There is one totally inescapable problem inherent in designing projects for children: no matter how youthful we may be, either in appearance or in spirit, the harsh truth is we are no longer members of this particular demographic group. We are grown-ups; they are kids; there is a great chasm of years between us.
And no trick of new math or statistical sleight of hand is going to alter that fact.
We cannot enter the mind of a 12-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a three-year-old. We can guess, but we cannot really know, what a child will like or not like.
This inevitably means we are going to make some blunders.
Some blunders are forgivable; others are so serious that they will hurt a project and perhaps even doom it. These are the ones I am calling "The Seven Kisses of Death."
Make no mistake about it; these Death Kisses are sly. In fact, one of their most dangerous attributes is their seductiveness. They can slip into our work precisely because they seem so attractive, so intelligent, and so logical. But the good news is that these Death Kisses CAN be prevented. We can fend them off with a whole armory full of weapons.
So, why don't we take a good look at these Seven Kisses of Death and examine some of the defense tactics we can use against them.
Death Kiss #1: Kids Love Anything Sweet
Definitely, without a doubt, kids love all kinds of sugary things. They're absolute fiends for candy, ice cream, cookies and achingly sweet breakfast cereals. But wait! This doesn't mean they also like their entertainment to be sweet! In reality, they won't tolerate it, except when they are very, very young. Sweetness is an adult concept of what kids should enjoy. Real breathing kids appreciate something with an edge. In fact, kids' taste is often what many adults consider bad taste. Kids are drawn to content that causes lots of many nice adults to squirm. Consider, for example, two TV shows that are hugely popular with older kids: South Park and Beavis and Butthead.
Another thing about kids: they have a great sense of the absurd. They see what a silly place the world is, and appreciate anything that celebrates its ridiculousness. Humor that pokes fun at adults, or that has a rebellious tinge, is also greatly relished.
But much as kids enjoy humor, they have a dark side, too. They're curious about creepy things of all kinds, and enjoy a good scare. The Goosebumps series of books capitalized handsomely on this.
For some reason, though, many adults seem to think kids' taste runs to the saccharine rather that the tart. They feel a compulsion to make all their characters kind, gentle and loving, and to portray the world as a sunny, happy place without conflict. But kids aren't dumb. They know this is a lie, and they don't appreciate being lied to any more than adults do.
So, if you are creating products for children above the toddler age, don't heap on the sugar. Otherwise, you going to lose them. And even when your target age group is the pre-school set, you don't have to duck the fact that their world contains certain things that can be upsetting...fear of the unfamiliar, sibling rivalry, going to the doctor or dentist. Note that successful TV shows like Barney and Sesame Street aren't afraid to deal with things that little kids really worry about.
How, then, can we make sure our New Media products don't fall into a saccharine trap? For starters, almost any product you make for kids has room for humor that's visual. Kids will laugh much harder if the humor is totally off the wall, wacky, unexpected and absurd.
Think long and hard about your characters, too. Remember, sinners are a lot more interesting than saints, and even your good guys will be more appealing if they have some quirks or foibles. Good character design is crucial, and I'll address this issue more when I reach Death Kiss #7.
And lastly, don't forget about conflict. The type of conflict you select depends in part on the genre of product you are making and on your target age group, but every product becomes more lively and engrossing when it includes some sort of hurdles or obstacles. The more personally involving they are, in terms of the player, the more effective they will be.
Savvy use of humor, characters, and conflict: these are your best weapons against Death Kiss #1.
Death Kiss #2: Give 'Em What's Good for 'Em
The second Kiss of Death is often a corollary to the first Kiss of Death. However, instead of being a too sugary approach, this one is too medicinal. It is usually committed by those of us who are sure we know what's best for children, and we are going to give it to them whether they like it or not. Among the most frequent targets of this particular Death Kiss are educational products.
All too often, people approach educational products with a great earnestness and a zeal to make something that will really be good for children. Their goal is to stuff the kids full of useful material, to smarten 'em up fast. Forget it. It never worked in traditional media and it won't work in interactive media either. Kids are no more attracted to things that are good for them than adults are. They prefer dessert to vegetables any old day; who wouldn't? That doesn't mean, though, that children's interactive programming can't have solid educational content. But it has to be done in a way that is meaningful to kids not adults.
Two lines of software that have done this with great success are the Jump Start line from Knowledge Adventure and the Math Blaster line for Davidson. These products skillfully weave entertainment in with the education, creating that hybrid genre known as edutainment. Yes, it is a word that grates on the ear, but nevertheless-when done well-it is extremely effective.
As in death Kiss #1, some of the best techniques to use here are humor and interesting characters. Another key strategy is to break your educational content into a series of small, exciting challenges. The content within each of these challenges should be randomized so children are motivated to play more than one. And challenges should also increase in difficulty as the child's mastery increases.
It is also important to develop a clever system of rewards. Rewards are a powerful tool for keeping your players involved in the game, so supply as many rewards as you can along the way, not just one big reward at the end. Rewards provide positive reinforcement, and also serve as a measuring stick for how well the child is doing. The trick is to emphasize success and to play down failure. If the player makes a mistake, soften the sting with a little humor, and with words of encouragement from one of the characters. You don't want your players to feel like morons if they do something wrong. You want to keep them involved and eager to do more, rather than to become discouraged and quit.
So, along with good characters and humor, two of your best anti-Death Kiss tools here are challenges and rewards.
Note that both Death Kiss #1, the "sugar bowl approach," and Death Kiss #2, "the medicinal approach," most often spring from the best of intentions. They're often motivated by a desire to teach, to inspire, to prepare the next generation for life. The problem is that when we are operating in this high-principled mode we fail to shape our products in a way that will really appeal to kids.
Basically, what that boils down to is this: stop being a grown-up! That is, don't preach, don't lecture, and don't talk down -- nothing turns kids off faster.