There will be no shortage of options facing parents who venture into the electronics department of a big-box store or search for video games at an online retailer.
Justin Haywald, a senior editor at the website GameSpot.com, expects a "really interesting" holiday buying season.
"There's a little bit of something for everybody," Haywald said.
Video game offerings for 2015 range from reimagined family friendly classics to violent "first-person shooter" games. There are a multitude of gaming consoles out there, from the next-generation Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to the handheld Nintendo 3DS. And then there are the toys and accessories accompanying game franchises such as Skylanders and Disney Infinity that captivate kids and could bust the budget if parents aren't careful.
For those compelled by a kid's Christmas list to purchase video games this holiday season, a little homework can go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary purchases, Christmas morning disappointment or the sinking feeling that comes when parents realize that new game their kid is playing is not age-appropriate.
Here are some tips:
Know the rating
The Electronic Software Ratings Board assigns ratings to games that range from C (early childhood) to A (adults only), although E (everyone) and M (mature) ratings are the most common.
November saw the release of new installments in several popular game franchises that are rated M, including "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare," "Assassin's Creed Unity," "Far Cry 4" and "Halo: The Master Chief Collection." GameSpot.com's rankings of the top 10 available games include eight that are rated M. Haywald expects the M-rated titles "Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor" and "Dragon Age Inquisition" to sell particularly well.
Generally speaking, these M-rated titles are highly acclaimed and enormously popular, and chances are good they will be the games of choice for teens and perhaps even tweens.
Parents should be aware, however, of the type of objectionable content that can be found in M-rated titles, which includes blood and gore, nudity, sexual content, strong language and intense violence. Just like R-rated films, the amount and nature of objectionable content in M-rated titles varies from game to game. The website CommonSenseMedia.org provides reviews that give parents more context to the ESRB rating.
Haywald recommends that parents watch the many available YouTube videos that show people playing the games their kids may be interested in.
"I think the best advice you can give is to be actively engaged in the choices that you are making for them," he said. "Go online and watch someone play that game."
Additional purchases necessary?
This holiday season, a third line of video game "toys" will be lining the shelves.
In 2011, "Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure" made plastic figures part of the gaming experience, requiring tangible toy characters to import the digital version into the game for play. "Disney Infinity" followed suit in 2013. The Skylanders series is now on its fourth edition with "Trap Team," and "Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes" has been in stores since September.
In November, Nintendo got in on the act by introducing "amiibo" characters to use with the new "Super Smash Bros. Wii U" and the previously released "Mario Kart 8."
"Kids love to collect them," Haywald said of Skylanders, Infinity characters and amiibos. "They're a fun thing to play with. It gives them that kind of physical feel that puts them in the game."
The toys themselves are fun and well-crafted, but the cost of purchasing additional gameplay options and accessories will certainly add up. Individual Skylanders range from $9.99 to $14.99, while Infinity figures are $13.99 each. At $74.99, the "starter packs" for both games are also significant investments. The new amiibo characters run at $12.99 each.
Before spending that type of money, parents should know that the three lines of toys all vary when it comes to what characters can do and what games they are compatible with. For instance, "Skylanders Trap Team" and "Infinity 2.0" toys will not work with previous versions of the game. And amiibos are quite different in the sense that the character cannot be controlled by the user. They are more of an accessory rather than a required piece.
Even the most family friendly games can come with the warning "online interactions not rated by the ESRB." Many games offer the option to play in online communities. (Some, like "Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare," even require it.) Parents who make it a point to monitor a child's social media activity should pay equal attention to the text-type messages and headset conversations that take place in online video gaming.
This will require being familiar with the console and the game itself. Parental controls can be employed to restrict online interactions as well as access to games based on their ESRB rating.
Haywald points out that console makers Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo provide many of those services. Make sure to set up the video game console for your children and create password-protected privacy and parental settings, Haywald suggested.
"They are really aimed at parents to go through themselves," Haywald said. "They've all put those checks in place to make that really easy for parents."
Know the console
In today's market, there are games for the Xbox One and the Xbox 360; PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4; Wii and Wii U. There are also PC games and handheld options like the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita.
Before purchasing, make sure the game is compatible with the console. A PS4 game will not work on a PS3, and as pointed out in a 2013 Guardian article, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are not backwards compatible. (The Wii U, however, does allow for Wii games to be played.) While it may seem simplistic, gift-buyers will want to make sure the label on the game matches the console used by the receiver of the gift.
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