Saturday Editorial: So You Want to Game with Your Toddler?

When my son was about two years old, we sat on the couch as I played some New Super Mario Bros. At some point, I handed him the controller, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Fast forward roughly five years and my son and I are vacuuming up ghosts, sending our Miis out on missions, and even making our own games on the Nintendo Switch together. I have a whole album of photos, selfies of the two of us in front of credit screens of games we’ve beaten together. Over the interim period, I watched him struggle with holding a controller, moving from figuring out the buttons to eventually understanding how the right stick and 3-D cameras work. I used to do a stand-up comedy bit when my son was a baby about how I couldn’t wait for him to be old enough to get into action figures, comic books and video games–because I’m into action figures, comic books and video games. Well those days are here, and it’s wonderful sharing this hobby with my son. However, he’s had his share of frustration, and there were some questions I struggled with too.

I’ve seen discussions pop up on Reddit and in Discord servers. People are asking how to introduce their child to games. Is a three-year old too young? What game should they pick? Should they find a co-op game? Use assist modes? What’s the best way for a child to learn to play video games?

This discussion interests me. Video games have become much more of an acceptable part of our culture, and it feels like this is a new question facing parents. Folks who grew up playing games, whose parents didn’t, are raising children and want to share this with them. One doesn’t ask the question of how to get your child into television, it just happens. Video games, however, require some level of skill and technique; they have a much greater level of interaction. This question is unique to this time and unique to this media.

Before we get into my thoughts and recommendations, I want to lay out my underlying assumptions and address a few issues that are beyond the scope of this article. I’m guessing you are thinking of getting your child into console gaming, or something like that, where they’ll hold a traditional controller. You want to share with your child the kind of joy you experienced with your first console or dedicated handheld gaming device. You’re just not sure when to do that and how. But there are some related issues that I’m not going to really dig into.

The first is screen time. All topics in parenting, especially when it comes to young children, are fraught with debates and judgments. There are plenty of other editorials and articles available discussing the appropriate amount of screen-time. The WHO has recommendations you can consider. There’s enough shaming and misinformation out there that I’m going to stay out of it. The reality is our children will likely spend a lot of time looking at screens at some point in their future, whether we want them to or not. I’m guessing if you’re reading this article then you’re okay with them doing so at least sometimes. It’s up to you to limit that as you see fit.

Another related issue I won’t be addressing is educational games. While there is great value in educational video games, I assume that if you’re reading this then you see the artistic merit of video games as a medium in their own right without needing the experience to have the label of Educational. Again, there are plenty of other lists and articles out there that can help you in that direction if you’re so inclined.

Lastly, I won’t be talking about tablets. Honestly, this is probably one of the best places for a young child of toddler age to start with video games. I assume you want them to experience buttons and d-pads and joysticks (and perhaps someday a mouse and keyboard). A very young child can easily learn touch screen controls, and there is a wide variety of free and cheap mobile games that are age appropriate that can be found on iPads and other tablets. As I said, for the younger children, age range 2-3, this might be what they’re most ready for, but I’m not here to talk about that.

Every child is different. There is no one way to do this. I’m going to share my personal experiences and suggestions, but there are no guarantees, and there’s likely many different ways to engage your child in this activity. That said, I’d start with letting your child watch you play some age appropriate games. What’s age appropriate? Well there’s a number of different global organizations that are dedicated to rating video games. If you’re like I was, you probably haven’t thought much about them as an adult, but it might be time to start paying attention now. No judgment from me if you want to let your children experience things beyond their suggested age range, but I found that a three year old talking about killing things just didn’t feel right. So I decided to start paying better attention to ESRB ratings. 

Once you’re comfortable with letting your toddler watch TV, why not let them watch you play a game? At some point hand them the controller. Maybe your child will nail it first try, but a general great guideline with this, and likely many other activities, is to try and if it doesn’t work, wait a little longer and try again. My son was content watching at age 2. And as he got a little older, he was still happy watching, but became more involved.

We went through a period of time where we would play games together and talk through what was happening, but it was really just me using the controller. We’d play for as long as he was interested. I would let him direct me if he wanted, and I would do what he asked, or explain why it wasn’t possible or not the correct choice. Another thing lifetime gamers may take for granted is the language of video games. YouTube content creator Razbuten has a wonderful video essay about this topic. His wife, who wasn’t a gamer, tried out a handful of games, and he took note of her difficulties and assumptions and put together a talk I’d highly recommend viewing, even if it isn’t exactly about gaming with a young child.

