We talk a lot about what makes kids games good. Today, I’m going to tell you about something that can make a kid’s game very bad: emotional manipulation via imperiled baby animals. In other words, making kids feel guilty for failing to rescue digital animals from imaginary doom.
There are a ton of these games on the market right now, and boy do they make me mad.
Strike 1: Using guilt to keep kids from leaving.
There are all kinds of reasons why you might not to want to stop playing a video game. Maybe it has a compelling story you don’t want to interrupt. Maybe you have to do your taxes and you really, really don’t want to.
But as an adult, you know that video games can’t stop you from walking away if that’s what you want to do. You understand from experience and from years of observation that no matter how hard a game pleads or threatens, it’s just a game. And better yet, you understand the reasons why a game might be trying so hard to get you to stay. (Spoiler: It’s money.)
If you haven’t taken the time to really talk to your kids about propaganda (what it is, why it works, and how to avoid it), then they probably won’t recognize it when they see it. Even if you have had the conversation, kids have had a lot less time to observe predatory marketing techniques, so they’re a lot more vulnerable.
If you have notifications enabled, it’s even worse. Notifications can keep on reminding your kids over and over of all the babies they could be rescuing at this very moment. After all, which is more important: saving a helpless baby, or doing…basically anything else? Research shows that transient emotions contribute more to decision-making than we would like to believe. These games don’t have to change your world-view to get you to pick up the smartphone. Imperiled baby animals always work (they worked for Sarah McLachlan,too).
Strike 2: Making kids feel ashamed of performing poorly.
Let’s take a look at Bubble Mania, by TeamLava. You play as a pink cat on a mission to rescue baby “critters.” Here’s how the game rewards you when you succeed.
What cute art! Seriously, I really like the art in this game. Not to mention the level design. Bubble Mania’s got some really awesome gameplay, much better than any other bubble-popper game I have been able to find. The puzzles are just the right level of tricky, and there’s no time limit, which is great.
Like any good video game, Bubble Mania is designed so that most of the advanced levels take many tries to complete. This doesn’t make me feel down on myself, though. Failure is actually really healthy, especially for kids, and it’s one of the reasons games work in education. Check out this article about how failure in games can improve diligence and creativity.
Bubble Mania doesn’t seem to have the same perspective on failure. Here’s what happens when you don’t save the babies.
Woah. Here’s the equivalent screen for Panda Pop, another baby rescue game.
This guilt trip is universal to pretty much every baby-animal-rescue game out there. If the main avatars aren’t yelling at you, then they’re probably crying, screaming, or shown standing over a broken heart. Or worse.
The implication here is clear. These babies have died because you weren’t good enough to save them.
Strike 3: Making it impossible to win.
Like many mobile games, Bubble Mania has a lot of levels. Like, an impossible-to-ever-see-them-all-in-your-lifetime number of levels. It doesn’t matter how many times you rescue the babies, they are always getting thrown right back into danger just as soon as you tap into the next level.
There are some kinds of never-ending games that I fully endorse. TETRIS is amazing. Lately, I’ve been playing the endless mode of Duet by Kumobius, and I love it. But TETRIS never pretends to be anything other than endless. That’s kind of its whole deal. By contrast, the first time I played Bubble Mania, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I could be playing this game forever. TeamLava designed the story to make me expect an ending that would never come. Literally. Here’s how they describe their forums (emphasis mine): “Talk about the best strategies to burst bubbles, complete all the levels, and defeat the Evil Bubble Wizard!”
If I’m on level 284 and I’ve never gotten into a single battle with this Evil Bubble Wizard, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
One of my favorite things about gaming with kids is that it can teach them a lot about how to win and lose with grace. If a game has no ending, you are missing out on an important learning opportunity.
Three strikes, you’re out.
One of the most disappointing things about games like PandaMonium and Pet Rescue Saga is that sometimes there is an awesome game underneath all of those crying babies. As an adult, I don’t really have a problem with playing them or recommending them to other adults, because (as with many games) the plot is just an excuse for me to get to the cool game mechanic underneath. A shiny wrapping paper, if you will, surrounding a generally pleasant gaming experience.
But here’s what makes that wrapping paper so important: it’s there for kids. When I play a game like PandaMonium, I know that if I stop playing, everything is going to be okay. If I fail a level, I just need to keep trying. But if I am a child, these games are one of the ways I’m learning about failure and success—and how to lose or win gracefully.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned in-app purchases yet. In-app purchases are not the public menace that they once were. Thanks to all the media attention drummed up in the last few years, it’s easy these days to adjust the settings on your phone to guarantee that your kid doesn’t accidentally rake up $6,000 on Candy Crush Saga.
But the fact that these games don’t cost you thousands of dollars doesn’t make them any more excusable. Their entire method for convincing children to play isn’t about fun, isn’t about learning, and certainly isn’t about saving animals (an undeniably just cause). It’s about guilt. Playing on kids’ moral compasses for something as vapid as a game of Mahjong is a great way to inspire a generation of gamers to become jaded and mistrustful of a medium that I believe can be so much better.
On the bright side, there are a ton of amazing, family-friendly mobile games out there that you can try instead. Slice Fractions, a really fun math game for kids, just released some new levels. Check out more of Pixelkin’s app recommendations right here.
If your kid is already playing a baby rescue game and doesn’t want to stop, maybe it’s time to have the propaganda conversation. Once kids understand some of the most basic manipulation tactics, they can at the very least begin building a foundation for making their own decisions about playing—or not playing—this kind of game ever again.