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Lessons kids have taught me
by Harrison Pink on 06/10/13 03:39:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


For nine years I taught a Youth Theatre Workshop as a summer job in Bermuda with a very good friend of mine, Daniel Frith. I was eventually lucky enough to get a job designing games aimed at a similar age-group and my experience translated pretty well. In this article, I've collected some of the things I learned working with kids, including some of my experiences designing educational games. Okay, here we go.

Kids are smart. Seriously.

Starting with a strong one here. In fact, if you don't have time to read the rest of this article, just absorb this one.  We often treat kids like they have no idea what they're doing, but they really do see the world a lot more clearly than we give them credit for. Don't dumb down your mechanics because someone tells you "kids won't get that". I firmly believe if you raise the bar, the kids will meet it.



How old were you when you understood this?

Don't believe me? Think back to how freaking complicated the combat system was in Final Fantasy VI and remember how you mastered it when you were young. I'm only just playing this game for the first time now, (I know, shame on me) and I can't imagine a kid grasping this stuff, because I can barely grasp it, but you did, remember?

Let me clarify a bit here, because there's a difference between a complex game or system and one that is complicated. Kids DO need the rules spelled out for them, but only so they can understand why the game is doing what it is doing, and what is expected of them. Menu systems need to generally do the best they can to lay out what is important and hide what isn't.  Final Fantasy is actually a pretty crummy example of this, to be honest.

All kids need to master a complex system is two things: Time and Desire. Those come into play in my next point.

Give kids a safe place to fail

I designed a game for kids about saving polar bears and understanding their carbon footprint. A big part of the design was customising your arctic buggy by selecting different parts. Each part had a CO2 emissions component that was clearly shown as a thermometer on the side of the screen while you built your little buggy.

So while you drive around in your buggy, the ice tiles start cracking and melting and eventually, if you don't move fast enough, you can't get to the polar bears because there's nothing to drive on and you lose. A lot of kids lost at first, but they started to learn the connection between the buggy parts and the ice melting pretty quickly. That "a-ha!" moment when it all clicked was because they had failed a few times. If we had held their hand throughout the process, I don't believe they would have learned the lesson we wanted them to learn.

This ties into how smart kids are. If kids are motivated to continue through a failure, they will eventually master your complex system. This moves pretty smoothly into my third point.

Motivate kids to seek out mastery

Kids can smell your design BS a mile away. Hey, come back! It's totally okay! What this means is that kids won't engage in something you want them to just because you put it on the screen. This is really the #1 problem with educational games or (barf) "edu-tainment".


What kind of advanced alien species needs my help with this!?


Remember Math Blaster? Remember how much fun you had learning math because you were a stupid kid and thought you were just playing games but secretly you were learning? Of course you don't. You suffered through the learning parts to get at the sweet gamey middle you actually wanted. Gating the fun stuff with the stuff you want/need them to see is a sure fire way to get kids to shut off.

What you want to do is motivate kids to want to master a particular system. If the path to mastery includes learning, kids will happily do so, for the same reason solving puzzles in an adventure game makes you feel like a rock star: You saw a need, and were able to fill in the blanks with your smarts.

I worked on a game for kids to teach the basics of the Six Simple Machines. They were hidden in carnival games scattered around the environment. To "win" the games, you really had to understand how to use the simple machines to your advantage.


There's a big difference between Learning to Read and Reading to Learn.


The only way to do this was to find and read texts placed nearby. I was adamant that no artificial gating system be used such as turning the machine off until the book was read. If a kid can brute force it, he or she has still learned something relating to the subject through trial and error.

In this way, kids wanted to learn about levers and fulcrums so they could be as good as possible at the Test Your Strength game. No one forced them to read, they sought it out on their own, and actually digested the educational component to master the non-educational component, but parsing it all as one thing.


Respect kids fun

Just because they aren't playing it the way you expect, doesn't mean you should restrict or artificially limit what they do in the space. This is one I have to remind myself of often, even to this day. Kids are incredibly adept at making their own fun with the tools you give them.

