For many parents, figuring out which video games are safe for kids can itself be a maddening game.
Most game reviews in fan magazines and on enthusiast websites don't offer much help, with their fixation on geeky details such as frame rates, texture maps and physics engines. The packaging gives parents a few clues -- whether the game contains violence, strong language or sexual innuendoes -- but little else.
Two game industry veterans plan to launch a website today that aims to help parents who might not know what a first-person shooter is but have kids clamoring for the new "Halo 3" game. The site, at www.whattheyplay.com, features reviews not for the kids playing the games but for the parents supervising them.
As former editor in chief of two magazines for devoted gamers, John Davison published hundreds of reviews that might as well have been in Klingon to someone who's never picked up a joystick.
"We wanted to provide a place where parents can turn to for neutral, objective information on the games their kids might want to play," said Davison, a 35-year-old father of two boys, ages 2 and 4. He and co-founder Ira Becker, a former colleague from Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc., are counting on advertising to pay the bills.
Although video games have become an increasingly popular form of entertainment, ringing up more than $30 billion in annual sales worldwide, parents often don't hear much about them until a controversial title hits the news.
"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" earned that spotlight two years ago when a programmer uncovered nude sex scenes hidden in the game that a software download made visible. Its publisher, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., last week settled a class-action lawsuit by agreeing to pay $1 million in consumer refunds.
This year, Take-Two's "Manhunt 2," a game about a sociopath on a homicidal rampage, was banned in Britain for what regulators there called its "bleakness and callousness of tone." In the U.S., the industry's Entertainment Software Rating Board gave the title an "Adults Only" rating, a category that most retailers refuse to sell. Take-Two later blurred out the violent scenes to earn a more acceptable "Mature" rating, but hackers found ways to restore the graphic depictions.
With so much controversy surrounding the title, Target Corp. decided not to carry the game on its shelves.
The video game industry has responded to concerns about the effect of violent media on children by offering up more family-friendly games, trying to teach parents about the ratings system and giving parents more tools to help them regulate their kids' gaming activities.
Microsoft Corp. last week announced a feature on its Xbox 360 consoles that would let parents limit the amount of time their children spend playing video games.
Davison and Becker believe that parents want trusted, jargon-free information on games that can help them decide what's appropriate for their children.
That exists for films, with websites such as Yahoo Inc.'s Movie Mom. But for games, there are few places for parents such as TereLyn Hepple to turn to that don't have social or religious agendas.
"In cases where I'm looking to see if there's objectionable content, I just don't see many reviews talking about that," said Hepple, a mother of two in Fort Worth. "I would love a place that actually has all that information in one place and has a real community feature where parents can contribute and get advice and recommendations."
What They Play aims to do just that with its seven writers.
Its reviews are matter-of-fact, cutting straight to the potentially edgy portions of games. In "BioShock," a post-apocalyptic science-fiction action game that some critics have called "amazing," the site unflinchingly describes a scene where players can either save a possessed young girl or "harvest" her for more points, leaving her dead.
The San Francisco company has plans to start websites taking a similar approach to movies, music and books.
Davison said it was important that the editorial content remained neutral and descriptive because what might be scary to one child might be fun for another. For more subjective commentary, the site invites parents to write their own reviews.
"We really believe that it's the parents that should be controlling this stuff," Davison said. "And the best way to do that is to tell them the facts so they can make the call."