When is the right time to buy your child an “Mature” rated video game?

My son turned 12 on Wednesday and one of  the presents his father and I gave him was Halo 3. Halo 3 is rated M.

It took many agonizing months to come to that decision. We first started considering an M video game when Tiny Ninja became obsessed with Call of Duty:Black Ops. In case you are unaware, that little beauty of video game is rated M for blood, gore, intense violence and strong language.

And you know what? EVERYBODY HAS IT. It is, hands down, the most popular video game among the preteen/teen boy set. (Even the kindergartner  across the street plays it.) In fact Black Ops surpassed the $1 billion worldwide sales mark after just six weeks of availability. It has been on my son’s radar screen since it was released last November. Each month he obsessed about it more and more and more…

I researched that sucker until I was exhausted. I asked every parent of every child who had it and got varied opinions that ranged from “It’s not that bad” to “We had no idea when we bought it. It is REALLY violent.” I checked out gamer reviews and the ESRB site. I watched other kids actually play the game.

In the end, my husband and I JUST COULDN’T DO IT. We couldn’t bring ourselves to buy him Call of Duty. Part of me felt bad for the little guy. He was one of the only ones without it, completely left out of conversations and deemed uncool by the others. Sigh. Oh well. Small price to pay to keep your innocence.

At any rate, we found Halo 3 to be just as enjoyable for him but way less graphic. First off, the battle is against aliens and not humans. That was key for me. A game focused on people violently killing each other doesn’t sit well. This game still has all of the cool warfare-like guns (plasma bullets and lasers anyone?) that boys his age crave but no knife-slitting action. The language is better. (Not perfect, but better.) And we made him earn it through grades and behavior.

Still, I can’t help but wonder about all of the young boys out there playing the intense bloody warfare games. Surely kindergarten is too young to expose a child to that type of violence?

Will the exposure to simulated Black Ops type violence lead to a cultural desensitization? My gut says yes.

What do YOU think? When is too young for a mature video game? What is too much?