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Designing for Kids: Infusions of Life, Kisses of Death
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Designing for Kids: Infusions of Life, Kisses of Death

January 12, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Death Kiss #3: You Gotta Amuse 'Em

This particular Death Kiss is often fueled by cynicism, unlike the altruistic motives that tend to be behind the first two Kisses of Death. You could call this the "junk food approach." In other words, just give the kids what they want. Often it's coupled with the idea that it is far easier and cheaper to make products for children than products for adults, because children are less discriminating--a fatal assumption right there.

In truth, a product lacking real substance is about as satisfying to kid as a meal devoid of genuine nutrition. Sure, it's possible to make an OK product that is light on quality and content but you'll never make anything exceptional with this approach. And that's because while kids love to be entertained, it is also true they're hungry for content.

It's a mistake to sell children short. Kids are like sponges; they are eager for information about what the world is really like, and how to live in it. And don't assume that just because they are little, that they aren't able to comprehend serious themes. If you think about the best children's theatrical films, you'll see that they are more than mere entertainment. Consider the Disney animated movie, the Lion King. Think of the great human themes included themes about treachery and courage, jealousy and friendship, and life and death. And I am sure that any of us who saw Bambi as children will never forget it, or forget that terrible moment when Bambi's mother was killed by the hunters.

The best story-based children's interactive programs have rich themes as well. One of the most outstanding titles to come out in recent years is Pajama Sam; a CD-ROM developed by Humongous Entertainment. It deals with a child's fear of the dark and other common childhood fears, set in an immensely rich story context.

Therefore, if you want to make a really fine product, don't just offer empty calories; include some good protein, too. Layer meaningful themes or goals into your products. But be sure the themes you choose are portrayed from a child's point of view, and well integrated into the overall frame of the story or game.

Death Kiss #4: Always Play It Safe!

This particular Kiss of Death is a yawning pitfall, and all of us who work in children's interactive media teeter on the brink of it. In our desire to avoid violence, sex, and controversy, we often go to the other extreme and produce something so safe it's boring.

True, we all want to avoid graphic violence. We don't want to show the use of guns, knives and other weapons; we don't want to portray dangerous or anti-social activities that kids might model. But that doesn't mean we have to forgo excitement, action and jeopardy. We've just got to come up with different ways to keep the adrenaline pumping.

Broderbund Software, with its Carmen Sandiego series, has been especially clever about this. They have created a master villain, Carmen, and a gang of fearless, amoral criminals who wouldn't even hesitate to steal the smile off the Mona Lisa's face. When you play the game, you become a detective trying to track down Carmen or one of her henchmen, and you are thrust into a breathless cat and mouse game that has you chasing the criminal from one location to the next, trying to interpret mysterious clues as you go. No one ever gets killed, there is no blood, no dismembered bodies, but the Carmen formula works so well that it is one of the most successful children's CD-ROM series ever created.

There are special challenges to making interactive products exciting, problems not found in traditional children's media. Your players aren't captive to a story structure the way they are when they watch a movie or TV; they are free to move around within the product at will. They may choose a different starting place and a different ending place, and they certainly will explore the middle of your piece any way they wish. Thus traditional story-telling structure goes out the window.

But if you can't control where a player goes, how do you build tension? How do you keep a kid so excited by your game or story that he doesn't go out to play soccer or zap a piece of pizza in the microwave? Well, in interactive media, what we have to do is construct an extremely absorbing challenge or purpose. We can give the child a mystery to solve, or a quest to go on, or a secret to discover. Or, if this is a creativity tool, we can give him something enormously desirable to make. If it's a simulation, we can give him entry into a fascinating experience that he can control himself.

YOU can fortify that challenge or purpose by using that great device known as the "the ticking clock" You build in a time limit for solving your mystery or outwitting the bad guys, and you make your player keenly aware of it. The best ticking clocks are meaningfully connected to your story and the environment you're creating. And the consequences of time running out should be meaningful, too, and the more dramatic, the better. One warning, though, when you are creating a game for kids you really should not threaten the player with the ultimate consequence. And the ultimate consequence, of course, is death.

As products like Carmen Sandiego prove you don't need physical violence to create a compelling and fast-paced game. It just means you have to work harder to find ways to make the experience exciting; you have to be more imaginative. You really have no excuse for being bland.

Death Kiss #5: All Kids Are Created Equal

When we commit this particular Kiss of Death, we do it because we are assuming all kids are pretty much the same, no matter who old they are. It's a highly tempting idea, of course, because if it were true, it would be possible to design a game that would appeal to every kid out there, form the ones who have just learned to sit up to the ones who are just about to hit puberty and maybe even snare some of those skulking adolescents, too. But in reality, it just can't be done. A toddler just isn't ready for the kind of entertainment an 8-year old likes, and a 12-year old certainly won't have any patience with something appropriate for a 6-year old.

If you try for too wide an audience, you will probably lose everyone. But by targeting a specific age group, you have a better chance of making something that really grabs their attention. To create a game that is age-appropriate, you must take into consideration such things as humor, skill level, and vocabulary, and also consider the interests that are typical of that particular age group.

When you correctly judge your target audience and shape your product to fit it well, you greatly enhance the possibility of creating something of lasting endurance. On TV, Sesame Street has worked well for long because it is so accurately aimed at pre-schoolers, and it reflects their needs, tastes and degree of sophistication. By the same token, Broderbund's successful line of Living Books is appropriately geared for youngsters who are just learning to read.

When it come to age-appropriateness, interactive media have one big advantage over linear media, and that's the ability to offer a game with different degrees of difficulty. By "leveling" a game designing it with a series of playing levels- you can significantly increase the target age range of your audience. Leveling has another advantage, too-it gives a program greater repeatability. That means kids will come back to it again and again, because there are new challenges every time you play.

There are two major ways to level. If you use he arcade model, you can offer a number of different types of challenges, activities, or puzzles within your game, each with increasing levels of difficulty or complexity. Disney Interactive's line of Activity Centers works like this.

The second model is to have one over-arching goal, and to have your players work their way towards that goal level by level. The Carmen Sandiego series follows this model. The game is constructed in such a way that you work your way up the ladder from a rookie detective to an ace gumshoe. With each "promotion", your missions become more difficult. Working your way up to ace detective is part of the fun, and no one feels embarrassed by starting off at an easy level.

Thus for Death Kiss #5, two good strategies are to make your game age-appropriate, and to maximize its potential age range by using leveling.

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