Why Are Video Games For Children So Terrible?

My two-year-old son is all about tapping things. My kid tap-tap-taps at everything. He taps at my Nexus 7. He taps at my iPhone. He taps at my Android. He taps my wife’s laptop screen. He openly wonders why the photograph she’s editing doesn’t transform into a video in response. My son wanders up to the television and slaps the screen. He gets so confused when nothing happens.

My son does what all two-year-olds seem to be doing these days: he expects technology to bend to his will. When it doesn’t respond to his touch, he gets confused.

Aren’t my fingers magical? Does technology not dance at the request of my sticky, nutella coated digits?

The ease with which my toddler has allowed technology into his little world is spectacular to me. This is not a situation unique to my son, I am aware of that.

All my nieces and nephews, children of friends, weird stinky kids I have no relation to — all are going through the precise same experience. Children, above all, learn by example. So when they see their parents tap-tap-tapping at our phones and tablets they try and do the same thing. The only difference is this: their bourgeoning little brains have to potential to adapt rapidly. Ours don’t.

I wonder: why aren’t we taking more advantage of that?

Last week I flew from Sydney to Melbourne with my family for a wedding. I was in charge of entertainment. As soon as we strapped in I handed my son a tablet. That’ll work, I thought. I quickly set up his favourite movie (How To Train Your Dragon) but he got bored quickly. He began tapping the screen. He magically found his way from the movie to a collection of children’s games my wife had downloaded.

These games. They are terrible. They are objectively terrible.

They are really terrible. They are cheaply produced. They are churned out. They are loaded with micro-transaction, free-to-play bullshit. They have little-to-no educational value. On a fundamental level they are dreadful in just about every possible way, dependent as they are upon a child’s ability to find magic in even the most banal interactive experiences.

It got me wondering: why are we not making better video games for our children?

Why are we not providing their malleable little brains with something that takes advantage of their curiosity, of their unique ability to master technology so rapidly? Surely there is a market. Of course there is a market. Every single parent is on the hunt for that oasis in the desert: those elusive five minutes of peace. Every parent I know has an iPhone loaded with utterly garbage games for children. Wouldn’t it be nice if, you know? Those games actually had any sort of value whatsoever?

As a species we’ve generally been good at applying new types of technology to help teach our children. Television is the perfect example: Sesame Street was designed and executed using fairly cutting edge educational techniques at the time and that show raised an entire generation of kids. Kids TV is generally great. Yesterday I learned that Otters were a keystone species and protected certain types of algae from sea urchins from the bloody Octonauts. So did my son.

Or maybe it went in one ear and out the other. Maybe it would have been easier for a video game to teach him that? But a video game didn’t teach him that because — speaking frankly — video games aren’t teaching my son jack shit.

Why is that? Is it something to do with the way we consume media? Or, crucially, is it a problem with how the eco-system of smartphones and tablets operate? Is it an issue with quality control?

I suspect all of these factors come into play, but the manner in which both Android and iPhone marketplaces operate is not helping. Both are flooded with garbage on the daily and it’s difficult to separate the valuable from the utterly banal.

Parents, including myself, also have to take more responsibility. We have to be discerning consumers. We have to be demanding better video games for our children and that’s partly what this article is about. The temptation here is to assume that children will play any old shit. Anything for a good goddamn minute of peace and quiet, will-you-bloody-well-just-sit-still-and-tap-tap-tap-that-screen-while-Daddy-has-a-rest?

I know that feeling. I’ve been there. Many times. But maybe we should be thinking twice?

Maybe we should be more proactive about finding quality games for our children? Are they out there? I’m certain they are. Surely. But they sure as hell aren’t doing a good enough job of promoting themselves.

I’d like to see something definitive. I’d like to see a publisher with resources go all-in on this. I’d like to see someone attempt to make the Sesame Street of video games: well-researched, well designed, engaging, helpful. I’d like to support that.