In one game I worked on, kids weren't using the big obvious steps to get to the top of the giant slide in order to slide down. They were having more fun hopping onto a barrel, then onto the roof of a ring-toss booths, across several other booths and finally to the top of the slide.

I didn't get this. I didn't understand why they were not just using the stairs, "They're right there! They're just right in front of them! Do they hate stairs? Why are they doing this!?" my inner monologue spat. We considered putting in invisible blockers to deter it, moving the environment objects to prevent it. For some reason, we really wanted kids to use these stupid stairs. We put them in, kids better freaking use them. I really had to step back and question it. We eventually decided to just let them have fun. It's a game, after all.

Next time someone brings up a "we gotta change X, players are just doing this activity over and over", question your initial instinct to limit that behavior.

Okay, here is where my caveat goes. Players will do exactly what the game tells them to do, even if it isn't fun. It's really weird but given the choice, we would rather win a game than have fun. If players are doing the same activity over and over again, it might be okay to leave it in if players are having fun doing it. If they're just breaking the system, if that one thing they're doing is an overpowered move that renders other options moot, then for goodness sake, change it.

Second caveat: Don't change an overpowered option by limiting players. Make the other options as attractive.

Kids can understand anything if it matters to them (and if they don't feel patronised).

Last one, although I could easily go on and on. This one is pretty universal, and ties into every point mentioned so far. A lot of complex ideas that we assume kids can't or won't understand are just not being framed correctly to matter to the kid. Stuff like delayed gratification, that we consider a pretty big personal growth milestone, is actually relatively easy to get kid buy-in on. The quickest way to alienate a kid is to treat them like a kid, as if that means something in a game. Remember: we're all babies when we enter a virtual world for the first time.

For teaching something like delayed gratification, you need to find a way to make that matter to the kid. Is it a new piece of clothing they can show off to their friends in a virtual world? Enough currency to buy a mount in World of Warcraft?  


You kids today don't know how long it took to farm this gold. :(

Don't assume a kid is going to care about an issue framed for an adult, but don't present it to the kid in a manner that says "hey, you're probably too dumb to really get why this is important, so let me explain it to you." His or her desire for that sweet mount is going to make it very easy to understand the concept without you walking him through it like they're opening their first bank account.

Thanks for reading! I hope some of these thoughts translate to your own work, regardless of the age group.

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Titi Naburu
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Nice article, Harrison!

"Kids are incredibly adept at making their own fun with the tools you give them."

Exactly. There's a theory that videogames aren't really games, but toys. Toys are things with which we play games. Players can play whatever game they wish with the toys they have. So when they play a videogame, they choose how they want to play. Developers should do that: let players choose.

Seth Paxton
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I think it's interesting that as adults we forget how quickly we picked things up as children. I think the biggest hurdle to games for kids is getting the appeal right.

Great read! Thanks for sharing

Andrew Wallace
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Great article.

TC Weidner
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while I agree, I do have one problem with the article. The word " kid" is far far too encompassing. There is a world of difference between a 5 year old kid and a 9 year old, and for that matter a 9 year old and 12 year old etc etc
As "kids' we all made/make huge strides each year during these golden years. Its what makes it a lil tougher to nail down the demographic using just the word "kids".

Harrison Pink
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For the purposes of the article, I was assuming an age of 8-12 years. Sorry for not clarifying!

Jason Withrow
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My favourite educational games (played after I was a kid, but when my youngest brother was still in the market) were Mecc's Museum Madness and The Learning Company's now-titled Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time. Essentially just straight adventure games, you just picked up the knowledge as you went as a matter of course, never really felt talked down to (MM only half the time, the other half used clever mini games including programming a rocket-propelled satellite through an asteroid field. That one was a beast!).

