'What They Play' gives parents helping hand

So your family was lucky enough to get a Nintendo Wii this past holiday season. Or maybe you got your kids a Microsoft Xbox 360 or Sony PlayStation 3 to play Rock Band or Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

Now the kids want some new games to play and while you aren't really concerned about content on Dora the Explorer, others like Halo 3, Assassin's Creed, God of War and the upcoming Super Smash Bros. Brawl have you wondering what your children might come across in them.

The recently launched site What They Play (www.whattheyplay.com) attempts to lend parents a helping hand in navigating the video game landscape. "Parents are largely scared to death of video games unless they are video gamers themselves," says CEO Ira Becker, formerly with Ziff Davis.

He and former Ziff Davis editorial director John Davison raised $3 million and founded the San Francisco-based company What They Like last spring after years in the business of producing video game magazines aimed at hard-core gamers. Their initial goal has been to provide parents with an easily digestible, unbiased and informative source for information about games. Their first project, the website, became operational in November 2007.

So far, the site has 750 write-ups about popular games and their catalog is growing. "They are not reviews. They are not subjective. They are meant to be objective," says editorial manager Zoe Flower, a former games developer and journalist who along with Davison help write the descriptions. " We don't rate them on whether they are good or bad. We let you know what is inside the content that might be of interest."

Each write-up mentions the game's rating (for age-appropriateness from the industry's Entertainment Software Ratings Board) and the descriptions assigned by the board. For instance, Assassin's Creed is rated Mature for ages 17 and older, because it contains "Blood," "Strong Language" and "Violence." But whattheyplay.com goes deeper to explain how the game plays out — they actually play the games — and that some of the assassinations performed can be "quite bloody" and that "indiscriminate violence is punished." Also noted: swear words.

"The language was something they were really concerned," Davison says. "They say their kid is able to deal with violence. They see blood on TV, fine. But if they hear a character say (a cuss word) in a game it's an instant thing in the home," he says. "So we list out the words that you will hear and the frequency in which you will hear it."

Through agreements with Amazon.com, the site posts lists of top sellers and most popular upcoming games. Also on the site is a weekly Ask GamerDad column and a recent feature from 30 Rock TV writer Dave Finkel on how music games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band helps kids learn a love of music.

The What They Play team is at Game Developers Conference spreading the word on their site and scouring the conference for upcoming games to vet. On their radar now: Super Smash Bros. Brawl (out March 9 for the Wii) "is going to be huge," Davison says. "There will be families fine with Mario beating up Princess Peach and some who won't."

Timing is good for the site, he continues, because a string of controversial games has begun from The Club (an M-rated game out this week for the Xbox 360) to Bully: The Scholarship Edition (March 3, Xbox 360 and Wii) and Grand Theft Auto IV (coming April 29 for Xbox 360 and PS3).

"We try to keep the focus on what the kids want to play so parents can be smart about it," Davison says.

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