Wanting to introduce your child to gaming but don’t know where to start? You’re in the right place

The most frequent question I’m getting lately is “what games do I start with?” or “What games do I use for my [3, 5, 6, etc.] year old?” First: including games is a huge decision for your family. Congrats on making that decision! And it’s always ok to change what gaming looks like for your family.

The best game to introduce to your child is one you like, that you think they’ll like too.

When choosing to introduce games to my child, I didn’t choose based on what was “kid friendly”. Instead, I focused on my child’s interests. My child loved playing with cars and racing cars, so racing games were their first games.

Why focus on interest? Anytime we try to introduce something new to our children (or even to a friend) we want to make sure they like it and feel interested in it. Imagine you want to introduce a friend to hiking- you would take them on a trail you think they would like, not necessarily the one you like. Although gaming seems like it should be immediately “fun,” it’s only fun if it interests you. We are also more likely to stick with something we’re interested in, and when first trying a video game, it takes a few tries to be successful.

Why should you like the game too? Games are not an intuitive medium; we often have to show kids how to play a game. Many younger children can’t navigate (or read) a menu, and will need help getting to a point of the game they can play. They may also need help understanding the goal, or knowing what’s fun about the game; that’s where you come in! If you’re a gamer, you may already have something in mind. But if you’re not a gamer, don’t worry! You don’t have to play a game start to finish- try opening the game, navigating the menus, play the first level, and gain some basic comfort. That way you can help if your child has questions, show them a few basic controls, and be there to cheer them on knowing what the game is like.

Keep motor skills in mind

Controlling a video game is hard work. To even start up a video game, players need: gross motor skills to hold the controller, fine motor skills to press individual buttons and use the thumbstick, hand and finger independence to press buttons and control the thumbstick independently, literacy skills to read the controller and menus, cognition to correlate the movement on screen with the movements in the controller, etc. And that’s before they even start playing!

Don’t be afraid to play “together”.

Few games are intuitive from the beginning. You can try playing the game on your own while your child watches, asking them for advice or direction while you play, and eventually giving them very clear and specific things to do. If you control Mario’s direction with the thumbstick, your child can try controlling the “jump” button and press it when you prompt them, then try pressing it independently. Then you can try switching, building those skills separately until your child is ready to try on their own.

Focus less on age, more on content and ability

Some kids walk at 1, some walk at 1.5. Some read at 3, some read at 7. What makes a game “age appropriate” depends on so many factors: your family, your philosophy and moral codes, your child’s motor skills, attention span, interests, etc. Although app store and ESRB ratings are very trustworthy, they are also vague. A game rated “E for everyone” might have no objectionable content but might be very challenging and rigorous. The only games I would suggest avoiding are those with a rating above your child’s age, or with any content (violence, language, sexuality, etc.) that you want to avoid. If you want another resource to help with this, Common Sense Media does game and app evaluations based on age and content.

Some game ideas to get you started

All that said, here are some games to get you started. These are suggestions and starting points- try them out, see how they feel, and if they’re not a good fit, that’s ok! If your favorite game is not on this list- that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play it! It just means I didn’t include it (but be sure to tell me about it so I can include it!).

Introductory games (gaming is brand new and/or your child is very young)

Mario Kart 8, Nintendo Switch, $60. The newest version of the classic. Race against the computer, people online, or people on the couch. This version has accessibility features such as “auto steer” which will keep the car in the lane (so a child can practice just using the gas button) and “auto gas” (so the car will go automatically and the child can focus on steering). You can steer with the thumbstick OR by treating the controller as a steering wheel. Very “intuitive” for a racing game.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Nintendo Switch, $100. This is a version of Mario Kart that you play in and around your house. Set up a physical race around your house, then use the Switch to guide a physical (real) Mario Kart around your house. Very young gamers can help set up the track, look at Mario’s perspective on the screen, etc. As they build their gaming skills they can take over more and more of the control.

Monster Jam: Steel Titans 2 $40, all consoles. If you have a car/truck obsessed child, this can be a good way to harness that interest. A good game to start in a big open world and get used to controls. There are frequent “reset” icons that will restore your car, so you can’t really “lose” or crash. Once comfortable, they can start trying the challenges or races. This is a good game that can “grow” from an introductory game to an independent one.

Starfall ABC FREE, iOS and web-based. Yes, tablet games are video games. Tablet games are a good intro into video games because they are tactile, intuitive, and have more literal gaming mechanisms. It’s a good way to introduce gaming mechanics (and cause and effect in games) while keeping the physical operation as simple as possible. I love this game because it is an “educational” game that intrinsically integrates the “fun” and the “learning”. You can’t remove the learning without changing the “fun” and vice versa- that makes the learning “stick” more and creates a better gaming and educational experience.

Super Mario Odyssey Nintendo Switch, $60. A very good “first” Mario game. Why? It’s very open world, you can wander and explore without a time limit. This supports 2 players. When first playing, the adult can be Mario, and the child can be “Cappy,” Mario’s hat. Cappy has very few moves so this is a “low stakes” way to introduce a platformer but still allows the child to contribute to “winning” the levels.

