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This undated publicity photo released by Electronic Arts/Maxis shows the video game, "The Sims 4." The fourth edition of Maxis' successful life-simulating game will include more expressive versions of the virtual people whose lives players can manipulate. (AP Photo/Electronic Arts/Maxis)
8 educational video games the whole family can enjoy
Options » Entertaining games shift focus from shoot ’em ups.
First Published Dec 11 2013 08:36 am • Last Updated Dec 11 2013 03:53 pm

Forget about my two front teeth, all I want for Christmas is a video game not focused on blood and gore.

As a parent of a teenage boy, there are a few shoot ‘em up video games in my house. My ex-wife and I were able to keep him from these kind of games for years, but you can hold off for only so long.

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Much has been written about the influence of violent video games on the development of teenagers. I’ve written about it as well, noting that games like Minecraft help with educating the mind of a teen, rather than focusing on killing and maiming.

I can usually see when it’s getting to be too much with my son. He may become angry or dismissive if I try and talk with him. Sometimes that behavior can be seen early in the game, sometimes after he has been playing for a while. He’s not a violent kid and I get that it’s an outlet, but I usually end his playing time when he starts getting combative in real life.

There’s support from what I’m seeing. PBS examined the issue in February:

"We did a comprehensive review of every experimental study, reviewing 381 effects from studies involving 130,000 people, and results show that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiological arousal," says Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State University who is one of the best-known proponents of the idea that first-person shooters influence real-world violence.

And while that makes me feel a little better, there is something that inherently bothers me about the shoot ‘em up games. Maybe it’s because just hearing the violence seems to make me tense, raising my blood pressure a bit. And I’m usually in another room!

Back in the day (yes, back when I was a kid) my parents would often buy a board game or two as a gift the entire family could take part in. Despite growing up in a dysfunctional household (who didn’t?), it was a nice way for us all to take part in an activity around the holidays.

That got me to thinking about whether there were any educational video games out there that could help me shift the focus away from the shoot ‘em up games. As I was poking around doing my research, I stumbled across PastPresent — an interactive desktop game that allows children to take on the roles of characters that lived during historical events of the 1900s. I have three kids covering each of the three school levels – elementary, middle and high school – and they each love history. Being able to engage with events and make informed decisions would appeal to all of them, I think, and would help develop critical-thinking skills as well. And, it’s free and available on both Mac and Windows platforms.

PastPresent is one of several games designed by software developer Muzzy Lane, which has been developing innovative educational games since 2002. Many are aimed for classroom use and seem to zero in on teaching about history in an imaginative, immersive format. Other games include " Making History II: The War of the World," inspired by Muzzy Lane adviser Niall Ferguson’s best-selling book on 20th century conflict, and "Participatory Chinatown" – where players take on the roles of characters living and taking part in Boston’s current-day Chinatown.

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Other educational games to consider this holiday season:

SimCity | PC, Mac; $39.96

This game is similar to Minecraft but is even more focused on working collaboratively to create a livable, prosperous community.

Create | Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac; $11.99-$74.85

While the name certainly implies the ability for gamers to create ideal environments, there are also challenges and abstract thinking at work in this game as well – and something the entire family can enjoy!

Kinect Nat Geo TV | Xbox 360; $29.99

Any game that focuses on nature and the environments works for me. "It’s more than TV," as their ad says – and that’s true: parents and their children can learn firsthand how animals live and why they do what they do.

Jeopardy | Xbox 360; $29.99

If you’ve always wanted to be on "Jeopardy!" – here’s your chance! My kids are competitive, I’m competitive – enough said ….

So, are these educational games an alternative to the violent games? Maybe, maybe not. In the end, they may just be an opportunity for the entire family to take part in a form of recreation that brings family together and offers up a little education in the process. Consider the holidays a success if you can do that.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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