How to design games for kids

This is a topic which is becoming increasingly important in our industry and one which is too often ignored. Surprisingly, in an industry that has for years been labeled “just for kids,” most of the products we’ve put out aimed at kids clearly haven’t had a lot of thought put into how to approach creating games for young people. Unfortunately, for years many of the “kids'” games out there were licensed titles, and these games relied on the idea that the parents buying them wouldn’t know anything about games, and so wouldn’t know a good game from a bad one.

The expectation was that the parent would walk into the video game aisle in their local Toys ‘R Us, and before them would stretch a sea of colorful boxes that meant nothing to them. Then they’d see one with Spiderman or G.I. Joe on it, and they’d think, “Hey, I know what that is. My kid likes that show. I’ll get them that.” This unfortunately meant that a company could sell almost as many titles of a licensed kids’ game by kicking it out the door as cheaply as possible as they would by creating something actually engaging and good.

Thus, often kids’ game production became about lowering production costs rather than raising quality. In fact, this is a big part of why licensed titles in our industry have such a bad rap today. Luckily this has been changing. Now that many people who grew up with games in their homes when they were kids are having kids of their own, games for children can no longer sell on box art and ignorance alone. Today these games have to better cater to their audience, and that’s one of the most difficult things when creating games for kids.

“A game which is great for a 4-year-old may not be very good for a 7-year-old and is almost certainly going to be a total miss for someone who’s 12 or older.”

You see, we often mentally lump ages 14 and up as one group when creating games. Most of the games you play probably fall into this category. People in this range may fall into many different demographics, or target audiences, and they may have vastly different underlying things which appeal to them, but age specifically isn’t usually considered a huge differentiator beyond 14. In fact, it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve started creating games specifically for the 25 and up audience, because most of the time a great game is equally appealing if you’re 14 or 45.

That’s much less true for an audience under 14. In general, you have to break them up into dramatically different demographics based on age alone. Generally it’s broken down as ages 4-6, 7-9, 10 and 11, and 12-14. With even a moment’s reflection, you can see how wildly different those groups are. A game which is great for a 4-year-old may not be very good for a 7-year-old and is almost certainly going to be a total miss for someone who’s 12 or older.

There are exceptions, of course, like Minecraft, which is catching on with kids of nearly every age, but games like that are pretty rare, which makes understanding these age demographics essential to the creation of quality children’s games. Understanding things like the fact that in the youngest demographic you can’t guarantee that your audience will know how to read or that the oldest group is much more socially aware than children just a few years younger than them. Knowing stuff like that is essential to targeting your game. This turns out to be much easier said than done, as many developers I’ve known originally thought they were creating a game for one age group, only to find out that they’d aimed too high or too low, and that is fatal to a project if not discovered early.

Good children’s games also build in multiple levels of success from the outset. You need your game to be easy enough that any child can play on their own, with or without a parent, but you also need to provide a broad enough experience that you’re not talking down to the child with your game play. This is actually one of the keys to the success of things like Angry Birds or even Skylanders. Any child can play them just by mashing buttons or tapping on the screen, but a child who thinks through the mechanics and understands the game is rewarded for doing so, for thinking more deeply.

Additionally, you have to be more aware of the different ways human beings learn when building games for kids. We touched on this a little in one of the episodes about how to build a good tutorial; in fact, we could, and probably should, dedicate a whole episode to the theories around different types of learning. While by our teens we’ve been trained to learn in ways that have become standard in our society, what will stick with or make sense to a younger child is much more vague. Actually, just to go on a quick tangent, there’s a lot of debate around learning styles in education. I’m kind of hand-waving it here; but, if we do a full episode on learning methods in games later, we’ll go into some of this and how learning styles relate to games.

The short version is, you should teach the player in every unobtrusive way possible, and, where you need to, a few obtrusive ones, too. While I don’t know about the breakdown or efficacy of any given learning style for people, I do know that games that use more of them tend to get more people to understand what they’re trying to teach. Who knows? Maybe that’s because people learn differently, or maybe it’s just a repetition thing, but this is one of the few universally true things James can say about the games he’s worked on.

Anyway, back on topic, the last difficulty in making games for kids that I want to bring up is the idea of not talking down to them, not only in your mechanics, but in every aspect of your game. We seem to have this societal bias that children can only handle pablum, banal or puerile things, and that’s absolutely false. Everything from SpongeBob to Wall-E has shown us that children can appreciate challenging ideas and humor. The best children’s books we have don’t shy away from leaving the child with something to think about, so the games we make for them should take up this mantle as well.

Here James has only one piece of advice. It’s what works for him. Perhaps it’s just what helps put him in the right head space and it won’t make sense to anybody else. When James works on experiences for children and, in fact, in general when dealing with younger people, he simply thinks of them as adults with a lot less experience. If you can build that ramp that goes from things that children already understand to the concepts you want to explore with them, I think you’ll find that children are capable of quite a lot. Everything from Winnie the Pooh to The Little Prince, Toy Story to The Lego Movie, do this, and games are perhaps even more capable of allowing children the opportunity to explore and ponder new things by bridging that gap.

I hope that helps some of you get a sense of the pitfalls of designing for a younger audience. The original question was, what are some of the difficulties designers encounter when creating for children? Of course, there’s a much larger question to be asked of how to actually design a good game for kids, which is something I’m not sure we can tackle, but hopefully this will serve as a start. Just remember how much a small difference in age can change things and how much value there is in having different levels of success in your game so kids can grow with it, and kids of different skill levels and attention spans can all have something to play. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of not talking down to your audience. As easy as that is to say, that may be the hardest thing of all. Good luck and good creating.

SCHOOL OF GAME DESIGN