Parent’s Guide

A roundup of video games and consoles

If you’re a parent without a lot of videogame experience, or whose videogame experience ended sometime in the mid-80’s, you may have some questions or concerns about the current state of videogames so that you can make the best choices about what your kids play. This page is intended to help bring you up-to-speed and give you some suggestions so that you can make informed decisions about your child’s gaming.

Note: All listed prices are USD. Individual sales and discounts may apply.

Contents

The ESRB Ratings System
The Consoles

  • The Nintendo Wii
  • The XBox 360
  • The Playstation 3
  • Personal Computer

Portable Gaming Devices

  • Nintendo DS
  • Playstation Portable

The console as a positive influence in the household
Recommended games

 

The ESRB Ratings System

Perhaps the most important aspect to parenting children who play videogames is an understanding of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board Ratings System. An independant system for determining the appropriate age of the audience for a videogame, the ESRB provides ratings in the same way that the MPAA provides ratings for movies. Every rating is accompanied by a description of the content of the game that resulted in the designated rating. An easy guide:

Style MPAA ESRB
Juvenile/very young children-oriented content, may not be enjoyable for adults G EC (Early Childhood)
Juvenile content, suitable for all ages G E (Everyone)
Content may not be suitable for very young children, but should be OK for pre-teens PG E10+ (Everyone 10 and older)
Content and themes may be too mature for children under 13 PG-13 T (Teen)
Content has graphic depictions of violence and mild sexual themes, not appropriate for juveniles under 17 R M (Mature)
Content contains extemely depraved violence and graphic sexuality. Not appropriate for anyone under the age of 18 NC-17 AO (Adults Only)

The good news is that retail outlets will not sell AO games, and the three console manufacturers will not license AO games on their systems, leaving AO games to the realm of the PC consumer. The bad news is that M-rated games really try to push the boundaries of sex and violence because of an AO rating is really only used in the most extreme cases. If you are the parent of a teenager who is agitating for an M-rated game, be sure to educate yourself on the content of the game before you purchase.

Note that ’sexual themes’ in most M-rated games mainly means women’s naked breasts. Even God of War, famed for it’s sex-themed minigame, doesn’t show sex, just topless women. The sex is all off-screen, though the player does get sound cues as to how well or poorly they are doing. Violence seems to have almost nothing to do with ratings, whatever the official rating on the box says.

The Longest Journey, for example, was given an M rating. The ESRB website says it’s for strong language. The game is almost completely bloodless, with only a few violent onscreen acts. There is some salty language. But the only thing I can think of that would garner it an M-rating would be that during the opening cutscene of the game, there’s a full-frontal shot of a naked man. It’s the only nudity in the game, and it’s roughly equivalent to Michaelangelo’s David.

So what’s a parent to make of this? Just that the ratings on the box aren’t necessarily consistent from one game to the next. If you’re not sure about the latest game that your kids are clamoring for, do a test drive. A lot of video rental stores also rent video games, not just movies. Rent the game and sit with them to watch the game as they play. (If they’re uncomfortable with you being there and urge you to go do something else while they play, it’s probably a good hint that it’s something you’d rather they didn’t.) If you’re at a loss when presented with a game controller, go to YouTube or GameTrailers and look up the title of the video game there. A few minutes of game footage should give you a good idea of what the game is about.

 

The Consoles

You may be interested in the different consoles that are out there. In the current generation, you have four primary choices: The consoles: Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s XBox 360, and Sony’s Playstation 3, as well as gaming on your Personal Computer. All three console devices come with Parental Control settings to prevent children from playing games with ratings that are not appropriate. Here is a very good guide for how to set these parental controls.

 

The Nintendo Wii

WiiThis console is the media darling of the current generation of consoles. Nintendo has banked a lot of money on the family-friendly aspects of the Wii. It comes bundled with Wii Sports which allows up to four people to play tennis, baseball, golf, box, and go bowling together by emulating the motions of those activities. This does not mean that there aren’t T- and M-rated games for this console. Just because a title is offered for the Wii does not mean that it is appropriate for all ages. Games like Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, and Manhunt 2 have extremely graphic violence. Always, always check a game’s rating before you buy it!

