Children talking to people they don't know in a video game rings alarm bells. In fact, even if they do know online friends, it can still feel a bit worrying what might be said. Worrying headlines about these conversations going wrong or being co-opted by adults means we rush to limit them.
While it's important to ensure our children are safe, the rush to lock down communication can limit the freedom they would have had to express themselves and make sense of the world with their peers. With digital spaces becoming increasingly important, the UN has recently stated that the Rights of the Child apply to the digital environment.
Sara Grimes Digital Playground book has a chapter on this topic. "Often safety manifests as programmed design limitations and systematic restrictions on children's freedom of expression. While such mechanisms are described largely as in children's best interests, in any other context they would almost certainly be classified as censorship".
Reading Sara's chapter led to this list of games that avoid the usual curtailment of children's speech with limitations, allowed phrases or the absence of verbal interactions. We wanted to highlight, as Sara puts it, "opportunities for children to construct types of secret spaces that once characterised childhood," rather than "adult-made embodiments of idealised visions of what children's play space should be".
These are games that provide a "forum for engaging with the exceptional, the repulsive, the taboo, the dark, transgressive play" and a break from "the beautiful, the sanctioned, and the sacred". This is uncomfortable ground for parents and guardians, but as Sara puts it, "provides valuable space for processing and rejecting social roles and expectations." "Within the secret spaces of childhood, children exercise their agency and authority, experiment with ideas and social norms."
- Proximity Chat in games like Roblox, Sea of Thieves and Ark Survival Evolved offer players a way to communicate without censorship, and is usually accompanied by tools to ensure they are actually children talking rather than interloping adults.
- Text Chat in games like Stardew Valley and Grounded, where it is not heavily filtered for phrases and terms that limit self expression and collaboration. Or games like Valheim that offer both whisper (to players following you on your team) and shout (to everyone and appears above your head) chat options.
- Letters can be a way for children to speak to unknown others. This can be specific part of the design like in Kind Words, or as a message left for other players in The First Tree or Animal Crossing. Or naming planets for other players to discover in No Man's Sky. Then there's leaving time capsules with items and message for others to discover in Subnautica.
This list includes 12 games from the last 6 years, with 866 likes. They come from a range of different genres and play-styles and are all good games if you want to speak freely to other players.