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Culture gives parents the scoop on video games

New Web site gives parents the information they need to decide which video games are right for their families. Objective reviews spell out both game features and content, giving the details about storyline, sexuality, violence, and gore.

There's a contradiction in our approach to kids and electronic media: we want parents to supervise their kids and guide their appropriate use of games and media, and at the same time we talk about kids being "digital natives" who understand the gaming world much better than many parents do.

Let's face it, kids can spend hours talking to each other about the latest gadget or video game, and it is a challenge for parents to catch up. Most video game reviews discuss a game from the player's point of view without giving parents the details they need to judge whether a particular game is appropriate for their child. (I frequently encounter the same problem with movie reviews for kids' films. I am usually not that concerned about how "good" a kids' movie is, but I want to know the details behind a movie's PG-13 rating. Yet that information is rarely provided.)

A new Web site called fills in this information gap. The site launched in November and already features a well-populated catalog of game reviews. Now parents can get the details beyond ESRB ratings, with objective reviews and user comments, to decide for themselves whether they want to bring a game home for their family. The reviews aim to be descriptive rather than judgmental. Details of sexuality, strong language, gore, or violence are spelled out. For example, an excerpt from the review of the M-rated Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare says,

"The blood and gore, though not gratuitous, is prevalent throughout. Bullets tear through body armor and into flesh, explosions throw combatants around like rag dolls, and corpses litter the battlefield in the aftermath of each skirmish. There are also multiple scenes were the player is savaged by an attack dog, and the only way to survive this is to either shoot the animal, or snap its neck. Players will see firing squads killing prisoners, soldiers beating captives, and there is one scene of an execution viewed from the perspective of the victim."

WhatTheyPlay also distinguishes itself by providing detailed background on games for every age level, offerings as diverse as Dora the Explorer, Guitar Hero 3, and Brain Age 2.

I liked learning which games can be played together as a family with each player adjusting their level of difficulty. I also appreciated the synopses that evaluate the game content separately from the online multiplayer experience. A spirited discussion is developing on the Halo 3 page about the game itself versus the Xbox Live multiplayer community.

A consensus shorthand gets developed as site users weigh in on the question, "I think this game is OK for kids over the age of: ____" Dissenting opinions are often spelled out in the comments section.

Games can be searched by title, console, rating, or popularity. I hope kids and teens don't see this site as something that will inevitably spoil their chances of getting a game. As a parent, I for one am much more likely to allow my kid to buy a game if I know what it is about.