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The First Video Game I'll Let My Four-Year-Old Kid Play All By Herself

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I play with my four-year-old daughter a lot. I’m the parent that sets up playdates, sits down with puzzles and board games, and takes her to the playground for a few hours. But I’ve never let her venture into a video game on her lonesome. That all changed this weekend.

[Note: This piece originally ran on Jan. 12. Metamorphabet is out on Steam today.]


I have a loose, unkempt list inside my brain, right about the nape of my neck, of video games that I want my kid to play. Some for when she’s in high school, some for when she’s grown and on her own. A few for when she’s right around kindergarten age, which she’s fast approaching. She’s not quite old enough to understand what it is Daddy does for a living, though she knows that games are all around me. I have a bubbling yet sublimated eagerness for her to experience the magic, though, and have been trying to figure out the best way to organically let her do it on her own terms.


For a while there, I thought it’d either be Hohokum or Flower that I’d let her loose with. The elliptical feeling of the former game was edging out That Game Company’s classic. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the aimless-on-purpose ethos of Hohokum and foggy causality—”But why did that happen?”—would probably frustrate her and leave her soured. There have been stretches where she’s been enamored with Cut the Rope or Where’s My Water but, once she hits her cognitive ceiling, the same refrain always sounds: “Awwww. I need to be older. It’s too hard for me.” (She totally says, “Awwww,” too. It’s like living with a cartoon character.)


Metamorphabet was the first game where it felt like it was geared to the way her brain’s working after 48 months of existence on planet Earth. I’ve had a pre-release build of Patrick Smith’s letter-centric game—just nominated for the Grand Prize for the Independent Games Festival—for a few weeks now but was undecided as to whether I should try it out by myself first or share the initial taste with my kid. This weekend, after finishing another rousing round of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, her boredom and no-nap crankiness was beginning to set in and she asked to play another game on my iPad. Perfect opportunity to do the Metamorphabet thing.

She was excited but she’s at the age where she’s excited to be excited about anything. Due out on February 12 for iOS devices with a desktop version to follow in the spring, Metamorphabet is a spin of the ol’ familiar alphabet book, those creations designed to get kids interested in the building blocks of language. The inputs are simple, consisting of primarily the same taps, swipes and drags that she already knows from other touchscreen games. What’s different is the blooming sense of surprise that each gesture gives rise to. Each letter has a few words that will pop out if the player does the right thing to massage them out of hiding.


And while it’s educational, Metamorphabet isn’t overly earnest or treacly. It builds and reinforces vocabulary yet visualizes the process of imagining. The experience comes to life in robust, surprising animations full of elasticity, inventiveness and charm and is just trippy enough to make adult players feel astounded by the transmogrifications that happen with each tap. Any pedagogical benefit feels like a happy accident, though I suspect even that interpretation is a kind of subliminal design intent.


The game design is subtle but it’s there. Each letter is a little journey of discovery at first where simple interactions yield rich rewards. Then, once a player’s found out all the secret words, it’s a game of memory to remember how to coax all those former surprises back out. With my daughter, it then became a little story generator, things to riff off of and connect together in her own loopy sense of logic.


“He’s gonna bite you,” I said to her about one of the animals that spawned out of a letter shape. “He’s only pretend!,” she retorted. But the pretend-ness of it didn’t make it any less compelling. “Here you go, little guy,” she said to the lizards, nudging them along an infinite loop made of logs. Why were there lizards walking all over? “The ‘L’ stopped being lazy and woke up so now the lizards are walking to get some exercise.” Oh, okay. We tussled over what the interactive possibilities were inside Metamorphabet, too. One time, she insisted that blowing on the iPad would spin the virtual pinwheel that was part of the ‘P’ vignette. “Look, it can move a little bit when you blow! I told you!” She wasn’t right but that little moment was another glimpse as to how she understands the world.


Play is its own kind of learning and the same is true for the opposite. As kindergarten and older grades of institutionalized education await, my biggest fear for my daughter is that the eagerness and energy of her hungry, curly-brained head will get snuffed out by tedium and impatience. I think I already know the challenges that she’s going to face and how her personality is going to exacerbate them. I can tell that she’s got low frustration tolerance. Even at 4, she thinks she knows the sum total of concepts she’s only just encountered. “That’s not a pattern. It’s not! I learned about it already in my school!” It takes a special breed of patience to tell her—more and more, of late—”that’s part of what you know already but not all of it.” To tell her that she has it within her to understand and master the things that seem so annoyingly out of reach.


One of my clearest childhood memories was from about second grade, when I saw a pattern in the multiplication table on the back of my composition notebook that was different from what we were learning. I can’t remember what it was and, now that I’m older, it probably wasn’t as genius as seven-year-old me thought. What has stayed with me, though, was the dismissiveness of the teacher when I came up to burble, stammer and blurt my excitedness to her. I’d found my own understanding of the material and was excited about that. Having it be waved off was crushing. From then on, I kept the circuitous ways by which I figured things out to myself. No more getting laughed at for process, when only results mattered. But, I knew, just knew, that I was tamping down an essential part of who I was to get by.


I don’t ever want my daughter to feel like that. Sure, she needs to know all about manners and propriety and mores. But I want her to know that there’s still room inside of agreed-upon behaviors for her to chart her own way. Metamorphabet feels like an object lesson in that regard. It’s a loopy pocket universe where the familiar things you need to know morph and flit about in unpredictable ways, a testimony to the odd, non-Euclidian pathways that our wandering minds walk down. I could explain to her what a Moebius loop is and how the lizards walking it—”that’s right, sweetie, ‘loop’ and ‘lizard’ both start with ‘L’”—aren’t really going upside down. But I’m guessing that whatever reason she’ll eventually make up a song about will resonate more with her. She’s going to make her own sense of the alphabet and the world it opens up to her. Hopefully, Metamorphabet is the beginning of her learning that it’s okay to have your weird filter over reality as long as it gets you where you need to go.