Back in the early days of gaming, buying a video game for your child was a simple affair: You could grab any game off the shelf because every game was made for children. As those kids grew up, however, so did gaming. An industry once dominated by games for kids is now dominated by mature subjects such as violence, sex and more violence. Knowing the games your child asks for this holiday season will help you make smart choices, but knowing some good alternatives will help you go one step further: Being a cool parent.
Grand Theft Auto V Rating: Mature $59.99
Sex, drugs and rock and roll: Since the 1960s, parents have been fighting against this three-headed beast in some form or another. While the culprits of the 1960s were The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, in the current age Grand Theft Auto is the new face of the beast. The newest entry in the series, “Grand Theft Auto V,” lives up to the series' heritage and surpasses it, dialing the graphic imagery up to 11 in the scene “By The Book.” In this particularly heinous scene, you'll control psychopath Trevor Philips as he uses torture methods such as electrocution and waterboarding to extract information from a captive prisoner.
This is just the scene that was fit to print, keep in mind.
If you're looking for something dark but a bit more family friendly, “Lego Batman 3” provides the Grand Theft Auto experience without imagery that may turn little Johnny into a crazed killer.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor Rating: Mature $59.99
There's an old adage that any parent will be familiar with: “What's old is new again.” You see it in fashion, with “retro” styles from your youth such as bell-bottom jeans now being the new “in” thing, and in entertainment, where movies you grew up with are mined for remakes. The fantasy genre is no different, with Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, first published in 1954 and 1955, experiencing a new wave of popularity thanks to movies and video games. The newest of these games, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor,” is a far cry from more family friendly cinematic adventures of Frodo and company; here, Talion will fight wave upon wave of orcs in bloody, visceral combat, namely engaging in such practices as “[slitting] enemies' throats, and [decapitating] creatures' heads,” according to the ESRB. The action is fast, frantic and gruesome: It's definitely a Lord of the Rings tale for the older crowd. Those parents looking for a friendly alternative should check out “LEGO The Hobbit,” a retelling of Bilbo's adventures in comical, brick-based form. It's a perfect companion gift for any child who is enamored with LEGO blocks and has a few Hobbit sets of his own.
Destiny Rating: Teen $59.99
Primed to be the next big thing in the multiplayer space, your child may believe it's his destiny to play this amazing game. At first glance, he may be right, as the game appears fine in terms of content: The combat is largely against alien species, the violence and gore is toned to a minimum and the story? Well, the story is nonsensical, to put it nicely, and it's doubtful your child (or any other gamer) will understand it fully. There is, however, one red flag that many parents may not even realize is present in the game.
It's online multiplayer only.
The game is similar to other online games such as “World of Warcraft,” in that your child will be playing online with not only his friends, but strangers as they seek to conquer alien life across the galaxy. Though the online communication is poor in this game (it's mostly hand gestures and the like), there is a large possibility that you just won't feel comfortable knowing that a large group of strangers is surrounding your child. The same applies to “Titanfall,” one of the Xbox One's biggest exclusives that just so happens to be online multiplayer only. Consider “Halo: The Master Chief Collection” for the Xbox One as an alternative if the thought of your child online makes you queasy. Made by the creators of “Destiny,” Bungie, you'll get four single-player games for the price of one; not only are you an awesome parent, but your wallet gets a break since you won't need to buy your child new games anytime soon.
Assassin's Creed Unity Rating: Mature $59.99
Children are tricky little creatures. It's likely you've been persuaded to buy “Assassin's Creed Unity,” the newest game in the “Assassin's Creed” franchise, thanks to being told, “Mom, it's based on history! Dad, it will help me learn about important historical events!” While this is partly true and much of “Assassin's Creed” is rooted in history, historians are convinced that Machiavelli was not in fact an assassin, nor did assassins help turn the tide in the Revolutionary War. What your kid likely didn't tell you was that the game is extremely violent, with a large emphasis on murdering your foes in the quietest of ways, with a dagger in the skull here and a quiet shanking there. In Assassin's Creed Unity, you can also add “sexual remarks” and “some sexual material,” according to the ESRB, to the list of precautions that may cancel your child's adventure into assassination before it even begins. For an alternative, check out “Sonic Boom,” the newest revision of classic gaming mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. It features the same style of platforming gameplay as “Assassin's Creed Unity,” minus the assassinations and with a dose of light-hearted humor. For PlayStation users, “LittleBigPlanet 3" has all of that and the ability to create your own levels, letting your child show off her creative side.
Dragon Age: Inquisition Rating: Mature $59.99
As a parent, you know that money doesn't grow on trees and that video games are expensive. You know that the best bang for your buck is in long, sprawling adventures that your kids won't finish in a weekend, so when you hear that “Dragon Age: Inquisition” boasts over 100 hours of content, you're immediately reaching for your wallet. Unfortunately, that 100 hours comes with a catch, as the game is loaded with violence, sex and political themes. Some choice quotes from the ESRB reveal such lewd dialog as “I will bring myself sexual pleasure later, while thinking about this with great respect,” which may not be the type of thing you want to be exposing your child to depending on her age. However, you may still want a game bursting at the seams with content, so consider “Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix” for the PlayStation 3. You'll find a story that appeals to all ages as Disney characters cross over with fantasy characters from Square Enix's Final Fantasy series.
