The first question most parents ask when it comes to teens and video games is whether the game is appropriate. Video games are often stereotyped as violent, but more and more of them are challenging that old association. Many games feature complex, nuanced storytelling. They educate players about important topics like free will, gender politics and self-expression, and teach skills like improved visual processing, problem solving and fortitude. A growing amount of research shows that teens are even more receptive to learning while playing a game.
To help parents sift through the millions of games available to their children, I’ve compiled a list of seven games that parents can not only tolerate, but feel thrilled their teens are playing.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is a fun, narrative-driven game that teaches players rhetoric and decision-making. The game revolves around Stanley, an employee known as #427, who is just another number, taking orders, and following the directions of the company. Everything changes when, all of a sudden, the orders stop coming and Stanley is presented with his freedom (or so he thinks). This is where the game begins, as players guide Stanley deciding whether to follow his internal thought process, which narrates the game, or go against it. Through the game, players learn about critical thinking and the impact of their choices. One teacher compared the game to Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw, arguing that the game provides a modern context to understand James’ “unreliable narration” and the critical thinking needed to grasp the story.
Gone Home is an atmospheric, detective-style game that follows Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns home from a year abroad to find her family’s house is mysteriously empty. Kaitlin then wanders throughout the house searching for clues to explain her parents’ and sister’s disappearance. However, the game’s central narrative is actually about Kaitlin’s younger sister, Sam. Sam’s story unfolds as the player finds (and reads) her journal entries, which reveal that she was involved in a romantic relationship with a girl named Lonnie. The journal documents the progression of their relationship, as well as the challenges Sam faced in coming out to her parents, understanding her own emotions, and generally surviving adolescence. NPR’s Steve Mullus called Gone Home “one of the most deeply intimate and emotionally honest gaming experiences I’ve had in my more than 25 years of playing video games.”
Spaceteam requires two to four players who become the “crew” of a spaceship. Each crew member has a control panel filled with a medley of switches, slider, knobs, buttons, etc.. The panel displays (often ridiculous) commands such as “engage hyperjig,” and “oscillate the optical refractor,” which the players must rapidly accomplish to keep the spaceship from crashing. The catch? Most commands can only be completed by another player. This means that every player must constantly yell out commands for her fellow crew members, while also listening for commands to fulfill herself. This game not only teaches teamwork, but also hones critical skills of communicating and listening to others, particularly in high-stress situations.
Monument Valley is an interactive puzzle game that throws the player into a mystical world of MC Escher-style visuals. Each puzzle is a piece of conceptual art, featuring impossible architecture, mazes, optical illusions, and geometric mind-benders. Players lead “Princess Ida” through the puzzles as she searches for the exits (and forgiveness). Ida will encounter moving platforms, mysterious staircases, crows, and other obstacles along the way, and each level holds a different central mechanic to figure out. Monument Valley teaches puzzle-solving skills and spatial reasoning. Furthermore, its beautiful design can inspire an appreciation for art in even the most apathetic of teens.
Sims 3 is a real-life simulation game where players create their own virtual worlds. The games are open-ended, leaving it up to the players to build characters, homes, and communities, and keep them functioning smoothly. Like actual humans, the customizable Sims go to work, have fun, create goals, form friendships, get married, buy houses, have children, do chores, shop, eat, sleep, get sick, and even die. Players have to work to keep their Sims happy, healthy, and productive. They will also encounter challenges along the way that they can complete to earn more money or social credit. The game helps teens practice time-management and goal-setting skills while also driving home the reminder that all actions have consequences, and small choices can have a large impact on the future.
Hearthstone is a collectible card game that centers around turn-based matches between two opponents. Each player chooses a “hero” avatar and creates a deck of 30 cards. They draw and play cards each turn to cast spells, use weapons or special skills, or summon minions. A player’s actions are partially determined by their “mana,” or resource pool, which increases throughout the game. A match ends when one player reaches zero health or concedes. Hearthstone a strategy game, requiring forethought, discipline, and even math to win. It also encourages good sportsmanship.
Papers, Please takes place in the fictional, communist state of Arstotzka, which has just ended a war with its neighbor Kolechia and reclaimed the border town of Grestin. Players assume the role of an immigration inspector tasked with controlling the flow of people entering Grestin from Kolechia. Hiding amidst the hordes of people are smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Players have to inspect the travelers’ documents to determine whether they are in order. They can also interrogate travelers that seem suspicious and demand more information, such as a body scan or fingerprints. Using limited information and resources, players have to decide who is allowed to enter Arstotzka, who gets turned away, and who gets arrested. This task is further complicated by financial incentives, bribes and penalties, not to mention escalating political crises in the region. Every action the border agents take intimately affects another person’s life, and causes players to carefully consider moral questions and make difficult decisions. In the process, players learn about passing judgment and the moral repercussions of decisions.
Getting a teenager’s attention can be a major obstacle, much less imparting life lessons and practical skills. Parents trying to engage with their kids in today’s fast-paced, digital world should be open to experimenting with new methods and channels. Video games present a powerful opportunity to reach teens while also preparing them (however stealthily) for adulthood.
What games have you found helpful in teaching your teens lessons? What type of lessons do you hope games can teach your kids?
Kara Loo is a California girl who loves Dynasty Warriors, garden roses, and baking cupcakes. When she isn’t writing for Pixelberry’s hit game High School Story, she also runs a fictional fantasy high school in the world of School for Adventurers with her co-author Jennifer Young.