More than 80 million homes have a Playstation 2, and ours is one of them. I originally bought it several years ago to play a few games for myself. Then my stepdaughter came into my life, and I started looking at the console in an entirely new way.
The PS2 is not really a gaming system for young children. Go to any store and look around; the vast majority of the games created for it are really targeted much more at teenagers and twenty-somethings. A lot of games either have very mature subject matter, or are very complicated and require a lot of skill and coordination and concentration. When Olivia started playing games on my PS2 at the age of 6, I had two thoughts. First of all, I firmly believe that video games are good for kids so I was very happy that she was excited about playing these games... but in the next moment I very quickly realized that most of the games I had were completely wrong for her.
Even after scratching the obvious ones like Grand Theft Auto, Devil May Cry, and Evil Dead, almost all of the games I had were unplayable. Final Fantasy X? Dark Cloud? No way; far too complicated. In fact, RPGs in general were just too involved. Ratchet & Clank? It's actually pretty hard for a 6-year-old. Jak and Daxter? Better, but it was really easy for her to get lost in the map and not have any idea what to do next. Even the simple-seeming cartoony games wound up requiring a lot of visualization, control skills, and just plain gaming experience that she didn't quite have.
To use a technical term, she was brand-new to the world of video games, and most PS2 games were either too challenging in general, or lacked sufficient scaffolding to teach her the skills she needed to play them. What's that, you ask?
Scaffolding is a term from education which describes the process of helping a student (or in this case, gamer) learn by providing supports which are later removed as experience is gained. Walkers for babies and training wheels on a bike are examples of simple scaffolding.
Video games will often try to provide scaffolding in the form of an in-game tutorial. The crucially important part, however, is that whatever scaffolding is present usually assumes a basic minimum skill level. In today's games that contain immersive 3D landscapes, for example, that means that the game designers often assume you can figure out where inside that world you are and where to go next. Easy enough for me, but it was a brand-new challenge for Olivia. Another skill that is often assumed is understanding the in-game physics well enough to be able to jump and land on a target platform. Again, not so easy for a kid just exploring video games for the first time. Even the "save game" interface that so many games have is tricky; kids forget to save or accidentally save over old games. Autosave is much easier. When too many of these difficulties add up, the kid spends more time frustrated than engaged, so as I was looking for a game for a six-year-old to play I wanted scaffolding that started at the ground up, moved forward slowly, and really kept the game from getting too hard.
So I started doing some research. That took some time, because there really aren't any good sites that look at games specifically from the perspective of kids and parents. The big game mega-sites like GameSpot and IGN tend to be focused on tweens, teens and twenty-somethings. A game might be great for young kids, but these sites may score it lower than it deserves because it's too simple for their target market. The reverse happens too: a game might score high because it's great fun for an adult, but it's just too darn hard for a younger child.
But finally, after a few false starts and a lot of trips to my local EB Games, we've found some games that Olivia loves. I can't possibly fit them all into one blog post, so this is just the first installment in a series.
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
One of Olivia's early favorites. Sly Cooper is a sly, charming, and honorable thief. Think about a dashing movie Robin Hood reincarnated as a raccoon, and you're in the right ballpark. He's trying to recover the book that is his family's legacy, the Thievius Raccoonus, which was stolen by another not-so-honorable gang of thieves called the Klaww Gang. As Sly proceeds through the game and recovers pages from the book, he learns cool new moves.
The characters, voices, and storytelling are just fantastic. The cel-shaded graphics are smooth and very cartoony, a familiar look to kids. The levels aren't overly complicated; in fact, despite being three-dimensional, most levels progress very linearly so it's hard to get lost. Sly's pal Bentley pops up several times in each level and tells you what you need to do -- audibly, not just in on-screen text which kids are inclined to skip over. There is violence, but it's fairly cartoonish; for example, Sly whacks bad guys with his cane and has to avoid barking dogs on leashes. Enemies only take one whack to defeat, and have simple patterns. A few guns appear but they are also big and cartoonish, and Sly himself only fights with his cane. The game's focus is really not on fighting. If anything, the best way to get through a level is to avoid getting into fights. The challenges in the game also work very smoothly and are very forgiving.
