Child-focused games tend to be bouncy boilerplate trifles meant to appeal to kids’ imaginations - and there’s certainly fun to be had clicking and poking around a kid-friendly environment - but too many kids games rely on flash-card pedagogy that quickly wears thin.
It turns out that young kids (I’m mainly focusing on preschool and young elementary age) desire the same rich experiences that adults seek in video games: content discoverable through play, activities that feel rewarding, mechanics that offer fun things to do, and a sense of richness that suggests the game is always waiting for the player to return and continue her journey.
Another thing we know about kids: whatever “age appropriate” game, toy, or book you give them, they will always seek access to the age-level above them. This doesn’t mean one should allow a 5-year-old to watch a PG–13 movie, but you can be sure he will want to, and some PG–13 movies may be perfectly suited to certain 5-year-olds. The point is, kids are hard-wired to grow up. They aspire to do things they’re not ready to do. This is a good thing, and it’s possible to feed this natural aspiration with activities that may seem out of reach, but excel at offering a child meaningful play.
My daughter Zoe is four and a half years old. We heeded the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and prevented her exposure to television (and all screens) for her first two years. After that, I began letting her play with a Wii controller, rolling a bowling ball in Wii Sports and gathering stars in Super Mario Galaxy. She also played a few preschool-oriented games on my DS and iPhone. Her interest in these games lasted about nine months.
Soon Zoe began asking to watch me play games like Epic Mickey, Costume Quest, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Obviously, I played other games after bedtime, but these were quality titles I was happy for her to see me play, and I liked the fact that they were all reasonably safe content-wise. Then one day she saw me playing Portal 2, and her days of watching were over. She wanted that controller in her hands, and she wanted to blast portals pronto.
Kids quickly learn that parents save the best stuff for themselves. Zoe is happy to while away twenty minutes with a Dora game, but she knows whatever I’m playing is likely to be a hundred times more interesting, and she wants a piece of that action. Some games are clearly off-limits no matter what, but other games one might deem inappropriate for kids may not be, if handled properly.
Case in point: The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. For the last month, Zoe and I have been adventuring our way through the ancient home of the Nords after dinner most nights. In fact, as she will happily tell you, we own a house in Whiterun where she has her own room, her own bookshelf full of books she has collected, and her own horse. She delights in her role as “dragon sentry,” and she prides herself on the fact that she always notices the appearance of a dragon before I do.
Skyrim is an incredibly fertile playground for a child if an adult is prepared to do a little advance work. If you’d like to give it a try, here are a few tips to make the most of your experience:
Use Skyrim’s ‘save anywhere, anytime’ system to screen for content. Play a side-quest, visit a town, speak to NPCs and see what lies ahead for a play session. If all looks good, re-load and invite your child to join you. Bethesda’s “radiant story” system can throw you a few curves, but playing ahead of your child will usually prevent any nasty surprises. Warning: When a grouchy librarian asks you to locate some stolen books, don’t assume it’s a kid-friendly quest. You may find yourself in Fellglow Keep knee-deep in vampires, gory dead bodies, and puddles of blood.
Determine together an ethical code of conduct to guide your actions. Zoe and I never attack defenseless animals or non-threatening NPCs. We always try to help people who ask for it. Occasionally this backfires when a character is duplicitous, but there are lessons there too. Early on, Zoe wondered what would happen if we attacked a city guard. We spent the rest of our play session in jail, exhausting our supply of lockpicks trying to escape. That was our last attack on a friendly NPC.
PC or console, give your kid a gamepad. YMMV here (and I don’t mean to feed the PC vs console war), but Zoe grew frustrated trying to manage a mouse-WASD control scheme. A gamepad better suits her small hands and she loves using the triggers to “do magic.”
Set your child loose, and let her explore. Skyrim is full of wonderful things to do. Catch butterflies. Pick flowers. Follow a deer. Count the stars. Climb a mountain. Be a photographer. Zoe and I have spent many evenings scouting Giants and Mammoths for screenshots, or watching the sun rise and set, or enticing Frost Trolls to chase us through the snow.
Learn cartography. Thanks to Skyrim, Zoe knows North from South and East from West. She’s learning how to read a map, choose a destination, and chart a course. Fast travel is out of the question. Zoe insists we walk or ride our horse everywhere. I appreciate the purity of her system, but I’m hoping she changes her mind about this soon.
Be a mage. I prefer Zoe casting spells to wielding swords and axes. It feels less ‘realistic’ to me and more suitable for a child. Zoe likes hurling fireballs and lightning bolts at nothing in particular, but she especially enjoys conjuring zombies and casting Magelight, which she calls her “magic flashlight.” We don’t steer clear of all combat (animals and the occasional bandit inevitably attack), but eliminating them with magic feels less brutal than close combat with blades. I probably have a blind spot here, but I it works for me.
Let your child discover there can be more than one way to solve a problem. I spared Zoe the Fellglow Keep gore, but let her face The Caller boss at the end of the quest for a reason. We were given the choice of fighting her or negotiating with her, but we found a third option we liked better. We cast an Invisibility spell, grabbed the stolen books, picked her pocket for the exit key, and escaped the dungeon. “We were smarter than her, Daddy!” You bet we were.
Craft one thing. I explained to Zoe that she could make things from items we collect. Instead of thinking in terms of Smithing, Enchanting, etc., I asked her what she most liked to collect. She chose Flowers, so now we’re learning recipies for potions, which we make in our Alchemy lab in Whiterun and sell to the Wizard Farengar in Dragonsreach. Zoe may not yet fully grasp the U.S. currency system, but she knows exactly how many Septims we possess in Skyrim.
If you’ve finished Skyrim, you’ve already done the prep work for playing the game with a child. You’ll know which parts of the game are suitable and which aren’t. Just remember that a small child thinks less about leveling up or RPG mechanics, and more about having fun, moment to moment, in an imaginary world. Skyrim offers many such possibilities, as do other well-designed games. If you discover playful options I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to know about them. Zoe and I are always looking for more adventures.