WWE 2k15 Rating: Teen $59.99
You know what to expect here just based on the name alone: wrestling, and lots of it. How you'll feel about this game reflects how you feel about WWE content in general. If you have no problem with your child watching sweaty men grapple and bicker with each other for a few hours every week, the game is just more of the same in terms of action, themes and dialogue. If you're a parent who is staunchly against WWE programming, then you've likely already made up your mind about this game. Unfortunately, there is no real alternative to “WWE 2k15”; this is pretty much the only wrestling game in town these days. If you have a choice between purchasing this game for the current generation of systems over last generation, opt for the Xbox and PlayStation 4 versions; these versions include extra content at the same price.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Rating: Mature $59.99
Three things in life are certain to happen every year without fail: birthdays, taxes and a new Call of Duty game. Like clockwork, 2014 saw the release of “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” and even if you have no interest whatsoever in video games it's hard to miss it. Displays were erected at the front of major retail chains, posters were hung in all corners of your local video game store. You can bet that your child has heard of this game. That means he's already started pestering you for it. What can you expect with “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare”? You'll get a single player story akin to a summer “popcorn flick,” which amounts to political themes, explosions, shooting, more explosions and possibly more shooting. If you're fine with letting your child watch any recent Michael Bay movie, such as Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the single player campaign of the newest Call of Duty is on par with those in terms of action, language and theme.
However, like “Destiny,” “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” has a seedy underside: online multiplayer gaming.
In the competitive multiplayer modes, the biggest issue you'll come across is unruly, downright savage players. Racist and homophobic slurs are the norm, and even the most purehearted child will come out of an online match with a vocabulary befitting the stereotypical sailor on shore leave. How do you stop a child from experiencing this? Buy him a game without a competitive online component, such as “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.” The single player content is the same and the only online aspect is co-operative. As a bonus, you can switch off the gore in the game, if that sort of thing bothers you.
Need for Speed: Rivals Rating: Everyone $29.99-$59.99 (Depending on whether you buy the regular or complete version)
When in doubt, you can never go wrong with buying your child a racing game, unless you have an aversion to expensive cars and driving fast. Many of the games coming out this holiday season, such as “Driveclub” and “Forza Horizon 2,” put the focus primarily on sanctioned street races; if your child has a love of Hot Wheels and auto shows, these games are a perfect fit. “Need for Speed: Rivals,” on the other hand, puts the action more on evading the law due to your fast driving; if that makes you feel uneasy, any other racing game released this year, such as the fantastic “Mario Kart 8,” make great alternatives.
Sunset Overdrive Rating: Mature $59.99
If your child is asking for an Xbox One this holiday season, one of the exclusive games at the top of her list undoubtedly is “Sunset Overdrive.” On the surface, the game looks similar to any Saturday morning cartoon, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that it has more in common with an HBO after-dark special. The game revels in its over-the-top attitude, featuring gratuitous amounts of violence, every curse word under the sun, and drug and alcohol use. There is no strong alternative to “Sunset Overdrive” on the Xbox One as many similar games to it are also intended for mature audiences. If your child is asking for an Xbox One and you find “Sunset Overdrive” questionable, you're going to find that much of the system's library, like other exclusive games such as “Dead Rising 3” and multi-platform games like "Far Cry 4," features the same levels of brutal violence.Perhaps consider a Wii U, where most of the games are in the same style as “Sunset Overdrive” but skew more towards family-friendly content.
Minecraft Rating: Everyone $19.99
Much like Super Mario Bros. in the 80s, “Minecraft” isn't just a game: For many kids, it's a way of life. “Minecraft” is on every system imaginable, with merchandise such as toys and building sets available at every retail chain big and small. The only thing “Minecraft” doesn't yet have is a cereal, and that can't be far behind as even a movie is in the works for this franchise. Just what is “Minecraft”? It's Zelda meets LEGO, adventure meets creation, and imagination meets video games. The entire world of “Minecraft” is destructible, allowing the player to reconstruct it in any way he or she sees fit. There are dungeons to explore and bosses to vanquish, all while building a castle or even a replication of a real-life building. In other words, “Minecraft” is whatever you want it to be. The fact that the game is essentially LEGO means that children have gravitated towards it and parents have found that resistance is futile. Just keep in mind that online gameplay does exist for “Minecraft,” where players can join other players games and see their creations – creations that may be questionable in origin. However, if you closely monitor your child's online gaming habits or just permit him to play with friends, you'll find “Minecraft” is one of gaming's greatest treasures.
Watch Dogs Rating: Mature $59.99
“Watch Dogs” is essentially “Grand Theft Auto V” with a twist: You'll still play as an antihero, commit crimes, and slaughter your enemies with a righteous fury but now, you'll do so with the aid of hacking. During missions, protagonist Aiden will use his cellphone to hack other phones to gain information, change traffic lights to cause a massive pile-up and otherwise turn the enemies' environment against them. While “Watch Dogs” doesn't go to the same extreme lengths in terms of content as “Grand Theft Auto V,” it's still fairly violent as Aiden doesn't pull his punches and the game includes scenes revolving around human trafficking and sexual violence. If your child has a Wii U, it's likely he's taken a sudden interest in this game due to the fact that it's finally seeing a release on the system; however, if you feel like the subject matter is too violent but want a game in the same style, try “LEGO City Undercover.” You'll get the same basic gameplay wrapped in a shell of humor instead of violence.