When we think of how games get spread it is often a miscalculation to believe that parents get games for their children. Most games are adopted in much the same way toys are; children obtain games, play games, and share them with their friends. As a cultural touchstone children use games that they play in common to relate to each other and share experiences. The expansion of a game’s audience is this driven by children playing together.
However a good game for children is not as cut and dry as games that are marketed “for children”. This is often a mistake that game developers make in attempting to make games that will interest children, by attaching their game to fad or to meet parental approval. For children the most important elements to a game is that they can a) play it without assistance, and b) that it is entertaining. So in that sense what pulls a child to play a game is less about trying to tie an intellectual property to some robust game experience and more to do with presenting a clear and easy to understand game loop.
The games that children play are fun, comical, lighthearted, over the top experiences that can provide them with a clear feedback system. Complicated narratives and resource management quickly bores young children, and even if those aspects are enjoyed it can be tough to translate those experiences into talking points among their friends. Games for children need to be something that excites not only the player but also theie audience. This is where design starts for diverge from a typical game model, where the audience doesn’t necessarily need to be entertained.
With children it must be taken into account that they will be playing games together, even single player games. In single player games the children take turns showing off and experimenting with mechanics, perhaps designing their own conditions of what they want to accomplish during their turn. This is organic growth through imergent gameplay and social dynamics. The players themselves are promoting the games they play and surprisingly enough, the games they play the most are not the ones best advertised, but rather, obscure titles that their friends introduce them to.
One amazing example of a game which found successful growth through word of mouth and a player base of children is Minecraft. Minecraft’s easy to pick up mechanics and neutral graphics made it easy for players of all ages and genders to enjoy. It is easy to play and easy to explain, the player can take a creative concept and produce in game results with speed and fidelity. Long before they became a cultural phenomenon Minecraft’s was booming with success via the children that played it and incorporated it into their social lives with their friends. As with many such games parents and older gamers did not understand the pull of such a superficially simple game, but therein lies the secret of its success. Minecraft is inviting, it shows the player that it’s mechanics are not hidden behind expansive tutorials or locked by linear narratives; it is simply a sandbox with toys for the player to create with. This concept is familiar to children and so they fell in love with it immediately.
The game has found so much success among children that now teachers are using it as a platform to introduce their students to concepts such as historical architecture. Teachers are realizing that they can capitalize on the immersiveness and pervasiveness of the game to reach their students.
The reality of what a children’s game is, has much more to do with how children play and less to do with what children like. Find a way to have players share an experience as both audience and player and it will grow organically among children. Focus on making the game have a low skill floor and high skill ceiling and children will continue to play for so as long as their friends continue to learn from each other. Provide children with a system within which they can feel knowledgable and powerful and they will take pride in their gameplay experience as they use it to express themselves. For children, games are fun experiences they love to talk about and share with their friends, and that is difference between a “child’s game” and a game children play.