10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Video Game

Tips, tricks, and guidelines to get the most out of your kids' video game experience.
Shira Lee Katz Senior Director, Education Content | Tech and learning enthusiast Categories: Screen Time
Senior Director, Education Content | Tech and learning enthusiast

What your kids look for in a snack might be different than what you look for as a parent. While they focus on taste, you focus on nutrition. Same goes for games. Glitzy, big-name games can be enticing, just like junk food. Some are flashy and addictive but do little to feed kids' curiosity or help them develop.

But truly great video games can help your kids grow in ways you never thought possible -- just like delicious, healthful food. So how can you avoid the sugar-cereal equivalents in the game world? Read these 10 tips to find out.

Great video games:

Draw your kids in. Great games transport kids to another place. You know the signs. Brows furrowed. Thumbs zooming. Yes, you may have to set limits for games that suck time at the expense of other activities. But it's a good sign when games put kids in a state of "flow." Games that draw kids in require concentration or imagination and present challenges just beyond their comfort zone. Plus, they're fun. For example:

  • Super Scribblenauts (age 10+) lets kids' imaginations run wild as they solve puzzles by writing new objects into a scene. Any word they spell is transformed into a digital creation that then appears within the game world.
  • Professor Layton and the Last Specter (age 12+) is a fascinating mystery that unfolds piece by piece. Kids learn critical thinking and puzzle-solving skills as they complete a wide variety of brainteasers.

Put kids in the driver's seat. Having choices can make kids feel powerful. Kids who get to decide which path to take or how to spend their virtual money often feel responsible for their fate in a game. In turn, they feel motivated. Games with lots of choices and opportunities for exploration can help kids feel ownership over the experience. For example:

  • ItzaZoo (age 4-7) is a magical experience in which kids see their own art come alive as part of the storyline. Kids can learn skills for reading comprehension and problem solving as they add free-form artwork to colorful, kid-themed landscapes.
  • Gamestar Mechanic (age 8+) provides kids with the digital tools they need to create their own video games. While the limited design software keeps kids' creations pretty basic, the games they make are real and playable. Kids get to feel true ownership over their work.

Suit your child's age and interest. Some games are so easy to beat that kids quickly lose interest. Others are so difficult that kids get frustrated. Use your kid's interests and hobbies as a jumping-off point for selecting games. For example:

  • Art Academy (age 8+) feels like what you'd expect from a beginners' course at a real-world art school. Kids can pick up in-depth knowledge and expert tips about shading, perspective, color mixing, and more through 10 incredibly detailed lessons.
  • Learn Chess (age 8+) is instructional chess software that covers pretty much every teachable aspect. Kids need a lot of patience and a long attention span, but they can learn a lot if they do. Two players can compete against one another wirelessly, too.

Challenge kids to experiment. The beauty of most games is that you can try again. And again. And again. Running out of time or lives isn't so bad when you know you have another chance. A willingness to try out several options -- and even fail sometimes -- is a skill that will serve kids well down the line. For example:

  • I Spy Castle (age 6-10) has seek-and-find puzzles that can be real stumpers. Faced with all types of challenging hidden-object puzzles, kids find patterns and create paths -- sharpening their observation skills and practicing logical thinking.
  • LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7 (age 10+) challenges kids to work out the rules of new systems in order to survive. Kids who enter this magical world must use a keen sense of observation and logic to figure their way out of the story-based predicaments.

Let kids create. Imagine kids designing new levels for existing games. Picture creator communities in which kids comment constructively and provide feedback. Many games offer media creation as a key part of the experience. Opportunities to make something new within a game signal to kids that their original work has value. For example:

  • LittleBigPlanet (age 8+) lets kids design their own zany platform puzzles as they explore eight wonderful worlds full of Rube-Goldberg-type contraptions and scenery. Its community celebrates invention as players share the levels they've crafted with others.
  • Minecraft (age 13+) is a refreshingly open-ended mining and construction game that encourages kids to build imaginative block structures. Kids can learn creative thinking, geometry, and a bit of geology as they sculpt creations in this 3-D space.

Add a social element. There's nothing wrong with a game of solitaire. But as kids get older, games in which the characters (or even real people) socialize and work together can help kids flourish. Skills like teamwork and communication are the cornerstone of today's workforce. And having social outlets online can help prep kids for the future. For example:

  • Herotopia (age 7-10) allows kids to become superheroes who work together to outfox bullies. They can also learn geography and practice good global citizenship, earning points for doing good deeds.
  • Skylanders Spyro's Adventure (age 10+) makes partner problem-solving fun. Kids can investigate problems and figure out solutions, either alone or as a team. They observe clues that may be useful later in the game and figure out how items work together to be helpful.

