By Mike McCarter, Director of Protection Services at Microsoft

Kids and video games can easily spiral into an out-of-control situation, and as a result some parents shun the consoles altogether. While certain games can drive great learning and development, the wrong games, or too much game time, can have adverse consequences.  

As we know, kids can get really excited about video games, so considering their age and stage of development, it should come as no surprise when they struggle with self-moderation. Here is how I use my Xbox’s parental controls to let the system be the bad guy. It is continuously reinforcing what I view as healthy boundaries that reflect my family’s agreed upon values.

I set up my Xbox One console for my two kids, Blake (7) and Abby (9), in a manner that lets them easily log in and play Minecraft safely, without social connections to other players and without the risk of getting into other games that I don’t want them playing. Here’s how I did it.

First I set them up with child accounts and then I set myself up with a parent account with a secret button combo that lets me grant them advanced privileges later when needed. Then I set up face recognition for each of us using the Kinect so that there is no login required (just turn on the device and look at the screen to log into the correct account).

Next I configured their child accounts to have Minecraft be the only game they are allowed to play. Social connections with other Xbox players are set as ‘disallowed’ right now, although eventually we can add their friends on a case-by-case basis when they are ready for that stage of life.

At this point it is worth mentioning that my kids can occasionally play games other than Minecraft too, although this requires me to enter my secret button combo on the Xbox controller.

In my opinion, the secret button combo on the Xbox is so much better than the on-screen password approach used by other devices in our home. With those devices, our kids can instantly see and remember the passcode we enter, since it is shown right in front of them on the screen. I hope more consoles move to toward the secret button combo approach for overriding parental control.

When it comes to authorizing additional apps, I always have a robust conversation with my kids in advance. For example since they are both playing soccer in real life, I will sometimes approve them to play FIFA since it helps them understand the game better and teaches them about strategy and the roles of different positions on the field.

Right now however, I am currently limiting their access to this game. Eventually I will upgrade it to “first class status” once I get the newest FIFA, assuming it features playable versions of the amazing female athletes we see in real life. Instead of just seeing male players on the screen, how cool would it be for Abby or Blake to play Megan Rapinoe as she wins the FIFA Women’s World Cup? But I digress…

Once you’ve set up the permissions correctly on the Xbox, you have to operationalize your household’s gaming policy. This is where more parenting decisions come up.  Since your kids can now just turn on the TV and get themselves logged in, you have to decide how often you want them to do that. In our house, we have chosen to limit not only their game selection, but also their screen time.

Our current approach for this is to give them a choice of either 20 mins of reading or 20 mins of math problems (e.g. I have flash cards on my phone) and this will earn them 20 mins of screen time. The math facts can be done in a few mins, although these require some intellectual exertion, whereas the reading is more enjoyable but takes longer.

Once they have earned their screen time, they’ll typically yell “Alexa set the timer for 20 mins” and scamper away to the rec room to jump on the Xbox. Sometimes if I need my own screen time, I’ll let them earn more than 20 mins.

The screen in our rec room is highly visible to anyone who walks by, and it is audible throughout most of the house. So until Alexa’s timer goes off in the kitchen, they get no-hassle play time. I encourage them to play Minecraft in “creative mode” and sometimes I’ll have them show me the buildings they are creating.

In my opinion, Minecraft fosters learning, creativity, dexterity as well as a healthy satisfaction with the fruits of one’s hard work. With Creative Mode in Minecraft, players get to out pick the materials and designs that support the intended vision and function of what they are creating. I never cease to be amazed by what my kids come up with; their portfolio of virtual projects would make even the most famous architect envious.

Also worth mentioning, sometimes when we’ve had a discussion in advance, I will them play Minecraft in “survival mode”. This mode is the one where raw materials are limited and must be mined. Also zombies and spiders attack at night unless you build structures to protect yourself. Blake takes more interest in this mode than Abby. When he plays the game in survival mode, he has to play it with the volume turned down since the gurgling and groaning noises from the zombies can be a bit scary (and perhaps more psychologically impactful) when played loudly.

Blake’s older sister gets the same deal as him, although when earning her screen time her math problems are harder than his because she is older and more advanced.  In any case, she typically chooses to spend all of her time in creative mode.

In the current Minecraft world they’ve built, Blake and Maddy both have custom characters and they typically play together on the same device using a split screen while building structures on adjacent plots of land in their shared world.

Just as in life, this virtual world isn’t always a bed of roses. Sometimes they get restless or cranky and then harsh words get exchanged; sometimes tensions will escalate and Blake will damage or destroy Abby’s building, then harsh words are exchanged and the household equivalent of World War III begins.  In other words, it’s no different than their shared Lego project on a Saturday morning; all is harmonious, until it’s not.

That’s about it… not rocket science but hopefully helpful.

P.S.  Perhaps this is sketchy parenting, but earning game time can also offer great leverage when it comes to incentivizing positive choices in other difficult areas of their lives… like the checkout aisle at the supermarket. If they start to misbehave, I can just warn them that they may be jeopardizing their screen time, and they’ll typically shape up. If course this means that I need to actually follow through on the consequence if needed, and stick to my guns despite the wailing and objections.