Your living room’s new “black box”

Thierry PlanteWith the launch of the Xbox One in November, 2013 has finally finished giving birth to the newest generation of video game consoles. Wii U, PlayStation 4 (PS4) and Xbox One are sure to be on many children’s wish lists for the holidays this year, but these new consoles are anything but child’s play. Far from being simple machines for playing video games, these new consoles are more connected to the Internet than ever and have lots of new social features. If you decide to purchase one of these new consoles, the following overview will hopefully convince you to spend some time sitting down with your children and exploring all that these powerful little boxes have to offer before handing over the controller.

(It should be noted that this is not meant as a guide to help you choose which console to buy, but rather to help you maximize the positive aspects of these media machines and minimize the potential negatives.)

The games 

There are plenty of games to choose from for this new generation of machines, and they are more attractive and sophisticated than ever, with more online content, more features for online play and more use of the consoles’ built-in cameras. From a content perspective, the games for this new generation of machines are similar to those for older systems, and our tips on choosing the best one for your child still apply:

  • First, choose games that they will like and have fun with based on their interests and personality (it’s a game after all!). Research shows that for most games, when kids are enjoying the play, they’re learning something useful.
  • Second, all games purchased from stores come with an ESRB rating on the box (the ratings system covers “early childhood” to “adult only”). These are a great help when you need to choose games that are appropriate for where your child is at developmentally. (See our tipsheet Understanding the Video Game Rating System for more information on content issues and ratings in video games.)
  • Finally, use the Internet to research games you’re thinking of buying: there are plenty of reviews and gameplay videos online and often you can download and try a demo version before purchasing the full version. (See our blog Game Tips for Parents for more information.)

Keep in mind that all three new consoles (and some of the current ones) let you download games and add-ons that may not be rated (this often happens with indie games) or may change the nature of the original game. It’s a good idea to tell your kids to ask your permission before they download anything onto the console. Alternatively, you can also restrict this feature through parental control options. (Ratings aside, you will want to ensure that your children are downloading these from legitimate websites – otherwise they may be downloading malware and viruses, along with the game or add-on.)

Social networks

All three consoles require gamers to create an account before they can play. Each account allows the player to participate in a social network specific to each console (for example, on the Wii U, it’s called the “Miiverse”). While the exact features of each network differ a little, they all offer: chat services, texting, and playing with others. The Xbox One and the Wii U come equipped with cameras (it’s optional for the PS4) so you can add taking photos and video chats to that list. It is also possible to link a console account to a Facebook or email account.

What this means is that compared to older generations of consoles, kids need more guidance in using these safely and wisely, given the increased amount of personal information these machines are able to collect, connect and share. Thankfully, each console’s parental control features are pretty comprehensive and they allow you to control very specific things such as when and how the console connects to the Internet, what information can be shared and what your children can do on those social networks.

Bear in mind that all these features are subject to change, at any time, whenever the consoles update their software, so you will have to keep a regular eye on them. You can also decide to not connect these machines to the Internet at all (the Xbox One requires an Internet connection for the initial setup, but you can leave it disconnected thereafter), but be aware that this will likely provoke howls of protest from older children and teens, for whom co-op and competitive play are the heart of the gaming experience.

The new media hub in your living room

As well as games, all three consoles allow users to go on the Internet, watch and rent movies, and support applications that provide all sorts of specific services such as news channels, streaming radio and shopping. Since these can be downloaded manually or installed automatically whenever the console gets a system update, it’s a good idea to go through the console from time to time to see what’s changed and to ensure it is appropriate for your children. Again, you can control this through the parental settings.

A few final tips:

  1. Sit down with your children and go through the initial setup of the console.
  2. Depending on their age, be frank and be open to discuss why you are setting some parental control options and not others.
  3. Remind them to respect other people online, even when they’re just playing together.
  4. Remind them to respect their own private information.
  5. If the console is connected to the Internet, new features are constantly being added and modified: have a look from time to time at what’s installed.
  6. Include game consoles in your family’s household rules on Internet use.

In the end, unless the console is not connected to the Internet, there’s always a chance that your child will see, hear or experience something that might upset them. This is where all your efforts in developing a relationship of trust with your child and the regular talks you’ve had about the good-side – and the bad-side – of media pay off. If you need some more tips about this, or a refresher, we have great resources here on our website.

Here are some more MediaSmarts resources to help you get through the holidays: