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Playful By Design

The Digital Futures Commission's A Vision of Free Play in a Digital World report that outlines the key qualities of "free play" for what "good" looks like in a digital world. The team from 5 Rights Foundation and Digital Futures LSE set out ambitious expectations for children’s free play in all contexts. To claim the label ‘Playful by Design’, digital products and services should adopt seven 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.
  • Enable 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.
  • No commercial exploitation: 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 already met this criteria. "Children bring a lot to their play that for them is imaginative and sociable. Where it's more difficult is in the 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 here, children themselves 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 came closest to meeting these high standards. Like the report, this aims to concentrate energy on identifying opportunities for free play that should be enriched and expanded to make play online more child-centred.

In the report, children identify their need to play in ways that perhaps adults don’t understand or that some digital designs deny. They don't want a completely "whole-food experience", nor to turn back the clock to an offline world. They want 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.

Examples on this list include playful offline video games. Games like Lonely Mountains Downhill and Microsoft Flight Simulator offer open-ended play where you can go where you want and make your own fun. Spelunky 2, Mini Metro and Teardown enable free-play that is intrinsically and experimentally motivated without commercial exploitation. Then games like A Short Hike and Wilmot's Warehouse offer play that is welcoming for newcomers and specifically age appropriate. Risk taking and rule breaking play that doesn't become a burden on the child is found in games like Untitled Goose Game and The Longing.

Examples on this list also include playful online video games. Games like Journey and One Hour One Life offer a welcoming experience by encouraging (in some cases requiring) other players to help newcomers. Phantom Abyss offers an unusual competitive play space that celebrates experimentation and is safe by design through minimal communication. Sea of Thieves and Valheim offer age appropriate play for older teenagers that is built around experimentation and discovery through risk taking that is lead by imagination. Stormworks combines open ended play like Minecraft, but offers a context more age appropriate to ambitious teenagers through its float-mechanics and boat design. Sky Children of the Light combines many of the criteria, offering a welcoming experience for newcomers, imaginative play. It subverts the commercial feel of other app games by focusing purchases on items that are primarily to give away to other players.

This list includes 57 games from the last 24 years, with 1,827 likes. They come from a range of different genres and play-styles and are all good games if you want to encourage proper free-play.

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, Open World, Physically Active, Platform, Puzzle, Race, Rhythm, Role-Play, Sequencing, Shooting, Simulation, Sports, Stealth, Strategy, Traversal and World Building
Total Likes: 1,827
 

 

Phantom Abyss

Release Date: 21/06/2021

Platforms: Mac and PC

Skill Rating: 12+ year-olds

Phantom Abyss is a running and jumping game where you charge through temples to get to the exit. Your only tool is a whip that interacts with objects and can propel you forward. Along the way are numerous traps and difficult jumps to avoid. There are...

Apico

Release Date: 20/05/2022, updated in 2022

Platforms: Mac, PC and Switch

Skill Rating: 6+ year-olds

Apico is a simulation game where you play a beekeeper and conservationist. You explore environments, breed rare bees and release them into the wild, while growing your business. There are no enemies, time constraints or set objectives so you can focus...

Submerged Hidden Depths

Release Date: 04/12/2020, updated in 2022

Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S

Skill Rating: 7+ year-olds

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...

Wilmot's Warehouse

Release Date: 29/08/2019

Platforms: Mac, PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One and iOS

Skill Rating: 7+ year-olds

This is a game for people who like to organise things. You are in charge of a warehouse and must manage 100s of items of stock. These identical square boxes are labelled with rudimentary icons. On your own or with another player, you must decipher what...

Lonely Mountains Downhill

Release Date: 22/10/2019

Platforms: Mac, PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

Race down 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 to find the fastest way to the finish line.

Sea of Thieves

Release Date: 20/03/2018

Platforms: PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S

Skill Rating: 12+ year-olds

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...

Journey

Release Date: 14/03/2012, updated in 2019

Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4 and iOS

Skill Rating: 11+ year-olds

Journey is an adventure game set in a desert. Exploring the eerie sand-scape, you discover a world abandoned by the race that created it. The sense of space and scale evokes feelings of aloneness and being lost. But then the game pairs you with other...

Teardown

Release Date: 29/10/2020

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 14+ year-olds

Teardown is a strategic game where you plan and execute a heist in a fully destructible environments. Your objective is to claim the key cards that are hidden around the map. However taking one triggers the alarm, giving you only sixty seconds before...

Unpacking

Release Date: 02/11/2021

Platforms: Mac, PC, Switch and Xbox One

Skill Rating: 9+ year-olds

Unpacking is a meditative puzzle game where you unpack belongings into a series of either 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...

Wilderless

Release Date: 02/04/2020, updated in 2022

Platforms: Android and iOS

Skill Rating: 6+ year-olds

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...

Mini Metro

Release Date: 06/01/2015

Platforms: Android, Mac, PC, PS4, Switch and iOS

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

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 challenge and keep the system...

Quadrilateral Cowboy

Release Date: 25/07/2016

Platforms: Mac and PC

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

Quadrilateral Cowboy is an adventure in a 1990 retro-cyberpunk world where you take on covert mission to infiltrate buildings and security systems. You carefully explore each level hacking security by typing commands into your grey-market equipment.

Sky Children of the Light

Release Date: 18/07/2019

Platforms: Android, Switch and iOS

Skill Rating: 8+ year-olds

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...

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Release Date: 18/08/2020

Platforms: PC and Xbox Series X|S

Skill Rating: 14+ year-olds

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...