The controls are both simple and consistent, and the game is much better because of that. Sly has many special moves that look great on screen: he can grab ropes, land on tiny points, use his cane to swing from hooks, and more. And most of these feats are triggered by a single button. The game uses context clues to "just do the right thing" when you press it, and it's very forgiving about how close you are to the target. If you're anywhere near a rope, the button makes Sly grab it. If you're jumping near a spiky point, the button makes Sly land on it. And so on. This is fun for adult gamers, but it's particularly great for kids; it really makes you feel like you're doing these terrific-looking stunts when really all you've done is press a button.
Because the whole game is so consistent and provides a lot of direction, it was easy for her to understand. Of course, it still took a fair bit of help from dad to get her through some of the levels the first time through. A lot of the levels look hard but really aren't, and she had to get over being freaked out by those. Others were legitimately difficult and just needed practice; I got her past those the first several times, but she's since gotten good enough to handle them on her own.
In the end, one of the best signs of a great game is when a kid goes back and plays it again and again and again... and that's what Olivia has done with Sly Cooper. She started playing it at age 6, and will still go back to it almost two years later. Fantastic. Well worth the money.
There's a sequel out now, Sly 2: Band of Thieves. It's a very different game from the first. Olivia has played it and likes it well enough, but it's more difficult and is skewed a bit more toward the tween/teen age spectrum.
Not only do Olivia and I like this game, but her mom does too! That's rare; my wife usually doesn't find video games interesting at all. But this game's weirdness and simplicity attracted even her.
The stars have fallen from the sky, and you play a tiny little guy, the Prince, whose father is the King of All Cosmos. He orders you in his own bizarre quirky way to roll up ordinary objects into an ever-growing ball (called a katamari) until the ball reaches the size which has been set as the goal for each level. You start out rolling a 10cm ball, rolling up thumbtacks and coins and caramels... and as you grow you are soon rolling up dogs, cats, and people... then cars and buildings... then trees, boats, and giant squid... and finally skyscrapers, airports, and entire islands. The thrill this provides is difficult to explain until you've tried it. There's literally nothing you can't roll up into your ball once it's big enough.
The music is beautifully composed; like the rest of the game, it's simultaneously weird and wonderful. The controls are simple and accessible to all ages. The two joysticks are used together to roll your ball, and that's really all you need to know. There is no violence to speak of. Okay, so some levels are filled with people screaming and running away as your giant katamari swallows up their town, but nobody is killed and it's very absurdly unrealistic. The net effect is much more comical and silly than scary. Some of the levels can be challenging, but this is made up for by the fact that every single level has replay value. If you can't beat level 4 within the time limit, you can go back and play levels 1 through 3 over and over again and still be just as entertained.
Highly recommended for all ages. The only danger is that the adults will want to spend more time playing it than the kids!
The original EyeToy games are a lot of fun for everyone. Olivia and I like EyeToy, it's fun at sleepovers, and it's another game that has the very rare Mom Seal of Approval too!
EyeToy is a small camera that you attach to your PS2's USB port. The game that comes with the EyeToy is called EyeToy: Play. Control is handled entirely through the camera -- you don't use the normal controller at all. The camera displays an image as if the TV were a mirror, and it's overlaid by graphics. Waving your hand over a button will select it. There are a bunch of different mini-games to choose from that use the camera in different ways: Kung Fu, window washing, dancing, soccer, and more. One game just uses crazy camera effects to distort the image in various ways, and kids love it.
Using the camera as the controller is unusual but surprisingly simple and intuitive. It can be a little tricky to set the camera up initially -- mom and dad need to help with that. You have to draw the blinds, and and then get plenty of artificial light in the room. But once it's set up it's fun for the whole family. And it's also the sort of game you can just leave a bunch of kids alone with. Sharing is easy and sometimes not even necessary, like in the crazy-camera-effects section. There's a tiny bit of violence in some of the games, like Kung Fu, but it's so cartoonish -- your onscreen image is a giant, and little tiny guys jump at you and you get to smack them -- that it winds up being absurd and comical.
Highly recommended for all ages. Kids as young as a few years old should be able to understand this and interact with it. And it's still fun as a party game even after the novelty wears off. Well worth the money.
More to Come
That's all for now, but I'm not done. Keep your eyes out for the next installment!
[Update: Great PS2 Games for Young Kids, Part Two is now available.]