Despite my annual letter writing campaign, the schools still close during the Christmas period. As such, your home might become far more plagued by small children, whether they’re your own or those of family or friendly invaders. How can you occupy them, once they’ve tired of shivering on the trampoline, and all the Nerf pellets are lost? How about…video games?! Here are some of the best games to play with kids this holiday season.
We’ve created this list with the help of the Family Video Game Database, a neat web tool that lets you curate bespoke lists of suggestions to play with your particular flavour of child. With a heavy focus on accessibility (you can select for reading levels which is a godsend), the site lets you ascribe the peculiarities of your kids, and then generates games you might want to play. This is not a commercial, by the way! We just learned about it recently, the project of games journalist Andy Robertson, and figured you might find it incredibly useful. They helped us out in picking Kotaku’s suggestions here. Seriously, it’s very good.
So fire up your adblocker and click on through the slideshow for excellent tips for this holiday’s time-fillers, hopefully featuring some games you might not have thought of before.
Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan
PC, XB1, PS4, Switch
A game in which you win battles by listening and conversation? Is this COMMUNISM?
Think Paper Mario meets Epic Mickey, a 2.5D RPG in which you return colour to the world through your encounters.
It describes itself as “a universal coming of age story about dealing with changes in the world and accepting ourselves and the others around us!” Which sounds like exactly the conversation I want to have with my narcissistic 7-year-old right now. “Sometimes,” they add, “it only takes a conversation, empathy, and a new point of view to make a world of a difference.”
Lonely Mountains Downhill
PC, XB1, PS4, Switch
It’s about riding a mountain bike down a hill. Simple as that. Except of course, so much more. This beautiful game is about exploring, jumping, resting and racing, seeking the fastest route to the finish line.
It might be trickier for the youngest players to get to grips with the controls, but that so often leads to the best moments of sharing a controller, and those wonderful breakthrough moments when they realise they’ve got it.
And best of all, it’s already on your Game Pass if you’re a subscriber.
PC, XB1, PS4, Switch
One of the slightly more obvious inclusions on the list, but I feel like it gets overlooked because of the assumption it’s something to do with Minecraft. OK, yes, it is something to do with it, but only aesthetically. This is, instead, a top-down Diablo-ish brawler, and one of the best co-op games to play as adult and kid.
Played two-player, it’s an amazingly adept game at equalizing ability, letting younger kids keep up while they learn the game, then inevitably get far better at it than you. Plus, crucially, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve carried on playing long after my boy moved on.
There’s a good chunk of the game on GamePass, while the add-ons can be bought individually, so you can manage spending on new content for your child’s personal attention span. Worry not if Minecraft proper’s bloat and scale is off-putting to your brats, this is a whole other, contained, superb thing.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
PC, XB1, PS4, Switch, iOS
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a game about protecting wildlife, rather than gaming’s more usual deadly approach to the matter. Alba is a small girl who visits her grandparents in the Mediterranean one summer, and discovers an animal in danger. In response she starts a wildlife conservation club! Yay Alba!
The game is about improving the island, photographing animals, and helping those in trouble, like a more hands-on Pokémon Snap. It’s by the team behind Monument Valley, which gives you an idea how pretty it is. And more significantly, it’s a game about making the environment around you a better place to be, for both you and the wildlife.
It’s single-player, but designed to be accessible to much younger kids, meaning you can fling the controller back and forth between you.
PC, Switch, Android, iOS
By narrative gaming masters Inkle, Overboard is a murder mystery game in which you attempt to get away with killing your husband. So no, this isn’t one for the younger players, but quite a brilliant choice for playing alongside teenagers, especially the bookish ones.
This is a game many might not have considered for family play, given its peculiar age ratings. In the US it has a “Teen” rating, while in the UK it’s got an astonishing “18″ certificate. The reason, it seems, is because there’s a scene depicting a game of blackjack, despite this being played with in-game money. So if that’s a no-no for you, fine, but for everyone else, you can relax.
You can also toggle off curse words, really leaving murrrrrder as the main sticking point for some parents. But if you’re after something to play with older kids, where you can work together to make decisions, see how a story unfolds given your agreed actions, this could be a real surprise hit for your holiday.
PC, iOS, Android
If there’s one game from this list I implore you to play with any kids in the vicinity, it’s this one. It’s a collection of vignette levels, in which the strange, fluffy orange Chuchel attempts to get his mitts on a delicious-looking cherry. And fails.
Think of those classic early 20th-century Looney Tunes cartoons for the vibe, each level playing out like it’s own “episode.” It takes developer Aminita’s (Machinarium, Botanicula) incredible puzzle adventure sensibilities, and turns them toward a manic, delightful, and frequently hilarious game.
This is a rare joy to play with a kid, with its experimental clicking accessible to younger children, while its silliness generates squeals of laughter.
Not everything played with kids needs to be bright colours and cheerful faces. Vane’s sombre tone and possibly post-apocalyptic desert setting certainly make for a darker beginning. However, it’s a game about hope, and indeed about swooping through the sky as a magic bird that can turn into a child.
Your interaction with the world changes how it appears, essentially bringing life back to a barren location, but with far more nuance than that suggests. It’s a game about history, about the importance of communication, and indeed sacrifice.
There are some potential scary images in here for the youngest children, but 7-year-olds and upward shouldn’t have any issues. It’ll certainly spark conversation.
Kids do love violence, but there’s something inherently unpleasant about watching them enjoying it. As I discovered the other day when I idiotically let my 7-year-old play some Halo Infinite. It seems fine, right! Until he’s taking “headshots” and you suddenly remember what that actually is.
Boomerang X is a violent game, on some level. It’s about leaping about in first-person, flinging a starred blade weapon at the world and its creatures. It’s rapid and visceral. But it’s rated as a 10 in the US, a 7 in the UK, and that’s not a mistake.
We can get bogged down in the bizarre use of the word “Boomerang” for a game about a shuriken that once thrown allows you to teleport to its location. We should get bogged down in that. But we won’t. Instead, we’ll suggest this as a great way to let off some violent steam for younger players, without worrying about exploding brains and the like.
PC, XB1, PS4, Switch, iOS
It’s a game for people who love to organise things! Which, if you’ve got children, might at first seem an odd choice. But actually, while bedrooms may rarely be included in such a mentality, think about all that time spent lining up toys, rather than playing with them.
Creating a sense of order in a chaotic world is an incredibly therapeutic act for kids, and Wilmot’s Warehouse allows this. It’s also strange enough that it doesn’t feel like work, and by the time customers start arriving asking for your peculiarly arranged items, it develops into a more involved challenge.
It can be played two-player, and this allows for discussions about tactics, systems, and so on, which can make for a lovely time between adult and child.
PC, Switch, iOS
Another one aimed at older kids, Nuts is the bonkers combination of Firewatch and…squirrel conspiracy theories?
In this one, you set up cameras to observe the behaviour of squirrels in Melmoth Forest, and start discovering some very odd stuff. This develops into a story about the effect corporations have on the environment, and doesn’t wrap things up with a neat bow and happy ending. It’s obviously a great conversation starter, as well as a fun, sometimes unsettling game to play.
The reason it’s rated Teen is because of the presence of one curse word, “bullshit,” so there’s a good chance that’ll breeze past the more innocent, or not really bother the less so. But obviously the subject matter won’t quite match the “cute squirrels!” expectations of younger players.
There are more suggestions over at the Family Video Game Database, and you can curate your own lists based on your own kids’ proclivities.
Hopefully there’s something here that’ll help pass some of the yawning stretch of Sundays that makes up Christmas to New Year, and you might even end up not entirely resenting it.