Kids often give their parents major grief for crossing “cool” games off of holiday wish lists. In kid logic, games are “cool” when they have awesome graphics and gameplay, envelope-pushing storylines, and all manners of weaponry. And they aren’t wrong. The games they want typically are well-constructed, thoughtful, and exciting. But they’re often inappropriate for the teens who hunger for them.
A lot of this season’s most talked-about games include ones with excessive violence, negative role models, extreme gore, sociopathic behavior, and other things that have been proven to have a negative effect on kids.
So how do you give kids what they want without giving them what you don’t want? Know your options. Follow our tips on a choosing great video games, check out our 2009 video game gift guide, and offer alternatives that don’t veer into unhealthy territory.
We’ve compiled a list of this season’s hottest games, plus ten you can say yes to. In choosing our alternatives, we stuck with T-rated titles geared for ages 12–15, and we matched gaming systems—so if you nix an M-rated PS3 game, you can replace it with a similar T-rated PS3 game.
1. Assassin’s Creed II
Authentically recreated Renaissance cities, near photo-realistic action, and historical accuracy make this a great game for mature players. But playing as an assassin who relies on an arsenal of weapons makes the violence excessive. Alternative: Mirror’s Edge
This first-person shooter earned critical acclaim for its innovative use of weaponry, comic-book-like world, and online play. But the game (which has a cover that shows a character shooting himself in the head) has strong language, human enemies used as target practice, mature humor, and lots of blood and gore. Alternative: Infamous
3. Brutal Legend
Cartoon-like in its graphics and delivery, this fantasy action game nonetheless features plenty of violence, including the ability to hack and slash demonic armies with your double-sided axe. Alternative: Ghostbusters: The Video Game
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
An immersive first-person perspective ups the realism of this shooter, which contains a controversial (but optional) level where you go undercover as an enemy terrorist. Alternative: Battlefield: Bad Company
5. Dead Space: Extraction
This atmospheric, horror-filled tale offers players a unique cooperative play option, but its use of violence —like blood spurting out of victims’ bodies, human carcasses littering the floor, blood-stained walls and floors, and copious screams of torture —put it over the top. Alternative: Deadly Creatures
6. Dragon Age: Origins
This is a masterly crafted but combat-heavy game featuring decapitations and swords plunged deeply into monsters’ chests. Alternative: Braid
7. Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony
Frequent and ruthless violence, gratuitous sex, lawlessness, drinking, drugs —this isn’t a game for kids. But the fully interactive open world offers an immersive diversion for hardcore gamers. Alternative: Batman: Arkham Asylum
8. Demon’s Souls
It’s not just the copious amounts of blood and the smaller enemies who fall like rag dolls at your feet —this game also has a depressing vibe. Because you constantly die, it can break the spirit of even the most seasoned gamer, but hardcore players relish this kind of challenge. Alternative: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
9. Left 4 Dead 2
Teamwork is an essential component of this super-gory shooter, but violence —players are meant to gawk at and appreciate the extreme levels of gore —plays a much greater role. Alternative: Overlord II
10. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Don’t let the cartoon-like look and DS platform fool you. While this game’s fully realized world and challenging missions are fun for adults, players can use the services of prostitutes, run over pedestrians, and kill police officers. Alternative: C.O.P.: The Recruit
Video Game Editor Jinny Gudmunsen contributed to this article
By Caroline Knorr of CommonSenseMedia