At some point in their Christmas shopping this year, parents will be greeted with a wall of video and computer games bearing titles that look, to their eyes, like “Deathgore Killer 4: The Bloodening.”

Families with kids — and even adults — who play games ask themselves before they part with $30 to $60: “Is this one okay? Is the content appropriate to the age and values of the person playing it?”

That’s not always an easy call to make. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) makes it somewhat easier with a system of letter ratings and content descriptors. The game industry has the most detailed rating system in use, and parents need to make better use of it.

Not all ratings are precise. The thematic elements in “Batman: Arkham Asylum” (rated T) are disturbing, even though the violence is not gory, while “Halo: ODST” (rated M) offers a fairly straightforward shooting game without any troubling psychological elements.

Parents should pay close attention to the box descriptors, explained in detail at ESRB.org. (Look for the “Ratings Guide” section under the “ESRB Ratings” tab.) This section clarifies the differences among “animated blood,” “blood” and “blood and gore.” The site allows you to type in any title to call up the rating, descriptors and summary of content.

For instance, we are told that “Halo: ODST” has a “Mature” rating for blood, language and violence. The summary explains that the game “is a first-person shooter in which players engage in futuristic battles against invading aliens. Players use pistols, sniper rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers to shoot and kill enemies during the constant and fast-paced battle. Firefights are highlighted by camera effects (e.g., blurring and screen shakes) and realistic sound effects, including screams of pain, gunfire and explosions. Puffs of blood are emitted from injured aliens/humans, and blood is sometimes smeared on walls and on the ground. Some profanity (the entry lists examples) can be heard in the dialogue and radio chatter.”

This kind of coverage is available for every rated game. More details, plus reviews and specific descriptions of content, can be found at CommonSenseMedia.org, a media review site for parents.

Search out opinions from parents, but keep in mind that everyone doesn’t share the same values. We know parents who said that “Grand Theft Auto IV” was an okay game for a fifth-grader. It’s not an okay game for anybody, much less a 10-year-old.

As parents are painfully aware, games are not cheap. A Nintendo DS title averages $30; a Wii, PC or PlayStation 2 game is about $50; Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 games are $60.

With most people cutting corners these days, paying full retail price for a current game is just not a viable option. And if a game turns out to be a dud, you’re out of luck: Few retailers offer money back on open games.

There are a number of ways to get around this.

First, search out demos for the game. Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, and various PC sites often allow you to play a portion of the game for free before you buy it.

Second, try a rental. Most games have short life spans and soon wind up collecting dust. Blockbuster rents games for $7 a week, and for $20 a month you can rent any one title for as long as you like.

GameFly.com is a Netflix-style mail service for games. For $16 a month you can rent one game at a time, and for $23 a month you can rent two. Titles come in a mailer, and you can keep them as long as you want.

Finally, PC gamers should consider GameTap.com, which offers access to more than 1,000 games, including many new titles. For $10 a month you can play every game in their roster, while $5 a month unlocks approximately 300 older games for the classic 64-bit era.

Don’t always think you need the newest game. Some older titles still have a lot of kick left in them. Few people bothered with “Wii Music” when it was released in 2008, but it’s a great game for a family to play together.

Now, a year later, the price has dropped from $50 to $20. Any game you haven’t played is a new game, so keep an eye on the budget bins.

Try to avoid massively multiplayer games like “World of Warcraft.” First, they can be addictive and require a greater time commitment than an off-line game. Second, they’re expensive, with an average ongoing cost of about $15 per month. That’s $180 a year, or roughly the cost of three separate games. Most families can find a better way to spend that kind of money.

If you still want to own a title but don’t want to pay full price, search out used games. GameStop, Amazon, eBay, Half.com, and Craigslist can be a bonanza of value, and they’re also a good way to get rid of games you no longer need.

Don’t keep “dead” titles on your shelf if they’re just gathering dust. Either sell them or donate them. Consider posting a “game swap” message on your work or church bulletin board, or even on Craigslist. Maybe someone finished “Lego Indiana Jones” and would like to trade for your copy of “Lego Star Wars.” You can even organize a game swap party or event.

Consider coordinating with neighborhood or parish families to buy a few different titles this Christmas and then rotate or share them. Every kid on the street doesn’t need to own the $250 setup needed to play the “Rock Band” games.

Our home has the only full “Rock Band” setup in the neighborhood, so people come here to play. One household can keep the game or you can rotate it every week or two. Get creative.

Thomas L. McDonald is

editor-at-large of Games magazine and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.

Recommendations


For the Whole Family

“Wii Sports Resort,” “Wii Music,” “Boom Blox Bash Party,” “The Beatles Rock Band” and “Lego Rock Band”

(Not all music games are family friendly: Other “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” games contain some songs with problematic lyrics. “The Beatles Rock Band” earned a T-rating for the inclusion of “I Am the Walrus” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” and some images of cigarettes.)


Kids and Up

“Scribblenauts,” “Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story,” Nancy Drew series, “Plants vs. Zombies,” any of the EA Sports titles (“Madden NFL 10,” “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10,” “NBA Live 10” and others), “Need for Speed: Shift,” “Crayon Physics Deluxe,” any of the Lego series (“Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “Batman”)


Teens and Up

“Empire: Total War,” “Metroid Prime Trilogy,” “Trine,” “Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2,” “Cities XL,” “Battlefield 1943,” “Ghostbusters: The Video Game”

— Thomas McDonald