Gaming on the Go

Family-friendly "edutainment" app choices.

Thanks to Apple’s strict “no porn” policy, the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad are among the most family-friendly mobile products on the market.

But that doesn’t mean they are completely free of problematic content. Although sex, nudity, foul language and realistic violence are largely absent, there is still a preponderance of cartoon violence and gore, crude humor and mindless, time-wasting choices to be found in Apple’s App Store.

With the exception of the clever “Plants vs. Zombies,” almost all apps with “zombie” in the name or description should be off-limits for younger gamers. Conversions of major video games, such as “Call of Duty” or “Splinter Cell,” also contain more mature content.

Within those boundaries, however, adults can find a great deal of entertaining — and even educational — content for both their children and themselves.

For Children

Believe it or not, “The Oregon Trail” is almost 40 years old. Although most gamers of a certain age are probably familiar with the Apple, Commodore or PC versions, the original game was created back in 1971. It has been reinvented for new systems ever since.

This is the game that created “edutainment” by offering players a chance to travel westward with their virtual family, experiencing the hardships faced by the pioneers and meeting historical figures along the way.

The app updating of this classic has captured all of its quirky humor and educational content. Gameplay breaks down into a few simple categories: setting a pace for your travel, managing food stores, making decisions about when to stop or who to help along the way, and completing various “mini games” like hunting or fishing.

Kids will have a good time making decisions. If you go too fast, little Mary might break a leg or the wagon may lose a wheel. Go too slow, and you might run out of food. Do you let that rather scruffy-looking old-timer hitch a ride, or do you pass him by? At certain points, kids can learn a bit about the land and how people survive. They can even stop to talk with a young Abraham Lincoln. And, yes, the family can still get dysentery.

This is a great supplement to lessons about the American West — or just a fun way to slip some history to the kids.

“iWrite Words” may not help improve your children’s penmanship, but it’s certainly a fun way to teach letters. Kids progress through uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet, as well as numbers, by tracing them with their fingers. Each letter fills the screen as kids are asked to guide a little animated crab along each stroke of the letter. The letters form simple words, with the child’s version of each letter appearing on the screen. (The interface functions much like doodle apps, which allow you to draw using a fingertip.) It can never replace real writing practice, but it’s a fresh way to help young ones learn their letters.


“Highborn” uses a broad satire of fantasy storytelling clichés as the basis for an entertaining turn-based strategy game. The hero and his army maneuver across a map to capture control points and fend off various fantasy creatures. The strategy element requires some thought and planning, while the visuals and dialogue provide a nice comic touch. There’s some comic combat and use of magic, but no serious content issues.

“Fruit Ninja” is as simple as it gets — and more addictive than it should be. Fruit is tossed in the air, and you use your finger to “slice” it before it drops offscreen.

Avoid the bombs and strike multiple fruits for bonus points. It’s one of the great dexterity games in the App Store and a bottomless treasure trove of fruit trivia. Unless you find the sight of sliced fruit disturbing, there are no content issues.


Every iPhone should have a decent chess game: one that’s simple to use, has plenty of features, and offers copious teaching tools. “tChess Pro” is that app.

It’s not the best-looking chess game (“Deep Green” claims that honor), but its visuals and interface get the job done. More impressive is what’s under the hood. The game comes in two versions, “tChess Lite” ($1) and “tChess Pro” ($8), and anyone serious about chess will want to skip straight to “Pro.” The basic engine is the same for both versions, with excellent teaching tools and opening books. The “Pro” version adds an analysis mode, support for recorded game files, a database of classic games, and other power user tools common to far more expensive chess software.

Do you have a Facebook account as well as an iPhone? Then “Scrabble” is about to get a heavy workout. It’s the only game that really functions with full iPhone-to-Facebook connectivity, allowing one side to play a move on Facebook and another to respond via the “Scrabble” app. Thus, you can play against people who don’t even have a mobile device. Since it doesn’t require a live connection, games can proceed at a leisurely pace, with only a move or two a day. This is a great one for kids and parents to play together to help build vocabulary in a creative way.

Sometimes a simple hand of cards is all you really need. Dozens of apps offer myriad games and variants, but “Card Shark Deluxe” is probably the best single app, particularly for players looking for a broad assortment. It has a simple interface, an uncluttered presentation, and a large collection of games. Among its four-dozen offerings: a generous selection of “Solitaire” and effective implementations of most major card games, including various rummy, poker and casino games. People looking for more feature-rich apps for particular games might want to consider a stand-alone title. “Gin Rummy Multipack,” “World Series of Poker Hold ’Em” or “Cribbage King” provide more options and a higher level of challenge.

Thomas L. McDonald blogs about gaming at “State of Play: The Gaming Blog”.

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