When it comes to leisure activities, many parents are still very discerning. Only the best sports club or drama school will do. The music teacher better have a CRB check and it might be a good idea to see them perform. But parents are perfectly comfortable to remain entirely ignorant of what it is their children spend - let's be honest - hours a day doing!
I encourage my kids to game, and I'm also very involved in what they're playing and I do decide certain games are suitable and others aren't. I refuse to base that decision on a simple rating system alone! Bambam plays Starcraft II, but I would not let him play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, both of which are rated PEGI 16 with content indicators for violence and online play. To an uninformed parent, these identical ratings would lead to an identical decision. But there is a clear difference between the two games.
Jane McGonigal condensed her scientific findings about gaming into this one sentence of handy advice (worked out in more detail here):
Play games you enjoy no more than 21 hours a week; face-to-face with friends and family as often as you can; and in co-operative or creator modes whenever possible.Bambam plays Starcraft because his family members (both at home and online) play it too. It's a strategic game you can play co-operatively. He's learning to think fast on his feet, find solutions and he's bonding socially and working together. As the game is played from a bird's eye view, the violence is mostly fingertip-sized tanks blowing up other fingertip-sized war machines and planes in alien surroundings. Not terribly gory or graphic at all. There is some violence and strong language in the cut scenes. We are aware of this and so is Bambam. He does not use this kind of language himself, and pretty much glosses over it when it occurs. What he enjoys about the game is the epic storyline and the way you can choose which 'side' you'd like to play on and how you'd like to treat others. He's learning a lot about what motivations and justifications people use for (violent or not) behaviour, and often discusses the ramifications and alternatives with us and other children at length, which is a useful skill for the real world.
Despite its identical rating, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, does not come with the same advantages Starcraft does, and so we've decided not to play this game. I doubt Bambam would enjoy the first person shooter environment any more than I do. It takes a level of dexterity and skill that I don't think he has at the moment, which makes it mostly frustrating. Nobody he knows is playing it right now, so there would be very little social bonding. There are co-operative modes of play and strategic considerations, and even an overarching storyline with intricate motivations, but ultimately it is perfectly possible to ignore these and just run around shooting people.
When Bambam was five, he played Spore, which is rated 12 for some inexplicable reason. There is some violence: the fantasy creatures you create eat or battle each other, but in the most cartoony way possible. They procreate by dancing together and laying an egg, so there's no sex. Bambam enjoyed playing this on the computer next to mine, where I played the same. He learned to design creatures he likes, but as his gameplaying progressed, he also learned to kit them out with the right body parts and accessories to achieve his long term goals. Based on how you make your creatures behave when they are animals, there will be consequences in the tribal and civilisation stage and onwards. He learned the difference between fighting and making friends and worked out on his own that making friends tended to lead to more points (and took this attitude with him to school). I daresay, I doubt a critical 12 y/o would internalize that particular fairly obvious ethical/social message in the game as well as a younger child. Had I stuck to PEGI's rating, all these lessons would not have been learned!
Of course, when parents choose to adhere to PEGI guidelines, their children might miss out on some fun and learning in games, but obviously these same lessons can be learnt in different ways as well. Following PEGI guidelines for games is not a bad start at all. However, what worries me is parents who think it's enough just to follow the guidelines. In discussions about the subject, I encounter staggering levels of ignorance in parents about games and gaming. Often they have no idea that such a thing as co-operative or creator modes even exist, or that there are indeed games that are not first person shooters. Their children are playing games that are decreed suitable for their age, and so they feel happy and secure. But how is a child any different the day after their 16th birthday than the day before? If they were not ready for violence and online gameplay yesterday, what makes them so today? No matter when a parent chooses to introduce their child to new kinds of content, they need to be aware of and engaged with that content, and with their child. If they won't game themselves - although they really ought to give it a try - parents should know a lot more about the games their children play and how it affects them. No official rating can tell you this, only your child can.