You've probably heard of Candy Land. In fact, it's probably one of the first board games you ever played. Cute, colorful characters, simple rules. No strategic decision-making whatsoever. That's right, all you do is randomly draw a card and move to the space it tells you to. If you're the first to get to the finish, you win.
Sounds like a fun game, right? What's the point if you can't actually influence the outcome? What are you learning?
You are learning how to play board games - the conventions of following instructions, taking turns, not cheating (or at least not getting caught). For a toddler who's never played a board game before, having to keep track of strategy on top of all that is just not going to work. So Candy Land teaches the basics in a fun and engaging way.
Once you realize that it's just a boring waste of time ;) well then you're ready for the next level - where your new skill in following the arbitrary rules of a board game world enables you to appreciate the mental challenges of something like, uh, one of those kiddie versions of Cranium.
Okay, so that's great and all, but I also want to connect this with Flash game traditions. Similarly to Candy Land, most Flash games involve little actual gameplay beyond fast clicking ability. Instead they rely on attractive (to their respective audiences) graphics and most importantly, the path you take through the reward structures of the game.
Arguably, the real game is not the shooting or clicking or whatever, it's the economy that counts - the points you get from clicking, the upgrades you can buy with them, the new stages and obstacles you unlock as you progress through the game. Realizing this is key to understanding the success and failure of Flash games on sites like Newgrounds. I basically had to learn this the hard way with Braids. :/
I had posted some of my earlier thoughts about this on Flash Kit.
Anyway, I'm not sure whether these Flash games are like Candy Land in preparing players for more advanced fare, but you could think of them that way. I've just recently considered the possibility that this simplistic gameplay may actually be challenging enough for its intended audience. Take a look at the recent hit Red Baron. It's a perfect example of what I'm talking about: pretty graphics, lots of upgrades and points, and gameplay mainly revolving around the ability to mash the 'a' key as fast as possible. Not a great game, from my perspective. I don't even like the graphics that much. But it's been in the top of the rankings on Newgrounds for over a week now.
Maybe moving a character around on the screen with the arrow keys and dealing with basic boss-defeating tactics is mentally stimulating for some people! That would explain the resistance to new control schemes in games like my own Braids, and the recent Tri-achnid, since any significant change would completely throw off the basic skills and expectations they have built up from older games.
And of course younger kids are known to engage in repetitive behaviors that adults would quickly tire of, as long as there is an appropriate reward structure to help them along (Neopets, Runescape). ;) Now if only this could somehow be applied to topics valued by educational institutions...