While the console itself is the cheapest of the three offered–it retails for USD$250–it only comes with one controller and each additional controller will run between $40-60 ($40 for the base Wiimote, and $20 for the “nunchuck” attachment). The console, plus an extra controller and nunchuck, plus a title will run you closer to $400. Nintendo caps its games at $50 (with the exception Guitar Hero III which has a special controller). Unfortunately, Nintendo has not included rechargable Lithium-ion batteries in the controller, so you will either be purchasing a big block of AA batteries to keep it powered, or look for third-party recharge pack solutions.

It has positioned itself as the “fitness” gaming unit, with games like Wii Fit, Dance Dance Revolution, and its bundle title. Most games involve arm-waving, and young children should be instructed to put the wrist-strap on as more than a few televisions have suffered when the Wiimote went flying. Similarly, children should be carefully placed so that they don’t accidentally smack each other (or furniture) when they’re playing. However, it also has an added value in it’s Virtual Console service, which allows you to purchase old Nintendo titles like the original Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, and Mario Kart games. It is also backwards-compatible with all Gamecube titles.

Nintendo has been reluctant to enter into the online gaming world, and the Wii is the company’s very cautious first entry into that realm. The Wii has a wireless network card in it, but there aren’t really any gaming applications for it yet. It comes with a web browser and email client that can be disabled. Nintendo has implemented very tight controls for online gaming. Apart from requiring a unique 16-digit friend code to connect your Wii to others, each game will contain its own set of friend codes. Games that allow anonymous online play do not allow players to chat or even see one another’s screen names. The idea is that your kid should know who they’re playing beforehand.

 

The Xbox 360

XBox 360Microsoft’s XBox 360 console has been out the longest of the three new-generation console units. As a result, it has the most titles offered. The XBox360 has an emphasis on action, fighting, and sports games, with some driving and family games thrown in. Games like Gears of War and Halo 3 are tremendously popular shooters found on this console.

The XBox 360 will run you between USD$300-400 depending on the exact model. We recommend the model that has an “HDMI output” — this is a relatively new revision and should avoid the XBox’s well-documented hardware failure, also known as the “Red Ring of Death,” which has been estimated at upwards of 33%. Microsoft is just starting to offer game bundles, so try to look for those; otherwise add in the cost of a game, and you may find yourself purchasing extra cables, an extra controller, and a controller battery charge kit. This can push up the total amount of your purchase by a couple of hundred dollars. However, if you are building an entertainment center, the XBox can pull double-duty as both a console and a multimedia unit. It plays DVDs and Music, and you can purchase an HD-DVD player attachment for the device. You can also play most of the original XBox’s titles on this new version, although you should check the backwards compatibility list if there’s an older title you really want to play.

The 360 has a very well-developed online gaming system. A gold membership to XBox Live will run between $30-40/year–it can be cheaper to buy a redemption card through a retailer than making your purchase directly through Microsoft. Playing games online is incredibly easy to arrange. Microsoft has created a number of “gamer zones” to distinguish the sort of competitive player that you are so that you can be matched with similar players. Unlike Nintendo’s console, the 360 does not prevent people who don’t otherwise know each other for meeting in a game to play against each other. A parent who purchases an XBox Live account for their child should be comfortable with their child in an anonymous social environment. Young children should be supervised when they are playing XBox Live. Teenagers should be given “the talk” about keeping identities private, and what is and is not acceptable language in a competitive environment. Any concerns about abuse should be directed to Microsoft’s Customer Support. For more about parenting and XBox, visit the XBox Family page.

Recently, Microsoft has implemented a “family timer” measure on the XBox, so that hours spent playing can be allocated like allowances, with the system shutting off when those hours have been reached. This is a feature that consoles have been in want of for some time, so expect Sony and Nintendo to follow suit.

