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Should I let my kid play Minecraft, Fortnite, or Grand Theft Auto?

These video games are popular, but are they okay for your child?

What the heck happened? Yesterday your kid was content playing Legos under your watchful eye, and today all they want to do is kill virtual bad guys. Take it from us: this is normal. And once you brush up on the games they're begging to play, you'll know exactly how to manage each one's biggest concerns, from chatting with strangers to exposure to violence. The good news is research shows there are actually a bunch of benefits to gaming. Here we walk you through the ins and outs of the three most popular games that kids love (and that send shivers down your spine) so you can make your own decisions about what games to bring into your home.

Minecraft

Minecraft, of course, is the hugely popular sandbox-style game that lets players create whatever they like—from buildings to tools to mazes. Kids never have to interact with others in Minecraft; they can just build to their heart's content. Or they can join a "server," where they can either share their designs with the world or play with others to blend worlds together, building, fighting, collaborating, and chit-chatting.

What you need to know

  • It's on every platform. There are versions for consoles, PCs, and mobile. Some schools use the "edu" version to teach STEM and collaboration skills.
  • Anyone can play it. Several modes and levels of difficulty allow everyone from total beginners to pros.
  • Solo and multiplayer modes are totally different. Playing solo can be almost meditative, while the multiplayer version can lead to riotous mayhem.
  • The branding is off the charts. Kids will encounter Minecraft YouTube channels, books, fan sites, clothing, and more that will tempt them and may or may not be age appropriate.

If you let your kid play Minecraft

Start small. The single-player, Creative mode can be a total joy—but also a time-suck. Set time limits and spend some time playing along with your kid, and you're golden.

Build up to baddies. Survival mode adds dangers like zombies or squids who can hurt or kill their characters. Save this mode for older kids and keep very young or sensitive kids in Creative mode.

Master multiplayer. Playing with friends on the same console or side-by-side on laptops encourages collaboration, communication, and lots of laughter. But public servers—where players enter worlds with large groups of strangers—can vary a lot.

  • Research the best Minecraft servers for kids (there are scores of websites that catalog them). Test out the best candidates to understand the vibe.
  • Have kids ask friends for reputable servers to join.
  • Host your own server (search online for instructions) to create a friends-only world.
  • Minecraft has a reputation of having dedicated moderators who work to keep things positive.
  • Peek over your kid's shoulder at the messages scrolling through the game (with no private messaging, things shouldn't get too shady).

Fortnite

Fortnite: Battle Royale is a last-one-standing game that kids can play in brief sessions (over and over and over again). You start out battling up to 100 other live players in solo mode, pairs, or teams. The game's creative marketing—with new "seasons," costumes, dances, and weapons—keeps players coming back.

What you need to know

First, the concerns: Fortnite has guns, killing, and the possibility of voice chat with strangers. Plus, it can cost real money, as kids want to get all the cool add-ons. In the world of shooter games, though, Fortnite is pretty tame. Graphics are cartoonish, kills are bloodless and corpseless, and there's a light-hearted tone to the game thanks to silly elements throughout.

If you let your kid play Fortnite

Discuss violence. Every parent feels differently about media violence. Fortnite's focus on guns and ammo may be a deal-breaker for you. But others might think the quick-thinking and strategizing Fortnite relies on can safely mimic adolescent risk-taking. Whatever your philosophy, helping your kid understand how you feel about media violence will build your kid's media literacy skills and help them understand your family's values. Try asking: "After you see violence on-screen, do you ever replay it in your mind later? What's the like for you?" Or, "How do you think you'd react if you saw someone on the street wielding a real gun?"

Set rules about chat. Kids can play solo, with friends, or with strangers. If they're playing with others, they can talk to each other with a mic. Chatting helps teammates coordinate on strategy and practice communication skills, but if your kid is talking to strangers, there are lots of unknowns. Fortnite offers different chat settings, so you can restrict gameplay to friends only, allow them to game with anyone but chat only with friends, or allow all chat—but stick around so you can hear what's going on (and mute anyone who is annoying or offensive).

Set limits on time and money. You can't "pause" Fortnite, but you can tell your kid they can play a certain number of sessions or for a specific amount of time. Be aware that Fortnite charges for cool costumes (skins) and funny dances (emotes). Decide ahead of time if you'll let them spend your money or their allowance on V-bucks.

Grand Theft Auto

GTA is a series of games where players assume the roles of hardened criminals (thieves, gangsters) and basically kill, steal, molest women, and sell drugs for points. (Seriously, you can't make this stuff up.) If your kid's an avid gamer, at some point he'll likely want to try his luck at GTA or another popular M-rated title such as Call of Duty. As games go, these are well-made—but they're pretty gnarly.

What you need to know

We rate all GTA games for 18 and up because mature content and mixed messages abound: Killing other players earns your character money, and having sex with prostitutes offers health points (???). Language is also an issue—both from in-game characters and through voice chat with other players. Some versions of GTA have mini-games or cutscenes that include sex, drugs, or violence.

If you let your kid play Grand Theft Auto

Consider playing together. You might be wondering how we could recommend playing this game at all after the description above. But the truth is, your relationship with your kid is more valuable than any media message. And if you and your teen bond over playing games together—even edgy ones like this—it can be a net positive. Even if you have zero interest in the game, if you've OK'd this game, at least sit down and watch sometimes—it can give you insight into your kid's thinking and offer opportunities to insert your own thoughts (just try to avoid judging unless you want to be shut out). Ask: "Do you think there's a larger message in this game?" Or, "If you were going to write an essay about this game for school, what would you write?" You could also make this game off limits unless it's played with an adult.

Talk about the impact of fantasy violence. As kids get older, they're better able to distinguish between real and fantasy violence and are also getting better at connecting their actions with their emotions. It can be enlightening to discuss your kid's reactions to playing a game like GTA. They may have some perspectives you hadn't considered. But the key to getting to the truth is to approach the conversation with curiosity and not judgment. Ask: "Do you feel a physical rush when playing?" "Do you ever imagine what these scenarios would be like in real life?" "How do you usually feel after you stop playing?"

Counterbalance with positive media. Look at your kid's overall media diet and make sure to fit some social-responsibility content into the mix. Do a family movie night featuring stories of young people making a difference in the world. Make sure to watch, read, or play narratives that bust stereotypes. And take a peek into lives affected by real violence to make sure they really understand its impact. And if none of these games make your list of approved picks, know that you can always have tons of fun with all-ages stuff like Mario Kart, Dance Dance Revolution, NBA 2K, and more.

Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.