Tech & Media

Why Indie Video Games Can Be Great For Kids

May 19, 2015

Tablets and smartphones give kids lots of learning opportunities—and parents are becoming more and more savvy about how digital devices, kid-specific apps and games and broader tech tools can teach or reinforce reading, math, coordination and critical thinking skills. 

But there's a world of apps and games out there that goes beyond strictly educational. What about beautiful games that are intended just for fun? Or apps that combine stunning visuals and music to create exciting experiences for players young and old? Often called indie or alternative games, these games and apps can wow users with cool, innovative design and promote new ways of thinking and experiencing the world.

A growing group of creators is building new types of experiences that are different from traditional video games and step-by-step educational apps. Many kids will love interacting with these games in a new, non-linear way.

Games And Apps Offer Kids A Springboard For Their Own Imaginations

My family loves Metamorphabet, an interactive alphabet book. It begins with a letter "A" that starts ambling and arching itself upwards, then grows antlers before bluebirds land and we move on to the letter “B.” There’s a narrator and great sound effects, but the app embraces a minimalist aesthetic; it’s not as loud or flashy as many mainstream games. It doesn't teach specific lessons and there are no points to be won—it’s just a matter of your child (or you, when they’re not around) working through the letters by exploring and interacting with the animation. My five-year-old especially loves some of the more sinister aspects of Metamorphabet. She giggled when her garden burst into ghosts and her eyes lit up when she vacuumed up a whole village, citizens and all.

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Metamorphabet was created by Patrick Smith, a Brooklyn designer who has been making interactive animations for about 15 years.

“I think the kids app market could use more things that don’t talk down to or condescend to children. Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak didn’t rely on cutesy smiles and cloying, saccharine sentiments—their books are full of strangeness and hints of darkness and a degree of sophistication that we seem to be afraid to put into children’s material now,” says Smith.

“At their best, games and apps can offer kids a springboard for their own imaginations,” he explains. “For example, Metamorphabet will hopefully inspire kids to come up their own words and transformations.”

Games Can Be A Form Of Creative Expression

One of Smith’s fans is Jim Munroe—the father of a seven-year-old and executive director of the Hand Eye Society. This Toronto group is dedicated to games that are, according to Munroe, created from the same impulses as writing books or songs. "A desire to create something beautiful and personal, primarily as a form of creative expression,” says Munroe (there are other similar groups across Canada—from Vancouver’s Full Indie to Ottawa’s Dirty Rectangles to Montreal’s Mount Royal Game Society).

I was curious about my daughter's appetite for these kinds of artistic games. Both Munroe and Smith enjoy Monument Valley, a beautiful, slow-paced world of Escher-esque staircases, sad music and weird perspectives. Based on their recommendation, I downloaded the game and loved it, but was worried my daughter would find it boring or confusing.

Games are a medium that can express a number of human experiences.

She did—at first. But she kept wanting to watch me “play the movie” (it didn’t look like any game she had ever seen). She had so many questions about what was happening. "Why does the silent princess Ida have jewels? Where is she going? Are those crows dressed like people or people dressed like crows?" She even drew pictures of Ida and made new castles for her.

“The types of games we focus on show young kids that games are a medium that can express a number of human experiences,” Munroe explains. “They’re also simple and small-scale enough to be approachable to make.”

Kids As Indie Game Creators

This is the other exciting part about indie gaming—the idea that kids can eventually create their own apps. After all, we encourage our little ones to come up with art all the time, whether it’s drawing, painting, singing, clay sculpting or building-block architecture. Now, technology allows children and parents to harness their creativity to make their own games. There are design workshops and camps across Canada, along with free tools and programs such as Scratch and Stencyl. In Toronto, there’s also Game Curious, a Hand Eye Society program that melds gameplay with game-making—Munroe says a recent program was made up of many eight to 12-year-olds.

Sometimes, game designers are even younger. Several years ago, a five-year-old created the art, voices and plot for her dad’s game, Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, a variation on the point-and-click questing games of the 1980s. It’s the opposite of Monument Valley in a lot of ways—it’s loud, ridiculous and simple. Still, by showing kids how to problem-solve by tackling issues in a logical order and thinking outside the box, parents can still think of it as an educational app—just one that’s super-fun and boasts a giant, evil lemon.

Games to Get You Started

If you're curious about exploring the world of indie and alternative games, here are some games that might strike a chord with you, your kids or all of you:

  • Etter Drei: cooperate with two other players from around the world to stack blocks—but real-world physics can get in the way
  • Forest Flyer: ideal for preschoolers, this app has a little bird that flies around her world and interacts with the rest of the forest
  • Windosill: from the creator of Metamorphabet, this game requires completing little tasks (after figuring out what they are) to keep a toy truck moving along
  • Botanicula: a point-and-click adventure game about odd creatures who live on a giant tree—and the shadowy monsters after them
  • Toca Town: your kid pretty much has control over a city and those who live there—so many possibilities
  • Little Things: a beautiful hide and seek game

Some might be great for kids to play on their own, while others are better to play together because they might be confusing or even a little scary. When in doubt, you can find reviews, demos or even Youtube videos of gameplay online.

Do you and your family have any other favourite games? Please share your recommendations in the comments below!

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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