How to Choose the Right Video Games for Your Kids

If you've ever walked in on your teen splattering an opponent's head on the screen in a violent video game or seen a busty heroine about to pop out of her skin-tight outfit, you know how hard it is to find age-appropriate games. And games are everywhere these days, from smartphones to online-enabled consoles, with more realistic images and content than ever before. Plus, virtually every game ad is for one of the most popular titles, which are almost always the most mature ones. It's tough to stay up to speed and make informed decisions when your kids are begging to play something you've never heard of -- or something they swear all their friends are allowed to play -- especially if you're not a gamer yourself.

The ESRB rating is where many parents start. But "E," "E-10," "T," and "M" just don't offer enough information, even with the accompanying rating descriptors (what's the difference between "violence" and "intense violence," anyway?). Guess right, and your kids have a great time saving the princess -- or the universe. Guess wrong, and they could be exposed to content that none of you are ready for.

There truly is a better way. It starts with understanding what content isn't only age-appropriate but also developmentally appropriate for your child. After that, you can determine what's OK based on the things that matter to you, like your kid's interests and individual temperament. What's scary or frustrating for one 7-year-old may be fun and action-packed for another.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to choosing the right games for your kids:

  • What age is the game aimed at? Sometimes a game's target age group is obvious -- for example, when it has characters your child already knows and loves, like in Disney Magical World, or when it has a safe, imaginative world designed for kids (Animal Crossing: New Leaf). But things get tricky when seemingly age-appropriate characters are put in more dangerous situations, as in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, for example, which has Disney characters fighting harmful creatures. You'll need to make a judgment call based on what you think is right for your kid, taking into account many of the factors described in more detail below.
  • Quality. Yes, quality can be subjective -- and certainly your kids will like stuff you don't -- but look for benchmarks. Is the game's plot deep and engaging or shallow and forgettable? How strong are the audio and visuals? Will players connect with the characters, and how strongly will they identify with their goals or motivations? Can kids play with friends or only by themselves? Is it replayable, or will kids get bored with it once they've beaten the big boss? When you're talking about spending up to $60, it's important to remember that there's a big difference between a cheap, weak title like LocoCycle and a smart, challenging one like Civilization V.
  • Learning valueMany games have strong educational potential, whether they were expressly designed for it or not. And many of them are great tools for learning -- but plenty of games that claim to be educational don't make the grade. We evaluate a game's learning potential not only in traditional subjects like math and reading but also in 21st-century skills like creativity and collaboration. We focus on engagement, learning approach (depth of content, ability to transfer skills), and support (help, progress reports) to really hone in on the best picks for learning.
  • Ease of play. Games used to be extremely simple, with one button for actions and a joystick or paddle for movement. These days some controllers have 12 or more buttons, and some games require touch functionality whereas others require a deft grasp of complex strategy. From the point-and-click simplicity of Peggle 2 to the controller-throwing challenge of Dark Souls II, ease of play can have a big impact on whether a kid is ready for (and will enjoy) a particular game.
  • Messages and role models. Media messages really do affect kids, so it makes sense to choose games that reflect the kinds of values you'd like your children to absorb. And as much as video games are frequently criticized for being a negative influence on kids, many have worthwhile messages and role models. Some, like PlayStation Vita Pets, provide specific, direct messages that even young kids can understand, such as respect and care for animals. But older kids may be ready for something a bit more ambiguous, such as the ability to define a character's morality, deciding whether they'll play as good or evil in games like Divinity: Original Sin. These kinds of options can provide a great opportunity to discuss potentially thorny subjects with your kids. Is there a reasonable or moral explanation for a character's actions? Do your actions have consequences that affect gameplay? Are there character traits that your kids wish they could emulate?
  • Violence, sex, and language. This is the crux of parental worry -- and criticism -- when it comes to video games. And some titles (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?) definitely push the envelope when it comes to graphic content. But there are lots of alternatives, so it's up to parents to make a judgment call for their own kids, based on their own values. Is cartoonish violence OK? Check out Mario Kart 8. Don't mind occasional profanity for your tween who loves action games? Infamous: Second Son could be a good choice. Common Sense Media offers expert guidelines for the level of violence, sex, and language that's developmentally appropriate for every age, but the final call is up to you.
  • Consumerism. It's true that product placement isn't really an issue in games that take place in alternate dimensions or made-up worlds. But have you ever noticed the billboards in the backgrounds of sports games? Or played a game that required you to get sponsorships before you could progress (a key feature of Grid Autosport)? These all are forms of targeted, purposeful advertising. And then there are promotional tie-in games, like Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, or those designed to push merchandise, like Skylanders: Giants. Consumerism in a game doesn't disqualify it from being worthwhile, but it's an important aspect to keep in mind and to talk to your kids about. Train them to be on the lookout for consumerism, and they'll learn some valuable media-literacy skills.
  • Drinking, drugs and smoking. The presence of these substances in games is sometimes essential for historical accuracy or related to a key character trait. But what about when a player's character simply has the option to knock back a drink or take a quick drag of something? Consider the context: Maybe the substance is a tradable good, as in Tropico 4. Or maybe it's being overtly used (or abused) to make a point, as in South Park: Stick of Truth. Look for opportunities to point out consequences (or a lack thereof). We offer guidelines for what's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a final call for your kids based on what you're OK with.
  • Privacy and safety. Not only can kids be exposed to language or other iffy content from complete strangers via online gameplay, but they also can accidentally share personal details with a large, anonymous network. And when personal information comes into play, so does COPPA, which is designed to protect personal information for kids under 13. Check for privacy policies, and make sure you know whether your kids' favorite games rely on an online connection to play, like Dungeons and Dragons: Stormreach, or whether they're stand-alone titles without any links to other players, like Shovel Knight.
  • User reviews. Sometimes it takes a village to figure out which games are right for our kids. If you're on the fence, see what other parents -- and even kids -- are saying. Although our user community's ratings are based on personal opinion rather than developmental guidelines, they do rate games using the same tools our editors do, with icons to flag areas of concern, stars to signal overall quality, and a target age to help you decide.

The bottom line is that it's up to you to do your research, and Common Sense Media makes that easy by providing detailed reviews, so you know exactly what to expect. We've done the hard work for you -- you just have to apply it to your family. And don't forget: If you're not comfortable with what's on your kid's console or handheld, you can always turn it off.