 

The Playstation 3

Playstation 3Sony’s third home console unit has suffered disappointing sales, especially in comparison to the phenomenal success of the Playstation 2, arguably the most popular home console to date. Its SIXAXIS controller is also motion-sensitive, though not in the same way as the Wii. The Wii’s remote and nunchuk controllers rely on a sensor strip, usually mounted on the TV, and it can be a bit finicky. The SIXAXIS controller has sensors inside the controller that measure its tilt from side to side as well as forward and back, though developers have been slow to make use of this feature.

The Playstation 3 is arguably the most powerful console system on the market, and to boot is a Blu-Ray DVD player. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive system on the market, though the price has come down substantially, and currently has the leanest selection of titles. Backwards compatibility with the PS2’s games (the previous model) can be a bit spotty. Less-expensive versions of the PS3 (the 40GB hard drive model) are not backwards compatible, and the 60GB Hard Drive model is still subject to regional firmware updates to provide backwards compatibility. If your kid wants to play games for the PS2, you should research your purchase. The PS3’s forte is in action/adventure and Role-Playing Games (RPGs), and is the only place you’ll find the latest titles in the Final Fantasy series, which is one of the most popular RPG series ever made (some older and spin-off titles are available for the Nintendo line). In general, the titles may run a bit mature making the system more desirable for teenagers.

Like the 360, the PS3 has a robust online player matching. The Playstation “Home” system will create a virtual meeting space for players that is divided into both private and public sections. Like the XBox, a parent should be comfortable with their child in an anonymous public forum, and the kids should be instructed on the importance of privacy and appropriate behavior.

 

Portable Gaming Devices

Parents reluctant to hand over the family’s television may instead opt to purchase a handheld gaming device for their child. These devices offer portability and privacy to the gaming experience. They can be a godsend for long trips, and may help break up sibling squabbling over who gets to play next if you can afford one for each child.

Portable game devices are not a good fit for very young children. The DS’s flip-screen could be snapped off by rough handling, and the PSP’s TFT screen could crack if dropped. Not to mention, a portable game device is a fairly expensive toy to lose by leaving at a friend’s house.

 

Nintendo DS

Nintendo DSCurrently the largest market share for handhelds is Nintendo’s DS (or Dual-Screen) unit. With two small screens, one on top of the other, it flips open and resembles a small laptop. The bottom screen is a touch-screen, so the unit comes with a small stylus which is used during some gameplay. The DS runs about $150, and will come bundled with a game: just keep a look out for the title you want. The DS is probably the best deal for a budget-conscience parent. The library of titles to play is vast and games rarely exceed $35 new. With a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can last a full day even with the sound on, so there is no “upkeep.”

The DS does come with built-in Wireless networking for both short-range DS-to-DS gameplay, as well as the ability to use a Wireless router to hop online for global gameplay. Nintendo has been very careful to keep online gameplay anonymous–requiring the same “friend code” system as the Wii does. Don’t be afraid of local gameplay: hysterical reports of child molesters using DS’s to find targets are patently ridiculous and would require scenarios that are completely unlikely as Pictochat only works with the local area wireless connection, and most kids stay out of Pictochat after the first five minutes of fiddling with it so that they can play games. If your kid is bringing their DS to a public space like a mall to play, just have the talk about strangers.

The DS is a great system if you as a parent are curious about games. With games like Brain Age, Tetris, Sudoku, New York Times Crossword Puzzles and various flavors of Bejeweled, you may find yourself sneaking off with your kid’s unit so that you can get a little game time in yourself.

 

PlayStation Portable

PlayStation PortableLike the PS3, Sony’s PlayStation Portable (or PSP) unit has a multitude of functions available. It trebles its offerings by not limiting itself to games and allowing its users to also listen to MP3s, and watch movies. The ultra-bright TFT screen creates a very rich visual experience and the unit has a very sleek presentation that many find as rewarding as gameplay.

The PSP costs between $150 and $250 depending on whether you get the basic model or one of the sleeker “paks” that comes bundled with a game and some gear. While it was plagued early on by a lack of titles, the PSP does come with a fair assortment of games for all ages. Like the DS, the PSP also has online play. Unlike the DS, the PSP’s online interaction is not limited to “just friends”, and so it’s probably a better purchase for an older teenager than a younger child.

