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Games That Are Playful By Design

The Digital Futures Commission's A Vision of Free Play in a Digital World report outlines the key qualities of "free play" for what "good" looks like in a digital world. The team from 5Rights Foundation and LSE set out ambitious expectations for children’s free play in all contexts.

We have been on the hunt for games that meet the "Playful by Design" principles:

  • Be Welcoming: Prioritise digital features that are inclusive, sociable and welcoming to all, reducing hateful communication and forms of exclusion and reflecting multiple identities.
  • Enhance Imagination: Prioritise creative resources and imaginative, open ended play over pre-determined pathways built on popularity metrics or driven by advertising or other commercial pressures.
  • Open-Ended Play: Provide and enhance features that offer easy-to use pathways, flexibility and variety as these support children’s agency and encourage their imaginative, stimulating and open-ended play.
  • Adopt Ethical Commercial Model: Reduce compulsive features designed to prolong user engagement or cultivate dependency on games, apps or platforms, so children’s immersive play is intrinsically motivated and freely chosen.
  • Ensure safety: Ensure children’s play in online spaces is safe, including by giving them control over who can contact them and supplying help when needed.
  • Allow for experimentation: Recognise that exploration, invention and a degree of risk taking is important in children’s play and that the burden should not fall on them always to be cautious or anxious, or to follow rules set by others.
  • Be age-appropriate: Respect the needs of children of different ages by providing age-appropriate opportunities for play, while also allowing for safe intergenerational play.

I asked Sonia Livingstone, lead researcher and report author, whether there were many games that met these criteria. "Children bring a lot to their play that for them is imaginative and sociable. Where it's more difficult is in voluntary and intrinsically motivated play. Games very rarely leave children to play at their own pace and rate. The freedom for risk taking is sometimes present but then, children have to take on the safety burden from society at large and limit play themselves."

Inspired and challenged by the report, we searched our database to identify games that come close to meeting these high standards. Like the report, we want to concentrate energy on identifying opportunities for free play that should be enriched and expanded to make play online more respectful of children's rights.

Playful by Design Tool

Applying the Playful by Design tool enables game developers to reflect on their current and finished products. It also helps game reviewers and parents to evaluate the opportunities for free play in digital games.

For example, consider examining the game Skye Tale using Playful by Design cards and the Mix It Up playboard. You use the cards like sliders on a music-mixing deck, raising and lowering them to represent features and functionality in each of the seven criteria. We think it scores highest on Be Age Appropriate and Adopt Ethical Commercial Model because of the child-centric visuals and language and the one off up front cost. But as you can see in the picture, it's also a chance to consider how well it does in the other areas too.

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The process is furthered by the use of the Why cards. Here we are prompted to consider "Why might a child feel that they can easily stop playing when they are hungry or tired?" For Skye Tales there are regular breaks in play and reasons to talk about what's happening with parents.

The What If? and How? cards extend this further. For example, “What if a child can only access the game once a week?" or "How can you facilitate children’s intrinsic motivation to play?” Skye Tale doesn’t need a hard stop because the game does not contain any pressure for players to keep going. However, adding a hint to stop during the game’s storyline, for example, a time cycle, may help children balance digital and non-digital play.

The result is a clearer picture of the game from a playful design perspective. Skye Tale illustrates some ways that children enjoy their play that adults may not understand or that some digital designs deny. In short, children expect digital products designed to enhance the qualities of play and at the same time want those aspects of design that are exploitative or invasive to be dialled down. There are many ways that child rights-respecting principles can be embedded into the design of games to support children’s play. Some Playful by Design principles might be well executed and established within a product and there may others that could be developed further to improve children’s playful experiences.

This list includes 72 games from the last 25 years, with 3,600 likes. They come from a range of different genres and play-styles and are all good games if you want to play games Playful By Design. We break them down into the following areas:

DetailsList Details

PEGI Ratings: PEGI 3 to PEGI 16
ESRB Ratings: ESRB EVERYONE to ESRB TEEN
Australian Ratings: G to MA 15+
Genres: Action, Adventure, Brain Game, Collecting, Communication, Creative, Fighting, Narrative, Platform, Point-and-Click, Puzzle, Race, Rhythm, Role-Play, Sequencing, Shooting, Simulation, Sports, Stealth, Strategy, Traversal and World Building
Total Likes: 3,600
 

 

1. Be Welcoming

A Short Hike

In A Short Hike you play penguin-like character Claire, who needs to climb a mountain in a beautiful national park to receive an important phone call. Presented in cute pixel graphics, the game invites you to explore the park, help other animals, find...

