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Video computer games keep teens and adults occupied and entertained for hours, but what about younger kids? What are some titles that are made for them that they can have fun, learn, and grow with? Here are 12 of the best children’s computer games that make our list.
Categories: Non-violent, educational, building
Age range: 10+
What’s better than a day at a theme park full of thrilling roller-coaster rides? Maybe building and managing a theme park full of thrilling roller-coasters rides. RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 allows players to construct and manage a park full of paying customers (called “peeps”), and design coasters from the ground up then “ride” them in first-person view.
RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is a strategy/simulation/management game that puts the player in control of all aspects of planning and building a theme park for maximum fun and profit. Day and night cycles bring different types and age groups, which will be attracted to different ride types.
Planning a fun, well-designed park is challenging; setting up fireworks shows to go off in time with roller-coaster dips and loops and keeping the “peeps” paying into the park’s coffers is just part of the fun.
Getting to see and feel what the coaster you designed and built looks like when you’re riding in the first car is the icing on the cake. The sandbox mode turns off the management aspect and gives you infinite amounts of materials to allow younger players to build to their heart’s - and imagination’s - content.
Categories: Action, toy-like combat, collecting, unlocking
Age range: 7+
Kids love Lego® toys. There’s the undeniable appeal of Lego, which is able to recreate recognizable, blocky, and accessible versions of the things we love that immediately signify “fun.” Kids also love Star Wars and have been loving it for 40+ years now. So the merging of the two properties into a video game seems like a great draw for kids. And it is.
The Lego Star Wars games have been released over the years, re-telling the stories of the movies through playable action/puzzle/platform levels. And with Lego-based humor and building dynamics, all are individually a blast.
Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga bundles all the Lego Star Wars games into one cohesive package, with some shiny graphics updates. It allows players to bop around and play through the “episodes” in whatever order they choose, through a clever world-hub in a Lego-version Mos Eisley Cantina.
Completing all the episodes and levels of the story mode could take anywhere from 13 to 20 hours of dedicated gameplay. But the package offers many more options, modes, unlockable player characters, and collectibles. Finishing the whole lengthy story mode is really only about 30% of the achievements possible.
Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga is fun for casual action play for young kids, but also offers satisfying achievement-hunting completion tasks for the more completist-obsessive (and older) Star Wars fans.
Categories: Retro-action, whimsical art style
Age range: 12+
Cuphead is one of the more beautiful video games you will ever play. It is also one of the absolutely hardest games to complete. The indie-darling game recreates the classic animation style of early, classical Disney and Fleischer Studios hand-drawn animation, in “run-and-gun” style gameplay. Think early NES side-scrolling classics like Contra or later hits like Gunstar Heroes that feel like a living controllable cartoon.
The titular character (a whimsically designed living cup with arms and legs) lives with his brother Mugman on the fantastical animated and illustrated land of Inkwell Isles. The opening cartoon looks and sounds like it could have come from the masterworks archives of the old hand-drawn studios, complete with scratches on the “film” and perfectly period-appropriate soundtrack that narrates the tale in barbershop style song.
The brothers enter “The Devil’s Casino” and go on a winning streak playing craps. But they disregard Elder Kettle’s advice and don’t quit while they’re ahead. They risk their very souls on a dice roll and lose. They’re given one last chance: travel Inkwell Isle and collect the “soul contracts” of the various animated denizens of the place and return with them, and they might be spared.
This equates to a gorgeously animated series of incredibly long and unforgiving, multi-part boss battles with giant, 1930s-style cartoon menaces. It’s at once a love letter to the difficult old days of retro-gaming, with titles like Mega Man or Contra, and a love letter to an art and animation style that doesn’t see much play in the era of computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Younger kids may throw their controllers to the floor in rage-quitting frustration after their 20th death at the hands of a giant flower-level boss. But 12-year-olds and above might just find that special kind of dedication their parents had to beat old console games that seemed impossible.