Parents are different now. The men and women raising children in 2015 were brought up with games, we’ve played games all our lives. We don’t need to be taught the benefits of gaming, we’ve lived through those benefits. We know what a good game looks like. We know the value of good games.

We want to share those good games with our children. Where are they?


Comments

    Try the LeapPad: http://www.leapfrog.com/ (caveat - the software is fucking expensive due to smallish install base)

    I got a LeapPad 3 for my daughter, who was 4 at the time. She absolutely loves it. It combines touchscreen with stylus, microphone etc. You can get a gel case for it which makes it nigh unbreakable. The software is pretty engaging and is rated according to appropriate age brackets. All-in-all, a great little (expensive!) system.

    Last edited 02/04/15 12:09 pm

      You can also try the InnoTab - similar product to the LeapPad, but software tends to be cheaper.

    The Pokemon-Amie part of XY is the best I can come up with as far as tappa tappa tappa being a productive input choice.

    I think the problem is the feeling that games for kids have to be outcome-based instead of fun.

      Exactly. For younger kids, the process *is* the outcome. They feel the immediacy of achievement simply by action and result. Record their voice and hear it played back; use a stylus to draw; press the touchscreen and make the character do something.

        I agree, why must games objectively teach something? I never played anything "educational" when I was the same age as my daughters.

        The subconscious lessons games teach are hand/eye coordination, teamwork and problem solving. My daughters fight all the time, about the only time they don't is when they're working together to overcome a stage in Lego Movie. I leave them to figure out the stages on their own and they feel pretty darn good about themselves when they do. Only time I've had to step in was glitch-related.

        They're also good reading practice for my 7 year old as she reads to my 5 year old.

    Making good games costs money, which drives up the price of the games in order to be profitable. No one wants to spend more than a couple bucks on an iPad game to amuse their kid, because we know that iPad games for kids are all shit. Ergo, no one puts effort into making decent iPad games for kids.

      I find it hilarious that a parent will let a kid play with an iPad worth hundreds of dollars, yet balk at paying $30-$50 for a decent game. I think you're right in that the situation is a little self-reinforcing, which is why I find that Leapfrog is providing a good service for those parents who are willing to pay proper prices for proper games. Of course, some software is just a cash grab (just like with software for grown-ups) so you do need to read reviews etc before buying.

        It's really an extension of people's approach to mobile device apps in general. You have a $900 phone or $500 iPad but feel like, possibly because of the barrier to entry, feel like the apps should be free or so cheap that they might as well be free. Who's going to pay $10 or $20 for an iPad game? Not many people - though there are certainly $10+ PC games on Steam or other consoles that have been ported to the iPad in their entirety, such as FTL, Civilization: Revolution, and X-Com: Enemy Unknown.

        One thing that really pisses me off is some Halfbrick games I did pay for that subsequently went free to play and came loaded with advertisements and microtransactions. Despite the fact I paid for my copy of Jetpack Joyride (a whopping $1.99!!!!1) I still get a popup ad after every run, discouraging me from playing at all. But that's what people see as mobile games: your jetpack joyrides, impossible game, flappy bird, angry bird, doodle jump. Short diversions, distractions of a few minutes even though you'll come back to them a hundred times. Usually a team of one to five people, probably college students mucking about in their free time, certainly not serious educated developers expecting to make a living off this... right?

          For me it's not the price of entry that dissuades me from buying full prices games (and I've done it before), but rather what I use the device for.

          When I'm at home, I can sit down for hours on end at my PC, put on my surround sound headphones, block out light and distractions and just become immersed in something. PC games are something that I set aside to spend several hours on. Console games are something I can set aside 1-3 hours for, to slowly consume a story piece by piece while I'm in bed next to my wife. It's not as fully immersive for me as the PC, but it's a nice little thing to do at night.

