Toca Town

Welcome to our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans, nagging questions, and whatever else we feel like talking about. No matter what the topic, we invite everyone in the comments to tell us: What Are You Playing This Weekend?

I work from home, which means I’m also looking after my 5-year-old daughter at the same time. So on more than one occasion, a looming project deadline has forced me to relinquish the care of my kid over to the iPad. My wife and I are mindful of the apps we buy for her, but we don’t concern ourselves too much with monitoring how she plays them.

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I’m a fan of the games made by Toca Boca. They’re well designed and have wonderful, varied art direction. My kid’s current favorite Toca Boca app is Toca Town. The town has a few buildings that you can populate from a menu of different characters. The environments are highly interactive, but there are no explicit goals, points, or other game-like markers of progress or success. Instead, it encourages players to name the characters and invent scenarios for them. Here’s one story I heard unfold: It was Candy Cat’s birthday and Pauline had to make sure Uncle Dad was bringing the hot dogs for the celebratory camping trip. I had to get back to work before I could witness the resolution, but I was later assured that everyone had a lovely time.

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I was chatting with Gameological super-friend Unexpected Dave about kids and video games on Twitter. We discussed how critical conversation about the subject, if it exists at all, hasn’t changed in 20 years. Video games are still discussed as too passive, too violent, or a poor substitute for actual play or other activities. But 20 years is a long time for a medium that evolves as constantly as video games. While some concerns are ongoing—What games are they playing? How are they approaching them?—to focus on the negatives ignores the extent to which games have expanded. Enough people who have played games their entire lives are now parents; it’s ridiculous that the conversation stalled out around the same time Mortal Kombat II was released. Far from being a passive activity, my kid was engaging with Toca Town exactly as she would with her physical toys.

This is not unique to apps directed at younger children. Few games have done as much to shift expectations than Minecraft. More than once I’ve overheard kids—both boys and girls—talking about it. It’s always far from the “How did you beat this boss?” or “How did you get past that part of the level?” conversations I had about games when I was their age. They were talking about raw material bartering systems and structural engineering concerns.

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The improvements to each new generation of hardware are incremental—a slow drip of tweaks, upgrades, and features. As an adult, it mostly feels like a gradual cosmetic improvement. Seeing games as my kid is seeing them for the first time, though, I’m astonished how far we’ve come from the reflex, muscle-memory-based experiences of my youth. There are still great examples of that, too, like the bright, cartoony platformers my kid and I tend to play together. The diversity is a healthy sign.

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How about you, Gameologicons? Have you fulfilled your biological imperative to reproduce? What games do your kids play, and what fascinates you most about how they play them?