The ninja is cute. He’s fun to play with. Rewards are endless, perfectly timed, and artificially delayed. A steady drip of endorphins—addiction by design.
The ninja is harmless. There’s no danger or possibility of failure. Put in time or money, and you’ll be a winner. No skill or effort required.
The ninja is not allowed on my kids’ iPads.
Games like Clumsy Ninja, DragonVale, and FarmVille guide players though a sequence of predefined steps, where interaction is limited to tapping or dragging a finger around the screen. They leave no room for the player to develop strategies, acquire skills, and achieve mastery. Instead, in a paint-by-numbers scheme, players tap on the marked spot, hope for random chance to give them what they want, or buy their way forward.
This is terrible preparation for life. In the real world, rewards are not automatic and precisely on schedule. In the real world, skill development is necessary to advance, and there will be difficult times where only persistence in the face of frustration will get you through. In the real world, you will not always win.
We play like we train. The time we spend on video games should be an investment: training for real life. There are at least two that I know of which fit the bill and are still massively fun:
Legos for a digital age. A perfect playground for exploration and creativity. My children build amazing things in their various worlds.
Puzzle solving at its finest. Hours of frustration while figuring out how to get past complicated puzzles only built up the eventual joy and achievement. The look on my son's face when he finished the game reminded me of the how it feels to conquer a hard problem at work.
Take some time to play games. Watch your kids as they play. Think deeply about what they’re being exposed to, beyond the levels of content appropriateness and fun. Think through the emotional connections and real accomplishments, and encourage your kids to spend time wisely preparing for the future while still having fun today.