Ah, Christmas. The word itself conjures images of hearth and home, inspires (occasionally debaucherous) celebration, and is a time of spiritual contemplation for millions. In this crazy modern age, it's also a time when the bewildered parents of tech-savvy children all over the civilized world, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious background, or nationality are united through the magic of a single shared emotion—panic. From October to December, the advertising departments of a thousand companies exhort children to beg, cajole, and guilt-trip their parents for all manner of inappropriate digital entertainment. As supposedly informed gatekeepers, we sadly earthbound Santas are reduced to scouring the back pages of gaming review sites and magazines, trying to evaluate whether the tot at home is ready for Big Bird's Egg Hunt or Bayonetta.
Luckily, The New York Times is here to help. In a recent article provokingly titled "Ten Games to Cross off Your Child's Gift List," the NYT names its list (apparently compiled by Common Sense Media) of big bads—the video games so foul, so gruesome, so perverse that we'd recommend you buy them immediately—for yourself. Alternatively, if you need gift ideas for the surly, pale teenager in your home whose body contains more plastic than your average d20, this is the newspaper clipping to stuff in your pocket.
The New York Times list is as follows:
Assassin's Creed II
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Dead Space: Extraction
Dragon Age: Origins
GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony
Left 4 Dead 2
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Conspicuously absent from the NYT story is any real attempt at comparison, evaluation, or discussion—the last five titles are essentially listed as bullet points with the word "Avoid." Unless you're the type of person who follows Oprah's book recommendations with the zeal of a modern-day crusader, the justification for not buying some of these titles (at least, as presented by the paper) is, pardon the pun, paper-thin. Curious to see what the original site would recommend, we headed over to Common Sense Media and were a bit surprised.
Left 4 Dead 2: Violent? Maybe a little... But they're zombies, you'll get over it.
Common Sense Is Not Common
To our surprise, CSM actually appears to be doing a reasonably fair job of providing information. We don't necessarily agree with all of the site's ratings (more on that in a moment), but the reasons for those ratings are presented in language that's (mostly) free from offended sensibilities. We can't quite tell if the site has played all the games it reviews, but many of the titles it offers as alternatives (Ghostbusters, Arkham Asylum, and Mirror's Edge, to name a few) are all good games, worth playing in their own right. This was genuinely refreshing—all too often, outfits like CSM are little more than mouthpieces for a certain breed of hand-wringing gibbering banshee—specifically, the sorts of people who think home entertainment reached its peak around 1950 with nightly six-hour games of Monopoly. There were, however, a few giggle-worthy quotes:
From the site's review of Left 4 Dead 2: "This game glorifies the violent and vicious slaying of zombies. Players are meant to gawk at and appreciate the extreme levels of gore and the wide variety of creative ways in which zombies can be slain."
Well, yes. This is, in fact, the entire point of building a video game based around slaughtering zombies. As villains, zombies are pretty limited. They don't have complex motivations, they aren't emotionally driven, and they don't weave sinister plots. If, by some strange twist of fate, zombies were to turn vegetarian and eat graaaaaaaaaains, the only people who'd be terrified are a bunch of Midwestern farmers, their cattle, and the six people outside of San Francisco who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. The other, not-to-be-overlooked advantage of zombies-as-villains is that killing zombies has been proven guilt-free in scientific testing. On a guilty scale of 1-10, where a 10 is a cute puppy and a 1 is a Nazi, zombies are around a zero. Not only are they already dead, they're mindless, incapable of redemption, and they want to eat your brain. It doesn't get any more justifiable than that, folks.
Unless, of course, they're Nazi zombies. Riding velociraptors. But until that happens, a lot of the games on the "Avoid" list up there offer great hours of gameplay, storytelling, and fun. While Common Sense Media's reviews are better than most we've seen from sites of this sort, cross-comparisons of this nature aren't exactly fair. Both Dragon Age: Origins and Grand Theft Auto IV are violent, both games include some "bad" language, both games include some sexual content.
The tenor of the two games, however, couldn't be more different. In Dragon's Age, you play a character tasked with defending mankind against an evil invasion—the choices you make, both in terms of who you ally yourself with and how you treat the people around you—have real consequences in game, and impact how the story plays out. Players who make what we'll broadly call 'disagreeable' choices may find themselves unhappy with the results of those choices or with how the end of the game plays out. In Grand Theft Auto, players are explicitly cast as vigilantes living outside the law—you can choose to play the game without engaging in certain kinds of behavior, but you're essentially missing out on certain content if you do so.
Dragon Age isn't necessarily a game for kids—it's rated M for a reason—but there's a lot more "good" to be extracted from its epic adventure if you're worried about the content your kids are exposed to. Neither the NYT nor CSM provide much in the way of qualitative comparison. It's an issue that we'd suggest matters more than the column space typically devoted to it.
In other words, if you need a list like this to understand what games to not stuff little Johnny's stocking with this holiday season, you've got larger issues you should concern yourself with. We'd suggest picking up an auto-shotty and taking a few rounds against the horde - it's a wonderful stress relief and you're probably going to need it.