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Children and their desired game experiences: A developmental look at game aesthetics

What emotions do children want to experience when they play games? To answer this question, we present a framework that theorizes how game aesthetics evolve as children age, which can be used to design more developmentally appropriate for ages 2 to 17.

Simone de Droog, Blogger

December 15, 2020

14 Min Read

What emotions do children want to experience when they play games? Are they searching for companionship, do they want to express themselves creatively or is it simply a challenge they are after? Almost 20 years ago, Garneau presented his “14 ways of fun” on this platform. A select number of game researchers, media artists and game designers followed, contributing to the list of experiences players may desire. However, a developmental approach to these so-called “aesthetics” is missing. As children form an increasingly meaningful market for game designers, it is important to understand how their aesthetic preferences evolve as they get older. In this article, a first draft of our Developmental Game Aesthetics (DGA) framework is presented.


Children are an interesting target group for game designers. While the numbers in game engagement and spending remain relatively stable overall, notable increases are seen amongst children aged 2 to 17. Gaming is one of the top activities enjoyed by 5- to 16-year-olds, while touch screen technology drastically lowered the age at which children are exposed to games. From a commercial point of view, positive exposure to products at a young age tends to lead to long-term brand loyalty. From a societal point of view, attitudes and habits are still flexible at a young age, making children more receptive to targeted messages in serious games.  


At the same time, children can be a difficult audience to please, because the experiences they want from media change rapidly due to cognitive and social-emotional developments. For this reason, a 4-year-old loves nurturing a friendly looking pet, a 6-year-old rather gets lost on a fantasy island, and a 13-year-old searches for real competition. While adults may persevere play even when the game does not exactly meet their needs, children will disengage when the game is not tailored to their developmental stage. Therefore, developing successful games for children requires specifying the targeted age group and their preferred game experiences already in the initial stage of game development.


Unfortunately, literature provides us little information on the experiences children want from games. Researchers have extensively studied the more tangible elements of a game, such as points, rewards, and quests (mechanics), while the emotional experiences that players desire from games (aesthetics) are covered by only a small number of, mostly theoretical, papers. Another problem with the current research is that the vast majority ignored the developmental differences between young players, treating them as one homogeneous group. However, mechanics can be appreciated by different age groups for various reasons. For instance, younger children collect game medals from a need to have as much as possible, while older children collect them for social reasons such as sharing and trading. Thus, at this point, we do not know which mechanics are appreciated by which age group and, most importantly, why. Because children select games from a desire to experience a certain emotion (and not so much for the specific mechanics they contain), it makes more sense if game designers and researchers identify the age-preferred aesthetics first before selecting, testing and/or designing the mechanics that elicit these experiences. We believe a developmental framework for game aesthetics could solve these issues.  


In this article, we will present a first draft of our Developmental Game Aesthetics (DGA) framework, in which we theorize how game aesthetics evolve as children age. The framework can be used to understand and investigate children’s gameplay-related emotional experiences, to hypothesize and test how specific aesthetics are evoked by specific mechanics and, ultimately, to help design more developmentally appropriate and beneficial games.


Aesthetics: desired emotional game experiences

There is no widely shared general term for desirable game experiences. We adopted the term aesthetics from the original MDA framework by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek, in which gameplay design is broken down into 3 areas: mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics. Designers are often concerned with creating mechanics (rules of the game) that give rise to dynamics (how the game is played), in order to elicit “desirable emotional experiences in the player”, known as aesthetics. We believe the terms fun and pleasure are too restrictive, because what people describe as fun and pleasurable varies, and not all game experiences are fun or pleasurable. Furthermore, the experiences that players desire from games may be playful, but not all, unless we perceive “relaxation” also as playful. They are however all emotional experiences.   


Games can invoke multiple aesthetics at once. For instance, a game can simultaneously fulfill a desire for fantasy and a desire for challenge. Players can also desire multiple aesthetics at the same time and differ from each other in their desired aesthetics. Player differences can be caused by all types of individual factors, such as gender, age, cultural background, game experience, and specific interests. Our DGA framework focusses on age-related developmental differences, and anticipates that as we age, the number of desired game aesthetics will grow and the interplay of aesthetics becomes more subtle. Younger children often lack certain desires simply because they require a certain amount of understanding or experience that they have not developed yet. 


