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Designing for Kids: Infusions of Life, Kisses of Death

There is one totally inescapable problem inherent in designing projects for children: no matter how youthful we may be, either in appearance or in spirit, the harsh truth is we are no longer members of this particular demographic group. This inevitably means we are going to make some blunders. Carolyn Miller takes a good look at some of the errors made in designing games for kids, and examines some of the defense tactics we can use against them.

January 12, 2000

22 Min Read

Author: by Carolyn Miller

There is one totally inescapable problem inherent in designing projects for children: no matter how youthful we may be, either in appearance or in spirit, the harsh truth is we are no longer members of this particular demographic group. We are grown-ups; they are kids; there is a great chasm of years between us.

And no trick of new math or statistical sleight of hand is going to alter that fact.

We cannot enter the mind of a 12-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a three-year-old. We can guess, but we cannot really know, what a child will like or not like.

This inevitably means we are going to make some blunders.

Some blunders are forgivable; others are so serious that they will hurt a project and perhaps even doom it. These are the ones I am calling "The Seven Kisses of Death."

Make no mistake about it; these Death Kisses are sly. In fact, one of their most dangerous attributes is their seductiveness. They can slip into our work precisely because they seem so attractive, so intelligent, and so logical. But the good news is that these Death Kisses CAN be prevented. We can fend them off with a whole armory full of weapons.

So, why don't we take a good look at these Seven Kisses of Death and examine some of the defense tactics we can use against them.

Death Kiss #1: Kids Love Anything Sweet

Definitely, without a doubt, kids love all kinds of sugary things. They're absolute fiends for candy, ice cream, cookies and achingly sweet breakfast cereals. But wait! This doesn't mean they also like their entertainment to be sweet! In reality, they won't tolerate it, except when they are very, very young. Sweetness is an adult concept of what kids should enjoy. Real breathing kids appreciate something with an edge. In fact, kids' taste is often what many adults consider bad taste. Kids are drawn to content that causes lots of many nice adults to squirm. Consider, for example, two TV shows that are hugely popular with older kids: South Park and Beavis and Butthead.

Another thing about kids: they have a great sense of the absurd. They see what a silly place the world is, and appreciate anything that celebrates its ridiculousness. Humor that pokes fun at adults, or that has a rebellious tinge, is also greatly relished.

But much as kids enjoy humor, they have a dark side, too. They're curious about creepy things of all kinds, and enjoy a good scare. The Goosebumps series of books capitalized handsomely on this.

For some reason, though, many adults seem to think kids' taste runs to the saccharine rather that the tart. They feel a compulsion to make all their characters kind, gentle and loving, and to portray the world as a sunny, happy place without conflict. But kids aren't dumb. They know this is a lie, and they don't appreciate being lied to any more than adults do.

So, if you are creating products for children above the toddler age, don't heap on the sugar. Otherwise, you going to lose them. And even when your target age group is the pre-school set, you don't have to duck the fact that their world contains certain things that can be upsetting...fear of the unfamiliar, sibling rivalry, going to the doctor or dentist. Note that successful TV shows like Barney and Sesame Street aren't afraid to deal with things that little kids really worry about.

How, then, can we make sure our New Media products don't fall into a saccharine trap? For starters, almost any product you make for kids has room for humor that's visual. Kids will laugh much harder if the humor is totally off the wall, wacky, unexpected and absurd.

Think long and hard about your characters, too. Remember, sinners are a lot more interesting than saints, and even your good guys will be more appealing if they have some quirks or foibles. Good character design is crucial, and I'll address this issue more when I reach Death Kiss #7.

And lastly, don't forget about conflict. The type of conflict you select depends in part on the genre of product you are making and on your target age group, but every product becomes more lively and engrossing when it includes some sort of hurdles or obstacles. The more personally involving they are, in terms of the player, the more effective they will be.

Savvy use of humor, characters, and conflict: these are your best weapons against Death Kiss #1.

Death Kiss #2: Give 'Em What's Good for 'Em

The second Kiss of Death is often a corollary to the first Kiss of Death. However, instead of being a too sugary approach, this one is too medicinal. It is usually committed by those of us who are sure we know what's best for children, and we are going to give it to them whether they like it or not. Among the most frequent targets of this particular Death Kiss are educational products.

All too often, people approach educational products with a great earnestness and a zeal to make something that will really be good for children. Their goal is to stuff the kids full of useful material, to smarten 'em up fast. Forget it. It never worked in traditional media and it won't work in interactive media either. Kids are no more attracted to things that are good for them than adults are. They prefer dessert to vegetables any old day; who wouldn't? That doesn't mean, though, that children's interactive programming can't have solid educational content. But it has to be done in a way that is meaningful to kids not adults.

