Working Together to Design Great Games for Kids

Last year Common Sense Media found that in a two-year period, the average amount of time children spend using mobile devices had tripled. Kids of all ages (including those younger than 2) spend increasing amounts of time playing games and using apps on the family iPad.

CFisher3-300x286And among the debates about whether this digital deluge is good or bad for kids, developers across the country are diligently working to create a new great game many of our kids will be begging to play next year.

Children’s media developers often come to the work without a background in child development. And most of our early childhood educators, caregivers, and researchers are not creating their own apps and games (at least not yet).

Media creators, researchers, and educators can learn a great deal from each other. So how can we do a better job of bringing these two groups together? How can we make sure the apps and games we’re creating are developmentally appropriate?

These questions are the focus of an upcoming panel at the 2014 Fred Forward Conference in Pittsburgh. To discuss further I talked with panel moderator and children’s game designer Dr. Carla Engelbrecht Fisher about the essential ingredients for effective collaboration between media developers and early childhood experts. Fisher is the new director of product innovation for children and family at Netflix. She’s founder of the game design company No Crusts Interactive and has worked for Sesame Workshop, PBS KIDS, and Highlights for Children.

Fred Rogers Center: Tell me who is on the panel at Fred Forward, and what will you be talking about?

Carla Fisher: We have quite a diverse panel. Barbara Chamberlin from New Mexico State University will be joining us along with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek from Temple. Frances Judd, former kindergarten teacher, now a game designer at Mrs. Judd’s Games will be there, as well as Paul Siefken from the Fred Rogers Company. We’re going to be exploring strategies to make that link between media developers with researchers and early childhood educators.

So how do you bridge this gap between research and production?

It’s really hard. We all like the idea and say “of course, because it’s the right thing to do for kids.” But the actuality of how you integrate research into design and production requires a depth of knowledge across many fields that can be really daunting.

We’ll be talking about what it means to use child development research in the product development process. We’ll be sharing tools and resources—products that have gone well and not gone well. We’ll be talking about fail stories that haven’t worked. We’ll also look beyond North America to discuss examples and ideas of what works in other markets.

As a game designer, can you talk about how you go about creating developmentally appropriate interactive experiences for kids?

If you’re developing something for an audience you have no real recent exposure to, you’re going to run into roadblocks.

First, I realize I don’t know everything, which is really hard to admit, particularly because we were all kids. When working on a kids project, it’s very tempting to say, “I was a kid once (or I have kids/cousins/friends that age) and I know what they want.” But it’s been a long time since I was that age. If you’re developing something for an audience you have no real recent exposure to, you’re going to run into roadblocks and you’re going to make assumptions that may or may not be true.


But at the same time, there’s such a history of research. There is so much we do know about how kids think and learn. It’s a disservice to our audience to not understand the research.

So how do you communicate that to developers and help them understand that there are resources out there?

It’s challenging. Much of the research is stuck in head speak and statistics and cognitive language that can be difficult for a nonresearch audience to understand. We need to find a way to share it in a way that’s friendly to developers. We need to find the right people to help us interpret it, and to decide where we want to go with that information. I think places like the Fred Rogers Center can help a lot.

What about the early childhood educators? What is their role in this conversation about how we create apps for young children?

I think they should be helping to create future research questions. What do we still want to know about the new digital tools? What kinds of games and apps do we want to see in classrooms? How are educators using digital tools in the classroom? What’s working, and importantly, what’s not working?

Early childhood classrooms can be great places for experimentation.

Additionally, early childhood classrooms can be great places for experimentation. A product does not need to be fully produced with final audio and images to be put into the hands of the audience. If we test our products early and often in the real world, we’ll produce content that’s much more useful. To do that, we need partnerships with the educators.

And for developers? What do you hope they take away from this panel?

I see a very significant need for the leaders in the field to share more publically the things that work and the things that don’t work. This is an incredible panel, and to hear developers speak truthfully about the challenges of the work and to share what we have learned is going to be very powerful. Developers should share postmortems of practical, actionable information alongside performance metrics. They should celebrate their successes as well as share the failures so that together we improve the quality of products for children.

That said, there is good information available but it’s still incredibly fractured and scattered all over the internet. We have our own discoverability problem in how to get information to the people who need it.

Can you say more about what you mean?

We actually have a lot of research on how kids learn from media and research on usability. A lot of us do user testing, but we’re not always in a position to share the results, often because of the company we’re working for. So even though our findings show the same things, we have to replicate research because we simply don’t know what others are doing.

How do we overcome those kinds of barriers?

When a developer or research finds themselves in the situation of not being able to share, I hope they can make it a priority to push on the limits and share what they can, perhaps in a blog or at a conference. It doesn’t have to be the secret sauce of a product, but sharing our best practices to avoid replication will help move our industry forward as a whole.

I see a very significant need for the leaders in the field to share more publically the things that work and the things that don’t work.

Tell us about your new book

The book is called “Designing Games for Kids: Development, Usability, and Design Guidelines for Making Great Games for Kids.” The title is long enough to summarize anything you might want to know! But in short, it’s written for two audiences that I frequently work with—children’s media developers who are not familiar with games and game designers who aren’t as familiar with kids. It’s no secret that I’m passionate about helping developers find information, which has led to a lot of writing (especially via the Kids Got Game blog) and speaking. That, in turn, led to the book, which is really my own way of addressing the need for information. It’s being published by Focal Press and should be out in early 2015.

What’s the incentive for media developers to work more closely with researchers or child development experts? People are buying their games either way, right?

If you want a commercially viable business, you have to build parent and teacher trust. The best way to do that is to communicate how you’re looking out for the best interest of the child, including by incorporating the best research and experts into your product vision.

That’s your value added for your business. And as our consumers become more digitally savvy, the pressure is on the developers to answer to this call. Parents and teachers are thinking about what it means to use digital content in an informed way for kids. Developers need to be part of this conversation.

Photo courtesy of the Erikson Institute.

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