By Chris Colin
Sure, you could keep your kid from experiencing the ever meaner, ruder, and bloodier world of video games, but it's so expensive to raise a child on a desert island these days. (Nearly 60% of 2- to 12-year-olds play video games, says one report.) So a growing number of parents are taking a different approach: seeking out games that eschew gore and antisocial mindlessness in favor of the creative and civilized. A few years ago, this was a relatively new field. Today a variety of inspired choices exists.
Ages 6 and up
Before moving on to heavy topics like poverty and strife, younger gamers can spend time in the gentle realm of animated animals in Giraffe Above. Specifically, the realm of an "apple-crazy giraffe on a mission to gobble all the apples in Africa." Players move their extra-long neck through a maze in search of fruit and try to avoid backing themselves into a corner. You'd have to dig pretty deep to find any reason to feel guilty about letting kids play this one.
Bottom line: A gentle puzzle game for younger children.
Ages 8 and up
Guilt-free? You can feel downright virtuous having your kids play this sophisticated game associated with the United Nations World Food Programme. Their mission in Food Force, should they choose to accept it, is to deliver food to an imaginary island in crisis in the Indian Ocean. All the fun elements of a nonvirtuous game are there, from flying helicopters to guiding a convoy of trucks. Excellent graphics and an excellently disguised education in what this UN agency does on a daily basis to thwart hunger around the world.
Bottom line: Kids can play the humanitarian in this sophisticated simulation.
Ages 10 and up
Kids know how it works by now, either because they've seen it in an arcade or at someone's house — a song plays and users dance as instructed by a series of fast-paced visual cues. The more in step they are, the better they'll do. You'd be hard-pressed to say Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 3 is good for the planet in the way a Darfur simulation is, but there's something undeniably righteous about shaking your tail feather to KC and the Sunshine Band. We're not the only ones who think so. It's now featured in a number of school systems — students can't help breaking a sweat — and an official sport in Norway.
Bottom line: Kids will literally break a sweat with DDR.
Ages 13 and up
For teens desperate for gore, this Japanese simulation game lets them wield their own blade — not to mention forceps, syringe, bandages, and antibiotic gel. The task at hand is saving people, not hurting them. The gamer is an OR surgeon, charged with battling disease and sewing up injuries. Yes, there will be blood. But it's not the gratuitous kind. Actually, Trauma Center: Second Opinion overflows with the kind that might lead your kid to med school one day.
Bottom line: Teens can immerse themselves in the grit of medicine.
Online, free (with registration)
Ages 14 and up
Give your child his or her first taste of world power with this browser-based political and economic simulation game. In Ars Regendi, players control their own simulated state, making decisions on behalf of their populations. Think of it as Sim City for international relations: If your child makes the wrong financial or diplomatic choices, his or her people — and power — won't last long.
Bottom line: This is Sim City for international relations.
PC only, $10
Ages 14 and up
This inexpensive strategy game for PCs doesn't just leave out the violence — it teaches players to overcome it. Born out of the 1999 film by the same name, A Force More Powerful was designed to educate people about nonviolent resistance. In one scenario, players struggle to achieve voting rights for women in a fundamentalist society. In another, they attempt to convince a dictator to hold elections. A decidedly activist bent runs through this elaborate and intelligent creation, and users might well come away muttering about Tiananmen Square or South Africa. But it'll be the peaceful kind of muttering, and that's rare in the video game universe.
Bottom line: What's more powerful than peace?
Ages 18 and up
OK, the title's a little glum. But this cutting-edge combination of gaming, activism, and education ultimately does something positive. Through high-quality graphics and a genuinely haunting mission, Darfur Is Dying depicts the plight of the 2.5 million refugees who have been forced out of Sudan. Players guide characters from a Darfurian refugee camp in their desperate — and truly terrifying — efforts to survive. Meanwhile, militia groups attempt to capture them. Not for the young or faint of heart; if they're caught by the militia, players are given a brief lesson involving the abuse, rape, and kidnapping faced by children there daily. After playing, teens can click on "Take Action" to read more about the crisis, write a letter to the U.S. government, make a donation, and more.
Bottom line: Darfur Is Dying is a game with a serious conscience.