The Best Gaming Console... for Your Kids

Parents want kids to be safe. Kids want to play games. Is there common ground?

By Marin Johnson

Your kids are getting older and they want their own gaming console. If you were shopping for yourself, it would be easy—but you have some complicated issues to consider when it comes to the gaming experiences your children are exposed to.

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No one wants to be a helicopter parent, but there are still plenty of things to worry about. Some seemingly innocent games have hidden themes, and anonymous voice chat with strangers can be as scary as it sounds (though it’s mostly toilet humor and name-calling). You also need to consider the costs involved: There’s no point buying a console your kids don’t like. To choose the perfect console for your kids, start with what’s most important to you and proceed from there. To help you make the decision, we’ve evaluated the most popular consoles (including XBox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, and Nintendo 3DS XL) on five different criteria: ease of use, game selection, parental controls, price, and kids’ choice (popularity with the demographic your kids are currently in).

Ease of Use

The first step in getting acclimated to any gaming console is to figure out the controls. And despite the cliché about kids’ taking to tech like fish to water, If you can’t figure it out, they probably can’t, either.

The Xbox One’s menu is a labyrinth of cryptic pictographs and buttons that lead nowhere. Ads come first, gaming second. I eventually gave up looking for my apps in the menu and started using voice controls instead. Once I got a handle on saying, “Xbox go to [game],” I never had to touch the controller again. This feature makes the Xbox One/Kinect combo the fastest and easiest system to use, but springing for a Kinect means another $100 down the drain.

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What’s with all these ads? Why does that button take up half the screen? I just want to play the game in the drive.

The PS4’s main menu doesn’t win any prizes either. Though getting to your most recently used games is easy enough, finding something specific that you haven’t played recently requires some navigation through drop-down menus. The process is tedious, but it works, and older kids can probably figure it out on their own; younger ones, on the other hand, may need help opening their favorite games.

The Wii U is simple and straightforward—mostly. Its chief drawbacks are that some features (such as drawing picture comments and playing Bowser in Mario Party 10) work only on the gamepad, and the gamepad seems to make a habit of running out of batteries and disappearing under the couch. Other than that, it is a great platform for kids and adults.

The Nintendo 3DS XL delivers the same goods as the Wii U, minus the problems with the gamepad. The simple layout of clearly labeled buttons looks a lot like the original Wii menu. It may not be flashy, but it is the easiest, most straightforward system to use.

Winner: Nintendo 3DS XL

3DS XL (2015)

by Nintendo
List $200

Game Selection

Every console has its fair share of child-friendly games, but most are small, unpopular games that barely register a blip on the radar. The original Wii tried to change the face of modern gameplay by introducing Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and other games that everyone played and most pretended to like. Wholesome, kid-appropriate games can now be found on every console—but what about appropriate games that are also fun?

Well, everyone loves to dance. To get the full experience out of a dancing game, you’ll need an Xbox One with Kinect. The Wii U cannot even see if your feet are moving, for example, and the Xbox 360 Kinect is so vastly inferior that it’s not worth considering.

To play beloved, teen-friendly classics like Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart, you’ll need a Wii U. No console is free from M-rated, violent games, but (on the other hand) there are good kid-friendly options for each console, too.

Even the 3DS—with its low graphics and limited memory—has several lovable games that are a nice fit for children of every age. In general, though, Nintendo consoles are built with kids in mind, whereas for the Xbox One and PS4, very young users are an afterthought.

Winner: Nintendo Wii U

Wii U

by Nintendo
List $300

Parental Controls

Social media on the Wii U is good, clean fun—albeit in a Stepford Wives, Kids Edition kind of way. The moment the system turns on, Miis start popping up with comments about their latest in-game achievements. User comments and drawings even show up during gameplay, as if to remind you that strangers exist and that some of them can draw Bowser better than you can. In E-rated games like Mario Kart, online users are limited to a few set phrases like “good luck” and “I’m using tilt controls.” It’s safe to say that no one is crossing any lines in the Wii’s online chat.

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Such a pristine little paradise.

Online harassment, bullying, and inappropriate speech become a problem when PS4 and Xbox One users plug into the Internet. When you see an Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB game label, you need to take it seriously—because it means what it says.