 

Personal Computer (PC) Gaming

Personal ComputerThe most obvious choice may be to leverage equipment you already have. As many homes already have PCs in them, it seems the obvious choice to let the kids game on that and avoid the hassle of purchasing and setting up another system. There is a collossal game library available on the PC, and unlike console gaming the prices for games tends to drop dramatically after about six months after they’re released.

There are also plenty of downsides to PC gaming. First and most importantly is: if your kids are using the PC, it means that you can’t use it to do what you want to do. There is also the “sandbox” problem: if your kids are installing, uninstalling, and downloading games, it means that you might end up in need of a complete reinstall of your system at some point when an install file doesn’t play well with the rest of your system, they accidentally delete a critical file in their quest for more drivespace to get their latest, favorite game installed, or they download virus-laden games “for free!” Second, PC gaming isn’t necessarily less expensive than console gaming. The lifespan of a console is about five years: during which time, all games that come out for that console are guaranteed to work on that console. The PC upgrade cycle is significantly shorter. Every year, a PC gamer is expected to make one major upgrade to the system, either with a new Video card, more memory, a bigger hard drive, or a faster processor. While less cutting-edge games might not require the most up-to-date hardware, even one of these upgrades could be the price of a console. Finally, PC gaming has a much more “wild west” quality to it: unlike Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, where online networking is managed through a single corporation that can track down abuse very efficiently, if your kid is gaming on the PC, there isn’t a single service provider you can go to in the event that they meet someone who is doing something they shouldn’t. There aren’t really parental controls on a PC like there are on consoles.

If you are going to let your kids play on the computer, here are some simple rules of advice:

  1. Limit the number of games they can have installed at any one time. Games can eat up a tremendous amount of hard drive space, and if they simply install game after game, you can find yourself out of space very quickly. If you tell the kid that they are responsible for making sure there’s enough space, they might decide to start deleting things other than games to make room for the latest purchase. Instead, say “You can have four games installed at a time.” Most games come with uninstallers in their start menu, or you can use the “Add/Remove Programs” tool in your control panel. By using the uninstallers, you can prolong the life of your PC.Another option is, if you’re using Windows XP or Windows Vista, to give your child a user account with no ability to install new software. That means you’ll have to install any games yourself and remember to log out of the administrator account when you’re not using it. It’s good practice to only log into the administrator account when you’re doing administrative things like creating user accounts, installing software, and running maintenance applications. Do all your day-to-day stuff in a limited user account. It will help to keep malicious software (malware) off your computer.
  2. Get good anti-virus software and keep it up-to-date. This is just good sense all around. Virus software is only useful if it is current, so you should be running updates every few weeks, and a full scan of the system at least once a month.Along with anti-virus software, you’ll want anti-ad and other anti-spyware software to keep worms and trojans and cookies that track all your web activity for transmit to less than scrupulous marketing companies. Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware is free for personal use, as is Spybot S&D. Get both and once a week, check for updates and run scans on your system. It’ll help keep your computer running smooth the same way detergent in gasoline keeps the fuel injector ports clean. If you notice a drop in performance, you may have malware problems.
  3. No “free” games downloaded off the internet. If kids want to play flash-based games on a webpage that’s fine. But if a website is saying “hey, download and install this file and you’ll be able to play Morrowind for free!” that’s both illegal and an awesome way to get a virus on your computer.

 

Gaming as a positive influence in the household

A lot of parents have reservations about bringing videogames into the house. The media has spent a lot of time and money to scare parents into thinking that children will become monsters the second they are handed a controller: don’t fall for it. There are plenty of simple, easy ways to combat the most common concerns:

Concern #1: Videogames are too violent!

This is the most common concern that parents have. Every year or so a development studio releases a game for adults that gets a lot of press coverage because it’s very violent. There are a few things to remember when you hear about these games: The game does not come with the system, you have to buy it; the game has a rating that means that your kid wouldn’t be able to purchase it without your consent; and even if your kid does play the game, they’re very likely to understand the difference between fantasy and real-life violence.

