10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Video Game

Tips, tricks, and guidelines to get the most out of your kids' video game experience. By Common Sense Media Editors
Topics: Gaming, Screen Time
10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Video Game

What your kids look for in a snack might be different from 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? Look for these secret ingredients:

A compelling hook. Games that draw kids in require concentration or imagination and present challenges just beyond their comfort zone. 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." Plus, they're fun. 

Choice. Having options 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. 

Age- and interest-appropriate. 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.

Experimentation. 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.

Creativity. 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.

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.

Relatability. 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.

"Tell" instead of "show." Playing great games is like being sucked into a book 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.

Cool design. 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.

Variety. Games in which kids just go through the same motions over and over are OK in moderation. But variety is nicer. Consider games that mix elements of strategy, action, adventure, role-playing, building, and more.

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Comments (17)

Adult written by QUINTISON N.

While I have grown up gaming as a Southpaw (Lefty) everything was fine though n64 but after playing the likes of goldeneye using pro mode inverted and getting halo on Xbox the original the preset already designed controls were all unless to me so I made up my own control scheme which I had to redo on ps3,360 because only now can you set up your own schemes on the Xbox one and the ps4 Nintendo switch hasn't been confirmed yet! While expensive @$149 and heavy-duty with removable extra buttons on the back the Xbox one elite pad allows for exclusive schemes made possible by the 4 extreme buttons and if you have a Southpaw Lefty and default right handed players the elite pad can covers both as it offers 2 different slots for controls while the base included in the box controller is only able to retrain 1 scheme - best controller out I even did better than the stock pad with infinity but could also be used for destiny ,halo,cod and games older kids play! The magic is the 4 back paddles however they're magnetic and easy to remove or rearrange on the fly so the very youngest might have trouble with the paddles and it's twice as heavy as a normal controllers and a bit more pricey due to all it does but after expanding my custom scheme and getting used to the paddles I couldn't go back to a stock pad for dual analog anything!!
Teen, 15 years old written by FourTec

League of Legends :P . No but really it's a great game a top down Moba ( Massive online Battle Arena) where you pick your champion there are rules. You work with 4 other people to destroy the enemy base. It works on reflexes, teamwork, communication. ( Would only recommend for 15+ ,some of the champions (handful) have questionable outfits and the community can be crazy sometime but that's only when you get into ranked games). Dosn't require a good computer at all and its free :D. Also it's the #1 esport :3
Teen, 16 years old written by Just1whale

I laughed out loud when I saw that Minecraft was rated 13+. Its ridiculous. Just dont go online and you will be fine. Or go on a kid friendly server.
Teen, 15 years old written by FourTec

It's not the game it's self but the community that comes with it. Minecraft by its self is such a good game for kids but when throw in people who want to mess around with someone unsuspecting... We feel that the emotional age is decent to handle these people at around 13. You can look up on YouTube trolling little kid in mincraft ; these people do it for views. It's kinds sad that they do it but aloe people watch and like it.
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.
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!