One of the best perks of being a journalist is that your colleagues are all experts in various fields, and you can tap them for advice. As NEWSWEEK's resident videogame writer, the question I fielded most often last year was "How can I get my hands on a Wii?" (The answer? Go to the Nintendo World store at 6 a.m. Stand in line. Pray.) But with the April 29 release of the next installment of Grand Theft Auto IV for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, I'm already being asked, "Should I let my son play the new Grand Theft Auto?"
It's a question I'm used to; my co-workers have been asking me about this on and off since the release of Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001. It's also a question that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Because, while I'm pretty knowledgeable about games, I'm not a parent. That's why I always end up feeling fraudulent when I try to come up with an answer—especially since the M (mature) rating for the game clearly indicates that it has "content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older," which might include "intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language." So what my colleagues, friends or acquaintances are really asking me to do is help them figure out whether it's OK for their teenagers to be exposed to material that an industry body has already said may not be appropriate.
Thankfully, I can now punt on those questions with the launch late last year of What They Like. The San Francisco-based start-up provides detailed information to parents about the content of their kids' favorite entertainment. In other words, the reviews don't tell you whether the products are any good. Instead, they tell you, in detail, what's in them so that you can decide whether or not they're appropriate for your kids. The first medium that What They Like founders Ira Becker and John Davison have chosen to tackle is videogames (see whattheyplay.com), which makes a lot of sense given that they previously worked together as executives in Ziff Davis's group of magazines and Web sites for gamers.
I spoke with Davison, a father of two boys, ages 3 and 4. "There was a part of the market that was growing quickly and wasn't being spoken to in any way," he says. "One was parents that had kids who were playing games, but the parents had absolutely no idea about the content. The other part was the gamers who had grown up with the industry. They were starting to settle down and have kids, and it made them very mindful of the ratings."
Since launching whattheyplay.com four months ago, Davison says he's been surprised by just how concerned parents are about profanity. "The parents told us, 'If our kids hear cursing in the game, they repeat it—it's the one thing in videogames that we get an instant feedback loop on." As a result, Davison directed his staff to be much more explicit in its description of what kind of profanity a game contains.
I wound down my interview with Davison by asking about Grand Theft Auto IV; as a friend and father of two told me, "It is one of my worst nightmares as a parent." What They Play has already released a list called "Grand Theft Auto IV: 11 Things Parents Should Know" (yes, it's the first GTA game with "alcohol" as a content descriptor, because players can attempt to drive while impaired), with much more coverage planned once the staff gets its hands on the final game. But while parents' concerns tend to focus on high-profile releases like GTA IV, What They Play also smartly engages more under-the-radar topics, like the virtual worlds Maple Story and Habbo, which appeal to teens. So until I have children of my own and can back up my videogame insights with actual parenting experience, I'll direct my colleagues to What They Play—while I jump right back into the mean streets of GTA IV.