          That kind of takes up most of the time I have at home. And I don't even have kids. So where does mobile/tablet gaming fit in to me? It fits in in the gaps. It fits in on my commute to work, or when I'm a bit bored during lunch. Because my time is already monopolised by more immersive experiences, the space left for mobile/tablet games are when I can't access those immersive experiences. And those games have to be played in spurts of 5 minutes or so.

          The games have to fit between changing platforms, checking that I'm not missing my stop, checking the time for lunch and so on. The time in which mobile games fit is the time in which it's even harder to get immersed. So in the end, none of the games I play on tablet/mobile are immersive at all.

          So when it comes down to it, why would I pay $40-50 for a game that's just not half as immersive and fun (for me) as spending $60-$70 on console and PC? Why would I pay so much for a game that realistically I'm going to be playing in 5-10 minute spurts? I wouldn't. $10-$20 is about the most I've paid for a game (Chaos Rings and Final Fantasy Games).

    Sounds very similar to the problem with "games for girls" - and I mean both conceptually and in execution.

    Picking the right apps and technology to put in front of your child is the parents best course of action. Also pay some dollars for quality made apps, protip the free stuff is junk.

    Do you homework, I found by asking around at kindy and prep schools a few app jems such as interactive books that teach the days progress e.g. wake up, breakfast, off to school (Wake up Mo!). There are ones like Mathlandia if you want to throw academia at your little ones. Tooth brushing apps are pretty good and fun for a couple of weeks to get them into brushing their own teeth correctly. Musical apps that teach the basics of rhythm or melody. You get the idea, I would suggest targeting a specific result or lesson outcome and do your homework for an app that suits your child's age group from there. Once you've done that a dozen times your child is well balanced and has an array of fun educational apps too.

    For me I far prefer to give my kids interactive apps or games than say movies for entertainment, they get bored less and learn all at the same time. I'll even use that and outdoor play to gain time with something like Minecraft or similar.

    Also don't neglect paper lesson books for your child's age group, they're are great ones available for all ages and kids really enjoy sitting down with Mum or Dad and going through them.

    Last edited 02/04/15 12:35 pm

    I think it's just indicative of problems in the mobile game industry as a whole. My youngest two kids are growing up playing iOS games and it's been quite a learning process for them - mainly about economics and manipulation!

    There are gems on iOS but it requires a savvy parent to find them. Minecraft and Monument Valley immediately spring to mind. For younger kids anything by Toca Boca is pretty sweet. Avoiding anything free is a good rule but there are exceptions. (like Crossy Road)

    Dr. Panda's Restaurant 2 is a pretty cool guy.

    Having done some dev work for children's games it is hard.

    You have to aim for a age group, guess their capabilities and try to make it interesting enough for them to keep on playing while being useful to learn from.

    Key strategies for learning are not the same for enjoyment, people and kids dont like loosing but need a challenge. Learning requires repetition as well as multiple different ways to teach the same concept, also at a young age you need to teach the various learning strategies that you might not even realize you have as an adult.

    So you have a game that needs to repeat the same content, in multiple different ways while trying to be challenging but rewarding at the same time + you need to figure out what your taget age group can actually do + you need to provide instructions to children who often cant read + It needs to be fun.

    So doing it right is hard, very hard.

    Because often people don't make money on them and they're hard as hell to promote.

    Now a government run group making them could work but then you get accused of government waste.

    So its either private funding which demands returns - or public funding that can be slashed.

    I think there are two factors that play a large part in this. One is that kids are thought of as gullible and exploitable. Companies know that Mum and Dad will buy things or pay for microtransactions if their kids scream loud enough so all they have to do is make a game that seems cool and exciting then load it up with microtransactions.

    The second I think has to do with how society is treating kids these days. Kids are basically being seen as simple-minded creatures that can't handle any kind of adversity. You can't have winning sides in competitive sports any more, you can't discipline your children in public, you can only put certain things in their lunchbox. Kids must be sheltered from all the evils of the world because parents aren't enough, the divine hand of Authority must guide and raise your children for you, which includes only giving them banal and pointless games lest they learn something or see something that "Someone" deems inappropriate for your own children.

