Thursday, August 27, 2009

Computer Play Sessions of Children Under 6

In this article, game designer Traci Lawson explains the unique challenges of designing computer game play sessions for preschoolers.

When you plan or design a game play session for a preschool-aged child, it’s essential that you step into their world for a moment. See the computer (or DS, Wii, iPhone, whatever applies in your case) through their eyes. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider a computer game. When a preschooler gets ahold of the computer, it’s a big deal. In many families, children under the age of 6 do not have the freedom to use the computer whenever they want. To them, the computer is something the grown-ups and big kids use. Computer time is something special.

When a preschooler has a mouse in her hand, she wants to use it. She wants something to click on, and something to do. Like adults and older kids, preschoolers have little patience for listening to directions. When they’re in the mood to play, they want to play, not hear directions. The same goes for an opening story. If the child was in the mood to watch a video, she would have sat in front of the TV, or clicked on the video section of her favorite website. When a game has a lengthy animated intro, many preschoolers are impatiently waiting to get to the part when they get to do something. In many cases, they aren’t even really listening to the intro. The best preschool games are those that require no instructions or introductions and instead feature intuitive ways to play. If you do need instructions, it is possible to thread prompts throughout the game. Instead of saddling the player with a lengthy explanation at the beginning, it’s better to have a character give hints just-in-time. Consider that a preschooler’s idea of lengthy is probably shorter than your idea of lengthy. If your intro is longer than 4 or 5 sentences, or 10 seconds of speaking aloud, it’s pretty long.

Game play sessions for children under 6 tend to be pretty short, but this may be because preschoolers become bored with games published for their age group. They may sit at the computer for 20 or 30 minutes, but they often don’t spend more than five minutes with any one game. Preschool websites and CD-ROM titles usually offer several games, not one long experience like an older child’s game. To some preschoolers, clicking around and seeing what’s there is entertainment for them. That may be fine to them, but as game designers, we of course want children to be interested in the game we built for them.

To hold children’s attention and extend game play sessions, it is important to challenge them. Give them something to think about. In games, it’s usually best to dig beyond the basic ABCs and 123s. If they’re old enough to have the fine motor control necessary to use a mouse, and if they have resources that include access to a home or school that has a computer, then chances are good that they’ve already been taught the alphabet, and how to count to 10. Preschoolers may be more engaged by a game that involves working with different quantities, or an activity that develops early reading skills, like using printed words to select items. It may not be easy for a 3 or 4 year old, but it’s something they will hopefully aspire to, and try until they get it.

Just as preschoolers love to enjoy their favorite videos and books over and over again, if they like your game, they’re going to want to play it over and over again. Keeping this in mind, the ideal preschool game should provide its loyal fans familiar comforts in each play session, but at the same time avoid monotony and introduce new challenges to keep that child feeling smart and coming back for more.

Traci Lawson is an independent children’s game designer and researcher based in New York City. She maintains a blog on her Web site.


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