Deciding on a video game for your kids is never easy. Puzzle games may be too puzzling; wholesome ones too boring; action games too murder-y. Hell, even the most innocent-seeming titles with kind-eyed cartoon characters feature levels where the goal is to smash enemies into bits. Or chase that gold-coin-cash-money. That might send the wrong message. Unless the message you want is that money comes from breaking brick blocks with your head.
Asi Burak understands the struggle. As the founder of the non-profit Games for Change, which uses gaming to foster social empowerment, he knows that there are many unsavory titles out there. But he also knows that the medium is an educational and developmental necessity for kids and not the anarchist-creating machine Grand Theft Auto makes them out to be. To help you find better titles for Burak recommended these video games for toddlers, kindergarteners, and grade schoolers. Each helps hone key developmental skills while still being, you know, fun.
Best Game For Toddlers: My Very Hungry Caterpillar
Yep, even Eric Carle’s iconic red and green character received the video game treatment. But Burak says you’ll be glad it did. The app puts your toddler in control of the little member of the Lepidoptera family as it changes through the seasons. Children control their always-famished friend, feeding him, getting messy with some digital finger paints, chasing the bouncing ball, and rummaging through his toy box to find the perfect plaything. Nurtured by the non-competitive, educational games, the caterpillar eventually grows into a butterfly.
$4; (iOS) (Google) (Windows)
Best Video Game For Kindergarteners: DragonBox Algebra +5
Normally 3x + 4 = one confused little kid. But Burak praises this game for teaching algebraic concepts intuitively, without using math-speak. It works like this: The game asks kids to solve sets of simple equations. Except the equations are made up of bright images instead of numerals and signs. Kids are instructed to “isolate the box”, which is actually X, and then proceed to tap and swipe matching pairs to achieve that goal. As players progress, actual algebraic symbols and concepts are swapped in. But kids will be too excited about the game’s fun creatures and their own level progression to care that they’ve actually been learning.
$5 (iOS) (Google) (Windows)
Best Video Game For Grade Schoolers: Monument Valley
Among other honors, this puzzler was awarded iPad’s Game of the Year in 2014. It’s easy to see why. Complex and wonderfully designed, it requires mental acrobatics from players, the goal of whom is to navigate the cone-headed princess across mazes of varying difficulty. Said mazes are intricate 3D puzzle boxes and the players must spin, twist, climb, and backpedal in order to lower bridges, avoid obstacles, and ascend to the next tier of mind games. “It’s beautiful and full of smart puzzles and was often compared to the works of M.C. Escher,” says Burak.
$4 (iOS) (Google) (Samsung) (Windows) (Kindle)
Best Video Game For Teenagers: Never Alone
The creators of this game partnered with Alaskan native Iñupiat storytellers to bring their traditional folktales to a wider audience. The result is an engaging puzzling experience that ratchets up the old emotional intelligence meter. Burak loves it because of the beautiful landscapes, compelling gameplay, and cultural lessons. Plot-wise, the game surrounds a young girl and her pet fox who set out on a quest to find the source of a seemingly never-ending blizzard. You control both characters and stumble upon a variety of puzzles on their journey across the arctic. Who knew cultural anthropology would be this fun?
Starting at $5 (iOS) (Google) (Steam) (Playstation) (Xbox)
Best Video Game For Young Adults: Papers, Please
Papers, Please puts players in the wingtips of an immigration officer in a fictional Eastern-bloc country. Based on the various documentation people bring through, they must decide who should and should not be let in. Yeah, it’s pretty stressful — and that’s the point. There’s no real action (this is in a genre of game known as a “document thriller”) but you and the kids will sweat as you scramble through each and every person’s history while contemplating the complexities of the world. Burak gives the game a nod because “you have to make ethical decisions under pressure.”
Starting at $8 (iOS) (Steam) (Playstation)