Unpacking

Unpacking is a meditative puzzle game where you unpack belongings into a series of spaces, each representing a stage in life. You get to know the owner of the objects by their possessions and circumstances. To finish a level you need to work out where...

Rainbow Billy

Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is a role-play adventure where you save the world from a colourless darkness. Unusually, battles are won through listening and conversation rather than traditional attacks. It combines the excitement and...

Sackboy: A Big Adventure

Sackboy: A Big Adventure is running and jumping game. It's a spinoff of the LittleBigPlanet series and follows Sackboy and three friends as they explore, collect and battle their way through a fantasy world.

Sky Children of the Light

Sky Children of the Light (Sky Children of Light) is a huge open-world online game designed to create altruism between players. From the developer of Flower and Journey, it takes you on a social adventure in an ever-expanding world with up to 8 other...

Miska

Miska is a relaxing narrative adventure game about the flora and fauna of Australia. Rekindle your connection to family and nature through acts of restoration.

Adventurous Eating

Adventurous Eating is a game about discovering and exploring new kinds of food. Aimed at 3 to 6-year-olds, you play different mini-games to investigate foods with your senses. It's like a kid's TV Show with quirky characters, sing-along songs and...

Yono and the Celestial Elephants

Yono and the Celestial Elephant is an adventure puzzle game about helping a young elephant restore order to the world. You explore the world and help the characters you meet by solving puzzles going on treasure hunts and occasionally taking on some...

2. Enhance Imagination

Stormworks: Build and Rescue

Stormworks is an open world adventure where you design, build and pilot your own air sea rescue service. You create programmable vehicles using it's block-building system and pilot them into dangerous situations to rescue stricken vessels or...

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (known as TABS) is a fighting game where you choose different armies and troops to battle each other in an automatic simulation that models their offensive and defensive abilities. Once set up, the fight is largely...

Knights And Bikes!

Knights And Bikes! is a hand-painted adventure in a fictional late-eighties British island. You work together as Nessa and Demelza to explore its coast on bikes to find treasure, mystery and trouble. There’s fighting with frisbees, water balloons,...

Untitled Goose Game

Untitled Goose game is a silly and funny game but with a dastardly vibe. You play a mean goose who is intent on ruining the day of the inhabitants of a sleepy English village. By stealing items, squawking and otherwise making a nuisance of yourself you...

Tearaway

Tearaway on PlayStation Vita and Tearaway Unfolded on PlayStation 4 create a game world entirely from paper as the setting for this fantastical adventure. It’s beautiful and funny, and offers a running, jumping exploration challenge. Drawing on...

Submerged Hidden Depths

Submerged: Hidden Depths is an adventure game where you boat, climb and explore the ruins of a sunken world. With light puzzle solving and no combat you discover a drowned city, crumbling skyscrapers and deserted villages. It's the sequel to the first...

Ensamey (Dreams)

Ensamey is a narrative game where you run and jump to explore a story told by a 4 year-old and their father. As the child tells the story, what they say and draw appears in the game for you to interact and play with.

Paradise Marsh

Paradise Marsh is an open-world collecting game where you explore a varied marsh to find insects to put their stars back in the night sky. You wander an endless wetland and collect creatures, skim stones and eat mushrooms as the weather and seasons...

Wobbledogs

Wobbledogs is a pet simulation where your dogs not only need care but are rapidly mutating different behaviour and appetites. You breed new dogs (from eggs), create and decorate a home for them, feed them and see how they evolve.

Exhausted Man

Exhausted Man is a puzzle game where you play an ordinary, but clinically exhausted, person who must complete everyday challenges, and earn a better life. The twist is that you have to do all this with your character lying down.

Goat Simulator 3 (Series)

Goat Simulator 3 is the sequel to Goat Simulator, where you cause mayhem and destruction as a goat (or other animal) in a relatively realistic world with exaggerated physics. This game adds several new challenges and ways to play to the game, like...

Tomodachi Life

Tomodachi Life is a social simulation game where you develop an island to accommodate inhabitants and offer them a fuller life. You do this by interacting with islanders and solving their problems to earn buildings that expand the options for your...

