If you’re into games yourself, playing video games with kids can be one of the great joys of parenthood (or aunt/unclehood, or godparenthood). It can also be a total pain in the ass.
Trying to play a co-op game with a small child is often an excruciating exercise. You might imagine cherishable hours spent playing New Super Mario Bros together, but what you actually get is a four-year-old crying whenever someone else rides Yoshi. And that’s if they can actually use a controller competently.
This piece originally appeared 2/21/18.
Inconveniently, kids also develop tastes of their own as they go through school, meaning they won’t just sit down happily with you to play whatever family-appropriate wholesome game you’ve carefully selected. I, for instance, have a child in my life who has been inexplicably resistant to Nintendo since the age of about five, thereby ruling out about 80% of the things I would enjoy playing together. A friend’s seven-year-old categorically will not play anything that doesn’t feature Spider-Man, which also rather limits their options.
Nonetheless, it is absolutely worth making the effort to find something that you can play together, alongside whatever kids want to play by themselves. You only have until your child is 11 or 12 before they want nothing to do with you any more and start endlessly pestering to play Call of Duty with their friends instead, so why not take advantage?
Every parent/carer makes their own decisions when it comes to the age-appropriateness of different games. I’ve kept these recommendations to T and below and organized them broadly by age and category. Not all are multiplayer—some are single-player games suited to pad-passing. I’ve prioritized games that don’t require buying expensive toys and add-ons.
A note on screen time: although the AAP’s recommendation is still to limit screen time (to an hour a day for two- to five-year-olds), many studies have shown that it’s not the amount of screen time that matters as much as the nature of it: when parents engage with digital media alongside their kids, there are many positive outcomes.
Little kids (3+)
Children this age often aren’t able to play all that well themselves. You’re looking for games that they will enjoy watching at first and which will allow for them to gain confidence playing themselves as they grow.
A lovely game about little red robots trying to grow space-plants. Climbing and growing are both fascinating to small children, for some reason. There’s no peril in Grow Home, so if kids do pick up the controller for themselves, nothing scary will happen. (PC, PS4)
More recommendations: A Boy and his Blob, Tearaway Unfolded, Grow Up, Super Lucky’s Tale
Super Mario Odyssey
I never thought I’d miss the early ‘00s glut of cartoony 3D platformers until I had children. There are surprisingly few good ones around now. Mario Odyssey, however, is abundantly good. Very small kids will enjoy just running around in circles and watching you collect the moons. As they grow and get more comfortable with a controller, they’ll get more and more out of playing themselves, and the assist mode makes it easier for them to do so. (Nintendo Switch)
More recommendations: Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi’s Woolly World
Farm, Train and Transport Sims
Bear with me here: who doesn’t know a tiny child who’s obsessed with trains, tractors or buses? Sim games are a great thing to play with these children. Steam has train and farm sim games of varying levels of realism and complexity; you might find your kid prefers the super-realistic looking options (Trainz) to the more toy-like ones (Tracks: The Train Set Game). Try to go for one that doesn’t restrict your play or customization too much with money/progression systems. (Depends on the game, but most sims are on PC)
More recommendations: Farming Simulator, Train Valley, Euro Truck Simulator, Stardew Valley
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Kids can pick up racing games at any age really, but Mario Kart is the daddy of them all. It’s colorful, super fun, easy to play on the lower difficulties, and fun in multiplayer once children can handle competitive play. Also an excellent way to subtly encourage your kids into a love of Nintendo. (Nintendo Switch)
More recommendations: You need nothing more than Mario Kart.
Medium kids (7+)
Co-operative and competitive games become more practical at this age, and this is often when a love of video games can really blossom. Depending on how much your child plays games and how good they are at them, you’ll want things they can play together with you and by themselves.
The ultimate game for kids and adults to play together, Minecraft grows alongside the people who play it. With a five-year-old, you might make things together or play with TNT in creative mode; with a seven-year-old you might be fighting zombies and delving into mines together in survival. Minecraft has grown hugely in complexity over the years, but you can play it on whatever level you want. Once they get to about eight, your kid will definitely know much more about it than you. (PC, Xbox, PS4, mobile, Nintendo Switch)
More recommendations: Mario Maker, Dragon Quest Builders, Terraria, Steamworld Dig
Football with rocket-powered cars would appeal to anyone. Rocket League is a great game for kids to play with their friends and parents—or against them. Easy to pick up but hard to master, it’s fun no matter what your skill level. Kids who don’t handle losing well might struggle with it. (PC, PS4, Xbox, Nintendo Switch)
More recommendations: Towerfall Ascension, Gang Beasts
If your child happens to enjoy the same kinds of game as you at this age, playing big adventures like Pokémon is some of the best fun you can have together. If you’re not into Pokémon yourself, pick a single-player adventure game that you can drop in and out of as a parent, playing together when you can. (Various Nintendo platforms, most recently on 2DS and 3DS)
More recommendations: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ni no Kuni
The LEGO games
Whatever you’re into—Ninjago, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel—there is probably a LEGO game about it. The LEGO adventures have good co-op modes, though it can be sometimes be challenging trying to get a kid to concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing to progress instead of just smashing stuff up. In co-op you can generally guide a less skilled player through, and the later LEGO games are as fun to play as they are funny. Be aware that LEGO Dimensions, though amazing, can get really expensive. (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)
More recommendations: Ratchet and Clank, Rayman Legends, Super Mario 3D World, Portal/Portal 2
Big kids (10+)
For tween and young teen kids, often the main challenge is finding slightly less age-inappropriate versions of the 18+ games they ask to play. They’re also far more bothered about what their friends are playing than what you think is appropriate or fun, so it’s harder to play together—but not impossible.
More strategic and less violent than PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite is a good choice for tween players. It helps that it’s so popular, as their friends will likely be playing too. (PC, PS4, Xbox)
More recommendations: Destiny/Destiny 2, the Halo games (all rated Teen, but you’re shooting robots and aliens rather than people)
Sports are one of the few passions that parents and tweens/teens often share. Any good sports game will allow you to join in with the fun, even if you’re getting continually flattened at FIFA by your 11-year-old. (PC, PS4, Xbox; FIFA 18 is on Nintendo Switch)
More recommendations: NBA 2K, Madden, or whatever other sport they’re into
Roblox is a slightly more grown-up version of Minecraft, though it’s not as polished. Roblox allows kids to create and play their own games with friends or play other peoples’ inventions. However, parents should be aware that inappropriate content very often slips through the moderation net. Playing together is one way to supervise what (and whom) your child is engaging with. (PC, Xbox, mobile)
For a long time there was an enormous gap in the market when it came to shooters suitable for older kids and young teens. Many 12-year-olds, depressingly, just end up playing Call of Duty anyway. Now, though, there are competitive games that are just as good and considerably less violent, for parents who are uncomfortable with allowing older kids to play military shooters. (PC, PS4, Xbox)
More recommendations: Star Wars Battlefront II (beware the microtransactions), Warframe
What do you enjoy playing with the tiny people in your life? Share your recommendations in the comments.