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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 upfront 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 be others that could be developed further to improve children’s playful experiences.
This list includes 129 games from the last 26 years, with 4,958 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:

Related Lists

1. Be Welcoming

2. Enhance Imagination

3. Open-Ended Play

4. Adopt ethical commercial model

5. Ensure safety

6. Allow for experimentation

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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