Friday, 20 April 2012

The appalling price (and appalling quality) of kid-friendly apps

For a while now, here at ReadItDaddy we've received a steady stream of iPhone (and android) apps for review that are targeted at children. The 'tough sell' to a child, even one as young as 4, is that anything that's designed to keep their attention for longer than 5 seconds has got to A) be worth the exorbitant price and B) will have to undoubtedly compete with that ever-present threat to a child's spare time, Angry Birds.

I'll be honest, my daughter's seen Angry Birds and has twiddled away with it but I never really liked the way games affect her, and the way she can become quickly absorbed by them. As an offset I'm quite happy for her to look at apps, games and puzzles that are designed to be informative and perhaps even educational instead.

What a mixed bunch they are though, and in an era where people 'grumble' about paying more than 69p for a game for their iPhone, paying nearly £3 for something that's going to be a fleeting fad, often designed by publishers who are at the top of their game when it comes to producing children's fiction and non-fiction books, you have to wonder why such rampant profiteering seems to go largely unnoticed (and unaddressed).

So what's going on? Let's take a recent case in point, the Topsy and Tim Start School app for the iPhone, from Penguin Books. For £2.99, the app is described as "An interactive story packed with 6 games" ('Packed' is obviously a more generous use of the word 'packed' than we're used to I guess).

The top review on the app store for Topsy and Tim Start School says it all really, far from helping allay a child's worries and anxieties about starting school, the shallow games and thinly dressed content seems designed to maximise profit for very little effort or outlay.

A brief look at Penguin Books' other apps show that they do offer some free applications for childrens, but some (like Moshi Monsters) contain substantial in-app purchase options, a thorny subject that even Apple are currently being taken to task for due to cases where kids have run rampant with their parent's phone and chalked up huge bills in games like Farmville.

To be fair to most major publishers, it's not just something that's common to children's apps. Promotional apps for products as diverse as beer and lingerie are often charged-for apps that are appallingly put together that offer little or no extra information or functionality than the company's own websites (most of which aren't smart phone friendly by the way but I digress).

There are companies out there though who know exactly how to make engaging, challenging and imaginative content for a whole new generation of devices that are all too tempting for children to kidnap and play on.

"Got Cow" is an excellent little game (yep I know, zero educational content but still wonderfully kid-friendly) from David Miller / Lifeboat Studios, as covered on BoingBoing's brilliant podcast series "Apps for Kids" Brightly coloured aliens are stealing our cows and it's up to your child to take a rocket-powered spaceship and win our cows back. It sounds daft, bonkers and of little worth to a child's development but it's so beautifully put together that it's a great example of precisely the sort of interactive experience children should be getting, not just another 'drag the pieces and drop' puzzle, or pairs-matching game. Also worth noting that it's 69p (which is just a tad more than I got as pocket money per week when I was a kid and that was a very long time ago!)

Slightly more educational (and still a heck of a lot of fun) is 'Simple Physics', again 69p on the app store for both iPhone and iPad but chock full of realistic demonstrations of construction puzzles and physics-based challenges for slightly older children.

So there are great games and apps out there for kids, it just seems a pity that the ones that get the most press, and the ones that are voraciously promoted by PR companies, are often the real dross of the bunch. So an open plea to app developers. Don't treat kids like second (or third) class citizens when it comes to your apps, they really won't stand for it (and nor will the folk who pay for them, us!)