ABBA edition to the Mallorca Party.

The PS3 also doubles as a Blu-ray player and plays videos and music from the Internet. She automatically creates an elegant slide show from the latest vacation photos. The Xbox includes a DVD player; Films can also be rented and downloaded for temporary use via a special Microsoft service. The possibilities of the Wii are comparatively spartan: It only reads silver disks in its own format and the picture and sound quality cannot nearly keep up with the other two consoles. The special attraction of the Wii lies in its innovative controls. The Wii-mote, an elongated control device reminiscent of a TV remote control, is sometimes swung like a tennis or golf club, sometimes thrown out as a fishing rod and sometimes shaken wildly to be the fastest in a race. A narrow sensor bar on the television receives the movement signals, which are directly reflected in the movements of the figures on the screen.

A Wii game is so easy to use that console novices will immediately find it, and there is a wide range of games for children and families for the Wii. This makes them currently a favorite among stationary consoles for families with small children. Sports games are a highlight on the Wii. The older “Wii Sports” from Nintendo brings tennis, golf, baseball, boxing and bowling to the television. For the successor "Wii Sports Resort" you need the additional part Wii Motion Plus, which is attached to the Wii-mote. The upgraded remote control transmits the player's movement more precisely, even cutting balls in table tennis are possible with it.

The Wii is smiled at by avid frequent gamers, but the simple and fascinating principle of control through movements certainly has a future. An Xbox version that also responds to gestures and movements is slated to hit the market later this year. A camera will record the player's body movements so that he no longer needs remote control.

When it comes to portable consoles, the PSP shines with a realistic display of sports simulations and fast-paced car races, while PSP titles suitable for children are rare. The two LocoRoco titles, for example, in which funny spherical creatures hop through colorful fantasy landscapes, or the Patapon games, for which the player needs a lot of sense of rhythm to steer a horde of rowdy little creatures to their goal by drumming appropriately, are an exception. Little Big Planet is now also available in a PSP version.

The number of children's titles for Nintendo DS, on the other hand, is hardly manageable; new animal care simulations, brain teaser collections or games whose plot is located in certain professional fields are constantly appearing. Mostly it's about girls' dreams like a pediatrician, boutique owner or ballerina. The adult observer finds the appeal of these job simulations difficult: the stewardess in the "Let's Play ..." series by Koch Media, for example, has to keep stowing luggage and serving snacks in order to get to the next level. Girls who are currently dreaming of a career as a flight attendant have fun with something like this - unfortunately often no longer than a few days, because many of the countless DS titles are played through very quickly.

Mobile brain teaser

Long DS gaming fun is guaranteed, for example, with “Professor Layton and the Pandora's Box” from Nintendo. As with the predecessor, a detective story provides the framework for a lot of tricky puzzles that appeal to boys and girls from around the age of eight or nine. A new game concept brings "Scribblenauts" from Warner Interactive to the DS: In ten cartoon-style worlds and 220 scenes, the player solves problems by simply writing down the appropriate objects. It is up to him whether he types in “lasso”, “ladder” or “cat food” to get the cat off the roof. With “Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games” by Sega, you can relive the Vancouver Games on the DS; the Wii version of this game transforms the living room into an ice rink or a ski slope.

With the Nintendo DS you have the choice between three device variants. The DSi XL is brand new, and its screens, with a diagonal of 10.7 centimeters, are significantly larger than its predecessors. The slightly older DSi brought two cameras with it as an innovation. Photos can be incorporated into the plot of a game, for example by placing your own portrait on the character's head. So far, only a few DS games have used this option, such as the music game “Just sing!” From dtp young entertainment. Here the players can film themselves and project the video as a live stream onto the video wall behind the singing avatar. The oldest member of the DS family still on the market is the DS lite. This model has a slot for the card format of the older Gameboy games, which are often offered very cheaply second-hand.