A Short Hike

Release Date: 05/04/2019, updated in 2021

Platforms: Mac, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch and Xbox One

Skill Rating: 7+ year-olds

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...

Stormworks: Build and Rescue

Release Date: 28/02/2018

Platforms: Mac and PC

Skill Rating: 11+ year-olds

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...

One Hour One Life

Release Date: 27/02/2018

Platforms: Android, Mac, PC and iOS

Skill Rating: 9+ year-olds

This is a civilisation survival game where each player lives a whole life in an hour of play and then passes away. Born as a baby into the care of anonymous other online players, you initially depend on them for food. Quickly growing, you can soon fend...

Valheim

Release Date: 02/02/2021

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 12+ year-olds

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...

Untitled Goose Game

Release Date: 03/10/2019

Platforms: Mac, PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One

Skill Rating: 5+ year-olds

This is another 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 slowly...

Wytchwood

Release Date: 09/12/2021

Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

Wytchwood is an adventure in a land of gothic fables and fairytales. You are an old witch of the woods and must explore the countryside, collect magical ingredients and brew enchantments. That much is relatively common, here though, your role is to pass...

Ensamey (Dreams)

Release Date: 28/10/2021

Platforms: PS4 and PS5

Skill Rating: 4+ year-olds

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.

Ollie & Bollie: Outdoor Estate (Sokpop)

Release Date: 10/10/2018

Platforms: Mac and PC

Skill Rating: 6+ year-olds

Ollie & Bollie: Outdoor Estate is an adventure game in a simulated world. You help Ollie and Bollie, who are two bird-like people, look after their farm in the countryside by completing simple tasks. It may sound familiar but stands out because it gives...

Babble Royale

Release Date: 15/12/2021

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

Babble Royale is a puzzle word game played against 16 other players online. You simultaneously race to make words as in Scrabble. Here though, you do this to inch across the board and stay out of the encroaching storm.

Exhausted Man

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

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.

Noita

Release Date: 05/10/2020

Platforms: PC

Noita is platform adventure game in a world where each and every pixel is physically simulated. This means that the tiny elements that make up the landscape and characters have their own properties that: melt, burn, evaporate, explode, flow, float,...

Paradise Marsh

Release Date: 03/02/2022

Platforms: Mac, PC, Switch and Xbox One

Paradise Marsh is an open-world collecting and exploring game where the emphasis is on relaxation and contemplation rather than performance. You wander an endless wetland and collect creatures, skim stones and more as you find a way to put the stars...

Lil Gator Game

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC and Switch

Skill Rating: 9+ year-olds

Lil Gator Game is an adventure set on an island playground. You grapple with your floppy gator protagonist's unusual movement to help them explore the world as you bop cardboard baddies, climb mountain peaks, glide, fling and jump around. It's unlike...

Breakwaters

Release Date: 09/12/2021

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 10+ year-olds

Breakwaters is an adventure set in an ever-changing oceanic world. Unlike other games, Breakwaters isn't satisfied with day-night and weather cycles, it stands out for the fluid mechanics of its water. You swim, sail, and fly to new islands using...

Draw a Stickman: Epic 3 (Series)

Release Date: 03/12/2013, updated in 2022

Platforms: Android, PC, PS4, Switch, Wii U, Xbox One and iOS

Skill Rating: 8+ year-olds

Draw a Stickman: Epic 3 s Epic 3 is the latest game in the series, and you are on a mission to save your friends who have been scattered throughout the world by an earthquake. Work out the puzzles so you can progress through the game.

Skye Tales

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: Switch

Skill Rating: 6+ year-olds

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...

Spelunky 2 (Series)

Release Date: 29/09/2020

Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S

Skill Rating: 11+ year-olds

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...

Wobbledogs

Release Date: 11/03/2022

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 7+ year-olds

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.

A Highland Song

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC and Switch

A Highland Song is a narrative adventure where you explore a maze of crisscrossing routes through the hills of the Highlands. You are 15-year-old Moira who lives with her mum on the edge of the hills and receives a letter inviting her to come to the...

Future Unfolding

Release Date: 15/03/2017

Platforms: Mac, PC and PS4

Skill Rating: 7+ year-olds

Future Unfolding is an exploration adventure where you travel into beautiful landscapes to unfold the mysteries hidden around you. Viewed from above, you have a bird's eye view as you encounter different types of wild animals, some helpful and some...

Lushfoil Photography Sim

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S

Skill Rating: 12+ year-olds

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.

Miska

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 8+ year-olds

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.

Big Hops

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 8+ year-olds

Big Hops is running, jumping and swinging game where you play a parkour frog. You use your long tongue and unusual ways to adjust the world to get around. Your mission is to get back home after being frog-mapped. Along the way you meet a charming cast...

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope

Release Date: 20/10/2022

Platforms: Switch

Skill Rating: 8+ year-olds

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a strategy game where you control Ubisoft's Rabbids (cartoon rabbits) and Nintendo's Mario team in turn-based battles. It expands upon the previous game by adding a wider...

Ctrl Alt Ego

Release Date: 22/07/2022

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 9+ year-olds

Ctrl Alt Ego is a puzzle game where you a disembodied character taking control of robots and electronics to move around, interact and solve the puzzles. Using a combination of stealth and problem solving to progress the story and get to the bottom of...

Palworld

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: PC

Skill Rating: 12+ year-olds

Palworld is a role-play game where you befriend and collect Pal creatures in a vast open world. It takes the Pokemon formula in a new more violent (gun-touting) and bizarre-capitalist direction as you put your pocket monsters to fight, build, farm, and...

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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