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Games That Are Playful By

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 105 games from the last 25 years, with 4,471 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
Australian Ratings: G to MA 15+
Genres: Action, Adventure, Battle, 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: 4,471

1. Be Welcoming

A Short Hike

A Short Hike is an adventure traversal game where you play the 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...


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 colourless darkness. Unusually, battles are won through listening and conversation rather than traditional attacks. It combines the excitement and strategy...

Sackboy: A Big Adventure

Sackboy: A Big Adventure is a 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. It stands out for the simple exuberant...

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...

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...


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.

Yono and the Celestial Elephants

Yono and the Celestial Elephants 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...

A Tiny Sticker Tale

A Tiny Sticker Tale is an adventure where you change the cosy cartoon world with stickers. Play involves moving around and talking to the locals, then switching to sticker mode to use objects and complete quests. It stands out for the approachable play...

I Am Caterpillar

I Am Caterpillar is a traversal adventure game where you are a caterpillar who doesn't want to be a butterfly. You crawl up trees, leap between lily pads and wriggle through dank underground places as you resist your destiny. It's unusual because of how...

Suika Game

Suika Game, also called Watermelon Game, is a spatial puzzle challenge about matching fruits. You select where to drop each new fruit into the cup, aiming to get matching varieties touching so they merge, create bigger fruit and score points. It stands...

The Videokid

The Videokid is a traversal game inspired by the Paperboy arcade game and the 1980s in general. It plays like an endless runner, where you switch lanes to dodge enemies and collect coins, but at the same time, you're shooting newspapers at enemies and...

Paleo Pines

Paleo Pines is a simulation adventure where you befriend dinosaurs to help you fix your ranch and farm crops. Play involves exploring the island, meeting the locals, taking on quests and working towards taming the dinos. It stands out not only for the...

Rekt 2

Rekt 2 is a stunt racing game where your car works like a skateboard. Play brings the previous game's fast action jumps, tricks and battles to 16-player online matches. It stands out for the simple joys of landing jumps and bumping other players off...


Thronefall is a miniature strategy game that focuses on tactics without the usual headaches of ever-expanding scale. You play in a fantasy world and build your defences during the day to be ready to defend yourself at night. It stands out not only for...

2. Enhance Imagination

Stormworks: Build and Rescue

Stormworks: Build and Rescue is an open-world adventure where you design, build and pilot your own air-sea rescue service. You create programmable vehicles using its block-building system and pilot them into dangerous situations to rescue stricken...

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 Isles. You work together as Nessa and Demelza who 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 tongue-in-cheek puzzle game where you play a dastardly goose intent on ruining the day of the inhabitants of a sleepy English village. Play involves working out the right order of interactions and distractions to let you steal...

Submerged Hidden Depths

Submerged Hidden Depths is an adventure game where you sail, 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...

Tearaway Unfolded

Tearaway Unfolded is an adventure game where you explore a folklore-filled fantasy world that's made entirely of paper. You play by moving around the world, running, jumping and collecting items to unlock doors and fight enemies. It stands out for how...

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 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.

Rain World: Downpour

Rain World: Downpour, and Rain World 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 hide.

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...

Isle of Eras (Dreams)

Isle of Eras is a horror adventure where you explore your childhood island in search of your missing brother. You explore the world to find clues and take on quests to find items. As you do things become supernatural and take you back and forth between...

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...

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.

A Long Climb Ago (Dreams)

A Long Climb Ago is a running and jumping game where you create the platforms you need with Tetris-style blocks. Play involves two modes; you place the blocks that fall from the sky to create a safe route, then you control your character to run and jump...

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...

Alien Hominid Invasion

Alien Hominid Invasion is a cooperative running and shooting game where you play an alien, fighting secret agents and looting Planet Earth. Play is a simple task of running-and-gunning through the large arena levels, using your arsenal of unusual...

3. Open-Ended Play

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...

Toca Life: World

Toca Life: World is part of a series of games that 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,...

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is an online game where you play 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 sequencing strategy 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...

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator (Microsoft Flight Sim 2020) is a 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 maps 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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