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Originally published Friday, April 20, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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There's loads of video games that all ages can enjoy together

Video games can be the source of family disagreements, but there are lot of options that can get everyone playing together.

Special to The Seattle Times

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To parents, many video games may seem violent, inane or both. Their children love them. Many games, though, have both sides approving, and even playing together.

One of today's hot games, with 20 million players, is "Words With Friends," similar to the board game Scrabble, but played free on Facebook, the iPhone, iPad or Android phone. Users can play in the same physical space, for example passing an iPhone around in the car, or they can play separately, sending messages to each other via chat bubbles. Games can stretch out over days and players are notified when it is their turn.

The Schechter clan plays "Words With Friends" together, even though they are spread out between Washington state and Michigan. "We have three generations playing multiple games against each other — grandparents, aunts, uncles, teenagers," said Julia Schechter, of Seattle. "It's a way to stay in touch when the family lives so far apart."

Zynga Software, which owns the game, is developing more in its "With Friends" suite. "Hanging With Friends" plays like hangman, where one player thinks of a word for the other to guess. Players can have multiple games going at once, and they're free.

In Zynga's "Scramble with Friends," which is similar to Boggle, players try to connect letters displayed in a 4-by-4 grid, in any direction to make as many words as possible. They can play against the clock, or challenge other friends via Facebook, and then compare word lists to see who won.

The company also recently acquired the popular new game "Draw Something," which is like Pictionary. Players take turns drawing a picture using different pen widths and colors for others to guess. Games can be played against friends or random strangers.

Other games parents also can appreciate teach scientific concepts. In the free computer game "Pandemic 2," players create a virus, parasite or bacteria including its symptoms, how virulent it is, and where it thrives while the human population develops vaccines and other ways to combat it.

Some games involve basic physics. In "Magic Pen," a free computer game from Miniclips.com, players push a red ball toward a flag by drawing objects such as ramps and other balls to push the ball toward its goal. Pins and hinges can connect objects, letting shapes swing back and forth, causing the chain reactions necessary to complete some of the higher levels.

For those who want to imagine and build their own creations, "Google Sketch Up" is a free downloadable 3-D modeling tool that lets users draw houses, cities, room interiors, scenery or other images.

Zoom and orbit functions allow "Google Sketch Up" users to view their creations from different angles. While it's not a game, creative teens and tweens can share their images on the Web.

Active families might enjoy dance games like "Dance Central 2" for the Xbox Kinect, where players copy dance moves to the soundtrack of popular hits, or "Kinect Sports," which include soccer, table tennis, boxing and other sports.

Judith Pierce plays golf, tennis and "Dance Central 2" on the Kinect with her daughter, a high-school junior. "She introduces me to her music and her dance moves," said Pierce. "So much of the parent to teen interaction can be around school and schedules, it's a gift to connect in a more playful way."

For road trips, games like the "Professor Layton" series played on a Nintendo DS can keep tweens engaged as they follow a story, solving puzzles along the way to reveal more about their characters.

Another set of games with longer playtime is the "Sid Meier's Civilization" series, available on a variety of platforms. Players build an empire using diplomacy, exploration, technical advancement and a bit of warfare, advancing through historical eras to the future.

For tweens and teens who want to create their own games, the "Roblox" game-creation website lets players design and upload games using Lego building pieces to create characters, scenery and other elements. Players can share their games online and play in a multiplayer environment.

Parents who want to learn more about a game can search the reviews on Common Sense Media's website at www.commonsense.org. The site has an array of resources for parents who want to learn about media, including games, apps, TV shows and movies for their family and help their kids manage media use.

Of course, some argue that even the games parents are least likely to approve of, such as warfare games, can help develop teamwork, problem-solving skills and perseverance. "As long as the game is age-appropriate," said Andrea Eldridge, a parent and CEO of the computer-repair service, Nerds on Call.

She also recommends that families play together. When parents experience the game's alternate reality and the friends and activities their children have there, she said, "They can forge new connections and find things in common to talk about."

Still, it can be easier on everyone when mom and dad approve of the games their children are playing.

"When parents find some redeeming value in a video game, " said Eldridge, "There is less friction over how much time the kids spend playing it."

Julie Weed is a free-lance writer in Seattle. For her other stories on Teens, Tweens and Technology, go to seattletimes.com/personaltechnology

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