How to Buy Video Games (and Avoid the Naughty Ones) this Holiday

A new application lets parents photograph a software package at the store and instantly learn about any potentially questionable content.

A new application lets parents photograph a software package at the store and instantly learn about any potentially questionable content.  (ESRB)

Does your child want "Call of Duty: Black Ops" for Christmas? Well, it may not be a good idea to let him play it.

Call of Duty: Black Ops is one of the biggest video games of the year, but with enough graphic language and violence to make Scarface blush, it's also terribly inappropriate for anyone under 17 -- even according to the manufacturer. So how do you know what's right for your kids this holiday season?

A new app from the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) -- the group that currently slaps "T for Teen" or "M for Mature" ratings on every video game on the market -- makes it easy for parents to pick age-appropriate video games. It's one of the few that really tries to keep your kids safe.

"The fact is that even the coolest mom or dad can't keep up with all of the new games," Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, told "With the holidays fast approaching, parents and other gift-givers will flock to stores to find that perfect game for a well-deserving child. But, just like movies, not all games are right for every child."

To ensure that Timmy isn't prematurely exposed to the ills of society while gaming, the ESRB has released the free iPhone app, which lets parents enter the name of a game to obtain a detailed summary of any questionable content. An updated version -- expected in "one to two weeks" and finally out for Android phones -- adds photo recognition; all you have to do is snap a picture of the game box with your phone to get educated.

"By using the ESRB mobile app, parents can access rating summaries right in the store, often when they need it most," Vance explained. "These summaries go well beyond the rating category and content descriptors which can be found on the game box, and provide specific examples of the content that earned a game the rating it was assigned." It's similar to Kids in Mind, a site that provides information about why a movie received the rating it did.

But what if you don't have a fancy schmancy smart phone? Vance said there are many other ways of staying informed, including the avoidance of game boxes marked "T for Teen" (i.e. PG-13) or "M for Mature" (i.e. rated R), depending on the age of the intended player. She also invites would-be-buyers to visit the ESRB website for detailed summaries before making a specific game purchase, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the ratings system in general.

But knowing the age appropriateness of a game is only half of the equation. If you really want to make a gamer smile come Christmastime, regardless of age, you'll need to know what kind of games they like to play.

This can be accomplished in three steps, says Vance. First, find out what console they own. Then identify what types of games the receiver already enjoys and focus on that genre -- such as sports or adventure games. "Store associates can often be very helpful in suggesting games, since they're often gamers themselves," Vance told

Second, be familiar with ESRB ratings and visit its website and others -- like What They Play, the family guide for video games -- to gain in-depth insight into a game's content. These can also help you determine if the game you're selecting is appropriate for your child or entire family. 

"Our website also offers a number of other tips for parents and links to a variety of useful resources, like game enthusiast websites that provide reviews, trailers and screenshots of specific games they may be considering for their child," Vance said.

Finally, keep in mind that ESRB rating symbols denote age-appropriateness in terms of content, but not skill. So, do your research beyond the ratings. "Rating summaries can lend clues about a game's intensity or complexity, but game enthusiast sites, publisher sites and other media outlets can provide screenshots, demos, trailers and reviews that can also be very helpful," says Vance.

Although 86 percent of parents with children are aware of ESRB ratings, only 53 percent use them all of the time when making a game purchase, the group says. So it's important to keep the ratings and their summaries front and center when deciding on a game for a child, Vance said.

"Despite the relatively high level of awareness of our system, it's important to continue to aggressively educate the public through programs like our PSAs, partnerships, in-store signage, our website, Facebook and Twitter updates, and our mobile app," Vance concluded. "The more we can educate, the more informed parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends will be before they make a purchase decision."

Blake Snow is a freelance writer and lover of video games. He lives in Utah with his wife and three children. Suggestion box and contact information can be found on his website