Toca Boca’s rules for children’s gaming

The developer of ‘responsible’ games talks to us about creating engaging titles for children - and pleasing parents.

Making any form of media for young children is problematic, given their pliability and tendency to obsess over certain characters.

Anyone with a toddler will tell you that they love to watch the same few episodes of a show like Peppa Pig over and over, so if they do discover questionable content, they could be exposed to it time and again without their parents even being aware of it.

But children’s video gaming is especially troubling, given the compulsive nature of games and the often-hands-off regulation of the virtual marketplaces.

This issue was highlighted recently by a pair of spectacularly distasteful ‘plastic surgery simulators’, which were swiftly pulled from the App Store. It’s clear that, if you’re going to let your children on your tablets or mobile, you have to be very careful about what they play.

Toca Boca Hair Salon screenshot

One developer that has managed to win praise for its children’s games is Swedish-based Toca Boca. It thinks of its games more as toys, and it’s very careful to avoid the distasteful settings, the in-app purchases, and the compulsion loops that other children’s games often employ.

“Toca Boca takes a two-pronged approach, aiming to please both parents and children,” says its CEO Björn Jeffrey.

“We understand that parents have concerns regarding the safety of their children therefore we strongly believe that children should not be exposed to third-party advertisements or in-app purchases.

“At the same time, we aim to keep children at the centre of product development by involving them in the design process and it is a very intentional design decision not to create toys for girls or toys for boys – we make toys for kids, and let them choose how they would like to play.”

Despite that, some of Toca Boca’s apps are subtly educational. For example, Toca Lab introduces children to the periodic table, while Toca Kitchen Monsters is actually a cooking simulator.

Toca Boca Kitchen Monsters screenshot

“Although the physical differences are vast,” says Jeffrey, “Toca Boca shares the similar fundamental values and goals as Lego – we both design toys that encourage free play, exploration and foster creativity in young children.”

That focus on toys – as opposed to games – is another reason Toca’s apps are so well-loved. They’re non-competitive, open-ended, inspire creativity and allow parents and children to interact with each other.

And the firm is aware that parenting styles differ, so it ensures that it clearly communicates what each app involves before parents commit to buying.

“Like parenting, there are a variety of approaches to game development for children and not all companies share the same values as Toca Boca,” says Jeffrey.

“We create well-designed apps based on universal themes that most people can recognise irrespective of their parenting style… Toca Boca apps are designed to complement, not replace, regular play; parents should decide what mix is best for their kids.’’

Toca Boca Lab screenshot

Predictably, given the variety of concerns about children’s games, there have been calls for a regulator – or at least a ratings system. This would need to be backed by the two big market-holders for children’s apps – Google and Apple – and it’s something that Toca supports.

“We would definitely welcome a serious and acknowledged rating system that can help parents and kids find suitable apps,” says Jeffrey.

“It is important, however, that a rating system is custom-made for children’s apps.

“The system should not necessarily be rated according to age but according to a number of factors, for example, the extent to which the app is safe or aids children’s development.”

Until a ratings system is in place, if you want to find other apps suitable for children, Jeffrey recommends visiting the parental advice sites Apps Playground, iMums, and Common Sense Media.