Kids & Games: The State That We Are In

This place – this industry – is a hot, unfocused mess right now.  It’s a giant, festering pile of executives throwing money at a wall to see what sticks. Before I offend myself or anyone else, there are exceptions, but by and large they’re pumping these titles out so fast that consumers are forced to pay for half-baked ideas and games that are nigh unplayable at times.

The biggest problem isn’t that we have to suffer – it’s that the future of gaming is suffering.

Kids are suffering.

Having suffered through our share of broken NES and SNES games, our generation is not immune. But right now there are four-year-olds and six-year-olds playing games with frustrating design and infuriating, rudimentary problems, completely turning them off from the experience. There are young girls just starting to discover their interests, playing games that will shape how they think of entertainment for decades, and very few companies are respecting that.

I should know – I am the proud parent of these two aforementioned youngsters.

As a parent investigating their children’s options for gaming, it’s not games themselves that should be your concern. The games for these systems are all the same, and exist in the same way educational software has for decades now. Some will be dressed up with your child’s favorite characters, but they’re all a variation on a theme – complete a word with a letter, find the pattern, etc.

Instead, the big question is what system you’ll purchase. For parents who game, this is not a decision to take lightly, as it will likely be their child’s introduction to interactive entertainment; a poor choice here could either solidify a lifelong passion or drive them away entirely.

The heavy hitters (again, in terms of systems only) are the LeapFrog Leapster Explorer, LeapFrog LeapPad, VTech MobiGo, and the Fisher Price iXL.

With games, apps, and a built-in camera, and a central, iTunes-style program to manage the devices, LeapFrog’s LeapPads (retail $79.99) ape the functionality of popular Apple devices. Unfortunately, the execution of that idea is somewhat lacking. There’s an app store, and there are plenty of games and apps available, but the interface is slow, and so are the games. LeapPads are also battery operations, and during peak usage the four batteries will need changed every other day.

If a tablet does not interest you, VTech’s MobiGo (retail $49.99) is a nicely-designed handheld unit, as is the LeapFrog Leapster Explorer (retail $44.99). Both have a Nintendo DS-style touch screen, but the MobiGo also features a keyboard.  Unfortunately, most developers don’t seem to know which way to go with these control schemes, and in most cases, the keyboard on the MobiGo is completely forgotten about (even though it’s far more functional than the touch screen). The games are also infuriatingly slow on both of these systems, the plodding nature of which can be forgiven by seasoned players, but not as much by impatient toddlers.

The Fisher Price iXL (retail $82.99) is another option, but I’ll save you the effort and tell you that it is simply not worth your time. It isn’t supported (by the company or by developers), the games that are available are nowhere near the caliber that they are on competing systems, and the resistive-touch screens are poorly-implemented and troublesome.

Now that I’ve detailed some of the more popular handheld systems catering to children, I’m going to complicate your decision.

You can purchase a dedicated device, but honestly, you will simply be astonished at the number of times children will steal your phone. iPhone, Android… it doesn’t matter. And your job as a parent is to have that phone loaded with some apps for kids.

So, the question becomes not which of the aforementioned systems you should get, but whether or not one of those systems is even appropriate.

For example, our family owns all of the systems discussed here, plus a few others. The device that gets the most playtime? My iPod Touch. No longer needing it once I got an iPhone, it was pretty easy to spend $10 on some children’s apps and gift it to them – the initial thought being, “At least someone will still get some use out of it.”

Lo and behold, it’s used the most.

Given that, if I had to do it over again, they each would have just gotten an iPod with a touch interface. It’s simple and intuitive, and it just works better than any of the other devices. The next question then becomes whether or not there are enough apps and games for children available in the app store for this to be a viable option, and it should come to no surprise to anyone that the answer is most certainly a “yes.”

From Nickelodeon to Disney, nearly every major player in the industry has content available in the app store, including both games and more traditional educational software. Surprisingly, very few of them use the virtual control pad we’ve come to despise, relying instead on simple touch mechanics. These work especially well with the educational apps, like the fantastic Super Why! app, because, again, they rely on intuition; a child sees what would be the correct answer, and it’s as simple as touching it on the screen.

Also a surprise, the apps that are adaptations of books provide an astounding amount of depth for kids of many ages. There are tons available, from childhood favorites like The Berenstein Bears and Dr. Seuss (you could spend a mint buying the Seuss ones alone) to newer favorites  from The Disney Channel, and they all include multiple ways to enjoy the experience. Smaller children will enjoy simply listening to the story as read by a narrator, or they might like to tap on the pictures and hear as they are identified. Older children will be able to read along, spell words, and sometimes complete simple puzzles.

Even as a seasoned veteran of the gaming universe, I’ve always lauded games like Angry Birds and even Farmville. They’re perfect gateway games, because they allow players without much experience with games to play immediately. In this sense, they’re perfect for children too – and when these games happen to exist on the same device as Dinosaur Train and Disney Fairies Fly, they’re even easier for kids to discover.

Ockham’s Razor is a scientific conceit, and it basically states that the simplest solution is always the most appropriate. I’m a scientist by trade and education, and I believe in using Ockham’s Razor as a guide to most things. So yes, I advocate one device that can do all of these things for your children.

I believe that the iPod Touch is the device most appropriate for kids in a gaming household. The touch interface is a great tool for all ages, and the staggering number of apps and games available provide the best guarantee for parents that the system can grow with your child.

And boy, do they grow quickly.