Each console has its own parental control settings, which include web filtering, blocking games and movies based on ESRB rating, restricting online interaction, and preventing kids from accidentally (or not accidentally) buying games on your credit card. The prize here goes to the Wii U which anticipated just about everything that could go wrong—to the extent that a 50-cent charge shows up on your credit card each time the console’s parental controls are altered. Parents of Wii U users can also approve and disapprove friends on the console—or remove the Miiverse aspect entirely, if they choose.

Winner: Nintendo Wii U

Wii U

by Nintendo
List $300

Price

$400 will buy a decent-size PS4 or Xbox One, but don’t forget to add the $50-per-year online subscription fee to the total. This is a serious hidden cost. At least PlayStation Plus—the PlayStation’s subscription service—rewards subscribers with free games every month. Xbox doesn’t offer an equivalent freebie.

The Wii U cuts out the monthly subscription for Internet services and lowers the price of entry to $300. And don’t forget about Nintendo’s 3DS. Sure, it’s handheld and limits you to simpler games, but you can buy a new 3DS XL for $200. And used ones go for as little as $60.

Bear in mind that you might need to pay for more than just a console. If you have only one TV in the house, for example, everyone will have to share it—for gaming, Netflix, Nickelodeon, and more. Anytime a PS4 or Xbox One is running, the television is totally booked. But Nintendo offers a more flexible gaming experience. Although people usually play the Wii U on the TV, you can also play it on the gamepad only: It’s essentially an oversize controller with a built-in screen. And of course, as a portable gaming system, the 3DS has no need for a television at all. It’s inexpensive in more ways than one.

Winner: Nintendo 3DS XL

3DS XL (2015)

by Nintendo
List $200

Kids’ Choice

No matter how many family-friendly trivia games hit the shelves, the top sellers remain first-person shooters (FPSs) that are rated M for mature audiences. The most controversial top-seller, Grand Theft Auto V, features nudity, intense violence, and the use of drugs and alcohol. Players have free reign to visit strip clubs, solicit prostitutes, and run over as many civilians as they wish along the way. Parents are understandably concerned about exposing their kids to such games. On the other hand, other FPSs have grounded, conscientious main characters—at least within the constraints of a game where players spend most of the time shooting people with guns.

Understandably, kids want to play with their friends; and to do that, they need to own the same console. For the most popular FPS games, this comes down to the Xbox One and—a distant second—the PlayStation 4. If your kids seem emotionally invested in getting an Xbox One and only an Xbox One, the friend connection is probably the reason why. Either that, or they just finished reading Bill Gates’s biography.

Popular alternatives to first-person shooters include NBA 2K16 on the PS4 and Xbox One, Pokemon on the 3DS, Mario Kart on the Wii U, and Minecraft on the PC. Many teens and preteens may prefer to play violent shoot-’em-ups with their friends on the Xbox One, but doing so is not the only option.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about which of the most popular video games are kid-friendly (and which decidedly aren’t), check out this Parents’ Guide to Video Games.

Winner: Microsoft Xbox One

Xbox One

by Microsoft
List $450

Verdict

Like most decisions, the choice of a suitable gaming console for your children involves a compromise—in this case, balancing what your kids might insist what they need and what you think is best overall for the family.

On the one hand, the gaming system most craved by youngsters is the Xbox One. Kids want to play together; and for that to work, your kids will need the same console as their buddies.

On the other hand, the parental controls on the Wii U are much more thorough than those on the Xbox One. Both systems have family-friendly games, but family is the central focus of the entire Wii U design. Choosing the Wii U over the Xbox One will save you a few dollars, too, and the Wii U is definitely easier for a child to master than the maze-like Xbox One interface. And while you’re at it, don’t forget the Little Handheld That Could: The Nintendo 3DS XL is cheaper and easier to use than any of the others, though its games are less sophisticated.

Bottom line: The Wii U and 3DS XL are perfect for younger kids. The Xbox One is best for older, more mature players.

Winner: Nintendo Wii U

Photo credits: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty, Microsoft, Nintendo.