Developing the DGA framework

The starting point of our DGA framework was the revised Playful Experience (PLEX) framework of Arrasvouri, Boberg, and Korhonen, because it is the most extensive taxonomy of desired game experiences, bringing together most of the earlier theories. Only aesthetics that could change in extent over time due to cognitive and social-emotional developments, were selected for our DGA framework. For this reason, “humor” was not selected as only the type of humor changes over time but not the extent to which children desire humor. We also did not include “cruelty” and “erotism” given children’s greater vulnerability to media content. Of the initial 22 aesthetics in the PLEX framework, 10 were selected. Some needed to be adapted, leading to a final number of 11 developmental game aesthetics.


To select and explain the developmental game aesthetics, we drew upon developmental psychology theory and existing research on children’s non-game media content. Both research domains indicate how and why young children’s responses to and preferences in toys and media content is strikingly different from older children due to less advanced skills. Nonetheless, the assumptions in our DGA framework should in time be validated given the unique interactive nature of games. While our framework indicates at what age children have a heightened desire for a certain aesthetic, it is important to realize that these age limits are fluid. Children do not wake up on their 7th birthday as a completely different person. These are gradual developmental changes around certain age brackets. Furthermore, while adolescents tend to prefer games for adults, teens still have some unique developments that may heighten certain aesthetic desires. For this reason, the DGA framework concerns young people aged 2 to 17.


The 11 developmental game aesthetics

We provide an overview of our 11 aesthetics below. Adaptions and extensions to the original terms of the PLEX framework are shown in italics.


(1) Nurture

Children experience nurture when taking care of oneself or others, such as pets, avatars and other virtual beings. Taking care of others is most relevant from a developmental point of view. Humans have an innate need to nurture creatures that are small and vulnerable. This need is at its highest around ages 3 to 5, when children have a special bond with (baby) animals, young children, and cute and friendly looking (virtual) characters. They love to take care of them, as long as it is not too demanding or time-intensive. After the age of 5, it is mostly girls that remain an interest in nurturing.


(2) Subversion

Children experience subversion when breaking social roles, rules and norms or seeing others break them. It involves all types of less socially acceptable things, including bad behaviors and naughty language. This need first appears during ages 5 to 7, when the sweetness starts to disappear. Children develop an interest in naughty behaviors, slapstick humor, and inappropriate and silly words such as poopy-head, stink-a-roni, and pee-pee pants. Their interest in villains and playing the bad guy also heightens, particularly among boys. This type of play helps them develop a moral code, learn the difference between right and wrong, understand rules, and to control their impulses. By the time they are 8, most of them will have outgrown this naughty phase. However, the need for subversion will return during the teenage years (11-16), when their need for more independence makes them search for outlets to rebel.


(3) Fantasy & (4) Fidelity

Fantasy is an imagined experience often elicited by fantasy world settings, fictional characters, and abilities that do not exist in the real world. Opposite to fantasy is fidelity (in Quick’s taxonomy), when children appreciate realism in a game, such as lifelike animations and situations, and realistic graphics and sound effects. These two aesthetics are developmentally important, because they concern children’s ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. The interest in fantasy starts very young, with children already demonstrating their first expressions of fantasy by the age of 1,5. By the ages of 3 to 5, children actively pretend play and are highly impressed by fantasy figures and special effects. Interestingly, the transition years (5-7), in which they slowly start to distinguish reality from fantasy, are characterized as their most magical years. The need for fantasy is then at its highest. By the age of 8, children start to develop interest in realism. They may still like fantasy, but they prefer storylines with realistic themes. During the teenage years (11-16), the need for fidelity further increases. Improved abstract thinking and social cognition creates an interest in probable media content, with logical storylines, facts, and characters that are true to (an adolescent’s) life.


(5) Fellowship

We experience fellowship in many forms of social interactions. It comes from friendships, cooperation, communality and intimacy, and involves socializing or playing with others, including showing affection towards others and receiving admiration. Small children can play alone for hours. They tend to play with other children only when convenient, for instance, because there happens to be another child around. Around the age of 6, children begin to understand social perspectives and relationships. They develop a need for social play, actively seek peers with whom they have similarities, and organize social situations to learn social lessons (e.g., how to be popular). Peers are extremely important and influential during the middle childhood and teenage years (7-16), and communicating becomes a 24 hour activity. Media, including games, are mostly appreciated as a means by which they can communicate with others or do things together. For this reason, we anticipate a higher need for fellowship during ages 7 to 16. After that, fellowship is likely to stabilize as young adults (16+) are less concerned with belonging to a group, and appreciate the quality of their friendships over quantity.


