Designing Games For Kids
I’ve been working on games for young players for over 10 years now, and had the opportunity to work with many focus testing sessions with kids as young as six. I want to discuss some of the learnings I have taken away from those experiences.
When discussing kid’s games, the specific design issues revolve around two key principles:
- Kids want to drive their own user story
- Kids are inexperienced, but smart
GAME DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS
Kids are intelligent
Kids are not stupid, but they do have less experience and fewer reference points to draw from. And so we have to cater to that intelligence, while keeping that lack of experience in mind. Too many games take care of the latter, but not the former.
When designing worlds we cannot make as many assumptions about prior knowledge as we can with older players. Rather than talk down to kids, we need to offer added support where assumptions could be made when dealing with older players. As an example, you can present a White Knight and a Black Knight in a fantasy game and assume a teen or adult audience will understand the visual shorthand that communicates the good knight and the evil knight. When dealing with players below a certain age it is risky to make such assumptions, and so we must support the visual shorthand with cues that suggest and reinforce. Again, kids are smart, and you don’t necessarily need to present the information on the nose. To say, “Evil King Darklord destroyed the land,” is pandering, while, “King Darlor destroyed the land” supplies the same information without pandering.
Similarly, we cannot assume prior knowledge based on other games when designing tutorials, menus and HUDs. Games for adults rely on a continuity of presentation that exists across most games, and so many details don’t need to be pointed out (games for older players don’t have to say what a score is, or where to find it). Tutorials for kids should point out all significant features, while allowing some kids to skip past these. The level of experience will vary wildly, even among kids of the same age.
Kids understand puzzles and challenges. As with adults, if the kid’s intellect is not engaged, the child will not be. Games are about learning (see my essay HERE), and this applies to kid’s games as strongly as games for any audience. When designing puzzles and mini-games for kids we have to challenge the player and their intelligence, but do so without relying on assumptions about what they already know, while not holding the kid’s hands so much the challenge is compromised. It is fine to challenge kids with some puzzles, but the information required to solve those puzzles must be present in the game, and learnable based on in-game feedback.
Kids are by their nature very observant, in fact they are generally more observant than adults, and with better memories. Kids love discovery, and too many games deny kids the opportunity of discovery though aggressive hand-holding. Show the young players what they need to know in order to play the game, guide them if they get stuck, but let them learn how to master it and discover its secrets to ensure a satisfying experience.
Identity is very important to Kids
It is very important to young players to have the opportunities to present themselves in games with a strong sense of identity – any game, not just multiplayer. This works on many levels; from individual expressions of identity to pop culture alliances; the typical tribalistic divides of the schoolyard need to be expressible in the game in some manner. A kid who always wears a baseball cap will be happy to be able to wear one in game. You can’t have too many options to allow the player to tailor their presence in the game.
Another element of high importance to young players is the notion of their own space. A room, a treehouse, something that stands in for their bedroom, in a wish-fulfillment sense. The bedroom is usually the first significant thing that children feel is really theirs that expresses themselves in some way. A similar expression in-game resonates very strongly with young players.
Games also must offer sophisticated ways for kids to express gender identity, specifically their own personal interpretation of their gender. Princesses and tomboys are equally wrapped up in their identity as a girl, and the interpretation of that identity has to have room to be expressed in the game.
Generational identity is another important expression. Kids and teens will generally view anyone three years older as being part of a previous, different generation, with different favourite pop stars, TV shows, fashions, etc. Any way to differentiate themselves along those lines will be embraced by young players.
Accommodating identity is more than tailoring characters, clothing and rooms. The best games for kids offer gameplay experiences where these identities are meaningful in game play. Kids prefer games that allow them to create their own player story, and to do so according to their sense of identity. A little princess or a tomboy, a young jock and a young scientist, will want to play their way through the game in very different ways.