Games for the MP3 player

Programs for iPhone and iPod touch are called apps. There are now plenty of games for these devices in the iTunes App Store. The iPod touch, which was previously used as an MP3 player and for watching videos, can be used as a game console while on the move. Even if the iPhone does not have a telephone function, it has now become a status symbol for many kids.

PC classics like The Sims by Electronic Arts have long been available for Nintendo DS and iPod touch. The prices of the versions are far apart: While you pay around 30 euros for the PC game, it costs just under 20 euros for NDS and the people simulation can be found in the App Store for 5.50 euros. But even if the games appear under the same name, they do not have the same content or at least a comparable scope on all platforms. To avoid disappointment, read the descriptions carefully. Often times, games for iPod touch contain fewer levels than the PC and console versions. If you want to delve deeper into a complex game like The Sims, you should prefer the detailed versions for PC or console.

The steadily growing range of inexpensive or even free apps is ideally suited for entertaining entertainment in between. For some time now there has been a special section for children in the iTunes Store.

Apple classifies the games in the categories 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+, which can serve as a rough guide. In addition to a description of the program author and some screenshots, there are comments from other players in the App Store. Some game sites on the web are now also introducing apps. A quality feature of the games is the skillful use of all hardware options. You can shake the device like a mug to roll the dice or guide a ball very realistically through a maze by tilting the iPod.

In order to get a program from the iTunes Store onto the iPod touch, an account must be set up with iTunes. To do this, you need an email address and an account. Conveniently, the code of an iTunes prepaid card can also be entered instead of a credit card number or a current account; it can be topped up with pocket money. The program is transferred from the computer to the mobile device via USB via synchronization with iTunes. You can also use WiFi directly, at least up to a file size of 20 MB. ITunes remembers which programs have been purchased from an account. If an app is accidentally deleted on the mobile device, that's no drama, because you can download it again at any time for free.

A stationary console without accessories costs between 180 and 300 euros. That is significantly less than is necessary for a PC on which graphically complex strategy or racing games are to run [2].You also save having to set up the game on the hard drive, the hassle of missing drivers and the constant upgrading of the computer. Mobile consoles are ideally suited to remove boredom on long car or train journeys, but cannot keep up with the large models in multiplayer mode. On the one hand, the multiplayer option of some DS titles is expensive if each player needs a separate copy of the 30 to 40 euro games, and on the other hand, every child looks at the screen of their own console - no comparison to romping around together in front of the Wii .

For children up to about eight years of age, a PC with good children's software is the best choice - if you can find something suitable in the currently very limited range of games. Later on, the PC, even if it is a little older, can be used for surfing, chatting and schoolwork, while a console can be used for gaming. A Wii is recommended for sports competitions with the family or a party with friends. Somewhat older children should definitely be included in the choice of console. If the twelve-year-old son dreams of racing games or other action, he can do little with a Wii.

Detective work

Unlike a book that can be leafed through before buying, you cannot look into a computer or console game beforehand. Usually, however, a few screenshots on the box give a first impression of the graphic style of the game. For many game developers, nothing beats a 3D representation that is as realistic as possible, and in fact the gaming experience in typical genres for young people and adults depends on the reality of the scenes. It's different with children's software. A game story in funny 2D graphics has more character and charm than comparable games with an attempted three-dimensional representation, which you can see on the limited budget. In addition, it is easier for preschool and elementary school children to differentiate between play and reality if the graphics alienate or reduce what is depicted.

Unfortunately, there is little to be found out about the plot from the packaging. Parents of children the age of their own offspring can usually say something about their favorite titles. If the child wishes for a game that they saw friends, they can perhaps borrow it and play it with the parents; Libraries also lend games for computers and popular consoles. Unfortunately, there are seldom demos for a PC children's title on the manufacturer's website, but at least trailers often give a first impression of the new releases for the consoles.