(6) Sympathy

When children share emotional feelings with someone or something, they experience sympathy. For instance, they feel happy when a game character has a victory or sad when that character gets bullied. Sympathy requires the ability to empathize. Although empathy has its roots in infancy, it takes years for this skill to develop. A crucial development is around the age of 7, when children start to understand other people’s perspectives. In order to feel empathy, a child needs to understand why someone might be sad or afraid, and thus, be able to take on other perspectives. Children are then able to respond appropriately. Nonetheless, more complex ways of emphasizing, for instance regarding discrimination, may take as late as adolescence to develop. The need for sympathy is therefore likely to start around the age of 7 and to gradually increase as children age.  


(7) Personal challenge & (8) Social competition

Children experience challenge when they overcome obstacles, solve problems, or test their abilities in a demanding task. Competition is experienced when children are in contest with oneself or an opponent. We specified these terms to “personal” challenge and “social” competition to distinguish contest with oneself (and other individual challenges) from contest with others. The need for challenge already appears around the age of 3, initially focusing on personal challenges to improve one’s own skills and scores. Personal challenge is specifically preferred over social competition during middle childhood (7-11). During these years, children develop beliefs about their own skills and achievements that can have long lasting effects on their self-confidence. For this reason, competition and social comparison form a key thread during middle childhood, explaining these children’s preference for safe learning environments. Social competition has shown to become pleasantly engaging from the age of 11, when teens are more willing (and less anxious) to make multiple attempts at beating the scores of others.


(9) Thrill

Thrill is the excitement derived from perceived risk, being scared or situations in which the stakes are high. The need for thrill is seen mostly during ages 11 to 16, when teens actively seek for situations that elicit strong emotions. They love to consume emotional storylines and thrilling content like horror, extreme sports, and stunts. Some researchers believe that teens’ dopamine levels are lower than those of children and young adults. This would explain why they often feel listless. Only when they anticipate or experience something thrilling will the sudden spike in dopamine levels cause them to feel with great intensity.


(10) Identity exploration

Exploration in a game usually concerns the investigation of an object, world or situation. But children may also experience this when trying out different cultural backgrounds, lifestyles, living situations, family setups, and even a different sexuality. This type of “self”-exploration relates close to identity (in Quick’s taxonomy), where players enjoy characters that are different from one’s own identity, species, race or gender. Given that children developmentally differ on this specific aspect of exploration, the term “identity exploration” was chosen. The need to explore various identities starts in middle childhood (7-11), but is at its highest during the teenage years (11-16), when they try to get a sense of who they are and who they would like to become. Instead of being similar to their peers, they slowly start to experiment in looks, behaviors, and lifestyles. This is needed to develop more self-esteem and a stable identity. Because they are still sensitive to the reactions and approval of others, they prefer to explore in virtual environments that give them the opportunity to experiment endlessly with their self-presentation, and give them time to think about what they would communicate to optimize feedback. During the young adult years (16+), identity exploration is likely to stabilize as young adults have a clearer idea of who they are.


(11) Self-expression

Children experience expression when they manifest themselves creatively. While all children love to create, they differ developmentally in “self”-expression. This need starts to develop around ages 7 to 16, when expressing oneself via clothing, music, and art is a means to demonstrate group membership. However, self-expression is at its highest during the young adult years (16+), when they have a greater need to stand out and to demonstrate their unique identity. This is often demonstrated via personalized products. To share their voice and leave a mark, many young adults also produce content for their peers to be consumed and shared. Game designers can harness these interests by providing co-creation options. This gives young adults a feeling of control, that their content or other contribution matters, and that they are taken seriously.


Share your thoughts!

To further develop our DGA framework, our next step is to visualize the framework as a landscape, indicating when an aesthetic surfaces and how it further evolves (i.e., increasing and decreasing in desire) as children age. We then want to include examples of popular games among children, and hypothesize how the specific aesthetics could be evoked by specific mechanics. We also want to find validation for our framework in existing game research. And finally, we want to draw up a research agenda for further specification, validation and extension of our initial framework. Game designers play a crucial role in the development of our framework. Being a first draft, this article was written to collect your thoughts, opinions, experiences, examples, and tips regarding this topic. We therefore invite you to comment on our DGA framework and start a fruitful discussion.


Simone M. de Droog (Ph.D in Communication Science) is a senior researcher in the research group Human Experience & Media Design (HEMD), University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on media products and interventions for children, developmental differences, and specifically interactions with non-human entities. She loves helping companies designing developmentally appropriate to benefit children’s wellbeing.


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