The gameplay is hard, but always fair. The simple platform controls of jumping, shooting, and dodging are easy to learn, but Cuphead demands that you master them to unlock progress. And it rewards that progress with the most impressive animation you’ll probably see in gaming.
Categories: Reading/puzzle, critical thinking
Age range: 9+
RL Stine’s beloved Goosebumps book series are many kids’ first introduction to the world of horror fiction; scary, but age-appropriate tales of werewolves, vampires, mummies, and haunted ventriloquist dummies. They are sort of like a training-wheels version to the bike-riding of Steven King or Dean Koontz novels.
With the adaptation of the franchise into movies starring Jack Black, Goosebumps: The Game was released and offers young gamers a point-and-click, story-driven puzzle-adventure chock-full of references to the best-selling books.
This is an instance where you really do have to have read the books to get the most out of the game; kids not familiar with the stories and characters may not find it compelling enough to push through.
Categories: Retro-platforming, cartoon-style characters
Age range: 9+
Video games are now generational affairs. There is a market for re-imaginings and sequels to beloved classics of fondly remembered childhood titles thanks to parents of video game-playing youngsters who have grown up with console games that are now “retro.”
Banjo-Kazooie, developed for the Nintendo 64 by developer Rare studio, is one such game. A fully-funded Kickstarter development project, Yooka-Laylee is a spiritual sequel to the Banjo-Kazooie platform gamer and playstyle of that era. The nostalgia for those simpler, nicer times of gaming is strong; it’s a record-breaking success of funding, meeting, and surpassing its goals by miles.
Yooka-Laylee captures and recreates those gameplay elements and skills: platforming, puzzle-solving, and secret-finding, just like the old days. It does this with a similar carefree, cartoony design sensibility, but updated with a modern polish. The attention to recreating a 20-plus-year old game design can be looked at as both a blessing and a curse.
For kids new to gaming, it can be a great introduction to core concepts and skill and reflex building, as well as getting a feel for the game-like elements of games, level-design conventions, and secret-area finding. For older gamers, Yooka-Laylee might feel a little bit too retro in its sensibilities. But if that kind of gameplay is new to a kid, they can experience the same sense of accomplishment that their folks did when they were little.
Categories: Building, sandbox, casual to dedicated
Age range: 6 to 100
Minecraft is a bonafide classic and one of the most popular online games for preschoolers and above. The deceptively simple design of block construction is almost infinitely customizable for all ages and levels of play; small children quickly master its intuitive control scheme of destroying and creating different types of blocks, and stacking and arranging them into increasingly complex structures.
Depending on how you play and adjust the settings in Minecraft, it can be a leisurely, vast playground where you have an endless amount of materials to build villages and tunnels and design model houses or sculptures.
Or it can be a survival simulator, pitting your toy-like character as a one-person world-builder who must construct tools, gather resources, mine for materials, and stay alive in a blocky landscape of silly but sinister creatures like Creepers and Zombie Pig Men.
Or it can be a cooperative, social interaction with friends from school, siblings, or other kids across the nation and world.
Getting fully into the guts of the game leads kids to learn to code and program, with the immediate rewards of seeing their new skills bear fruit in their “worlds.” It is a rare kind of software that is at once a game, and a building platform for games, all at the same time. For kids from 6 to 60, Minecraft is a perennial favorite and deserves to be in everyone’s library of games and life experiences.
Categories: Casual, building, social, expandable
Age range: 8 to 18
Roblox takes the Minecraft concept and introduces kids to the world of massively multiplayer environments and customization. It’s not exactly a game in and of itself as much as it is a marketplace and hub for homebrew mini-games and shareable user-created experiences using its game-construction tools. With over 90 million actively playing monthly users, Roblox is clearly doing something right.
Players can create, buy, and sell in-game items with the virtual currency “Robux,” and explore and play the constantly newly developed games and worlds that one another are crafting.
For kids who get into Roblox and learn how to construct their own mini-games and items, it isn’t just a revenue drain on parents; Roblox users selling access to their creations actually get a split of the real-world revenue for their virtual wares. If your kid gets good enough at Roblox game creation, they could conceivably pay their own way through college with the revenues .
