4 Ways Designing with Children Can Make You a Better Game Designer
By Jonaya Kemper
There is one fundamental game design belief I have as a game designer: every child at some point in time has come up with a brilliant game. Children are natural game designers because play is an integral part of childhood development. Whether it’s adding a rule to tag so that you can “freeze”, to creating elaborate games within established video games to allow for multiplayer when you only have one controller. Children are innovative in ways that adult game designers can benefit from.
Within the P3G project, we work with children in the city of Pittsburgh to design video games that introduce and feature co-robotic elements. This process of co-design, where children and professional designers and developers work with children to design games is challenging, motivating, and ultimately rewarding. Adult game designers themselves can take some tips from children, whose natural game making can allow you to grow as a designer. Here are a few things we learned by co-designing with children.
1. Expanding Your Game Experience
Children play a wide variety of games that you may not have heard of or have forgotten entirely. I hadn’t played Roblox until our fellow child designers suggested we give it a try. While it won’t be my go-to any time soon, I found a lot of novel game play happening inside the platform. Playing the Roblox games they suggested, allowed me to think deeper about what adults think children want, and what children enjoy playing. It also allowed me to reconnect with games I loved as a child but hadn’t played in a while!
2. Remixing is Designing
Whether its physical, analog, or digital, children have very little problem mixing and matching games to create new and innovative games. Inside of Roblox games, children used town simulator games to come up with their own narratives. Instead of focusing on a specific game designed goal, children used it to roleplay. We’ve seen children sit in circles and play endless runners, with the child who lasts the longest winning. We’ve even witnessed children using board games as level inspirations in our co-design efforts. As adults, our game design can become rigid. It’s easy to strictly play by the rules of the game, rather than play with conventions. Children remind you to mix it up.
3. It’s Not All About Points
Goals. Gems. Points. Sometimes as adult game designers our idea of game progression becomes stuck in the idea of collection and completion instead of focusing on the action of a game, i.e. what players will spend their time actively doing. As much fun as winning a game is, children want to know what they can *do*. When we design with children, we must think beyond win conditions and delve into the player experience as much as we can.
In their book, Game Design Vocabulary, A: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design, Naomi Clark and Anna Antropy talk about verb relationships in game design and how verbs are the most important rules in a game. Verbs like run, jump, shoot, and swing are the foundations of what players do in games. Per Antropy and Clark, verbs allow players to change the game state and instill agency. Children don’t want to just complete and win a game, they want to explore the full use of verbs. Can they climb a wall? Can they throw a ball? We’ve seen children think a lot around the verbs of a game, which reminds us as designers that there’s more than just an end state when designing with children for children.
4. Going Beyond Genre
Children understand genre better than adult game designers may think, and sometimes they can challenge our expectations about designed tropes. If a game is about space, an adult designer may not add a basketball player to a game. A child who likes basketball and space may come up with a perfect reason for why their basketball player is in space. Children can push you to expand your idea of what a genre means. This is especially great for the P3G team, as we seek to explore a new genre of games!
Adult game designers can learn a lot by co-designing children, as children can push against our expectations. Children as co-designers know what they want to play, and how they’d like to play. They routinely invite us to shake it up and expand our ideas of what games are meant to do. From roleplaying in an open world battle royale, to playing tag with racing cars and ramps children break rules and challenging genre convictions. As adults, we can stand to benefit by simply relaxing and playing along.