Two lines of software that have done this with great success are the Jump Start line from Knowledge Adventure and the Math Blaster line for Davidson. These products skillfully weave entertainment in with the education, creating that hybrid genre known as edutainment. Yes, it is a word that grates on the ear, but nevertheless-when done well-it is extremely effective.

As in death Kiss #1, some of the best techniques to use here are humor and interesting characters. Another key strategy is to break your educational content into a series of small, exciting challenges. The content within each of these challenges should be randomized so children are motivated to play more than one. And challenges should also increase in difficulty as the child's mastery increases.

It is also important to develop a clever system of rewards. Rewards are a powerful tool for keeping your players involved in the game, so supply as many rewards as you can along the way, not just one big reward at the end. Rewards provide positive reinforcement, and also serve as a measuring stick for how well the child is doing. The trick is to emphasize success and to play down failure. If the player makes a mistake, soften the sting with a little humor, and with words of encouragement from one of the characters. You don't want your players to feel like morons if they do something wrong. You want to keep them involved and eager to do more, rather than to become discouraged and quit.

So, along with good characters and humor, two of your best anti-Death Kiss tools here are challenges and rewards.

Note that both Death Kiss #1, the "sugar bowl approach," and Death Kiss #2, "the medicinal approach," most often spring from the best of intentions. They're often motivated by a desire to teach, to inspire, to prepare the next generation for life. The problem is that when we are operating in this high-principled mode we fail to shape our products in a way that will really appeal to kids.

Basically, what that boils down to is this: stop being a grown-up! That is, don't preach, don't lecture, and don't talk down -- nothing turns kids off faster.

Death Kiss #3: You Gotta Amuse 'Em

This particular Death Kiss is often fueled by cynicism, unlike the altruistic motives that tend to be behind the first two Kisses of Death. You could call this the "junk food approach." In other words, just give the kids what they want. Often it's coupled with the idea that it is far easier and cheaper to make products for children than products for adults, because children are less discriminating--a fatal assumption right there.

In truth, a product lacking real substance is about as satisfying to kid as a meal devoid of genuine nutrition. Sure, it's possible to make an OK product that is light on quality and content but you'll never make anything exceptional with this approach. And that's because while kids love to be entertained, it is also true they're hungry for content.

It's a mistake to sell children short. Kids are like sponges; they are eager for information about what the world is really like, and how to live in it. And don't assume that just because they are little, that they aren't able to comprehend serious themes. If you think about the best children's theatrical films, you'll see that they are more than mere entertainment. Consider the Disney animated movie, the Lion King. Think of the great human themes included themes about treachery and courage, jealousy and friendship, and life and death. And I am sure that any of us who saw Bambi as children will never forget it, or forget that terrible moment when Bambi's mother was killed by the hunters.

The best story-based children's interactive programs have rich themes as well. One of the most outstanding titles to come out in recent years is Pajama Sam; a CD-ROM developed by Humongous Entertainment. It deals with a child's fear of the dark and other common childhood fears, set in an immensely rich story context.

Therefore, if you want to make a really fine product, don't just offer empty calories; include some good protein, too. Layer meaningful themes or goals into your products. But be sure the themes you choose are portrayed from a child's point of view, and well integrated into the overall frame of the story or game.

Death Kiss #4: Always Play It Safe!

This particular Kiss of Death is a yawning pitfall, and all of us who work in children's interactive media teeter on the brink of it. In our desire to avoid violence, sex, and controversy, we often go to the other extreme and produce something so safe it's boring.

True, we all want to avoid graphic violence. We don't want to show the use of guns, knives and other weapons; we don't want to portray dangerous or anti-social activities that kids might model. But that doesn't mean we have to forgo excitement, action and jeopardy. We've just got to come up with different ways to keep the adrenaline pumping.

Broderbund Software, with its Carmen Sandiego series, has been especially clever about this. They have created a master villain, Carmen, and a gang of fearless, amoral criminals who wouldn't even hesitate to steal the smile off the Mona Lisa's face. When you play the game, you become a detective trying to track down Carmen or one of her henchmen, and you are thrust into a breathless cat and mouse game that has you chasing the criminal from one location to the next, trying to interpret mysterious clues as you go. No one ever gets killed, there is no blood, no dismembered bodies, but the Carmen formula works so well that it is one of the most successful children's CD-ROM series ever created.

There are special challenges to making interactive products exciting, problems not found in traditional children's media. Your players aren't captive to a story structure the way they are when they watch a movie or TV; they are free to move around within the product at will. They may choose a different starting place and a different ending place, and they certainly will explore the middle of your piece any way they wish. Thus traditional story-telling structure goes out the window.

