Pretty much every games platform in the market today, from phones to tablets to consoles, has some form of system that lets parents lock kids out of bad stuff. But none of them do it as well, or as elegantly, as the Nintendo Switch.
As adults, we tend to give Nintendo shit for their tentative approach to online accessibility. A lot of that, from cumbersome friend codes to the complexity of the Switch’s online communications, is well deserved! Or at least it is when you’re looking at everything from an adult perspective. As annoying and irrelevant as Nintendo’s timid attitudes to the internet can be for us, though, we’re not the reason the company takes things so slowly.
Nintendo is a kids-first company, and you can see this approach very clearly when taking a look at console parental controls. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 do things by the numbers. They both allow parents to block access to certain programs and services, restrict payments and set passwords [Update: You’ve got some added features if you sign into certain sites like this from Microsoft]. It all works, and works pretty easily, and from the perspective of someone who simply wishes to deny their children access to things, both Sony and Microsoft’s approach to the issue is fine.
But the Switch comes from a very Nintendo place, where it feels like they don’t just want to tick a few legal/ethical boxes, but genuinely help parents (and, by extension, the kids who are being affected by these limitations). Like the Xbox and PlayStation, the Switch lets adults restrict a child’s ability to play games with certain ratings, or stop them from using a specific type of program. But it’s the extra stuff the Switch does, and the ease with which you can do it, that makes all the difference.
First up: I appreciate the fact that the Switch’s parental controls are housed in a standalone app, rather than something I need to burrow down into system menus for. There’s a practical benefit to that, as it’s faster and easier to get to these settings, but it also sends a message: by breaking the parental control suite out into its own app, rather than house everything alongside the rest of the system’s settings, it shows Nintendo are treating them as a separate and more important matter than what my resolution or surround sound settings are.
Yet what’s most useful to me as a parent of two curious kids aged seven & five is not the control aspect of the app. That’s the easy part, and indeed you can see that it takes until 2:21 of this excellent 2:56 video explaining the service for Nintendo to even bother to mention “standard parental controls” at all.
Instead, most of the time taken in the clip—and this is where most of my interest in the app lies—is in how it monitors your child’s activity. The bulk of the app’s design is given over to tracking and noting down what games are being played on the system, who is playing them and for how long.
UPDATE: The Xbox can also email parents a weekly summary, and if you use Microsoft’s account page, has various features like activity monitoring and shutdowns. And between planning this post earlier this year and publishing it today, Sony went and added some very handy new features to the PS4's firmware as well, including the ability to schedule playtime.
Let’s take a tour so I can show you what I’m talking about.
Here, for example, is the daily view, letting me see who played what and for how long on any given day. In this case, during Christmas vacation, my daughter (I know this because it displays both the user’s avatar and name) played Super Mario Odyssey for 3:15 across the 24-hour period (you can see that “Alarms were disabled”, we’ll get to that soon).
If we zoom out to a weekly view, we can see she played for three days that week.
The app of course doesn’t just track single users. On this day, both my kids played, and it was able to give me individual data for each child:
You can also zoom out from the weekly view into a monthly snapshot (you also get a reminder to check this once per month). This lets you see everything at once: average playtime, which days the system was used, what’s been played most, even some trend data comparing it to the previous month:
So far, all of this is very cool and interesting to me, both as a parent and a stats nerd. But another of the app’s highlights is when it starts throwing up red flags, and how it lets me respond to them.
Above is the traditional parental controls menu. It lets me restrict certain games and services, enter an override PIN and set time limits on play. I usually leave this at 1:45 (hence all the 1:45 time records above), and have it set so that when that time limit is reached (don’t worry, the kids get a little on-screen warning message before it kicks in) the system shuts down. Like this:
Normally the combination of prior warning and absolute finality—the Nintendo is turning itself off, I’m not the asshole walking into the room and doing it—means the shutdown happens without incident, but below is an example of a bright red notification telling me that my son, who was four at the time, had tried to guess my password in order to keep playing.
Nice try doofus.
All this data harvesting might sound intrusive to a passive bystander, but remember, I am not a random supervisor, I’m these kid’s dad. We’re not talking about my browser knowing which sneakers to try and sell me, we’re talking about me being able to monitor what my own kids are doing, and easily getting hold of records which can help me decide things like “maybe they should stop playing games on a Monday morning”, or “please stop playing my Zelda saves when I’m not here you’re ruining everything”.
Helping everything along is the fact that this is a very nice app. I don’t know if Nintendo made it themselves, or paid someone else to do it, but I do know that it’s easily the cleanest, most intuitive piece of software with a Nintendo logo on it that I’ve ever used. Everything is fast, everything is right where you expect it to be, and I figure it took about five minutes after installing it to have mastered everything it had to offer.
I realise that for most people out there this is an irrelevant part of the Switch experience, but for the parents out there with an interest in controlling what their kids can and can’t play on a console—and monitoring the stuff they do play—the Switch app is a fantastic piece of software, and something you should definitely be making the most of.