Essentially, those of us who’ve played video games for years have learned through trial and error what video games expect from the player and allow the player to do. We’ve learned when to look behind that corner, or what paths are likely open to us and conversely what’s impossible. To new players, young and old, these things aren’t obvious. Here’s your chance at this early age to explain some of this in real time and bond over it! Yeah it’d be cool if you could go to that tower in the background, but that’s just a background. It’d be nice if we could climb or fly or go anywhere, but people who make games are limited and have to make choices. Of course with a toddler, some of this may be beyond their comprehension, but you get the picture. You can start to explain some of the less perceptible parts of gaming to your kid when it makes sense.

During this time period you can be offering chances, at appropriate points in appropriate games, for your child to try their hand at the controller. I often hear anecdotes from people my age or slightly younger that they were playing the NES or SNES at age 3 or younger, and I have no reason to doubt them. While the games then may have been more difficult in some sense, they likely had simpler controls.Also those controllers were smaller and fit better in young children’s hands than the current Xbox controller, for example. There are options out there for controllers that might better suit younger children on most consoles. Nintendo’s Joy-Cons may be too small for you, but they work great for a young child! 

So maybe your kid is getting comfortable with the controller, and making Mario (or whomever) move a bit. What game should they play? Well, it’s probably time to pick something with some easier controls. Explaining the A and B buttons may be difficult enough, much less telling a 4 year old to pull the left trigger or push in the right stick or shoulder button. It’s not impossible for them to learn this, and they will, but it’ll take time and experience, so pick something with some relatively simple controls. I’d also suggest starting with 2-D games, or at least a fixed camera. You may know how to rotate a 3-D camera with ease, but it’s likely not going to be intuitive to your toddler. Pick a nice sandbox game, where they aren’t likely to die or get frustrated–something at which they can easily succeed, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Maybe a game with some auto-assists, like Mario Kart where you can dial down the enemy difficulty and eliminate items, and with auto-assists they can’t fail. 

Another thing to think about here is a tie-in game. Maybe your kid loves LEGO. Maybe they like Paw Patrol or DC Superhero Girls. All those franchises have console games. Some are better than others, and some easier for young children, but that might be what gets them interested in playing or watching you play. If they’re excited about the world and the characters, they’ll want to give it a shot. Do your research on the game, of course, because as you may well know, licensed games can sometimes be lackluster.

My son’s breakthrough game was LEGO City Undercover. He had a love for LEGO bricks and building and that game was perfect. It’s a 3-D game, but it actually adjusts the camera automatically or uses a fixed camera (and sometimes frustratingly won’t let you move the camera, but that’s for another article). I played through it first, and we also played it together, which I assume is one of your goals, dear reader. And it’s a great example of a good co-op game for young kids. Why? Because you can progress the story as one of the players while your kid can die over and over, or wander off, without much consequence.

So if you want to start playing co-op games, I would highly suggest you look into games where the first player can progress the story with or without the help of the second player. Maybe even something where the second player cannot progress the story. Some games make it easy to swap in-game between single player mode and co-op, allowing one person to control both characters when needed. Two games I played with my son that come to mind as examples are Unravel 2 and Luigi’s Mansion 3. Both games at times can require the second character to take specific actions, but in those instances when my son wasn’t up to the task, I was able to quickly swap to one-player and handle it myself. Sometimes he’d succeed at doing what we needed, and those were big confidence boosters, but if not I could do the work, and he could come along for the ride. Similarly, we enjoyed playing through Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze together. It’s a nice 2-D game that I could drag him along on if he had a hard time. And the Switch version has a nice lower difficulty setting.   

Keep it simple. Find easy games for them to enjoy. Set them up for success. A 2-D side-scroller may seem simple, but sometimes that’s deceptive. Dying a lot in a game with a life system, like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, can be frustrating. If you’re going to play a game with a life system, which is a relic of the arcade era and one of my pet peeves (again, another article, another time), go ahead and grind out 99 lives for them. Put it on easy mode. Set them up for success early, and you can challenge them with incremental difficulty when they’re ready. Challenge and frustration is a big part of the general video game experience, but that doesn’t have to be where they start. You can encourage them to try something and explain that video games can be hard and frustrating and so on, but let them dip out or take over yourself when need be, especially when they’re younger than say seven or eight. At some point, you can push them to beat things when they try to hand the controller over to you, or even encourage them to take a break. As adult gamers, we all know that sometimes even a short break allows you to come back and instantly solve a puzzle or beat a boss you were struggling with that previously seemed insurmountable before. The point is, they don’t need to beat Celeste yet (despite its superior quick respawn system), have them start with Kirby

Maybe your child will never become a gamer. Maybe they’ll want you to take them to sports games or the theater or any number of other wonderful hobbies and experiences, but video games are increasingly part of the broader cultural vocabulary and more and more people are playing them. If your child sees you playing and enjoying video games, they’re likely to want to do it too, and if you give them the opportunity to join you, and keep their experiences positive, it will likely take care of itself.

Image Sources: Fisher-Price, Nintendo, ESRB, Hori

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