Animal Crossing
Most games are a lot closer to Super Mario Brothers then they are to Grand Theft Auto. As long as you read the ESRB Ratings and a description of the game’s content before you purchase the game, there shouldn’t be any surprises about what you’re looking at.

Concern #2: Videogames will make my child a fat, lazy zombie

The problem of childhood obesity is not inconsequential, and videogames are generally a sedentary activity–but so is watching television. If you exchange the time that a kid spends watching television with time spent for playing videogames, it’s not going to result in any less calories burned. Most kids have natural energy and as long as they are allowed to burn it off, they’ll find ways to. Having scheduled sports or just giving them a good play area near the house and making sure they spend time running around doesn’t have to cancel out videogame time.

If your kids aren’t much for team sports, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be active. Certain videogames might actually be the best way to keep your kid in shape when they don’t feel that they have to be competitive. Games like Dance Dance Revolution have had tremendous success in keeping kids in shape.

It keeps them quiet
Finally, if you’re concerned about your kids becoming “zombie-like” while they play a game, just remember that their brains are working while they play the game. They’re thinking about the game. The amount of active thinking that videogames require falls between reading, which requires 100% active thinking, and television, which hardly requires any.

Concern #3: My kids will become obsessed with videogames and not do their schoolwork or chores

Obsession: now in a refreshing mint flavor
Obsession: now in a
refreshing mint flavor.

Anytime a kid gets a shiney new toy they become obsessed with it. However, videogames can be tremendously helpful in teaching your child a good work/play balance in life. We suggest purchasing the actual console unit during child’s vacation, when they don’t have homework. If you give them a week or so to play the system until it’s no longer a novelty, you won’t be fighting them when they need to pay attention of other responsibilities first.

You may have to figure out your child’s evening schedule and compromise a bit. I would not suggest allowing a kid to play videogames when they first get home from school — it can be notoriously difficult to tear a kid away from a game to do something they don’t want to do (like homework or chores) the “Let me just find a savepoint” or “Let me just beat this level” excuse can draw out playtime much longer than you think. Instead, they need to finish their homework first and any other chores. This may mean that they are allowed to play videogames later in the evening–if you get home at six, it may mean that the television or computer is “videogame” time until 7 or 8, or between dinner and family television time, or before dinner. If you purchase an XBox 360, enable the Parental Timer feature to limit the total amount of time your kid can spend in front of the console every week.

Also, you can leverage videogames as a carrot or stick for performance. If your kid beats their expected GPA for a semester, get them a new game. Don’t just use the system as a stick by taking it away when they don’t do good–reward them with a little more playtime or a new game of their choice (within reason) if they excel or if they’re starting to develop good habits (for example: if you go a month where they just get home and do homework and chores without arguing or trying to sneak in playtime).

The painful side to this is that you have to set a good example. Kids devote a surprisingly large portion of their brains to detecting parental hypocrisy as a means of getting out of their responsibilities. This is more of a general rule than a videogame-specific one, but it bears repeating. As much as it sucks to come home from a hard day at work and take care of a chore before relaxing on a couch, it will reinforce the “work before play” policy you’re trying to teach your kid.

Concern #4: Videogames aren’t educational

coneheadIf your child likes to unwind for an evening by cracking open a textbook and reading up on the last Prussian dynasty, then yes — videogames are not a particularly educational way to pass time. And while I would never suggest that videogames can take the place of book learning and homework, there are a lot of positive elements to videogames that can be overlooked by parents who have been pumped full of negative stereotypes about gaming. Even taking actual educational videogames like Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster out of the picture, videogames excel in a few key areas educationally.

First and foremost, they teach reading for comprehension and vocabulary. In any story-based game without voice-acting, the player is instructed on how to advance the story forward through reading. For example, in The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, you have complete soup-to-nuts reading. In the opening sequence, your sister finds you asleep in a tower and tells you that “Grandma is looking for you. She’s waiting for you in the house.” An elementary school-level reader will read this and be able to understand the whole sentences. An early reader will have their attention drawn to “Grandma” and “House” and in both instances the kid will know that they are supposed to go and see their grandma in the house. Other parts of the game have sidequests that can have some great vocabulary words for middleschool-aged children. On one island, a man tasks you with taking a photo of a couple who are hiding their feelings for one another. The man refers to the “furtive glances exchanged.” In order to know what you’re looking for, you have to understand what those words mean. Sometimes, quests are given to you in a very obvious “you need to go west and find the key” ways, othertimes, they can be dressed up in metaphor “where the sun sinks down behind the mountains you will find that which will open this door.”