Complement school. Some kids view video games as an escape from school. Maybe they have trouble sitting still in class but can focus on a video game. Or perhaps a game's material and format feel more relevant to their lives. Whatever the reason, video games can help teach work and life skills. For example:

  • Dora's Cooking Club (age 4-7) helps kids see math in cooking. They can learn arithmetic basics as they help Dora and her family in put together a series of recipes.
  • My Amusement Park (DS) (age 6-10) puts kids in the role of a business owner. They learn how to budget money while building and running their own virtual theme park.

"Tell" instead of "show." Playing great games is like being sucked into a book that you can't put down. A distressed prince needs rescue. The world is coming to an end. Try to avoid games that spoon-feed answers to kids through quizzing alone or rote memorization and seek out ones with strong storylines. For example:

  • Botanicula (age 10+) begins with tiny creatures that encounter a spider-like monster intent on gobbling up their big, beautiful tree home. The five heroic creatures band together to journey up and down the tree, foiling its parasitic invaders.
  • Sid Meier's Civilization V (age 11+) helps kids gain lasting knowledge about world history by playing the role of an empowered ruler. Players learn about significant developments in human history and how they led to even greater discoveries.

Have style. Looks aren't everything, of course. But games with a strong and unified look and feel are really appealing. It's not just that these games are beautiful -- it's that their style serves a higher purpose of drawing players into a unique world. For example:

  • Flower (age 7+) lets players control flower petals floating on a breeze as they travel over and restore color to grey fields. The experience of hovering over the countryside surrounded by flickering dabs of color is truly unique.
  • Journey (age 10+) presents an unstructured experience of beauty and originality. Players start in the middle of a desert filled with majestic, sand-covered ruins. They slide over dunes and float on both wind and magical energy.

Go beyond repetition. Games in which kids just go through the same motions over and over are okay in moderation. But more variety is nicer. Consider games that mix elements of strategy, action, adventure, role-playing, building, and more. For example:

  • Boom Blox (age 7+) offers nearly 400 levels of puzzles, with the object of destroying block structures. Each puzzle can be played over and over again, so that kids can try different ways to solve it.
  • Portal 2 (age 10+) presents problems for kids to solve through a process of investigation and prediction. To do so, kids must apply real-world understanding to physics-based conundrums.

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About Shira Lee Katz

As Common Sense Education's senior director of education content, Shira is responsible for the strategic direction and overall quality of content on Common Sense Education's Graphite (www.graphite.org). Graphite is an... Read more

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Comments (13)

Teen, 14 years old written by Basicly No One

I see where he is going and I understand. I got POed when my parents told me to get off because during the summer I played from sun up to sun down everyday. Keep in mind this was when I was 10.
Kid, 12 years old

I am in no way saying that Minecraft is bad for for younger kids, but some children get overly attached to the game and may have more bad behavior if they are away from it. Minecraft is still a great game that inspires creativity and fun, but you should also let your child be more balanced between outdoor activities and toys, and video games.
Parent of a 9 year old written by trixietrout

Can you explain why you feel it's not appropriate for kids younger than 13? Every boy in my son's elementary school plays it and none of the parents (including me) see anything wrong with it. But I'm interested in your thoughts.
Parent written by russell neal

Few main points which are to be remembered while designing a game - 1. try to convey your idea and communicate with the user. 2. make a logical design of your frame work 3.Question your self - is it reaching the user who ever is playing. 4.Create a feel and enthusiasm in the user or player. regards , gameseverytime.com
Teen, 14 years old written by myjeren

I feel that games with a karma based system such as Infamous (T) or Fallout/Skyrim (M) are great for understanding and deciding moral decisions. And even though the last two games I listed do have high blood content and some language, it's always better to slowly accustom one to such thing.
Teen, 14 years old written by itsallaboutthestory

If you want that go play The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Spec Ops The Line or The Last of Us: Remastered. They may be gritty but they do the job far better accept when you chose to be evil in Fallout 3, or Infamous (I felt so guilty I couldn't play it anymore). Do you kill the locals who just hanged your friend, as they all yell at you and riot around you throwing rocks at your head or keep your cool (somewhat, anyone who played that amazing game knows what I mean). You don't need a morality system to achieve what you were talking about, you need a good story, Silent Hill 2 should've been a movie and won the best picture Oscar. It was that good, all of those games have touching stories that can't be told in any other way than a video game. Too bad COD and GTA get to represent video games though
Adult written by mama k

Guitar Hero/Rock Band are also pretty great in terms of finding your voice... even if it's off key!
Parent written by Steve S.

I completely agree with the recommendations for older kids above. Minecraft is compelling as is Portal 2 and both are playable on a reasonably up to date PC. Regarding Boom Blox, I would recommend the second version, Boom Blox Bash Party, for the Wii. This game is completely fun for families and has multiplayer ability. It's probably available now for a low price as its a few years old, so if you don't have it, get it for your library of Wii games and enjoy with your kids!
Parent written by cwodtke

It would be useful if you'd put platform behind each item, so we know which ones to explore. These days a game can be ipad, xbox, pc/mac, playstation, wii... and I'm pretty sure most moms don't all of them. i.e. Portal (xbox) Civilation (PC)