Kids are obsessed with ownership
One of the first things kids learn to say is, “It’s mine!” This sense of possession doesn’t really fade throughout childhood. Acknowledge ownership at every opportunity. Once Billy finds a sword, refer to it as, “Billy’s sword.” Do this with everything they acquire.
Kids have a heightened sense of fairness
The concept of fairness is crucial to the mindset of children. We’ve all heard kids express, “that’s not fair!” It is, along with sense of ownership, one of the first complex concepts kids grasp, and one they cling to the longest. Nothing should occur in the game that will be perceived as unfair. Kids can handle being challenged, and they handle notions like losing far better than they are often given credit for, but anything seen as fundamentally unfair will cause any child to react negatively to a game.
The best way to avoid this is to ensure that there are multiple pathways to success and advantages. If an MMO allows some players to purchase advantages with real dollars that other kids don’t have, offer a free in-game method to achieve these advantages through playing extra hours or beating challenges. If the older player wins the Wii racing game because they can operate the controller with greater dexterity, throw helpful power ups in the path of the lagging player.
Include and reward
The majority of kid’s games tend to focus on a specific age group narrow to within five years, and often focus on one gender. Games that strive to be widely inclusive to boys and girls across a wide range of ages need to offer a lot of content to engage all groups, and support a variety of playing styles.
Boys and girls generally manifest different playing style preferences. Mining versus harvesting, attacking versus defending, winning versus buying, allies versus friends, etc. You don’t need to pander to generalizations, but it pays to be aware of them and recognize when you may need to adjustments based on these kinds of tendencies.
There are risks to being widely inclusive among age groups. What will challenge most six year olds will bore most ten year olds. The best way to handle a wide youth demographic is to learn the age of the player, and adjust the tutorials, HUD and gameplay to suit.
Age and gender aside, each kid is different, and enters the game hoping for a certain kind of game story. The more the game can accommodate those expectations the better. And whatever style of play the kids opts for, ensure that all are equally rewarded. Some kids will play a fantasy game hoping to build a castle, while other will want to conquer one; ensure both options are available, fun and can lead to the same rewards.
Kids love choices
Kids love choices, even if they are superficial, but especially if they reinforce identity. There’s no more an advantage in choosing between Luigi or Mario as there is in choosing the car or the thimble in Monopoly, but that choice is crucially important to some kids – just watch how a player will react if they don’t get the one they want. The same applies to choosing between a red hat and a blue hat for their character, even if it does nothing. Generally, the more options the better. MMOs have learned to cater to this to the nth degree, but some kid’s games, especially on the Wii and DS, still under-estimate this. For the most part kids would rather play a representation and expression of themselves than be given a character to play. They would rather play with Spongebob than be Spongebob. That tendency fades as kids move into their teen years.
While kids love choices when it comes to identity, in gameplay itself they can be more cautious, especially early in the game. Choosing between two paths, each leading to the unknown, is too big decision to start a game with. Let them get comfortable with the game and the game world before such decisions.
Multiplayer games need to be widely inclusive
Kids won’t always have friends or siblings from their age group available for playing multiplayer games. The best multiplayer games for kids are widely inclusive in their handling of controls, skill and luck. Kids need to be able to play the game with their best friend, their younger sibling, their older sibling, their parents or their grandparents, and there has to be a chance any of these players may win, even if the results are rather lopsided much of the time. Wii Sports and Wii Play show great handling of this, where even the most inexperienced players will occasionally win. Please refer to my essay on luck in games HERE.
GAME PRESENTATION CONSIDERATIONS
Navigation needs to be clear and consistent
Once navigation methods are established the game should not vary from these at all. Avoid popups if possible; kids often struggle with navigating back to the game from popups. Kids follow arrow icons well, but they work best if they are specifically representational and not interpretive. For example, what adults can understand as a “back” arrow is a left arrow to a kid. Clicking it should take the character, camera or screen leftwards literally. If you are going to have overlays, have them enter the screen from a direction and leave the same way, rather than just appear. Don’t use arrows to navigate screens that just appear and erase – use graphical windows or doorways. If popups or overlays have to be used, ensure that those with very different purposes have very different looks, and be consistent.