The other thing that games teach is how to think spatially. While your kid isn’t going to be quizzed in school on things like depth perception, pathing, or hand-eye coordination, these skills will be tremendously useful. Already, studies have shown that surgeons who play videogames do much better than surgeons who don’t, and careers like architecture, engineering, and construction require a lot of spatial skills, both abstract and real-world.

Concern #5: I’m worried about who my kid might meet when they’re playing online

Run away!Keeping your kids safe from online strangers is not a joke, however, it’s easy to overstate the danger of anonymous online interactions. Most people who are gaming online are there for the exact same reason that your kids are: gaming with other people is fun. But because there are predators out there, you should take steps to protect your child.

The most important way to keep your kid safe online is to talk to them, and have an open line of communication. This sounds cheesy, but it really is the critical element. Kids, especially teenagers, need to feel empowered and have a sense of self-worth. A lot of predators rely on the sense of maturity that kids feel they have when an adult pays attention to them. If you can instill in your kids a good sense of self-respect and talk to them about their goals in life, they will be able to make good decisions about how to interact with not only adults in internet chat rooms, but adults in real life, and even other kids at school. Also, take an extra minute every now and again to make sure they know not to give out their name, address, phone number, or even email address to someone they’ve met online. Trading photos/images should also be on “not with strangers” list. It may seem like an obvious thing to you, but it isn’t always obvious to a kid. They’ll come up with reasons to justify to themselves that it’s okay — you need to set the rule saying “no, it’s not.”

Another important piece of the equation is supervision. This doesn’t mean that you need to be on the couch whenever your kid is playing videogames or looking over their shoulder while they’re on the computer — but it does mean that the console or computer is not in the kid’s bedroom, and is in a public space in the household that you will occasionally pass through. It may be tempting to let your kids have separate equipment to game on in their bedroom so that the family room is available for the rest of the family, but if the kids are online, they need to be in a public space. A lot of inappropriate behavior can be curbed just by removing the element of total privacy–without actively invading your kid’s privacy. You can put monitoring software on the computer to log their interactions, but that shouldn’t be implemented unless you have some very specific concerns (kids are very sensitive to lack of trust issues), and even then, you shouldn’t lean too heavily on that software because it may not know how to track the chat logs of a specific game.

 

Recommended games

Here are some titles that we recommend for parents and children. This is just the tip of the iceberg: while games are no longer solely the property of children, they are still a huge market for development studios. As for games we would recommend against there are two simple rules: 1) Always read the ESRB rating and its accompanying description to help inform you of a game’s content, and 2) steer clear of games that have been made from movies. The former will help you keep objectionable material out of your house, and the latter will help you spend your money wisely, by not flushing it down the toilet on a genre of games that are plagued with quality issues.

Guitar Hero II/III

Platforms: XBox 360, Wii, PS2/3
Audience: Adults, teenagers, pre-teens. A good “family” game.
We’re up to the third installment of this series now, and it’s a great family game. Imagine guitar-based karaoke. The game is a little pricier than other games because it comes with a custom guitar-shaped controller, and you’ll probably want to pick up a second guitar so that you can play bassline while your kid plays lead guitar (or vice versa). There might be some mildly objectionable material for very young kids in this game — but their hands might not be big enough for the controllers anyway.

Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

Platforms: Wii
Audience: Younger children

Zack and Wiki

This is an adventure-puzzle game for up to four players, that has gotten some very positive reviews. It might be a little too complex for very young gamers, but it should be a fun title for elementary-school kids.

The Katamari Series

Platforms: PS3, PSP, XBox 360
Audience: Everyone
This game is a lot of fun for everyone: you roll a ball and absorb stuff up to create a bigger ball, which allows you to absorb bigger things. That’s it. It might not seem like much, but Katamari has captured the hearts of both gamers and non-gamers alike.