Finally, parenting advice or reviews of games can be found in books, magazines, and websites. One disadvantage of guides in book form: They get out of date very quickly. For example, a book by Harald and Andrea Hesse from 2007 [4], which is actually quite worth reading for parents with little prior knowledge, gives understandably long outdated recommendations on PC equipment. In a book for parents from 2009, Jens Wiemken deals with computer games and Internet use [5], and a guide by Thomas Feibel deals with television, computers, the Internet and cell phones [6].

Reviews in games magazines often judge children's titles - if they play a role in reporting at all - according to the same criteria as games for adult gamers. Graphics and sound are then criticized as too simple, and the calm game plot is described as boring. Important points such as the question of reading skills are left out. This is different if a review is aimed at parents or educators and describes games more from an educational point of view. Parents' magazines put reviews of this kind on their media pages, while some computer magazines have a children's page for this, such as the Kids’Bits in c’t. The customer reviews of children's software on the websites of online retailers such as Amazon are very well worth reading.

Great fun

Every now and then, younger computer gamers want to save the world. Parents who have no fundamental concerns and who allow children from around the age of eight to play with scenes containing violence should, however, look at the type of representation. Do combative disputes arise unmotivated and without context, or do they serve to restore order? Does the game propagate dubious conflict resolution models or a fair trial of strength in which justice wins in the end?

There is also shooting in the good old robber and gendarme game, and many great works of world literature are essentially about the struggle between good and evil. As a parent, you should consider this before categorically rejecting the desire for a particular game. Banning action titles as a matter of principle is not a permanent solution. The games that their parents reject are of enormous importance to children and it becomes a sport to circumvent the ban, for example by playing more with friends or by secretly getting the desired title as illegally copied versions in the schoolyard. This is why it is so important to talk to the children about game content.

The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age classification system with levels 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+ has existed in many European countries since 2003. Special symbols show whether, for example, violence contained in the game, vulgar language, a trivialization of discrimination or the invitation to gamble provided the reason for a higher ranking. In Germany, the entertainment software self-regulation (USK) is responsible for the labeling of computer and video games, but only for games that are sold on data carriers, i.e. not for apps or PSP games from the online shop. The USK classifications are “without age restriction”, “from 6 years”, “from 12 years”, “from 16 years” and “no youth approval”. Age ratings are often misunderstood as a recommendation. However, it is by no means the case that a game with the classification “from 6 years” is suitable for every first grader.

The younger the child, the more important it is that the graphics of a game clearly show the difference between fiction and reality. That is also the idea behind a series of games with Lego figures from various manufacturers, the plot of which is based on well-known films such as Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones or Star Wars. In the course of the abundant battles and shootings, defeated figures crumble into their individual Lego pieces, nobody has to give up their virtual life. The whole thing can clearly be seen as a game.

Lego titles rightly have a USK rating of “6+”; They are definitely not suitable for children under six and many seven or eight year olds are likely to be overwhelmed by the pace and the frequent fights. It is all the more incomprehensible when parents report in reviews on amazon.de that they gave the games to their four-year-old children. As a legal guardian, parents can ignore the age recommendations of the USK, but would then have to ensure, for example, for a game with the age restriction “from 12” around the clock that their child's ten year old friend does not play with it. Therefore, older siblings should also know that they are not allowed to give younger ones access to unsuitable games.

Safe on the go on the web

There is pornography and violence on the Internet, rip-offs lurking with subscription traps and downloading illegal film and music copies threatens expensive warnings. Child protection software is supposed to ensure that unwanted content is not displayed to children in the first place.

So-called whitelists offer reliable protection until about the end of elementary school age: They only let websites through that are on a positive list. Such lists should already be filled with many checked pages so that the children do not perceive them as a prison.

A useful whitelist solution for younger children is fragFINN. Free software on the PC monitors the children's user accounts. You can then be sure that no unsuitable content will slip through, especially since the software cannot simply be tricked.