HUD design needs to be handled carefully. If most information is at the bottom of the screen, but one bit of information is at the top, the isolated HUD element may be missed. On the other hand, too much information in one place in the HUD will be too visually “noisy” for some kids. The best solution is to have as little information in the HUD as possible. Only show what is needed at any given time, and put as much info in the game world as possible. The more information that comes from an in-game character the better; kids are more likely to read dialog balloons thoroughly than text in disembodied pop-ups.
Don’t over-design your text
Kids are often still developing their reading and writing skills. Avoid making assumptions about the readability of certain fonts. Avoid scripts and italics. Avoid using several fonts at once; it will just look like visual noise and kids will tune it out. Avoid changing the fonts partway through the game.
Don’t over-design your colour scheme
The notion that games for kids have to built around primary colours is simplistic and overstated, unless you’re dealing with toddlers. But simple colour schemes built around complementary colours is recommended. If your game has different lands they can offer different colour designs (within an overall scheme), but keep HUD and menu colours consistent. Avoid employing colours that may be too similar among different characters or key design features. Avoid using too many colours on the screen at once; it will be too visual noisy and kids may miss some of what is shown. Avoid using more than three or four colours in a character design; it will make them indistinct (please refer to my essay on character design HERE).
Use real world colour associations (red=stop) where they will help, but don’t rely on them – not all kids will have automatic interpretations of these colour uses, and they may not be relevant internationally.
Patience has to be earned
Kids can be very focused and patient when playing games, but only after the game has won their interest. Kids need to be engaged very quickly at the start of a game, and at the start of any new session. After that, enough has to happen with regularity to keep their attention. Use sound and movement to keep their attention, but only where you want them to focus. Kids will be overwhelmed by having too much thrown their way too fast, or confused it you draw their attention to passive game elements through motion or sound. Reward early and often, and present many easy challenges, with the occasional tougher challenge.
Kids like (the right kind of) surprises
Contrary to what some online sources will say, kids do like surprises. But they have to be the right kind of surprises. Occasional changes to the environment (one day the world is snowing), story (an unexpected ally appears) or sudden rewards (unexpected shower of collectible gems) are fine. Sudden changes to the interface, HUD layout, and basic rules are not. Surprises of addition (you get a new sword in this level) are fine, surprises of subtraction (you don’t get to use your sword on this level) are not.
Kids love characters
Spend time to create strong characters, with strong visual identities and personalities and allow the kids to interact with them in a variety of ways. A strong visual identity is key – many kids are not great at remembering a lot of names. If you have a big cast, introduce them slowly. Use your characters to communicate events and tutorials instead of popups, menus of HUD items whenever possible.
Kids do not distinguish primary content from ancillary content
The younger the kid, the less they can distinguish the role of content. For example, being able to distinguish between advertising and game content. Or understanding that terrain seen in the background or periphery are not places you can go. As far as they are concerned, every thing they can see is part of the game. Examine your game with this in mind. Ensure your QA team tackle your game with this in mind. You don’t want kids clicking on anything that will get them lost, or where nothing will happen.
Kids are sophisticated
Kids can wrap their heads around complex social and morale issues better than most people give them credit for. The Asian youth industries seem to understand this well, and as such Asian games (as well as anime, manga, tv and movies) tend to offer more sophisticated relationships than simple good versus evil scenarios. I have no doubt that this is one of the reasons kids entertainment from Asia is so well-received by western youth audiences.
Villains do not need to be wholly evil and heroes wholly good. These will ring as false to most kids as they do to adults. The notion of a good person doing a bad thing comes very naturally to children, and can resonate more strongly than simple always-evil villains. Kids prefer a world were everyone is redeemable and anything can be forgiven. It speaks to a child’s own self-perception when they examine their place in the world.