It is no secret that kids love video games — they're exciting, fun and engrossing.
As a parent, you worry about the negative effects of screen time. Nevertheless, many video games are not only fun, but also build and strengthen cognitive development — skills in problem solving, reasoning, math and science. So how can a parent choose?
"In past decades, educational video games were known for poor design and cheap production," said Jason Wiser, faculty in the media arts and animation program at The New England Institute of Art, "with wonderful exceptions like Zoombinis and Oregon Trail putting all this shovelware to shame. But as gamers have grown up and become parents, the more discerning audience has helped give rise to a new generation of better games for kids."
Wiser will be launching his own children's game app this summer, DinoTrucks, where children ages 3 to 10 experiment with open play by excavating bones and building dinosaurs.
A successful educational game's core purpose should be fun and interactive, yet still teach as part of that interaction.
"As consumers, children are very particular and tend to gravitate toward simple, flashy characters but for a game to hold their interest, it needs to be thought-provoking, creative, exciting and fun at its core — the learning is secondary," said Mathew Quickel, faculty instructor of Computer Animation at The Art Institute of York-Pennsylvania. "This is a message that is heard loud and clear by game and app developers who create games that were in line with their interests. There has been a notable shift in game creation — it is common to see games created based on what children and their parents' interests are."
The video game industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy and is projected to grow by 5 percent annually through 2015, according to the Entertainment Software Association. As a subset of that, children's apps and video games are expected to continue to grow as parents are willing to pay increased amounts for games that will entertain and teach.
"Parents who buy games for their kids are typically more concerned with content than price; they are willing to pay for a good product," Wiser said. Current trends include STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-focused games such as "The Counting Kingdom," the ever-popular first person "shooter" games (good for learning strategy and immersive team play), kids' versions of adult games (i.e. Minion Dash, the Despicable Me game, which is based on the endless runner "Temple Run") and games based on established properties, such as "Olaf's Quest" from Disney's Frozen.
Both Wiser and Quickel agree that parents will determine what games they feel are "meaningful" and what they would like their child to play. They offer these tips when selecting games for kids:
•Become familiar with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (www.esrb.com). Their ratings are designed to help potential players understand the game's content, and offer guidance on which games are appropriate for different ages.
•Explore http://www.familyfriendlyvideogames.com. This site provides a report card on games, with detailed descriptions of game content, technical performance and kid friendliness.
•Understand the types of games on the market: edutainment (educational games focusing on teaching the player), role-playing games (that offer deep story and character development), action games (that train and enhance hand-eye coordination), simulation games (building, vehicles such as planes or cars) and strategy games.
•Use online reviews, ask other parents, ask your local store staff — and play games with your kids.
So what's the bottom line? Video games are here to stay. And when appropriately used, they can provide an opportunity for children to learn, grow and have fun.