xbox-360Bowing to the inevitable, a techno-challenged dad rolls up his sleeves and learns about “gaming,” and which video game console is right for his kids.

I’m pretty much techno-illiterate and slogging through the gaming aisles of Best Buy and other mega-stores, combing the specialty magazines and frequenting not just a few neighbors’ living rooms to get an idea of what kids look for in a video game device – it all sounded like torture.  But after all of that, I admit I came away very surprised and impressed with what I learned – and saw.

I started out more than reluctant to enter the evil kingdom that is video games.  I’ve read the stories of endless graphic violence, asocial tykes staring at nothing but a screen, and the endless cash flow to keep the kids in game!?  I’m still convinced there are many other things a child can do during the day than sit in front of a monitor the whole day (like I do in front of a PC) and zap aliens.  And those recent findings that claim video games improve certain visual attention skills sound more like clever PR than fact.

Handheld or console?

But let’s get on with the search!  The first decision to make is: “Do I go with a handheld (i.e. portable) unit, or proceed directly to the video game console aisle?”  Handheld units are small, can be carried anywhere, and surprisingly, not really cheaper than a (stationary) console.  Smaller sounded simpler, so what not start my search with handhelds?

Without a doubt, the most beautiful handheld unit is the Sony Playstation Portable, or “PSP.”  I’ve always been partial to Sony’s attention to slick industrial design, and when I saw the PSP I was certain, “this is it.”  As a portable multimedia machine, the PSP looks very sharp with a crisp screen that’s better than an iPod.  You can pick one up for about $200, or get a game and memory stick (to store games and photos) for only $50 more.

Next on the aisle was the Nintendo DS Lite, a smaller unit, but with two touch-screens to play on, and a library of clever games that include the best selection of game.  At $130 it was a steal, even if the graphics were not as cutting edge as the PSP.

I was undecided about which handheld to choose, but the idea that my boys (7 & 5) could take them everywhere gave me pause.  More than one parent, however, pointed out that for long automobile trips, that sort of mobility is an indescribable blessing.

The game console choices

Proceeding to the game console aisle (and also reading up beforehand), these units look like small desktop computers, or even tinier, and hook into your TV, allow simultaneous playing for up to 4 people (depending on the console), and offer a whole lot more functionality, such as the ability to play movies, music and surf the Internet for even more games.

My first stop was at the Sony Playstation 2, or “PS2.”  This model is something like an ‘industry standard,’ with literally tens of millions of these consoles in the market.  For only $130 you get a lot.  Graphics are excellent and the Internet capability let’s you dial-in to play games.  It also plays movies and has other entertainment functions, but I was told that the biggest advantage of the PS2 is the huge library of games.

While the PS2 really is impressive, the new PS3 that just hit the market is, judging by the media buzz, the hottest thing around right now.  Available (if you can find one) with either a 20GB ($499) or 60GB ($599) hard disk, the PS3 plays high-density Blu-Ray video discs and games right out of the box.  Obviously, this unit is more, much more than a game console, and is positioned to become a household entertainment center for games, movies, and music.  Much too intimidating for this shopper.

Next up is the Microsoft Xbox 360, also more than a high tech game console, with high-definition video, DVD movie playback, digital music, photos, and online connectivity, all in a sleek, small tower – all for $400.  A unique feature is not even in the console: the online “Xbox Live” service provides the ability to create an online ID, voice chat, and access to the Xbox Live Marketplace to buy expansions, maps, and other digital goodies for your games. The subscription service Xbox Live Gold adds online competition, game stats, and video chat/messaging.  I’ll admit that I didn’t get a chance to test this one, but I did talk to teenagers who thought the “Live” feature was cool.  Way too cool for a 7-year old, next!

This led me to Nintendo.  Nintendo’s GameCube is small (roughly square, 6-inches on a side), with a built-in handle to carry to a neighbor’s house.  This unit (about $100) has fundamentally different priorities from either Sony or Microsoft; the GameCube is made solely to play games, not run movies, songs or read e-mails.  The graphics are bright and fast, but the best thing is – similar it the portable DS Lite – a superb library of games that includes classics (not my word, I cribbed this term from a game magazine) such as: Mario, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby, and, of course, Pokémon.

Nintendo’s Wii, which plays GameCube games as well as its own software, means access to an incredible library of games, but what’s really interesting is Wii’s unique motion-sensitive controller that requires players to act out their character’s movements, wielding the game’s controller like a sword or swinging it like a tennis racket.  Apparently, you can actually work up a sweat with this console!  While it competes with both the PS3 and Xbox 360, both costing upwards of US$400, Wii lacks their brute processing power but sells for only $250.

The winner is…

You’ve probably already guessed my choice, but let me explain.  My parameters for the ideal game console include choice of appropriate kids’ games, multi-player capability (eliminating the handheld models), decent graphics, and price (eliminating all the newer consoles!).  The GameCube was the winner by a nose over Sony’s PS2.  Both would be just fine for my boys, but I felt more at home with the slightly less high-tech “Cube.”

If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to try to help you out!  Simply post your questions and comments on the travelingmom Community.