Categories: Educational, science, applied learning
Age range: 13+
In children’s video games set in space, mastering the gameplay is usually not rocket science. Kerbal Space Program is the exception to this rule. Kerbal Space Program is a game about building and sending rockets into space.
But it’s not just a simple point and click, “Angry Birds” style affair of launching. It is a full-fledged space-program simulator, presented as a “sandbox” game, where you direct a newly formed space agency of “Kerbals” (little green humanoids) and are given tools to develop, test, and fly air and space vehicles.
You’re doing so not using arcade-style controls and physics, but rather realistic (though understandable and “gamified”) orbital mechanics, and accounting for Newtonian dynamics of celestial objects. To orchestrate a moon landing, you’re going to have to actually orchestrate a moon landing.
This is not the easiest game to get into and may not be for younger kids looking for the quick comforts and rewards of Minecraft or Roblox. But it offers a real sense of achievement and understanding to older kids who might become fascinated by the intricacies of actual rocket science. And the rewards for those who are compelled to learn and explore are great.
Categories: Skill-building, gross-out humor, exciting tension
Age range: 13+
A mash-up of typing simulator and zombie-shooter? Sure, why not? Everything about Typing of the Dead: Overkill is improbable, quirky, and funny - including its existence. The studio that developed it was shut down quickly into programming, but convinced Sega to allow them to rapidly complete the game in a few weeks’ time. A legendary coding marathon took place, and the team delivered a product that was unexpectedly fun, funny, and addictive.
In Typing of the Dead: Overkill, players type on-screen phrases rapidly to fend off incoming zombie attacks, set in the Sega franchise world of House of the Dead, the over-the-top zombies vs. secret agents light-gun game. Replacing the gun with quick typing skills, and acknowledging the silliness of the whole affair, while still offering real tension for accuracy and speed makes for a fun experience for kids at least old enough to watch The Walking Dead.
Categories: Non-violent, educational, structure-teaching
Age range: 5 to 9
Somewhere between Q-Bert and math class, LightBot is an educational game that teaches kids coding concepts and visual problem-solving skills. Maneuvering a robot across blocks to change the colors as he steps on them is not achieved by directional buttons or gamepads, but rather by mapping out a code set to instruct him on what directions to take.
One of the best educational computer games for children, LightBot offers kids the chance to learn how to debug their code if they fail along the way. It gamifies a real-world skill set and approach to thinking in a way that’s both fun and broadly educational.
Categories: Strategy, turn-based, thinking game
Age range: 10+
The storied computer gaming franchise of Sid Meier’s Civilization began in 1991. It pioneered the “4X” genre of strategy-based, board-game-like video games: 4X stands for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate,” in which players vie on a world map to gain land, resources, forces, and then conquer others.
At its core, it has the elements of the board game Risk, but with added layers and systems, and modifications. The game franchise has grown with the times, but retains its timeless appeal of turn-based gameplay, taking a civilization from primitive settlers to world superpowers.
Categories: Timeless classic, rite of passage
Age range: 9+
“You have died of dysentery.”
This message has been delivered to pioneering gamers since the pioneer days of video gaming. If you can believe it, the original “edutainment” title The Oregon Trail began in 1971 (!!) as a text-based computer adventure programming project on a shared, experimental school computer system.
Its history involves HP® itself, as 8th-grade history class student teacher and college student Don Rawitsch - along with fellow college students Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger - used HP Time-Shared BASIC running on an HP 2100 minicomputer to write the initial program . It taught children a little history about the settlers of the country, a little strategy, and reliance on a little luck. It’s since become a cultural touchstone through the ages.
The Oregon Trail went on to be rebuilt and relaunched through the early days of Apple computers in school classrooms (that’s Apple IIe, the green-text-on-a-black-screen Apple, before the Mac) and on into the 90s, the 2000s, and into today. Kids for generations have been having something approaching fun, dying of dysentery on their way to Oregon.
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