What Parents Need to Know about Playing Multiplayer Games

May 13, 2020

One of the first things every parent teaches their child is not to talk to strangers. While still great advice, it has become more complicated for parents today as kids of all ages are digitally connected, especially those who love playing video games. Many popular video games allow players to communicate online via voice, text or even video chat, and it’s not always so easy for us parents to know who’s part of the conversation.

To encourage your kids to make safe choices when playing games online, here are several steps parents and caregivers can take.

Before They Press “Start”

Discuss and Set Rules:

First step is to initiate an open, non-judgmental conversation with your kids to learn more about the kinds of video games they’re interested in playing. Are they opening up their Minecraft (Everyone 10+) world to let others play and build worlds with them? When is the next match with their friends on Fortnite (Teen 13+) and who’s winning? What are their friends playing?

Once you and your family have a basic understanding of the games your kids like to play, it’s time to set clear boundaries. Thankfully, our Family Discussion Guide suggests a number of questions you can ask to get this started, regardless of how old your kids are.

When it comes to having this discussion with older children, it’s important to make them feel like they have some degree of agency during the process. Empowering kids and building resilience is the point of these conversations, after all, so remain open to their input. Entering these talks with the shared goal of setting boundaries and agreeing on what works and what doesn’t is often more palatable than the stricter… and more tense… alternative.

In order to ensure that your kids don’t end up interacting with just anyone online, it’s important to help guide your children in choosing with whom to be friends online. Particularly with pre-teens, a good starting point might be to set a hard and fast rule to only allow other children that your kids know from school and extracurriculars to be online playmates. Or you may want to establish a rule requiring your children to obtain your approval to accept any and all friend requests so that you can participate in the decision about when an online acquaintance can become an online friend. As times goes on, you may want to periodically sit down with them and review their friends lists to ensure they’re using good judgment.

Remember that every friend starts out as a stranger, even for adults. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and making friends with different kinds of people from all over the world can be a richly rewarding experience. But for your children, the path to those new friendships should start with your active involvement.

Of course, it goes without saying that under no circumstances should your child share personal information online with any of their friends, new or old. Moreover, caution your kids against accepting any invitations from people they do not know – whether it be to connect on a social media platform, talk in a private party, join a team, or anything else. Make sure that your children know to stay within the video game platform/environment you have agreed upon in your house rules.

Over time, your children’s interests and abilities will evolve, and so too should your house rules. So be sure to revisit them regularly.

Checking Rating Information:

Remember that the ESRB rating information will indicate if a video game enables online interactions of any kind. Pay close attention to the Users Interact Interactive Element, which will let you know when a game allows players to communicate with each other. For more information on ESRB ratings, click here.

Use Parental Controls:

Activating parental controls on a game device is a great way to make certain that your household rules are enforced. These controls include the ability to restrict online communication. Depending on the device, you can block online communications altogether, approve specific friend requests or obtain reports on your child’s online activity. Once you’re ready to establish more autonomy for your kids, you can always modify or turn them off.

Visit our step-by-step Parental Control guides on how to activate controls for your kids’ devices.

Staying Safe During Online Play

Most people play games to have a good time, but some players can take competition too far. Simply put, not everyone’s idea of “fun” is the same. Contending with more aggressive or intentionally disruptive players will require a combination of savvy social skills, utilizing the technology at hand, and understanding the unique communities that each game fosters. In fact, many games have community guidelines that they try to enforce. You might want to review those guidelines with your child in advance to see how the game’s community is expected to behave and if it suits their needs.

It goes without saying that you should also enforce your own guidelines around how your children should treat or talk to others, whether online or offline. That tried-and-true Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) also applies when playing games online.

Reporting Players:

But even if your kids are absolute angels online, no one can control how other players behave. When your child runs into upsetting or inappropriate behavior (for example, crass language, bullying, threats, requests for personal information), it’s important that they know about the tools that are available to block, mute, or report players who make them uncomfortable.

Most online games have a “Report Player” tool that makes it relatively easy for your kids to block or mute another player, as well as alert the game developer to a bad actor in the community. Your child can also report the player to the platform that hosts the online gameplay, like Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo, or the third party chat app that hosts the communication, like Discord.

Reporting a player with particularly aggressive communication habits will often be the first line of defense in combating inappropriate behavior in online spaces. In some scenarios, it may make sense to take further action. While there aren’t always clear lines around when to involve the authorities, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. In particularly troubling circumstances, make sure you or your child try to take screenshots of any interactions, copy identifiers like a user ID, and keep track of your child’s various online and social media accounts, just in case this person decides to follow them away from the game.

Rewarding Good Behavior

It may seem like it’s the “wild west” out there in online gameplay, but the game industry (which includes developers, publishers, and platforms) continues to make enormous strides in combating inappropriate behavior in online multiplayer games. This goes beyond just taking punitive actions or providing tools for players to block, report, or mute disruptive players. Companies are also investing resources into developing technology and filtering or moderation software that will suss out the worst interactions before a player ever sees them. Meanwhile, some game publishers are building incentives or rewards into their games from the ground up to encourage good, sportsman-like behavior, instead of simply penalizing bad behavior.

A great example of this can be found in Final Fantasy XIV (Teen 13+) and its commendation system, which allows players to reward their teammates for making positive contributions to their experience playing the game. There’s also League of Legends (Teen 13+), which rewards “honorable” players (those who exhibit consistent, good behavior and sportsmanship) with unique cosmetic items that are highly prized among regular League players.

Game developers, publishers, and video game console makers are constantly working with their communities to figure out the best approach to creating diverse, welcoming and inclusive spaces in their games. So, things are only getting better!

Staying Involved

Remember, the best way to stay connected with your kids as they play online is to pick up a controller (or a keyboard and mouse or a smartphone) and play with them. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good at the game. It’s much more meaningful just to be present to share in your kids’ favorite activity and make video games a family activity that brings everyone together. If you had to boil down the best advice into one simple phrase, it would be to stay involved and empower your children to make smart decisions when playing games online. That will go a long way towards ensuring their online worlds are safe and welcoming places to have fun, make friends, and learn.

Written by

Patricia E. Vance

* Denotes member of FOSI Board

As president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), Ms. Vance leads the non-profit, self-regulatory body for the video game industry in the United States, which includes the assignment of age ratings to video games and mobile apps, enforcement of marketing guidelines adopted by the video game industry and operating Privacy Certified, an FTC-sanctioned COPPA Safe Harbor privacy seal certification program. Ms. Vance is also the chairperson of the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), a ground-breaking global rating and age classification system for digitally delivered games and apps that reflects the unique cultural differences among nations and regions.

Ms. Vance also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and was appointed to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG), which was established by Congress to make recommendations on the protection of children on the Internet through education, labeling and parental control technology.

Prior to joining the ESRB in 2002, Ms. Vance spent 18 years at Disney/ABC, with responsibility for the development of a broad range of new media and market initiatives. As Senior Vice President, General Manager of the ABC Internet Group, she oversaw the operations and strategic development of ABC-branded news and entertainment related web sites, and was also responsible for launching and/or managing several interactive entertainment and educational software publishing ventures, the direct response marketing of ABC programming and ABC's in-flight entertainment business.

Ms. Vance holds a B.A. in International Relations/Russian from Washington University in St. Louis, is the mother of two daughters and lives in New York, NY.