How To Introduce Your Toddler To Gaming

by Andrew Reiner on Oct 28, 2016 at 04:23 AM

This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue 181

Almost four years have gone by since the birth of my daughter, and she’s now capable of interacting with sophisticated video games. On the day she was born, a friend jokingly asked me what her first video game would be. My response was to start her with classics, like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

Flash forward four years, and she has already played and completed dozens of games – all of them on my iPhone. I didn’t want her introduction to my favorite entertainment medium to be through phone games I’ve never heard of, but her admiration of them came out of the necessity to keep her entertained at a family event. From that day forward, mobile gaming became a big part of her life.

Most parents who cut their teeth on consoles likely want their kids to follow in their footsteps, but I’m finding the easiest path to accelerating my daughter’s gaming development is through a phone. The touchscreen interface replicates many of the same functions as a controller. Compound this with the fact that this generation’s consoles have yet to see a game rated EC (for early childhood), and phones are one of the safest avenues for guiding a toddler into the game space.

Great Phone Games For Kids
Parents should tread carefully into the mobile waters and always thoroughly test any downloaded game before handing it to their child. I have downloaded, played, and deleted hundreds of games that were either heavily tilted toward in-game purchase opportunities or had gameplay interrupted by video advertisements. A high percentage of the apps I download are poorly constructed to the point they could impede a child’s development given their shoddy functionality.

Most kids games are designed to teach a child something, whether it’s the alphabet or memorization. The focus here, however, is introducing your child to legitimate video games. My searches, as unfruitful as they can be at times, have produced a number of great results.

The games I recommend the most come from two development studios – Sago Mini and Toca Boca. These games are designed to be fun interactive experiences. They are non-violent, free of death, and simple to the point that my daughter can understand what she needs to do within seconds of playing them. Both studios have a great understanding of their target audience and gaming -in -general.

Sago Mini’s Road Trip game taught my daughter how to make a car accelerate, and jump in a 2D environment. You may not think much of it at first, but I realized that the interactions in this game resemble a 2D platformer. My daughter has developed the ability to move a character (or car in this case) from left to right in 2D space.

Sago’s Space Explorer and Ocean Swimmer titles are just as simplistic in interactions, but offer up a different challenge: learning how to explore open 2D environments, much like The Legend of Zelda.

Toca Boca’s titles, like Toca Life: City and Toca Life: School, are geared more for experimentation, allowing kids to dress up characters and tinker with various things in the world. Through these games, my daughter began looking at all environments in games as potential hotbeds for interactivity.

Game Informer associate editor Kyle Hilliard adds that his daughter gained an appreciation for puzzle games by playing Disney’s Tsum Tsum on his phone. 

Again, the mobile space can be terrible for discovery, but some solid choices are out there for simple interactive fun that double as great educational tools for gaming.

Consoles Are Not Toddler Friendly
Seeing my girl “master” mobile games and have a hunger for more stuff like it led to a graduation to the console space. I feared she wouldn’t find consoles interesting, but her eyes lit up, and a smile crept across her face when she controlled a character on a 65-inch television for the first time. She was playing Unravel on Xbox One, and it changed her world. She is now more interested in console gaming than mobile, saying “it’s more fun” and “exciting” when asked why she likes it so much. I was amazed how quickly she picked it up. I’m guessing the skill and knowledge she learned on mobile helped immensely.

As much as she loves Unravel, she still doesn’t have the motor skills or hand size to play the game correctly. Any interactions requiring the shoulder button lead to bouts of frustration and the controller being handed to daddy or mommy. Unravel, while being largely non-violent, is unfortunately loaded with death. Yarny, the adorable protagonist, can drown or be crushed by rocks – things I don’t want my daughter to see repeatedly. We joke about these moments as best we can, but they are disturbing and she sometimes questions what happens to him.

That leads to the big question: What game can she play on console that is free of violence and death? The answer is sadly mostly nothing, unless I take her on a time-traveling adventure to prior console generations. As of this writing, the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U game libraries do not offer titles geared for toddlers. I’ve talked to numerous developers who would love to make games for the younger demographic, but say there’s no money in it.

Almost every game landing an E for Everyone rating is either a sports, dancing, or racing title. The games that don’t fall into these genres usually offer some form of mild violence, like jumping on an animal’s head to kill it. Take Snoopy’s Grand Adventure, for example. Throw out any thought of it being lighthearted or true to the source material; this is a platformer loaded with violence, and even a battle against a giant, baseball spewing Peppermint Patty head.

Years ago, I recommended parents the Lego and Skylanders titles, both rated E10+. I gave this advice before I had a kid of my own, and in retrospect wish I would have steered them in a different direction. Both of these experiences focus heavily on combat and beating the life out of other characters. Guns, swords, and bombs make them just as violent as any T- or M-rated game, only with a brighter sheen. I don’t want my daughter to see this side of the world yet, and it’s sad that this is what we consider the standard for -kids -today.

Create Your Own Games
I was close to shelving the idea of introducing my daughter to console gaming at this age until a friend tipped me off on a peculiar idea. He asked me, “Why don’t you make your own games for her?” This may sound like a joke, but as I found, anyone can do it.

It doesn’t require a degree in programming to make your own experiences. Several games offer deep creation tools that can be tapped to generate whatever you want. I’m using Super Mario Maker to build non-violent levels for my daughter. She doesn’t have to kill any goombas to succeed, and none of the pitfalls kill her character. That doesn’t mean they are free of challenge, however. The levels are filled with chasms that must be cleared, and snake-like mazes that she has to navigate carefully. She’s loving them more than anything else she has played, and is always pushing me to generate more of them. “Harder next time, daddy,” she says sometimes. That’s music to my ears.

The time to make these stages ranges between 20 minutes and a few hours, depending on how elaborate I want to make the visuals. The basic flow of the stages takes no time at all, and I’ve even found ways to introduce enemy characters in the mix, whether they are hidden behind walls or disappear before she can be harmed by them.

My daughter has no problem holding the Wii U gamepad, even with her little hands, and is getting better at the game each time she plays it. Could she have learned how to play Mario Maker without first using a phone to mimic the gameplay? Yes, but not at the young age she started playing games on mobile. The ergonomics of the phone allowed her to start before she turned two, and she’s been developing a wider skill set ever since then.

LittleBigPlanet 3 is the next game we are looking into. Her introduction into 3D space is currently happening in the Xbox One game Zoo Tycoon. She obviously doesn’t understand any of the zoo management, but is having a blast controlling the keeper, who can feed animals and run around the park. She bangs into walls and gets confused by the camera placement at times, but is enjoying it when she’s fully in control.

When she grows a little more and can access the controller’s triggers, we’re diving into Minecraft and Disney Infinity – two games rich in creation options. Minecraft is a popular kids game I often see recommended to parents, but again, I advocate avoiding the main game with youngsters, as the creepers, spiders, and other lot of enemies can be somewhat terrifying.

Like all aspects of my daughter’s life, I’ve enjoyed watching her develop and her fascination with video games has made me the happiest dad alive. The choices we have in front of us are slim, but we’re doing what we can to elevate her understanding of the medium.

Maybe game developers are right in saying there’s no money to be made in kids games, but for a father like me who has looked deeply into the choices that have been offered in each console generation, it looks more like an unexplored goldmine than a money pit. We just haven’t had a big hit to create a groundswell and truly explore what kids would enjoy. Until that happens, the younger generation will likely gravitate toward phones, as cautious parents steer clear of games that target the older demographic.