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Children as Designers

January 30, 2008

Yesterday’s post on hide and seek got me thinking about games children play in general. Every single one of them has evolved into the games that we play today.

  • Cops & Robbers = Assassin’s Creed, Halo, etc.
  • House = The Sims
  • Shop/Store/Lemonade Stand = Tycoon anything
  • Race = Mario Kart, Forza, etc.

The children’s goals aren’t much different either:

  • Catch the bad guy / evade the good guy
  • Be entertained for X period of time and involve all the players and keep them all engaged, too
  • Entertainment via enterprise
  • Be the first to the finish line, whatever that finish line might be

I am amazed at what natural designers kids are. They know what fun is intuitively. No books. No classes. No internships. Just whip a couple of them together, and boom: you’ve got a game. Sometimes, I feel like we as game designers and enterprising game designers often have to unlearn the years of “get serious” that we willingly accepted as a part of becoming adult, becoming responsible.

I watch my kid play games a lot. She makes them up at an astounding rate and out of the greatest things. Our backyard has been an iceberg, held volcanoes, and hosted crashed aliens. There are ghosts, monsters, princesses, police, fireman, race car drivers, runners and dancers in our house. She cleared all the pillows off the couch and made a platformer in the living room (she didn’t call it a platformer, but that’s what it was). She does this as effortlessly as can be, not because she’s some kind of genius, but just ’cause she’s a kid.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Nat permalink
    January 30, 2008 4:17 pm

    A good study for this line of thought is a open fountain; the types kids can run through on a hot summer day. Then see how the behaviors and dynamics differ at one of those uber fountains like crown fountain in Chicago’s Millennium park.

    http://millenniumpark.org/artandarchitecture/crown_fountain.html

  2. danwilkins permalink
    January 30, 2008 4:24 pm

    It all comes with age as well though; when you are a child you are more easily entertained (albeit you may change what you want to be entertained by rather quickly, hah).

    Kids know the core mechanics. A child never makes a game that won’t be fun to them. That would be like adults deciding that they hate playing tennis, have no outside pressure, yet decide to play tennis anyway. Theres no reason to it, and theres no reason for a child to play a game they don’t enjoy. Granted, other children might not like the way the game was created, but we’re focusing on the developer.

    Adults need more cognitive stimulus. As we age, our taste for enjoyment is refined, and we find the games children play to, at their face value, be un-enjoyable. We know the patterns involved with the core. So we start building on it; complicating the system so the patterns are different and more interesting. We still enjoy the core rules, but often only with additional elements added on top.

    Everyone becomes a better game designer for themselves as they get older; the problem lies in making a better structure around the core that everyone will enjoy.

    Kids:1 Adults:0

  3. January 30, 2008 5:26 pm

    I think in some cases, kids are inspired by existing things (like football. Or they get told about existing games like hide and seek etc.), but how we made up stuff from those existing ones is where the fun is – like having Heads & Volley’s when you haven’t got enough people for Football.

    One thing comes to mind; the classic RPG villain adage; “If a 5 year old can spot blatant flaws in my master plan, then I will go back and fix these immediately before executing it”.

    Say the same for game design; anything aimed at kids, or played by them, should have input from them – there are not exactly many games which are actually good and aimed at the under-10-year-old market.

  4. January 30, 2008 9:24 pm

    You’re so right, I’ve been thinking about this same subject for quite a while but haven’t written anything.

    Kids haven’t been hit by most of the issues we, as teens or adults have; from fear to an immense set of things, to accounting or even relationships. Children are free of all kinds of distraction themes that could keep them busy from being free. We really have to unlearn most of the things we’ve learned about limits and the poorly structured concept of maturity. Just as in my philosophy teacher used to say (A saying that I like to use a lot) -An artist, a philosopher are just like kids, they get amazed by everything. Freeing your imagination is the key that will recreate your world-

  5. January 30, 2008 9:55 pm

    It’s funny, I look at all four of your examples and don’t see first-person shooters or sim/tycoon games or race games. I see tabletop role-playing games. It’s all about using the imagination and building a world.

  6. January 31, 2008 12:31 am

    How about the pencil breaking game? You’d take a wooden pencil and slap it against another wooden pencil until one broke. Yes it sounds really stupid but it was a pretty common game when I grew up.

  7. January 31, 2008 8:59 am

    This is why it pays to never grow up. Embrace your inner child. 😉

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