As for Final Fantasy, my friend's Grade 1 / later 2 aged niece understood FFIV pretty much just by watching us play, forget having to play herself, while her Pre-K/Jr. K brother was able to pick up most of the fundamental basics. I don't know how strong her math would have been if we had let her drive but she would have grasped the other 90% no problem.

Jason Withrow
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A little less nuanced was TLC's Operation Neptune, the middle-school end of its Super Solvers series, which was relatively ham-fisted about the learning but was tacked to a great game I'd gladly still play today. That goes for the other two, actually. Dang, why'd the Learning Company have to belly-up and disappear? Gamers raised on their games are having their own kids play games now!

chris leathers
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My daughter was born and I started making a few games with a friend (we are the artists) and a hired programmer. It's been a really rewarding experience.. I like to think our first game which is really for kids under 3, will be a vintage memory in 25,000+ minds 50 years from now.

One thing that is for sure if you design games for kids, there will always be people who love and who hate them. You have to ask yourself if you are producing schmeg to get on the coat tails of market research and trending apps, or if you really believe in the logic and gameplay, art and experience you are giving your users, and how that will effect their growth in Society. I believe in ours, so all criticism is welcome but only help as opinion as it should be. And like I said, it is rewarding when you get the opposite..

Amir Barak
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Enjoyed reading this article very much!
I'd like to just add, as TC Weidner said, know your demographic and do at least some research when it comes to development stages of different ages (and hey, it even rhymes).

Marc Audouy
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What's interesting is that all of these comments can be applied to adults too. The difference is in what you can assume to be known or not, but the process and motivation is exactly the same.
wasn't it established that learning is fun and fun is learning (in the sense of mastering the rules of a system) for anybody, at any age?

Jason Carter
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I think in every aspect of life people treat kids as dumber than they are. Sure they may not understand the complex WORDS that adults use to describe things, but if you change how you explain something, kids can learn just about anything.

Kids, from a very young age have minds that are perfectly suited to learning things extremely quickly. We adults take much longer to learn something and thus think that kids can't pick it up because something takes us a lot longer to learn.

This is something I noticed about myself in the last few years. I'm 26 now and compared to when I was 18/19, to learn something new takes me a bit longer. Part of the reason is that I have a much wider knowledge base to fit the new knowledge into, and granted I understand things better once I learn them, but sometimes I marval at how fast I was able to learn new things when I was 18. Now it takes reading the same thing a few times, pondering it a bit and then appying it to really get a solid feel for how it works.

The point is: Kids can learn faster than we adults can, and it's a shame that people limit how much they show/teach kids because they don't think they can keep up.

Great article. I really like the statement about not eliminating something unexpected simply because it wasn't intended to be used. That's one of the most fun things about games is doing things that are different from the norm. (Heck I used to climb on top and on the outside of play centers when I was a kid in Real Life to get to odd places in the big wooden play structures.)

Kyle McBain
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I agree. I remember my freshman and sophomore year of college I could not only absorb material easier, but I had mental endurance. I am now 26 as well and after a few hrs of intensive study I feel pretty burnt out. I could seriously collapse.

The unfortunate thing is when you are young your mind is not fully developed, so you may absorb the material faster, but you lack the tools and experience to develop a deep understanding.

Ara Shirinian
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One of the most dangerous things to utter in game development is "it's just for kids." Of course you will hear this more often if you're working on a project specifically intended for "kids." This phrase has been abused countless times to shirk hard decisions, compelling designs, and overall one's own responsibility for their work.

The seductive idea is that kids won't sweat or notice or be affected by sophisticated thought behind any rule or design. What makes it so dangerous, as you so clearly laid out, is that kids notice and respond to such things just as well as adults do, and often even better. Kids don't have the baggage or expectations that adults do, so I think in fact they are more resilient and motivated than adults when learning video games. I don't have a good sense of what the culture is like now, but when I was growing up, it was kids who could master complex, difficult interactive systems in bone-crushing games of the 8/16-bit eras, and these systems were usually beyond adult comprehension.