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Essential games that inspire creativity and teach game design


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We look at the games that encourage children to get creative and learn how to become game makers themselves.

By Christopher Dring.

There are thousands of video games that encourage players to get creative – whether that’s by making their own characters, designing their own cities, or even building their own games. One of the most popular games of the year, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, is all about building your own village.

There are also numerous tools that enable children to make games, from Scratch to RPG Maker. And there are fun puzzle and adventure games that are all about teaching people how to design levels and even how to code.

Here are our picks of the games that can teach kids to become future programmers, designers and even artists.

Code Combat

Platform: PC
Developer: CodeCombat Inc

Code Combat is an excellent PC multiplayer game that teaches people how to program through play. Players must use increasingly complex programming concepts to solve puzzles and defeat monsters. By typing in real Python and JavaScript, users will learn how to code, whilst also defeating enemies, avoiding pitfalls and completing levels. It’s for children as young as six, has been built to support teachers, and is highly regarded as an educational tool. In fact, the UK’s Digital Schoolhouse project has even built a workshop around it.
 

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Nintendo Labo

Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer Nintendo

Nintendo’s creation kit isn’t just about making cardboard pianos and colouring them in – it’s also a great way to illustrate basic STEAM concepts, encourage engineering skills, problem solving and more. The various sets allow users to construct cardboard items (including robots, steering wheels and fishing rods) that can be used with the Switch’s Joy Con controllers and/or screen. But beyond that, players can develop their own projects in the Toy Con Garage. Here, you build your own cardboard items that interact with the Switch. Examples of player creations include a doorbell, an elastic band guitar, and a mini-shooting game. Labo is even used in classrooms.
 

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Gamestar Mechanic

Platform: PC
Developer: E-Line Media

This game is aimed at seven to 14 years-olds, and sends users on quests to learn about game design (as opposed to technical skills like coding). It’s a decent experience for playing alone, but it’s even better with family members or even in schools (the game is used by over 10,000 schools, the developer says). Players can make original games using a library of sprites and share them with thousands of others online. Gamestar Mechanic breaks down game design into simple elements and wraps it up in an appealing storyline that blurs the line between educational tool and entertainment.
 

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Lightbot: Code Hour

Platforms: PC, iOS, Android
Developer: Spritebox LLC

Another fantastic learning tool that teaches kids to program (without them realising it) is Lightbot: Code Hour, which is now available via smartphones as well as in browsers. It is a puzzle game that requires programming logic to solve levels. The idea behind the game is to give players a practical understanding of concepts like instruction sequencing, procedures and loops, just by guiding a robot to light up the various tiles. The game features 20 levels and is also being used by teachers to help introduce young people to computer science. A more advanced sequel is also available called Lightbot: Programming Puzzles.
 

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A.L.E.X

Platforms: iOS/Android
Developer: Carmine T. Guida

In the same vain as Lightbot is A.L.E.X, a programming puzzle game that feature 25 free levels (with a further 35 available to purchase). The game is for children from six years old, but can be enjoyed by people of all ages. To complete the puzzles, players must plan out a sequence of commands for the robot A.L.E.X to follow. Teachers frequently download this app onto class iPads as a means to help develop critical thinking amongst pupils. Users can even create their own puzzles, although you will need to pay for the upgraded version to unlock the extra tiles.
 

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo

There are numerous Nintendo Switch games that let you create your own levels, yet perhaps one of the more out-of-the-box (literally) concepts is the new Mario Kart: Home Circuit. Using remote controlled karts controlled by the Nintendo Switch, players must build their own race tracks around their home. Using a camera on the vehicle, the race then takes place on the Switch screen, with virtual racers firing weapons, and both physical and virtual obstructions getting in the way. The creation element of this game encourages players to be creative in both the physical and the virtual space. The only drawback? It is one of the more expensive products on this list.
 

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Scottie Go!

Platforms: PC, iOS, Android
Developer: BeCREO Technologies

Here’s another game that is used by schools around the country and comes highly recommended by educators. Scottie Go! is both a board game and an app, which uses image recognition to take a snapshot of the code you have compiled via cardboard puzzle tiles. These tiles are used to write commands that will be performed by Scottie, and it’s through this that players can learn basic programming concepts, such as loops, conditionals, variables and functions. The game encourages children to begin coding and is deigned to kick-start their ability to thing logically and present their thoughts in an innovative way.
 

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Minecraft

Platforms: PC, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4
Developer: Mojang

The educational elements of Minecraft are vast, teaching broad concepts like creativity and problem solving, to specific subjects like maths, history, art, business studies and STEM skills. The game features different modes, but all of them are based around the ability to craft and create structures, items, assets and even new gameplay mechanics (plus a bit of combat). Such is the educational benefits of Minecraft, that Mojang and publisher Microsoft have a developed a full Education Edition for use in classrooms, complete with a variety of subject kits. Even after more than a decade, it remains one of the most popular games in the world.
 

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Roblox

Platforms: PC, iOS, Android, Xbox One
Developer: Roblox Corporation

It may not have the same profile as Minecraft, but Roblox is a hugely popular game that’s aimed at young teenagers. Roblox invites people to play user-created games or build their own in the Roblox Studio, which can then be shared with millions. It is free, although there are optional microtransaction elements and a subscription service. It’s been used by amateur developers to showcase their work, while those new to game creation can get help from other users or via a number of handy guides. However, like with any user-generated game community, parents are urged to make use of parental controls.
 

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Super Mario Maker 2

Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo

As you will have noticed elsewhere on this list, Nintendo likes to encourage its audience to learn. Yet when it comes to teaching game design, nothing compares to the capabilities of Super Mario Maker 2. Here, players can develop their own 2D Mario levels, featuring visuals and items from throughout the franchise’s famous history. There’s also a story mode to show users what’s possible, and you can share your creations with the game’s millions of fans. From super-hard challenges to unique ways to play with the classic Mario formula, Mario Maker encourages it all. You can even string levels together to make your own Mario world.
 

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Dreams

Platform: PS4
Developer: Media Molecule

The ultimate game creation experience from the minds behind LittleBigPlanet, Dreams is a creation experience that enables you to build games, paintings, sculptures, movies, music and everything in-between. The game boasts unique tools to sculpt, paint, animate, create effects and sounds, and much more. Players must customise and utilise an ‘imp’, which is basically a fancy mouse cursor, to manipulate the environment. As well as the huge creation mode, Dreams also features other player creations to try out, regular contests to take part in, plus an internally made game called Art’s Dream. Dreams arrived earlier this year to rave critical reviews.
 

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7 Billion Humans

Platforms: PC, iOS, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Tomorrow Corporation

Human Resource Machine was the puzzle game used by many educators to help support classes on coding, with players having to program a little worker to complete jobs. 7 Billion Humans is its sequel, and now featuring more humans. Whereas the first game was based on the Assembly language and featured a single worker, this latest game utilises a new language that enables lots of workers to do things simultaneously. Some basic programming knowledge may be needed for younger players, and although the game starts easy, it ramps up quickly. But it’s a great way to encourage your child’s programming skills.
 

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