Get ready for a LOT of downloading

The days of game consoles being ready for action as soon as they’re plugged in are long gone, I’m afraid. Whether you’ve gone for an Xbox, PlayStation or Switch, your machine will need time to download the latest firmware updates before you can play anything. Depending on your broadband connection this can take anything from one to eight hours, so if you’re a parent, you may want to think about how you’re going to keep everyone entertained until that’s done. If it’s not already beautifully wrapped, it may even be worth sneakily unpacking the console and doing this prep-work before Christmas morning. If you have a spare ethernet cable (or can nick one from your PC for a day), consider setting up your console with a wired connection to your router rather than over wifi – this usually gives you a faster, more reliable connection.

Also, not only will the console need updating but it’s likely any games you’ve bought will need to download content too. Pick the game everyone wants to play and do that one first. A few games will allow you to play single-player offline content before the download is finished. You will be thanking the developers of these games in your prayers.

Finally, you may need to tweak the settings on your TV to get the best out of the console’s visuals. With a new Xbox or PlayStation, make sure high dynamic range lighting (HDR) support is switched on, and that your display resolution is set to at least 1080p. If you have a 4K display, your Xbox Series S/X or PS5 will support that.

Be involved from the start

If you’re a parent who doesn’t play games, you may be tempted to just leave the kids to it, but if you can stick around and help them set up the console, please do. If your children are under 13, you should set yourself up as the key account holder and add them as minors. You can also set up parental controls which restrict their access to mature content. The brilliant website Ask About Games has a helpful guide to setting up these controls on each console. It’s worth remembering, too, that games have official age ratings, just like movies. An 18-rated game may contain graphic depictions of sex, violence and/or drug use so it’s worth visiting the Video Standards Council website for information on what these ratings mean.

Another reason to get involved is that the console-owner will need to enter credit or debit card details to buy games online or pay for subscription services. And on that subject …

Consider a subscription

All current games consoles need a subscription if your family wants to play online with other people. PlayStation and Xbox additionally offer premium services – PlayStation Plus and Xbox GamePass – which provide access to hundreds of classic and new games for a cost of about £45 a year. Nintendo Switch’s subscription is cheaper at £18 a year and it provides access to a range of retro games. Opt for the more expensive expansion pack and you also get to download several acclaimed Switch titles, too.

Fortnite is one of the games you can download for free.
Free play … online battle royale game Fortnite is one of the titles you can download for free. Photograph: Epic Games

Search for free games on the online stores

All three consoles have online stores where you can buy and download games directly on to your system, and some of these games are free. For example, you can download multiplayer online titles such as Fortnite, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone for nothing and you don’t need an online subscription to play them. The Switch has a bunch of its own free games which don’t rely quite so heavily on shooting stuff.

Each of the online game stores also have regular sales, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them over the coming weeks. If you don’t find it too intrusive, you could sign up for email notifications on discounts and offers.

Buy a cheap second controller

Unless you’ve managed to get a bundle deal, new consoles come with one controller only, which may cause problems over the Christmas holiday. It’s definitely worth getting a cheaper second joypad. The widely available PowerA and Nacon models are absolutely fine for occasional two-player games, but my favourites are the Xbox and Switch controllers from 8BitDo – excellent, durable joypads at a decent price.

2Up … it’s worth getting a second controller for collaborative and competitive play.
2Up … it’s worth getting a second controller for collaborative and competitive play. Photograph: Chris Ryan/Getty Images

Play together

Much multiplayer gaming happens online nowadays, but at least for Christmas, it’s really lovely to discover and play new games together as a family. Think about keeping the console in the living room for a week before it emigrates into someone’s bedroom. That way, everyone understands the console and knows what’s being played.

But as well as the chance to monitor your kids’ gaming, it’s also fun to play together. I compiled a list of excellent family games for the Guide newsletter – most of them are available on games consoles and some are cooperative, so you get to work together. The old stereotype about games consoles being for isolated teenagers locked in their bedrooms is really outdated and dismissive of a lot of what’s happening in game design. So let all those preconceptions go and just play for a while.

This article was amended on 22 December 2022 to modify some information about subscription services.


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