But if you can't control where a player goes, how do you build tension? How do you keep a kid so excited by your game or story that he doesn't go out to play soccer or zap a piece of pizza in the microwave? Well, in interactive media, what we have to do is construct an extremely absorbing challenge or purpose. We can give the child a mystery to solve, or a quest to go on, or a secret to discover. Or, if this is a creativity tool, we can give him something enormously desirable to make. If it's a simulation, we can give him entry into a fascinating experience that he can control himself.

YOU can fortify that challenge or purpose by using that great device known as the "the ticking clock" You build in a time limit for solving your mystery or outwitting the bad guys, and you make your player keenly aware of it. The best ticking clocks are meaningfully connected to your story and the environment you're creating. And the consequences of time running out should be meaningful, too, and the more dramatic, the better. One warning, though, when you are creating a game for kids you really should not threaten the player with the ultimate consequence. And the ultimate consequence, of course, is death.

As products like Carmen Sandiego prove you don't need physical violence to create a compelling and fast-paced game. It just means you have to work harder to find ways to make the experience exciting; you have to be more imaginative. You really have no excuse for being bland.

Death Kiss #5: All Kids Are Created Equal

When we commit this particular Kiss of Death, we do it because we are assuming all kids are pretty much the same, no matter who old they are. It's a highly tempting idea, of course, because if it were true, it would be possible to design a game that would appeal to every kid out there, form the ones who have just learned to sit up to the ones who are just about to hit puberty and maybe even snare some of those skulking adolescents, too. But in reality, it just can't be done. A toddler just isn't ready for the kind of entertainment an 8-year old likes, and a 12-year old certainly won't have any patience with something appropriate for a 6-year old.

If you try for too wide an audience, you will probably lose everyone. But by targeting a specific age group, you have a better chance of making something that really grabs their attention. To create a game that is age-appropriate, you must take into consideration such things as humor, skill level, and vocabulary, and also consider the interests that are typical of that particular age group.

When you correctly judge your target audience and shape your product to fit it well, you greatly enhance the possibility of creating something of lasting endurance. On TV, Sesame Street has worked well for long because it is so accurately aimed at pre-schoolers, and it reflects their needs, tastes and degree of sophistication. By the same token, Broderbund's successful line of Living Books is appropriately geared for youngsters who are just learning to read.

When it come to age-appropriateness, interactive media have one big advantage over linear media, and that's the ability to offer a game with different degrees of difficulty. By "leveling" a game designing it with a series of playing levels- you can significantly increase the target age range of your audience. Leveling has another advantage, too-it gives a program greater repeatability. That means kids will come back to it again and again, because there are new challenges every time you play.

There are two major ways to level. If you use he arcade model, you can offer a number of different types of challenges, activities, or puzzles within your game, each with increasing levels of difficulty or complexity. Disney Interactive's line of Activity Centers works like this.

The second model is to have one over-arching goal, and to have your players work their way towards that goal level by level. The Carmen Sandiego series follows this model. The game is constructed in such a way that you work your way up the ladder from a rookie detective to an ace gumshoe. With each "promotion", your missions become more difficult. Working your way up to ace detective is part of the fun, and no one feels embarrassed by starting off at an easy level.

Thus for Death Kiss #5, two good strategies are to make your game age-appropriate, and to maximize its potential age range by using leveling.

Death Kiss #6: Explain Everything

Here again we fall into a very adult trap. We are so eager to be clear, and to guide the little one through our product, that we overdo it, and drown them with words. It is hard for us to realize that kids are really clever at figuring things our, and aren't nearly as afraid of the trial and error process as we grownups are.

We, the adults, have to keep reminding ourselves to go "lite" with words. When I use the term "lite," I'm using it the way the food industry does, to indicate a product that is light in fat and light in calories. Go to any supermarket these days, and you'll see shelves packed with things like "lite ice cream," "lite cookies," and "lite pizza." Well, when you write for kids, it's not excess fat and calories you want to get rid of, but excess words. Nothing is more boring to kids than a long exchange of dialogue or a huge block of written words.

Whenever possible, use visual images rather than spoken or written words to get your message across. Producers who work in children's television, especially in animation, have long appreciated the value of telling a story through action, not through dialogue. It is taking interactive media somewhat longer to catch on, especially because many of these technologies are, or have been, primarily text based.

When you do use dialogue, keep it short and crisp. Steer clear of long sentences and difficult, overly formal grammar. Use words that are easy for a child to understand, that are kid-friendly.

The same goes for text. Make sure it is as readable as possible. Your font should be attractive and large enough for children to read easily, and the words shouldn't be crowded closely together. Remember, it is daunting even for adults to wade through a big chunk of text on a screen. Think of what it must be like for new readers.

When it comes to guiding the child through your game, the best way to reduce the need for lengthy explanations is through good interface design. The more intuitive the interface, the less the need to give instructions about how to navigate through it. Put some mental muscle into designing the look of your icons. Ideally, they should visually reflect their functions, and should also thematically be in harmony with the theme of your game.

