More iPad observations: little kids

Wooden labyrinth puzzle

I played a game with my niece and nephew this weekend. Actually, we played a lot of games. Isaac, 4, made things disappear by throwing them over his head. And Hazel collected green acorns in her front yard and gave them to me. I tried to teach her to whistle using an acorn cap, but she didn’t have the dexterity in her little hands to do it.

Later, we went inside and I took out my iPad to keep the kids entertained before dinner. We tried a lot of video games, they were either too hard for them, or the rules were too far out. One great pleasure of video games is the way they introduce us to experience beyond what is possible in our physical dimensions. But this pleasure is lost on those who are still discovering the real wonders of the physics of our world. When even the basic rules are up for grabs and you can make things disappear simply by throwing them out of sight, why turn to Tetris for magic?

Labyrinth 2 HD

When we finally found an iPad version of the old wooden labyrinth games called Labyrinth 2 HD, I was relieved to find a game the little kids could relate to. In fact, it was a revelation to me to see how natural the game interface was–so natural that it took me back to an earlier era of play.

I had a labyrinth game when I was little, and I loved it. I probably got it when I was about the same age as Hazel and Isaac–I think my grandmother gave it to me. I can remember how difficult it was, but also the pleasure of sitting on the rug trying to master it. Labyrinth 2 HD is designed to evoke that experience. The game graphics render the pine board box and steel ball bearing faithfully. The sound effects are quiet and lifelike. But the iPad’s motion sensing systems are what makes the experience work. The “real” labyrinth games of my youth forced you to interact with the game through knobs that moved the game board up and down on the x and y axis. But the iPad allows you to simply tilt the playing surface–direct manipulation in near native format.

Other games have used this type of control mechanism. Super Monkey Ball comes to mind as the prime example. But the fantasy setting, outrageous graphics, and vertigo-inducing physics of the game create a very different experience–one that is too frantic for my taste, and too difficult for Hazel and Ike.

The quiet wood and steel aesthetic and calm pace of gameplay you find in Labyrinth works for pre-schoolers though. Combined with the motion-sensing, the game becomes something uncanny, a high-tech rendering of one of the simplest games in the world. And in this simple gamespace, old truths emerge. Little Ikey struggles to complete a level that Hazel can finish. Real world motor skills translate to this game, in fact, they more than translate. They matter–they are the entire point. The line between “real” and computer-mediated shrinks every day.

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