The Best Way to Understand the Complexity of Games Is Playing Them With a Kid

A pretty common refrain about new parents is excitement over a time when they'll be able to play games with their kids. My oldest daughter is four years old, and outside of picking the different princess characters in Mario Kart on Switch and watching them immediately spin out, she's shown zero interest in games. Honestly? Fine. I spend all day thinking about games, so having the hours with my kids separate from that world has been refreshing.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I loved reading this. I’m an art teacher, and worked for years as a preschool teacher, and growing up was always the sole young adult cousin with the patience for extended play with the “surprise-baby” toddler cousin who was 15 years younger than the rest of us. It’s been interesting vicariously playing/seeing certain games ‘through’ kids I work/play with to recognize elements of design I’d taken for granted.

Like, I’d always been aware that Kirby’s theming skewed younger than, say, Mario, but I’d thought of them as roughly mechanically comparable for years until about 2004, when I was loading up ROMs with my then-6-year-old cousin, and discovered that, while Mario World was a recipe for instant death, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was totally doable. Being able to float over pits, and to pull me in as a co-op player, as well as subtle aspects of the level designs themselves, clearly made it more friendly to a younger player.

In my preschool classroom, we were gifted some old PCs, and a kind parent gave me some of the Humongous Entertainment Putt-Putt games, which I ripped and loaded on for easy play by the 3-5-year-olds in our class. Being a seasoned SCUMM game player, but having little experience with Humongous Entertainment, it was amazing to see how thoughtfully the SCUMM interface and game design was massaged to make it kid-friendly. While there was a narrative framing, much of the world was open (maybe an extension of the “always have multiple puzzles available” ethos Ron Gilbert included in his adult games), allowing kids to mess around, and do various activities that weren’t part of the core narrative goal. There were also tons of “pointless” hot spots, areas you could click that “did” nothing, but rewarded you with some funny animation or sound, which was extremely satisfying for the kids I worked with. It incentivized their playful poking at this cartoon world. I also know we saw the credits roll a couple times on Putt-Putt, despite having a pretty strict time limit for each kid on the computer, indicating that the game WAS beatable by a 3-5-year-old, and that it could be done in a modest amount of time that respected their attention span.

Anyway, I taught high schoolers for years, and now teach college kids, and COVID has separated me from all the friends’ kids that are a part of my life right now, so I don’t really have these kinds of experiences any more (my baby cousin just graduated college!). I’m interested to see, when vaccines and stuff are out, and I can visit kiddos I love again, what kinds of digital games they’d enjoy. I’d love to try Mario Kart 8 with the various assists on, and see how they fare. Or spin up Drawful with a family filter on.


Kind of related story~

My friend got a PS5 at launch with Miles Morales, and he wanted to show it to me over a video call. He was playing with his daughter (8 years old), exchanging the controller every so often. She doesn’t really play games much, and he hadn’t played games since around the time of Assassin’s Creed 2. From what I saw, he had forgotten how to play games, so they were kind of playing at the same level, although every now and then she would say “wow, you’re bad at this, let me have a go”.

So what I noticed is that neither of them would use the right stick at the same time as the left, they would only move one at a time. When they were stuck, I asked her to get to a place where she could see the whole room, and she moved to where she remembered there was a balcony without actually looking at it, and then only moved the camera when she got there. My friend was walking around the room looking at things that might help, and he was trying to interact with a spool of wire that was just a static item. When they asked for help, I pointed out they should follow the glowing yellow line and then things started to click into place.

It makes me realise that there’s a whole host of visual language that we’ve built up over the years that new players won’t know about.