Game developers generally ignore parental controls when they develop games. Sony permits these games to connect to PSN and to operate in an all-or-nothing mode. The parental controls don’t matter because games will only play if all parental controls are disabled. This completely undermines the entire point of the parental controls. Parents get a choice: allow kids the full adult experience or allow them no experience at all.
Playstation Network (PSN) is an interconnection facility that Sony creates that allows game developers to create online games where players interact with each other. Sony offers a variety of parental controls for things called “sub accounts". The idea is that a parent has a “master account” who can set various controls that prevent objectionable content from being seen or accessed by the “sub accounts”. Parents have three restrictions they can control:
- Chat/Message (Allowed / Disallowed)
- Content Restriction (On / Off)
- User-Generated Media (Allowed / Disallowed)
What these controls actually cover and what the games are meant to do about it is fairly ambiguous. And frankly, what actually happens in real games is what makes this pointless.
Example Bad Behaviours
Here’s two games that do this really badly.
Overwatch simply fails to login and run if you don’t have Chat/Message enabled. Now, Overwatch allows you, within the game, to disable Team Chat and Group Chat. Why couldn’t they just detect that the sub account has Chat disabled and turn those options off automatically. They could then make the chat options disabled (i.e., so the player cannot turn them on). This seems so simple. But that isn’t how Blizzard designed it.
An enthusiast might argue that the voice chat is really important. It might drive you crazy to get someone put onto your team who has no voice chat. That’s fine. I can see that point. So Blizzard can create a separate matching queue on Battle.net for players who have chat disabled. Let them all play amongst themselves.
Elder Scrolls Online
ESO is another game where in-game chat is completely optional. In fact, it has a perfectly reasonable single-player mode. You can play a perfectly reasonable and fulfilling game without ever engaging in any kind of voice chat or text chat with other players. It seriously wouldn’t take much to just disable voice chat. Turn it off and prevent it from being turned on. Disable guilds. Disable email (except email messages sent by game entities like shops and hirelings). You could enable trading, since there is no free speech or texting in the trading interface. But these features aren’t hard to disable once you detect that the PSN account has this feature set.
Throwing Parents Under the Bus
This terrible design and feeble implementation puts parents in a horrible position with their children. Parents are trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to give mediated or moderate access to these games. On the one side, parents have a child who is insisting or crying or begging to play a game. And the game would be fine as long as the children didn’t have to interact with the crude, coarse, horrible adults on voice chat. On the other side, parents have this opaque and broken set of “controls”. If you enable ANY of these controls, the kids simply can’t play any games at all, not a little bit. If you disable the controls, the kids can play and they get the full adult experience.
Why it is Sony’s Fault
On the one hand, it’s individual games like Overwatch, ESO, and Dungeon Defenders that are making these choices. So why do I blame Sony? Sony has standards and expectations for game developers who use PSN to connect their games. Sony defines what the parental controls do and don’t do. They enforce those behaviours. Whether it’s API calling conventions at the technical level or high level concerns like content and charging models, they exert editorial influence over PSN. The game publishers must get permission from Sony to sell these games and to connect them to PSN. Sony should require games to operate in some reasonable but different mode when the restrictions are turned on. If the game cannot possibly function with content restrictions in place, then it is not suitable for kids under any circumstances. It should be marketed accordingly. Instead, they market the games to the children and tell parents they have “control”. Both Sony and the game publishers are punting on this and making parents take the blame for “why doesn’t it work?".
What Parents Want
We want to have games that are sensible and playable even when children’s accounts have restrictions enabled. We want “restrictions” to be meaningful. We want games that play differently when restrictions are enabled, not games that simply refuse to operate at all. This is 2016. We have the technology. We have a decent understanding of the problem. It is time the game publishers took on the small incremental effort of dealing with children properly. This is a multibillion dollar industry and we are shelling out a lot of money to them. We need a product that delivers what we deserve.