Rain World: Downpour

Rain World, and the expansion Downpour, are traversal and survival games where you play a half cat, half slug in a living breathing world. You must venture out and brave the other predatory creatures to find food before the rain comes and you have to...

Dinosaur Mix

Dinosaur Mix is a creative dinosaur making game. You mix and match body parts to create your own colourful creature and then see it come to life and explore the world.

Nobody Saves The World

Nobody Saves the World is an action role play game where you are a formless nobody, who can magically transform into multiple characters each with vastly different powers. You use these abilities to seek and complete varied challenges in order to save a...

Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley

Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley is a musical adventure game where you restore the harmony of Moomin Valley from grotesque parks. It's the variety of play and the beloved characters that make this game a great experience for small (and not so small) kids.

Super Adventure Hand

Super Adventure Hand is an adventure game where you are an anthropomorphic hand traversing levels that challenge your finger-based movement. It plays a little like other action platform games, but here your movement and interactions must contend with...

3. Open-Ended Play

Toca Life: World (Series)

The Toca Boca, Toca Life, series of games comprise what are essentially toys in electronic form. They build on the Sago Mini games for 6-10-year-old children. Recreating interactive everyday settings like shopping, hospital,...

The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild departs from the previous Zelda formula with the scale and depth of its world. You walk, fly, ride and climb your way through a landscape that varies in climate, terrain, inhabitants and vegetation. Weather and...

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is an online game where you are a pirate searching for treasure and adventure. Cast into a large open sea you work with other online players to crew your ship and find treasure. The game has a main story but really focuses on creating...

Mini Metro

Mini Metro is a game where you create an ordered, efficient underground train system. It sounds like hard work, but the simple Tube-map visuals, calm music, and streamlined interactions make this relaxing, like sudoku. Dip your toe in this strategy...

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator (Microsoft Flight Sim 2020) is the latest flight simulator game in the long running series. Along with a huge range of aircraft you can learn to fly, the game recreates the entire Earth using textures and data from data maps...

Lonely Mountains Downhill

Lonely Mountains Downhill is a racing game where you traverse a mountain on a bike. Make your way through thick forests, narrow trails and wild rivers. Race, jump, slide and try not to crash all the way from the peak to the valley. You choose your route...

Valheim

Valheim is a Viking inspired strategy game for up to 10 players. You build, survive, conquer, and explore the world. It's popular because it combines strategy of building your town stronghold with tough adventures and encounters with the enemies of the...

Wilderless

Wilderless is a traversal and exploration game where you are left to discover a fantasy world at your own pace without the usual hindrances. You run, jumping and glide your way around the landscape that unfolds beautifully before you. It stands out not...

Spelunky 2 (Series)

Spelunky 2 is, like the classic Spelunky, a running and jumping game where you exploring mysterious caves on the moon looking for your missing parents. On your journey, you will find unique environments, treasure, and people to join you as you delve...

Lushfoil Photography Sim

Lushfoil Photography Sim is an adventure where you explore and photograph vast faithfully recreated landscapes. While some other games offer the chance to pause and take a picture, Lushfoil doubles-down on the process, art and tranquility of photography.

Sail Forth

Sail Forth is a sailing simulation where you take charge of a ship in a vast ocean whose ancient depths have swallowed the key to the mysterious past. You play by working with the wind and sails to explore, take on tasks, fight pirates and slowly...

The Block

The Block is a creative city-building game where you place buildings and trees to make beautiful miniature scenes. Inspired by games like Dorfromantik, there are no time limits, objectives or enemies. The randomly generated...

Tiny Glade

Tiny Glade is a simulation game that gets you doodling picturesque castles. More of a toy than a game, you play by placing and moving different elements of your construction. As you do the game magically connects everything together to create beautiful...

4. Adopt ethical commercial model

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is an adventure game where you play as a young girl who starts a wildlife conservation club. When Alba visits her grandparents on a Mediterranean island, she is excited for a summer of exploring with her friend Ines. But when...

Skye Tales

Skye Tales is a gentle puzzle game about exploring rich playgrounds as a dragon called Skye. Play involves traversing each chapter, meeting and interacting with different creatures and solving puzzles along the way. It's a game that stands out not only...

Taming Gaming Book Written by parents for parents, the database complements the in-depth discussion about video game addiction, violence, spending and online safety in the Taming Gaming book. We are an editorially independent, free resource without adverts that is supported by partnerships.

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