Nintendo’s “In-House” titles

Platforms: Wii, DS
Audience: Varies – see below
Nintendo’s in-house titles are excellent sources of safe entertainment for kids. Anything that has Mario in it is going to limit itself to cartoon-style violence and there won’t be any language or sexual themes (well, maybe a little, but nothing a kid would pick up on) — and Nintendo constantly pumps out titles featuring these characters in a variety of genres so there’s always something new for the kids. The Zelda series is mostly safe: you might want to avoid getting Twilight Princess for a young child (it’s a darker game), but the GameCube title Windwaker is a must-own title for kids. The Metroid series is a very safe bet for teenagers, giving them shooter action that’s limited to alien monsters.

Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and Viva Piñata

Platforms: Wii, DS, XBox 360
Audience: Children
These games are very popular with younger children, because it gives them control over the environment they live in. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon for the Wii and DS puts the player in charge of a house or farm: they work to earn money so they can furnish it and pay off the mortgage, they can design clothing for themselves, and send letters around to friends and create social interractions with their peers. Viva Piñata, which is on the XBox 360, has you caring for a large farm full of piñatas that need to be tended to like a garden. If this doesn’t seem like fun to you, it’s probably because you work a job and pay a mortgage already — but kids really respond to the responsibilities and sense of mastery over their environment, and the game does teach basic economics and work ethics. Just try not to be too frustrated if your kids are more interested in doing virtual chores than real-life chores.

Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution

Platforms: All platforms (see below)
Audience: Everyone
Dance, monkey!Most games, even on the Wii, are generally relaxing affairs. You sit on the couch and mash buttons, or with the Wiimote, occasionally wave your arms around. In recent years, however, a push has been made to leverage videogames to get people off their rumps and moving around. Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution (or DDR) series created a sensation and has actually been used by school districts in gym class to help promote physical fitness. Both DDR and Wii Fit use a controller that the player stands on, and moves their feet to control. The end result is children (and adults) getting their heartrate up as they work to keep time with the screen. Wii Fit is only available for the Wii, Dance Dance Revolution is available in some flavor on every platform.

The Civilization Series

Platforms: PC
Audience: Teens and older
Civ IVThe Civilization (or just “Civ”) series has been a strategy-gamer favorite for nearly a generation. The latest installment in the series (Civ IV) requires a pretty high-end computer so if your have an older computer you might want to save some money and frustration and see if you can find the Civ III Complete box in a bargain bin. Basically, you start out with a settler and a support unit (worker, warrior, or scout) in the prehistoric area. By building cities, researching technology, raising your culture, and occasionally quarreling with your neighbors, you take your civilization all the way through the various eras into the space age. An incredibly “twitchy” game, that allows online matchups as well. (We organize Civ matches on this blog, in fact). Other games of this type include the Age of Empires series, Settlers series, and to some degree, the Heroes of Might and Magic series.

Gametap

Platforms: PC
Audience: All
Remember how I said that you shouldn’t let your kid download games “for free” off the internet? Well, there is a big exception to the rule. Gametap is an online game service that allows you to download and play videogames for very little money. You download a “player” which gives you access to a selection of titles, many of which are free. Gratis titles include Psychonauts and Uru which you can play in exchange for watching ads. The “Gold” membership is $60 per year and gives the player access to over 900 games — so for a little more than the price of one game, you and your kids can have a pretty robust library of games including Beyond Good and Evil (a must-play for teens), Civ IV and Heroes of Might and Magic III. With a gold membership you get seven sub-accounts, so everyone in the family can have their own sub-account, and each account can have unique parental control settings applied to prevent access to inappropriate games. Gametap requires about 5GB of free hard drive space, and may ask for more if you are downloading “beefy” games–however, it can manage the installed games so that kids can easily remove games they are not playing without endangering the rest of the computer’s install. Another big bonus for Gametap is that it is Mac-compatible, and allows Mac users to play games natively, rather than forcing a dual-boot.