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World of Warcraft? Yeah, even folks who don't play video games at all have heard of this behemoth of MMO gaming. With 12 million subscribers worldwide, the WoW phenomenon has practically come to define an entire generation's worth of MMO gaming. While it's designed for teens and up, the game is so ubiquitous that you wouldn't have to dig far to find players of all ages, including many teens but also younger children as well.

With a new expansion, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, due for release on December 7th, plenty of kids (and grownups) will be angling for WoW in their holiday stockings. The question is: Is WoW a good fit for your kids? With good preparation and consistent parent moderation, it can be -- but if you don't play the game yourself or you take a more hands-off approach to gaming, you may want to wait until your little goblin- or worgen-to-be is well into the teen years. Join us after the break for an insider's look at WoW for younger children and teens.

World of Warcraft
Developer Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher Blizzard Entertainment
Launched November 23rd, 2004; the latest expansion, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, will launch December 7th, 2010

What systems does it run on? WoW is built to be as systems-friendly and forgiving as possible. The bare minimum system requirements for Windows systems are: Windows XP 32bit (SP3), Windows XP 64bit (SP2), Windows Vista 32bit (SP1), Windows Vista 64bit (SP1); Intel Pentium 4 1.3 GHz or AMD Athlon XP 1500; 1GB or more of RAM; NVIDIA® GeForce® FX or ATI Radeon™ 9500 video card or better; DirectX-compatible sound card or motherboard sound capability; 25 GB free hard drive space; a keyboard and mouse; active broadband internet connection. For Mac systems: Mac OS X 10.5.8, 10.6.4, or newer; Intel Core Duo processor; 2 GB RAM; 25 GB free hard drive space; a keyboard and mouse; active broadband internet connection.

The game will run much more smoothly and enjoyably on a system that meets WoW's recommended system requirements. Check out the full list of system parameters plus how to optimize a computer for WoW at our sister site, WoW Insider.

How much does it cost? As this post went to press, pricing for the game itself was changing in preparation for the launch of the Cataclysm expansion. The game is currently available from Blizzard at the following rates: original World of Warcraft, $5; The Burning Crusade, $5; Wrath of the Lich King, $10; and Cataclysm, $39.99. The game also requires a monthly subscription with plans ranging from $12.99 to $14.99 per month.

What's the game all about? World of Warcraft takes place in the fantasy world of Azeroth. Players create characters from races within one of two factions and choose one of a handful of traditional, fantasy classes. Although WoW is billed as a roleplaying game, for most players, the gameplay itself is all about questing, running dungeons with groups of five players, leveling up and raiding. While casual players may be more interested in the leveling experience itself (all the way to 85 in Cataclysm), the kernel of today's WoW experience is all about gearing up for and participating in endgame raiding with a group of 10 or 25 other players.

What does the game look and feel like? World of Warcraft's art direction has been called cartoonish by some, but there's no denying how successfully its rich color palette, imaginative world design and details such as over-the-top shoulder armor propel players into the fantasy world. Make no mistake, however -- despite an aversion to strict realism in art, this is not a world designed specifically for youngsters. While the social atmosphere of such an immense player population varies according to and among realms, time of day, guild membership, and individual groups of players, pop internet culture is the invariable social bottom line.

Who's the target audience? World of Warcraft is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for blood and gore, crude humor, mild language, suggestive themes, and use of alcohol and violence. In Australia, the game's earned an M rating from the Office of Film and Literature Classification, and Pan European Game Information gives it a 12+ (11+ in Finland). While younger children can (and often do) enjoy playing WoW, the meat of the game is definitely aimed at an older, more socially interactive group of players.

Who plays? It's safe to say that World of Warcraft is enjoyed by all ages of players, from very young children to senior citizens. Families will find WoW to be a wonderful venue for gaming at different levels of intensity for the whole family; it's a fantastic way to keep in touch for families who are spread out across the miles. That said, the majority of World of Warcraft players whom you'll encounter out in the gaming world at large are most likely to be young adults, with men skewing younger and women skewing older.

What playstyles does the game most suit? Over the years, World of Warcraft has evolved to be more and more receptive to players with a casual attitude who enjoy shorter, more productive play sessions. That said, the emphasis is still very much on endgame content -- and that means raiding or highly strategic encounters in organized groups of 10 or 25 players. Raiding is very much like joining a sports team or any other after-school group; it's a commitment that shouldn't be undertaken lightly, and we've written an entire article to help you decide if raiding is right for your teen.

For families, WoW offers a rich tapestry of questing, exploration and crafting, whether family members enjoy playing on their own or as a group. Young teens might enjoy the game the best by planning to play with real-life friends. Keep reading for tips on ways your younger children can play WoW at their own level of enjoyment.

How does the game address kids' internet safety? WoW features basic parental control tools including a profanity filter for chat, a parental control scheduling tool that allows you to determine the hours your young player can be logged in to the game, and controls that allow or prohibit sharing email addresses, Facebook connections and real names with other players. None of these tools is specifically designed to create a child-friendly atmosphere for young children; if the thought of pervasive, free social interaction with strangers raises your alarms, then WoW is not the game for your child.

What kid-friendly features keep young players moving through the content? Since WoW's content is aimed squarely at teens and adults, the game isn't in any way designed specifically with kid-friendly features. But that's not to say that a gaming-savvy parent can't set up a situation for even young children to enjoy playing.

We would not recommend buying WoW specifically for a younger child to play; however, if you already play the game and your own kids desperately want to join in the fun, there are plenty of ways to do that safely, productively and enjoyably. Check out our earlier article on kidproofing your favorite MMO for ideas on how to make WoW fit your child at any age.

What's the social atmosphere? World of Warcraft is big and bad, in every sense of the words. Unless you're a WoW-savvy player yourself and set up a restricted sandbox within the game for your younger children to play in (see the preceding response for more information about how to do that), your kids are going to be rubbing up against the citizens of the internet in all their glory. You can rein some of that in by making sure they're in the right type of guild and being proactive about establishing good netiquette and gaming manners right from the start.

What can players do outside the game? There's a whole world tied in with the World of Warcraft -- books, comics, a board game, a trading card game and enthusiastic communities devoted to fanfic, music and arts and crafts. By far, though, most players will spend their time in the game itself or reading and discussing it with others on Blizzard's forums or dozens of other independent, specialized websites, forums, blogs and guild websites.

Still looking for more details? Read our article on all the different ways you can evaluate kids' games.

This article was originally published on Massively.