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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 3 of 3

Death Kiss #6: Explain Everything

Here again we fall into a very adult trap. We are so eager to be clear, and to guide the little one through our product, that we overdo it, and drown them with words. It is hard for us to realize that kids are really clever at figuring things our, and aren't nearly as afraid of the trial and error process as we grownups are.

We, the adults, have to keep reminding ourselves to go "lite" with words. When I use the term "lite," I'm using it the way the food industry does, to indicate a product that is light in fat and light in calories. Go to any supermarket these days, and you'll see shelves packed with things like "lite ice cream," "lite cookies," and "lite pizza." Well, when you write for kids, it's not excess fat and calories you want to get rid of, but excess words. Nothing is more boring to kids than a long exchange of dialogue or a huge block of written words.

Whenever possible, use visual images rather than spoken or written words to get your message across. Producers who work in children's television, especially in animation, have long appreciated the value of telling a story through action, not through dialogue. It is taking interactive media somewhat longer to catch on, especially because many of these technologies are, or have been, primarily text based.

When you do use dialogue, keep it short and crisp. Steer clear of long sentences and difficult, overly formal grammar. Use words that are easy for a child to understand, that are kid-friendly.

The same goes for text. Make sure it is as readable as possible. Your font should be attractive and large enough for children to read easily, and the words shouldn't be crowded closely together. Remember, it is daunting even for adults to wade through a big chunk of text on a screen. Think of what it must be like for new readers.

When it comes to guiding the child through your game, the best way to reduce the need for lengthy explanations is through good interface design. The more intuitive the interface, the less the need to give instructions about how to navigate through it. Put some mental muscle into designing the look of your icons. Ideally, they should visually reflect their functions, and should also thematically be in harmony with the theme of your game.

So, to avert Death Kiss #6, go "lite" with words, utilize visual approach to story telling; and pay attention to your interface design.

Death Kiss #7: Be Sure Your Characters Are Wholesome

Death Kiss #7 is particularly slippery because it seems so laudable. Why wouldn't we want our characters to be wholesome? Well, the trouble with wholesome characters is that they are dull, predictable and uninteresting. And if our characters are not appealing, the games they populate are not going to be as appealing as they could be either. Dynamic, multi-dimensional characters go a long way towards creating a strong product.

The trouble is, when people design characters, they frequently fall into one of three traps.

The first trap is to go the "white bread" route. Often this means that all the characters will be white, middle class, and nice, people who pretty much resemble most of the writers and designers. But even when the characters aren't all white and middle class and nice, still they look as if they were all stamped out by the same cookie-cutter--whether they are human characters, or little bears, or space aliens.

The second trap is the "lifesaver" approach. This is often utilized as a direct counter to the white bread approach. Here, instead of each character resembling all the others, every character is a different color of the rainbow. Each represents a different race or ethnic group--just like the colors in a roll of lifesavers. You've got one African-American, one Asian one Native American, one Caucasian, and so on. But instead of having life-like characters, you end up with a dull pint-sized version of a United Nations General Assembly meeting.

The third flawed mode of character design is the "off-the-shelf" approach, which relies heavily on familiar stereotypes. You've got your beefy kid with the bad teeth; he's the bully. You've got the little kid with glasses; he's the smart one. You've got your red haired girl with freckles; she's the feisty Tomboy. And then you've got your two blue-eyed blondes. The boy blonde is your hero and the girl blonde is your heroine. Sound familiar?

Of course, there is no reason to fall back on any of these approaches. Take a look at outstanding children's films and TV shows, and you'll see that each character is unique and distinct. The same should be true in interactive work. Each character should be vivid, and have an individual set of strong points, failings, strengths, desires and fears, just like people in the real world. Your heroes shouldn't be totally good and you bad guys shouldn't be totally bad. Heroes with weaknesses or flaws are far more captivating than ones that are angelic, especially if they are struggling to overcome their flaws. For example, the little boy in Pajama Sam is so likable precisely because of his personal demon, a fear of the dark, and his fierce determination to overcome it.

And when it comes to villains, the more multi-dimensional and unusual they are, the more energy they will give to your product. Think of that master thief Carmen Sandiego, who runs her band of henchmen with an iron hand--she's glamorous, super smart and fiendishly elusive-in other words, one of a kind.

In sum, to steer clear of Death Kiss #7, create characters that are multifaceted and unique, jus the way real human beings are.

So How Else Can We Protect Ourselves Against These Kisses of Death?

  1. Get help from the experts. These include child psychologists, teachers, and child development specialists. Don't forget, though, that among the most insightful experts are the kids themselves. But be careful. Kids can be kind and tell you what you think you want to hear. This is especially true it the kids are consulting are YOUR kids, and you're seeking their opinions about something you yourself are making. It's far better to seek out kids who don't know you, and who won't hesitate to tell you if they think what you are doing is lame.

  2. Become familiar with the most successful children's products from other media, and learn from them. Go back to the fairy tales, to the fables, to classic children's storybooks. They are a rich and wonderful resource. Or for more contemporary models, study the best children's movies and TV shows. While it goes without saying that there are significant differences between traditional media and interactive media, it is also true that in many significant ways they are more similar than different. They offer time-tested techniques for story telling, character development and point of view. You don't have to reinvent the wheel.

  3. Finally, never let down your guard. You've got to be totally alert to these Kisses of Death. Make up your own list if you don't agree with mine, but whatever you do, be vigilant. They can invade your products with great ease, especially when you are under pressure. They seem attractive because the offer familiar and comfortable answers. So scrupulously examine your products for them every step of the way, and when you find them, root them out.

Good Luck!

Carolyn Miller is a writer/designer specializing in interactive products for children. She has worked on CD-ROMs, web sites, kiosk presentations and interactive toy systems. Among the better known CD-ROM titles she has contributed to The Toy Story Animated StoryBook (Pixar and Disney Interactive); the Carmen Sandiego series (Broderbund); and The Random House Kid's Encyclopedia (Knowledge Adventure and Random House). As a design consultant, she has worked on interactive toy products for Mattel and Hasbro. Before entering the New Media field, Carolyn spent many years as a children's television writer, writing 20 episodes for the long running series Captain Kangaroo (the original version starring Bob Keeshan) and writing numerous Afterschool Specials, one of which earned her an Emmy nomination. Carolyn also teaches interactive writing and design for the UCLA Writer's Program.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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