Although the science behind whether screen time is actually bad for kids is not yet settled, many parents are still worried about their children spending too much time staring at tablets, televisions and phones—so much so that some are even hiring screen consultants to raise their kids ‘phone-free’. For these families, voice and audio games have arrived as a welcomed healthier alternative, and as a result, they have rocketed up the download charts during the COVID-19 pandemic. So what’s the buzz around voice and audio games, and could they become a future trend for adults too?
While most of those games run on voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, some don’t and were instead built similarly to a cassette player. Among them is the company Yoto and its Yoto Player, a screen-free speaker made for children, controlled with physical cards and “playing only the audio content you want them to listen to.” Yoto Player has no camera, no microphone, and no ads.
Just like the game cartridges you probably used in your Nintendo as a kid, users can click in a card pre-recorded with a story or game. Yoto can also play fresh daily episodes, such as the children’s daily newscast.
Back when Tanya Basu first reported on voice games in 2019 for the MIT Technology Review, they mostly took the form of choose-your-own-adventure stories and trivia competitions. Now, they are growing in sophistication. “The game Lemonade Stand, for example, lets kids practice running a business, while in Kids Court, a voice assistant adjudicates arguments between children by having them talk out their differences,” writes Basu in a recent overview of the games.
For most of those voice games, different players can play the same game without having to be in the same place, or playing at the same time. Max Child, founder of Volley, a publisher of voice games, says that grandparents will often play on their own time and text their grandchildren about their progress, and the children will advance their moves when they have a minute.
Volley’s most popular voice game is Yes Sire, an immersive tale that imagines the player as “the ruthless ruler of a fiefdom.” On top of the obvious positive point that audio games represent, parents also like the amount of creativity they require from players. With audio stories and games, information isn’t presented to you on a platter. On the contrary, imagination is required, and it takes more focus and attention than gazing at a screen. Because of that, it’s not just kids who are slowly renouncing screens; adults are a growing market for voice games too.
Volley, for example, has some “mature” games, like Love Taps, Sherlock, The Last Dragon and Infected, which include explicit language and content aimed at an older audience. And Yoto’s CEO Ben Drury even says that besides enjoying the opportunity to participate with grandchildren, older people have also found it empowering to be able to play games with their voices rather than learning how to navigate a console or controller.
Of course, they’re not perfect yet. Voice games often misunderstand users, particularly kids who are just learning how to enunciate, and it’s too soon to tell if the pandemic’s boom in audio and voice games will end as soon as vaccines make it possible to hang out in person once again. But until then, doesn’t a game of Infected sound fun instead of your usual go-to podcast?