Children are Game Designers: how child’s play mirrors professional game development

“Let’s play hide and go seek!” Denver exclaims to his friends Dalys and Reno. “Ok cover your eyes, count to ten, and then come look for us.  And no peeking.” says Dalys. Reno counts to ten and then begins to look for his friends. “I found you! You’re it!”shouts Reno as he pulls back a curtain to reveal Dalys. Dalys bolts for the living room sofa and screams “base” as she leaps onto it, “ha-ha  you didn’t tag me” teases Dalys. Confused and a little annoyed Reno whines “You didn’t say I had to tag you.” Denver comes out from hiding to clarify the rules “Ok, let’s say whoever is it has to tag the person they find before they can reach base. Ok? I’ll be it this time, go hide.”

When children play together they construct games out of their toys or the spaces they are confined to. With limitations considered they determine what would be a challenging feat to accomplish in cooperation or competition.  Does it require dexterity; “who can walk the farthest along that curb without losing their balance?” Is it a test of bravery; “who can climb the highest up this tree?” Can it include self expression and imagination; “let’s bring all of our Legos together and make a giant set and make a story together.” Whether it is as simple as tag or physical feats, or more elaborate games such as team hide and seek tag with the whole neighborhood at night; children love thinking up games.

In a process that mirrors professional game development children build their games in a certain order.  First they must agree on a core game loop that they think will be fun.  Once they have selected the mechanics of play they have completed the concept portion and enter the Alpha stage. During this stage they prototype and playtest their first set of rules.

As they test the game for breaks they also complete the list of unique elements their game will feature, this is the Beta stage. This stage is important and requires a lot of iteration to balance gameplay to ensure that the players all have a fun and fair experience. Within children there can be many variables which impact the games success including physical size, number of players, age, and gender. They must navigate these factors by collaborating and accounting for how the game will be played differently by the different players. This is akin to focus testing, where developers check in with their audience to ensure that they are making a game that is desirable.

Once they have a solid gameplay experience the game enters the Release stage.  The kids leave their original player group and begin to teach their game to other kids and friends; in development terms, they release Atheir game to the world.

In truth children and the adults they become are far more familiar with the nuances of game design than they realize.  It is a creative exercise we all have taken part in and something that should be encouraged and nurtured. Beyond developing a design sensibility, children also gain several important life skills. Empathy for their peers and a sense of duty to build fair systems. An interest in collaboration and being inclusive. However, the strongest advantage they gain from designing games is the ability to set a goal and iterate on its execution until they have accomplished it. By creating a concept, testing it, and moving forward with their best ideas, without being attached to the ideas that didn’t work, children learn the important lesson of being dynamic and open to change.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s