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Among teen and preteen gamers, the names of violent video games travel fast. And before you know anything about these games, your kid wants to play them. It's difficult to stay on top of it -- and it's even harder to know exactly what's in a game in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to buy it.
Of course, many video games can provide enriching experiences and learning opportunities. But with ultra-violent video games, the negatives clearly outweigh any positives for kids. (Read Media and Violence: An Analysis of Current Research for an assessment of the studies measuring the effects of media violence on kids.) Complicating the issue is that many ultra-violent video games are actually technically superb -- which is why many games that we label "not for kids" receive five stars for quality on Common Sense Media.
But here's the thing: Violent video games may get a lot of attention, but there are always less-violent alternatives available. If your kid is asking for a game you've never heard of, consider your options.
No parent wants to say "no" all the time. So we've rounded up 10 of the most violent video games out there -- explaining the details that put each one on our list -- as well as more than 10 that you can say "yes" to. Our reviewers play literally thousands of hours of video games a year -– they know games inside and out.
But we're not trying to be sensationalistic, which is why we're offering less-violent alternatives. Our alternatives include three categories: less-violent games in the same genre as the violent game listed, less-violent games with a similar theme, and less-well-known but still great titles that play on the same system.
Without further ado, here's the list:
Saints Row: The Third: This story about rival gangs revels in actions both depraved and violent. In an attempt to push the M-rating envelope, the game encourages players to go out and do bad things to innocents. They can take chainsaws to enemies, resulting in tons of blood and chunky flesh. They can drive into people with vehicles and use weapons including pistols, shotguns, grenades, rockets, and swords to destroy both enemies and innocent civilians. Players can also kill police. Plus the game boasts sexual imagery, drugs, and profanity.
Alternative action/adventure games: Mirror's Edge, Batman: Arkham City, Skylanders Giants, Minecraft.
Dead Space 3: Not only do you kill thousands of alien creatures using an assortment of weapons, but they can also explode into red chunks, rip in half, catch on fire, and be dismembered and decapitated. The heroes, too, can die a dramatic death in slow motion, including being cut in half or decapitated. You'll also see execution-style murders and suicide. As with the two earlier installments in this series, Dead Space 3 is an extremely violent, bloody, gory, and scary action game.
Alternative sci-fi game: StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Hitman: Absolution: Players become a cold-blooded assassin in this extremely violent game that features tons of blood and lots of gore. As a hit man, you use a number of different guns, knives, and explosives (and your bare hands) to snuff out targets. Occasional slow-motion attacks dramatize the action. You can acquire a sniper rifle and take out targets with "head shots" or by activating a mode that lets you tag targets with time standing still -- and then you see each character bite the bullet once you resume the action. The online "Contracts" mode encourages gamers to create and share their own custom assassination challenges. This M-rated game also has drug use, profanity, and partial nudity.
Alternative action/adventure game: Infamous 2
God of War: Ascension: This game is a nearly nonstop series of intensely graphic, highly visceral combat scenes involving a wide range of fantastical beasts. Few games feature blood-soaked battles with more severed body parts or spilled innards. It's gory enough to make even media desensitized grown-up gamers occasionally whistle in disbelief. Players use sharp-edged melee weapons -- chain blades, swords, and spears -- as well as blunt weapons like mauls and hammers to not just kill, but also eviscerate their enemies. The game also carries some mature sexual themes and the game's protagonist is so vengeance obsessed that he kills just about every creature he comes in contact with.
Alternative PS3 games: Portal 2, Injustice: Gods Among Us
Gears of War 3: Using weapons including machine guns, grenades, and chainsaws, you'll shoot, slice, and stomp on alien creatures that explode. The game shows fallen humans displayed with plenty of blood. Players earn "Rewards" for creative killings, and they can perform a finishing move on an alien that results in a gory display (including crushing skulls, dismemberment, or decapitation). All of this violence is coupled with loads of profanity.
Alternative sci-fi action games for Xbox 360: Star Trek, Lost Planet 2, LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga
Dead Island Riptide: This very violent and gory zombie shooter has players destroying, dismembering, and beheading tons of zombies using a wide assortment of weapons -- both range and of the melee variety -- and they can also stomp on the undead's head (with a dense splash sound). Images of dead body parts and hanging bodies can be seen in this game, which is designed to scare. The game is also laden with very strong profanity and sexual references, and players can drink to get drunk.
Alternative zombie games: Plants vs. Zombies, Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys, Plants vs. Zombies Adventures
Shadows of the Damned: In this visceral, bloody game filled with sex jokes and intense profanity, players assume the identity of a demon hunter who blows apart countless demons while having to watch his girlfriend die over and over again in disturbing and ghastly ways as she's tortured in hell. Players use a variety of upgradeable fantasy weapons -- including a handgun that shoots bones and an automatic rifle that fires teeth -- to dispatch hordes of nonhuman demons. Blood and gore are a part of every kill. Crimson coats the environments, and limbs explode in a shower of guts. Demons often engage in self-mutilation, with one pulling out and eating its own beating heart. Players can restore their health by chugging hard liquor.
Alternative action/adventure games: BattleBlock Theater
Darkness II: In this extremely violent game, players take on the role of a heartless mafia boss who kills hundreds of people and beasts throughout the game. The game fuses traditional weaponry -- such as rifles, pistols, and swords -- with the unique supernatural ability to kill enemies using "Demon Arms" that can tear someone apart. Players can rip out hearts, remove spines, and decapitate people and creatures. Blood and gore are seen often, sometimes with dramatic finishing moves, and enemies scream in pain. The game also shows sexual acts performed (though there's no nudity) and has drug references, and players can hear very strong profanity.
Alternative first-person action game: Portal 2 or first-person puzzle game: Quantum Conundrum
NeverDead: Intentionally over the top, NeverDead's 500-year-old demon hunter can break apart and survive. Players will see him ripped apart limb by limb and then watch his body parts roll or hop around to reattach again. Gamers can even roll his disembodied head into hard-to-reach places. Bizarre and extremely violent, gory, and bloody, this game isn't for young eyes -- or for anyone with a weak stomach. You shoot or slash enemies into red pulp using a variety of guns and swords. Cut scenes show some of the extreme violence in slow motion, including impalement and beheading. Demons scream out in pain when defeated. Plus, there are close-up camera shots of female body parts and some profanity.
Alternative demon hunter game with less violence: Dungeon Siege III
Call of Duty Black Ops II: This gritty, extremely violent military first-person shooter (pictured above) involves constant killing using realistic weapons, with blood and gore pouring across the screen during more intense scenes. Cinematic sequences can be even more dramatic and graphic, with soldiers and civilians alike dying in horrible ways, including graphic melee kills, people burning to death, civilians killed in crossfire, torture, and a shipping container filled with rotting corpses. In one scene, the player steps into the shoes of a villain and goes on a murderous rampage against soldiers, the screen turning red with blood rage as he takes damage. This M-rated game also has frequent profanity, some sexual themes, and drug use.
Alternative PS3 game: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch or less-violent co-op combat game: Guardians of Middle-earth
Compiled by Common Sense Media's expert game reviewers, who play thousands of video games a year and contribute reviews to USA Today, National Post, AARP, and Yahoo!, as well as Common Sense Media.