Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Thoughts on Game Design for Kids

My cousin is an educator in France – the equivalent of an elementary school teacher here in the United States – who knows of my endeavors in the adventure gaming hobby (having been subjected to more than a few of them when we were younger). Frequent readers might recall that introducing kids to games is one of my pursuits; I’ve had plenty of opportunities both while working on the popular Star Wars game license in my West End Games years and recently raising my son, the now-five year-old Little Guy. During a recent visit my cousin lamented the lack of any resources for teaching younger kids how to create their own games. While families and game manufacturers are just now making great strides in games geared specifically for kids (such as the inspiring Robot Turtles), I’m not sure we’ve done a whole lot in channeling youthful enthusiasms into exploring the process of creating their own games.

When do I get to design
a game, Daddy?
Many gamer parents enjoy sharing their hobby with their kids. We love to get them involved in existing games we already own and enjoy, but how do we impart to them the more complicated and nuanced core gaming elements like balance and turn sequence, distilling design rationales from a seemingly infinite number of different rule sets? How do we introduce concepts like merging mechanics with theme? How do we impart to them the critical thinking and organizational skills necessary to craft an enjoyable and meaningful game experience ?

I’ll admit I’ve not given this much thought. My personal experiences on this issue remain limited. We’ve done our best to expose the Little Guy to games – in addition to our other geeky interests – with fairly regular Thursday game nights after dinner and more trips to both gaming and general fan conventions. The Little Guy even inspired me to design the kid-friendly Valley of the Ape, which he dutifully helped playtest. He’s aware Daddy creates and publishes games, even runs them at conventions...to the point where not only does he want to go to more conventions, but has expressed disappointment that he’s not invited to conventions as a gaming guest (as Daddy was recently invited as the gaming guest at Nuke-Con in Omaha, NE, Oct. 2-4, where I’m writing this in the calm before the convention begins).

I regret that most of what I’ve seen during my casual searches online consists of digital game design focusing on the coding aspects. These assume a more advanced knowledge of technical issues than I possess and remains, at this time, beyond the ability of a five year-old only beginning to grasp some basic game concepts. As electronic games they’re not the more traditional analog game form I know and more often deliver a solitaire game experience rather than a more social multi-player experience. I’m open to suggestions; if anyone knows any resources, online or in print, about creating games with young kids, let me know.

The Little Guy’s Games

Aside from my cousin’s prompting, I’m already aware of my own child’s urges to design his own games similar to Daddy’s. Of course kids create their own “games” as an outgrowth of their usual play activities; “Let’s Pretend” scenarios of superheroes or monster fighters, imaginative adventures with action figures, or constructing play elements from wooden blocks or interlocking bricks. But to carefully design the more balanced, engaging “structured play with goals” experience typifying adventure games today requires a bit more discipline and expertise than a typical five year-old can muster.

The Little Guy has already engaged in creating what passes for his own games, usually with the reluctant yet patient participation of his father. Most of the these efforts incorporate his own experiences playing games or listening to Daddy talking about game-design elements. His first attempt came after we bought him a small rug depicting the planets in the solar system. He soon deployed toy soldiers and action figures across the planets (including the Civil War cannon), drafted Daddy to play, and maneuvered forces across the solar system in a series of advances and retreats with little discernible logic. It proved frustrating for a game-playing and game-designing adult. Later he lined up the cardstock minis of Cybermen and Daleks I’d made for him in battle array, with small plastic figures of Doctor Who, Hello Kitty, and a random Smurf in the mix. Here he knew enough to roll a die or toss a coin at critical gameplay junctures, but didn’t always know what it meant. He freely uses phrases like “movement phase,” knows enough to roll the dice (or other odd randomizer) at critical junctures in play, and tries devising outcomes for success and failure. He doesn’t always succeed, but I offer guidance by asking questions: “I rolled a 7 and you rolled an 11...what happens now?” Many times any sense of “game balance” gives way to his natural urge to reign victorious. This often remains the driving force in his games, which are usually lopsided in his favor, with little consistency as to how pieces move or conflicts are resolved, and, at this stage, no written rules.

I’m no educator and I’m no expert at distilling processes down to the level where kids can apply them on their own. I’ve not seen any material on how best to guide kids of his age into creating the kinds of games he wants to play...less-mundane board games and miniature wargames we enjoy playing as a family.

Exposure is the key to tapping and channeling that youthful enthusiasm. I realize as he parrots back gaming terminology he’s heard from me that the more games and concepts he experiences, the more he has to draw from for his own creations. I certainly haven’t held back in exposing him to a wide variety of games with various game concepts: the cooperative play of Castle Panic or Forbidden Island; the miniatures-based action in the X-wing Miniature Game, Valley of the Ape, or All Quiet on the Martian Front; the more abstract play of games like Quirkle or Tsuro. Maybe I need to return to some basics to show some elemental game concepts. Candyland, while not a fantastic game in itself, offers some simple examples of game concepts like turn sequence (each turn a player takes a card and moves up to the next instance of that color on the path) and player balance (each player undertakes the same action in each turn).

I’m willing to explore more options, of course, so if you know of any websites or books on guiding young kids in creating their own analog games, let me know. In the mean time I’ll continue playing games with my son, encouraging his enjoyment of them, and answering his questions – and posing some – when he engages in his own game-creation activities.

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