Parents have to keep adding new pages to whitelist solutions. At some point the effort becomes too great and the children demand more freedom. If you then react too restrictively, you run the risk that the children will resort to uncontrolled Internet access, for example with friends or at school. It is then better to switch to a blacklist, which works the other way round: it lets everything through that is not listed. However, the internet is too big and changing too quickly for all the problematic sites to be blacklisted. Blacklist solutions are often supplemented by a filter that works on the basis of keywords. This can lead to information sites being blocked as alleged sex offers.

Windows 7 and Vista contain a parental control function in the Home and Ultimate versions, which works as a white list as well as a blacklist. Both lists can be expanded as required. This is also urgently needed with the whitelist, as it only leaves a few pages for children. We tested the blacklist with a list of 460 URLs from different categories. She blocked a remarkable 97 percent of the porn, at least 53 percent of the violent, but only 8 percent of the rip-off sites. In return, she only blocked 4 out of 107 harmless sites - a good result.

The protection of minors is difficult to bypass and offers useful additional functions such as the detailed log and the option of restricting use to certain times. Unfortunately, you cannot set up a time quota per day or week. Salfeld's “Parental Control 2010” does this very well for 30 euros. Here you can provide larger time contingents for learning programs and generate one-time passwords with which the usage time can be extended in exceptional cases. The program sends logs by email on a daily basis.

In addition to the protection of minors, Microsoft also offers the free family safety filter as part of Windows Live (http://download.live.com), which also runs under Windows XP. In order to be able to use it, you have to register and receive a Windows Live ID. The component of the filter to be installed locally manages the user accounts and the basic settings for them. The fine adjustments are made on the website http://familysafety.live.com, where an activity report is also available. Here parents can even share pages from the office that their children urgently need at home, for example for their homework.

Amazingly, the test results of the family safety filter differed in part from those of the youth protection built into Windows: While they were identical for the porn sites and the harmless results, the family safety filter blocked less violence (21 percent), but instead more rip-off sites (29 percent). Unfortunately, the filter can be easily tricked: It is sufficient to enter a proxy server in the browser or to boot the computer in secure mode with network. At CeBIT, Microsoft presented the prototype of a children's netbook in which all of the manufacturer's security offers are to be bundled in a parent console to make it easier for less experienced parents to set up protection.

AOL also offers a free parental control filter in which locally installed software works together with an online service. To use it, you have to register yourself and all children to be protected. It impresses with its effective blacklist, which filtered out 99 percent of the porn, 88 percent of the violent and at least 29 percent of the rip-off sites in the test. AOL emails logs to parents daily or weekly. The child protection prevents the use of proxies, but remains ineffective after booting in safe mode.

Protection filters can only complement, not replace, media literacy education. It is important to talk to children and teenagers about problematic content and the commercial interests of many web providers. Parents should also point out that everything that can be read on the web is by no means right. In the 2007 JIM study, 40 percent of 12 to 13 year olds “completely” or at least largely agreed with the statement that content on the web is checked before publication [7]. Minutes can serve as a background for such conversations - always created with the knowledge of the young people! - provide the parents with hints when interests develop in a questionable direction. (dwi)


[1] Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest, KIM Study 2008, Children and Media - Computer and Internet, basic study on the use of media by 6 to 13 year olds in Germany, Stuttgart, 2008

[2] Hartmut Gieselmann, solo entertainer, game consoles for at home and on the go, c’t 25/09, p. 154

[3] Benjamin Benz, Christian Hirsch, A question of the dose, game PCs from 500 to 1500 euros, c’t 5/10, p. 90

[4] Harald and Andrea M. Hesse, Computer and Video Games, Everything Parents Should Know, Munich, 2007, ISBN 978-3-7766-2540-0

[5] Jens Wiemken, Computerspiele & Internet, The ultimate guide for parents, Düsseldorf, 2009, ISBN 978-3-491-40146-4

[6] Thomas Feibel, Childhood 2.0, How parents can convey media competence, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-86851-203-8

[7] Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest, JIM 2007, Youth, Information, (Multi-) Media, basic study on how 12 to 19-year-olds use media in Germany, Stuttgart, 2007