Super Smash Bros. (Any variety…go old school if you want to blow off the NES cartridge), current version $60. I recommend this “fighting” game for a very specific reason. This is a good way to help a child learn what buttons do what and how to control a character in space. Boot up a vs. match, have an adult be player 1 and a child be player 2, and simply practice pressing the buttons and discovering what they do. Then try using them intentionally (“step forward punch, then jump to the platform”). This can be sort of a “intro to gaming bootcamp”.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Shapes and Colors FREE iOS, kindle fire, android. The first time my child played this game, I sat and watched as they went from not being able to sort by size, to fully understanding how to sort. This game operates like an entertainment game- it doesn’t walk you through it, it doesn’t explain, it does instruct. It just presents the content and lets players explore and figure out the game on their own. The puzzles are simple, the graphics and music are simplistic and not overwhelming. I also find that this is a great way of introducing “puzzle solving” in games to kids. This is a game a 3-4 year old can play mostly on their own from the very beginning.

Wattam $20 across platforms. Explore a whimsical world as anthropomorphized objects. Make friends. Solve puzzles. Explore. There’s almost no dialogue in this game so it’s a great puzzle game for kids without strong literacy skills. This game supports multiplayer and player 2 can stop at anytime without interrupting player 1. A very good game to just try controlling a game. No enemies, no time limits, very forgiving. Also an indie game- support indie developers!

Don’t forget to look for games based on their interests. There are lots of games based on children’s TV; Blaze and the monster Machines (tablet app); Paw Patrol (switch game); Dora the Explorer; Gigantosaurus (Switch game), etc. These might not be the best games, but they cater to very young kids and can be a good way to introduce gaming concepts. I don’t recommend individual titles in this genre because it is so dependent on their interests. Don’t be afraid to follow their interests!

Games for the whole family (everyone can play, supports multiplayer)

Overcooked! $20-30 across platforms. Work together to fulfill orders- who will chop? Who will wash dishes? The food is burning! A great game to work on your communication skills (and also cheaper than couple’s counseling).

Jackbox Party Pack, play online (on your TV and devices), price varies. Jackbox has a variety of games, some of which are good for the whole family. My faves: Drawful– one player draws something to match a silly prompt, other players guess what it is on their devices. Quiplash– all players give answers to silly prompts, players vote on the winner. Guesspionage- players answer trivia using approximations. Other players vote on how close the guesser is (a surprising amount of math in this game, but your kids won’t notice!). Tee K.O.- players collaborate and battle to design the best T-shirt (and you can get your T-shirt printed and sent to you!)

Luigi’s Mansion 3 Nintendo Switch, $60. Help Luigi find Mario and defeat ghosts by…vacuuming them. Supports multiplayer, can work together to defeat the enemies. This is in a “haunted house” so there is some “spookiness” but no true horror content. A good game that introduces “objective based” adventure games- most levels are quite similar.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Nintendo Switch, $100. This is a version of Mario Kart that you play in and around your house. Set up a physical race around your house, then use the Switch to guide a physical (real) Mario Kart around your house. Very young gamers can help set up the track, look at Mario’s perspective on the screen, etc. As they build their gaming skills they can take over more and more of the control.

Rayman Legends– All consoles and PC, $30 (but often on sale). Side-scroller platformer where all players try to make it to the end of the level together.

Finally- look for digital/tablet versions of your favorite board games. This can be a good way to introduce gaming platforms while keeping the game familiar and “easy”.

Games that go from “dependent” to “independent” play- (older kids, kids who can read/navigate a menu, or younger kids playing with older helpers)

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Nintendo Switch, $20. “Join Alba as she visits her grandparents on a Mediterranean island. She is ready for a peaceful summer of wildlife exploration with her friend Ines, but when she sees an animal in danger, she realizes she needs to do something about it!”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Nintendo Switch, $60. Create your own island, home and more. Interact with charming characters, relax, explore, build, and play entirely at your own pace. This game has been studied and shown to have positive impacts on self-worth and mental well being, (Przybylski, 2021).

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker Nintendo Switch, $40. “Captain Toad stars in his own puzzling quest on the Nintendo Switch™ system! Our stubby hero must dodge dangers and track treasures across many trap-filled courses.” Supports 2 players. This game is cute, quaint, and a great introduction to solving puzzles.

Game Builder Garage Nintendo Switch, $30. This is a great way to build independent gaming AND “coding” and development skills. Players build simple games and also understand how they work. This is a great game to use if you like Super Mario Maker and it’s a bit out of reach of your child.

Luigi’s Mansion Nintendo Switch, $60 (but the old school version is on Gamecube, that’s great too!). Help Luigi rescue his friends and catch ghosts while…vacuuming. This has some “spooky” elements but NO horror content. The levels and missions are very repetitive, so this is a good way to help kids understand how “leveled” games work. This game also supports multiplayer; adult can be Luigi, child can be “gooigi” who can always go back to Luigi if they are overwhelmed.

Minecraft Most consoles, PC, iOS, Android, price varies. “Minecraft is a game about placing blocks and going on adventures. Explore randomly generated worlds and build amazing things from the simplest of homes to the grandest of castles. Play in creative mode with unlimited resources or mine deep into the world in survival mode, crafting weapons and armor to fend off the dangerous mobs.”

Monument Valley 1 and 2, iOS and Android, $4-5. One of my very favorite mobile games. Guide Princess Ida through a series of mazes and optical illusions, sometimes by swiping or spinning the world around her. This game has almost no dialogue and the levels are very compact and short. This is a great, handheld, inexpensive way to introduce puzzle games.

Super Mario Maker 1 and 2; WiiU and Switch, respectively. Up to $60. This is a way to build, create, and explore user-generated Mario levels. If your child is interested in building or coding, this can be a great way to bring that into games. It will likely require some parent input; if your child is not already familiar with games, this is probably not the game for them right away.