The Game Room: How to Buy the Best Video Games for Your Kids

For some parents, Christmas gift-giving can be akin to a visit from your in-laws—prompting both terror and denial. This is because many kids today expect to see their favorite video games under the tree (read: Battlefield 4), bought by parents who are clueless about a medium that was in its infancy when they were growing up.

So, what’s a parent to do?

Keep in mind that, by and large, the reason most kids enjoy video games is a positive one. “When kids are asked in focus groups, and surveys, what they like about video games, they generally talk about freedom, self-direction and competence,” says Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, wrote in Psychology Today. Also, remember that you’re not alone and that there are resources that will help you traverse the minefield of what’s out there.

Here’s how to ensure you’re making good choices:

• Check the box. Each game includes a letter on the front that is assigned by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that indicates the maturity level for that game—for example, “EC” for early childhood, “E10+” for 10 and over, and “T” for teen—but the cover’s flip side provides the reason for the rating, which means that even if a game is rated “E” for everyone or “M” for mature (17 or older), the real clues lie in the description, such as “fantasy violence”—indicating that it may not be appropriate for your wee one.

While producers aren’t required to submit games for review, retail partners of the ESRB like GameStop say they make it a point to only carry ESRB-rated games. “Each child has a unique personality, and we believe in helping parents protect younger players from excessively mature content,” says Jason Cochran, vice president of store operations and strategic initiatives at the company, which is the world’s largest multichannel retailer of video games.

• Get down with the gaming lingo. When your child runs around the house spouting gamer acronyms like “FPS,” the website can explain their meaning—in this case, “first person shooter,” signifying a game where the players sees the action through the eyes of its main character—and offers other handy tips such as the availability of built-in parental controls on consoles and handheld devices.

• Ask the experts. About 73 percent of all video games are rated “E” through “T,” and to help you wade through it all, GameStop has “Game Advisors” in every store who can tell you which ones harness creativity (“Disney Infinity”) and which are entertaining (“Angry Birds: Star Wars”).

Lastly, when in doubt, try the games in stores yourself.