    @markserrels Yo, I've got your back. My son is the same, and I've felt the same - why are these games so bad? So I've looked for ones that are better - ones that actually try to teach rather than try to earn.

    A good set: http://www.originatorkids.com/ They're a little freemium, but the pricing is fair, and my 3 year old can spell, write, count to 100 forwards, backwards, incrementally - you name it.

    There's other good ones out there but I'm at work and can't remember them...

    This topic was made for me. My wife and I have begun to develop our own app based on the kinds of things our 1.5 year old son likes to do on the tablet, mainly because just about everything we've found either gets boring after a minute or two, or is just too complex and dull. He likes to bash away at the tablet but even I can tell he's bored of the games we have. I'm also sick of DLC and ads interrupting everything and my son accidentally clicking on them.

    She's got a background in graphic design and I have a background in game design so hopefully we can pull something together that'll be more exciting than half the junk we've seen!

      This would make for a great postmortem on Gamasutra when you're finished!

      Hi kritter5x. Love the Chibi Maker you and your wife have made. Been trying to reach you through deviantart. I'd really like to discuss the possibility of commissioning the Chibi Maker for my new startup - we're making a children's website and their user IDs will be connected to a cool avatar builder. It would be great if we can connect. Cheers, Aditya

    Would an idea be to have a catalogue/group/website/database of more beneficial or well received apps for the younger ones? Im not talking apple "for kids" category (or whatever platform equivalent there is) when being searched, but something moderated to ensure only legit brain fodder makes it into the list?
    You will never be able to halt the flow of garbage that makes it onto these store - theyre there to make money, not educate. Why not at least provide parents with readily accessible information on what apps they can look for - and what good it can do for their offspring?

    I worked on a kids app about a year ago called Junior Storytellers! It's a fun little app that teaches kids how to tell stories, and let's them tell their own story. They can place all of the characters / objects / props onto the screen that they want, and animate them while telling the story, which all gets recorded.

    It's quite fun, while being kinda educational at the same time. :)

    Why are there no good games for children?

    I'm a game developer and I'll happily tell you why, Mark.

    You know how games are really, really expensive to design, create, and maintain? This applies to all games, no matter if they're for kids or for adults.

    Furthermore, you've said it yourself - your kid gets bored easily. If you want to make a really good game for kids, you need to engage specialists - educators, child psychologists and the like, which increases the cost. And you have to keep rolling out updates, because again, kids get bored easily.

    Now, most parents are cheapskates because kids are expensive little eating and shitting machines. Clothes last a few months if you're lucky. Childcare and school is expensive, etc etc. Totally understandable!

    And thanks to Apple and Google's terrible decisions about pricing of music on their monopolising platforms, which led to the same thinking about apps/games, people now expect games to be cheap as hell.

    This means there is absolutely no incentive for anyone to make good games for children.

    There are 1000s of great games on the AppStore for kids. The problem is they cost money. Try paying for a game instead of "micro-transaction, free-to-play bullshit" and your view might change. You mention Sesame Street as an example of good television, they have at least 20 apps. You only get to watch Sesame Street on television for free because the government foots the bill, do you think the taxpayer should be buying apps for your kid too?

    There are a few good apps for kids around. Most of the ones for younger kids are called digital toys instead.

    Try www.mossterstudio.com for some music ones for younger kids. They're australian developers and one of their apps is used moving the phone around and blowing into the mic rather than just tapping. Cowly Owl is another nice indie developer for kids. Www.tocaboca.com is a very stablished brand that has some nice ones too.

    That said, my 3yo kid loves mazes and started solving Monument Valley on his own a few months ago. Some adult games are pretty good for kids too.

    Last edited 02/04/15 9:37 pm

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