So, to avert Death Kiss #6, go "lite" with words, utilize visual approach to story telling; and pay attention to your interface design.

Death Kiss #7: Be Sure Your Characters Are Wholesome

Death Kiss #7 is particularly slippery because it seems so laudable. Why wouldn't we want our characters to be wholesome? Well, the trouble with wholesome characters is that they are dull, predictable and uninteresting. And if our characters are not appealing, the games they populate are not going to be as appealing as they could be either. Dynamic, multi-dimensional characters go a long way towards creating a strong product.

The trouble is, when people design characters, they frequently fall into one of three traps.

The first trap is to go the "white bread" route. Often this means that all the characters will be white, middle class, and nice, people who pretty much resemble most of the writers and designers. But even when the characters aren't all white and middle class and nice, still they look as if they were all stamped out by the same cookie-cutter--whether they are human characters, or little bears, or space aliens.

The second trap is the "lifesaver" approach. This is often utilized as a direct counter to the white bread approach. Here, instead of each character resembling all the others, every character is a different color of the rainbow. Each represents a different race or ethnic group--just like the colors in a roll of lifesavers. You've got one African-American, one Asian one Native American, one Caucasian, and so on. But instead of having life-like characters, you end up with a dull pint-sized version of a United Nations General Assembly meeting.

The third flawed mode of character design is the "off-the-shelf" approach, which relies heavily on familiar stereotypes. You've got your beefy kid with the bad teeth; he's the bully. You've got the little kid with glasses; he's the smart one. You've got your red haired girl with freckles; she's the feisty Tomboy. And then you've got your two blue-eyed blondes. The boy blonde is your hero and the girl blonde is your heroine. Sound familiar?

Of course, there is no reason to fall back on any of these approaches. Take a look at outstanding children's films and TV shows, and you'll see that each character is unique and distinct. The same should be true in interactive work. Each character should be vivid, and have an individual set of strong points, failings, strengths, desires and fears, just like people in the real world. Your heroes shouldn't be totally good and you bad guys shouldn't be totally bad. Heroes with weaknesses or flaws are far more captivating than ones that are angelic, especially if they are struggling to overcome their flaws. For example, the little boy in Pajama Sam is so likable precisely because of his personal demon, a fear of the dark, and his fierce determination to overcome it.

And when it comes to villains, the more multi-dimensional and unusual they are, the more energy they will give to your product. Think of that master thief Carmen Sandiego, who runs her band of henchmen with an iron hand--she's glamorous, super smart and fiendishly elusive-in other words, one of a kind.

In sum, to steer clear of Death Kiss #7, create characters that are multifaceted and unique, jus the way real human beings are.

So How Else Can We Protect Ourselves Against These Kisses of Death?

  1. Get help from the experts. These include child psychologists, teachers, and child development specialists. Don't forget, though, that among the most insightful experts are the kids themselves. But be careful. Kids can be kind and tell you what you think you want to hear. This is especially true it the kids are consulting are YOUR kids, and you're seeking their opinions about something you yourself are making. It's far better to seek out kids who don't know you, and who won't hesitate to tell you if they think what you are doing is lame.

  2. Become familiar with the most successful children's products from other media, and learn from them. Go back to the fairy tales, to the fables, to classic children's storybooks. They are a rich and wonderful resource. Or for more contemporary models, study the best children's movies and TV shows. While it goes without saying that there are significant differences between traditional media and interactive media, it is also true that in many significant ways they are more similar than different. They offer time-tested techniques for story telling, character development and point of view. You don't have to reinvent the wheel.

  3. Finally, never let down your guard. You've got to be totally alert to these Kisses of Death. Make up your own list if you don't agree with mine, but whatever you do, be vigilant. They can invade your products with great ease, especially when you are under pressure. They seem attractive because the offer familiar and comfortable answers. So scrupulously examine your products for them every step of the way, and when you find them, root them out.

Good Luck!

Carolyn Miller is a writer/designer specializing in interactive products for children. She has worked on CD-ROMs, web sites, kiosk presentations and interactive toy systems. Among the better known CD-ROM titles she has contributed to The Toy Story Animated StoryBook (Pixar and Disney Interactive); the Carmen Sandiego series (Broderbund); and The Random House Kid's Encyclopedia (Knowledge Adventure and Random House). As a design consultant, she has worked on interactive toy products for Mattel and Hasbro. Before entering the New Media field, Carolyn spent many years as a children's television writer, writing 20 episodes for the long running series Captain Kangaroo (the original version starring Bob Keeshan) and writing numerous Afterschool Specials, one of which earned her an Emmy nomination. Carolyn also teaches interactive writing and design for the UCLA Writer's Program.

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