Baby Loves Apps: Why I Love Mobile Gaming With My Toddler

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Interested in hearing more about gaming with kids? Going to be at PAX East this weekend? Some of the writers from GeekMom and GeekDad are speaking at PAX East on Friday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. in the Condor Theatre about raising the next generation of geeks. We’ll talk about gaming with kids, our favorite games, and we’ll have a Q&A. Full details are here. Can’t make it? No problem! GeekMom will be (internet permitting) Facebooking live.

It’s snack time on a Sunday and my whole family is screaming at my iPhone. “It’s not enough! We have to be louder,” I holler.

My husband and I strain our voices. My three-year-old son starts banging on a tambourine. The dog leaves the room. We’re playing Blackbox,* a game released a year ago by developer Ryan McLeod, and we are trying to do something, anything, to solve the next puzzle.

Maybe it’s the tambourine—I don’t know—but the little box on my phone that we’ve all been staring at finally turns a solid blue, and our screaming turns to cheers. For a minute. Then we’re on to the next challenge.

Here’s the deal with Blackbox. You have to solve puzzles, but you can’t touch the screen to do it. Your phone is the puzzle. You tilt it, turn up the volume, take a selfie, whatever it takes. Your goal is to turn on “lights,”  little boxes that turn a solid color when you solve the puzzle.  It is the single most frustrating game I’ve played on my phone recently, and my family loves it.

This is a light.

Family gaming in our house tends to revolve around my phone because my son is three and we’re still trying to limit his screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics, as of last year, recommends no more than an hour of screen time for kids 2-5.

Let me be clear: I don’t exactly agree with that limit. For one thing, their screentime recommendations seem to get more stringent as the number of screens in our lives increase, becoming harder and harder to avoid, both in and outside the home. For another, the screen time recommendations seem based on dated assumptions about what a screen is. Most of the guidelines I read seemed to concern television programming rather than games or apps of any kind.

That aside, I do think it’s necessary to cap my child’s screen time and let him explore the real world, but I don’t think I should be barring gaming from his life altogether. Technology is a fact of life, and he’s going to have to learn to navigate it sooner rather than later.

That doesn’t mean he should be learning on his own, as my generation did. That’s why mobile games and casual games are perfect for us; if a game is being played on my phone, he’s playing it with me, not on his own.

Also, gaming on my phone gets us out in the world while we’re playing—he helps me find Pokémon at the store, and we’ve taken up geo-caching as a family. The puzzle games we play focus more on cooperative problem-solving and less on the game itself.

Blackbox is especially good for that. The nature of the challenges means that we’re not focusing on the screen itself but on ways of cooperating to solve the puzzle. The graphics are good for a little kid too: they are striking, colorful, and mostly without text, so my son doesn’t need to be able to read to know what’s going on.

I mean, as much as any of us know what’s going on. The puzzles are frustrating.

This is one of the puzzles in Blackbox. Yeah. I had no idea how to solve it either.

*Blackbox is a free download from the iTunes store, but the game will still try to get you to spend money so that McLeod can buy himself a burrito. (Not kidding. He apparently loves burritos.)  You can buy hints to the puzzles you have, and you can buy access to more puzzles. Both are tempting because sometimes you really feel like you need a hint, and also, you will eventually run out of puzzles. Sadly for McLeod and his burrito habit, this house is pretty stingy. Once we get to the last puzzle, we’ll probably just move on to the next mobile game.

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