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What Makes a Good Software Game for Children?

By Scot Osterweil

Parents are desperate to find software games that spark inventive play while also expanding their children’s minds. I’ve spent the last decade of my professional life pondering the question, and recently an analogy occurred to me that I think captures the difference between rich and impoverished gameplay. It boils down to the difference between a game of Scrabble and a spelling bee.

Imagine a Scrabble game between a child and an empathetic adult. While waiting her turn, the child is constantly rearranging the tiles, enjoying the way words emerge one after the other (and enjoying the tactile pleasure of the tiles themselves). She uses her imagination, making up words that ought to exist, and she challenges herself, striving mightily to remember the big word she learned last week. When it’s time to place her tiles, if her move is successful the adult offers praise and her score rises. If her choice is not a word, the adult is nevertheless encouraging, agreeing that it was reasonable to assume that “meese” was the plural of moose, and commiserating about the challenges of spelling. Maybe the adult suggests a new strategy for making plural words. Even without winning, the child can take pride in her improving mastery and her improving score. And all the while, the child is clearly “at play.”

QuoteNow imagine a classroom spelling bee. The four kids in the class who think of themselves as good spellers are energized. The rest of the students feel knots in their stomachs. They know they won’t win. And sure enough, with each turn the pressure mounts. The clock is ticking, and they have limited time to think. They’re not allowed to use paper and pencil to experiment with different spellings. When they get a word wrong, no one explains why or praises whatever good reasoning might have gone into their answer. They are simply buzzed out of the game. Spelling is just one more skill they concede to others.

Sadly, the majority of “educational” computer games are exactly like my description of the spelling bee. Under time pressure the child is required to come up with the one and only one “right” answer, with no opportunity to think deeply or experiment. There is no partial reward for good reasoning, and no explanation of why one answer is wrong and another right. These games offer positive reinforcement to the child who has already mastered a subject, but they’re not likely to help those children in need of further work. Nothing remotely like play is taking place.

The very best games (few in number) offer a play experience as richly rewarding as the Scrabble game described. Many fall somewhere in the middle on my Scrabble-spelling bee continuum. Zoo Vet (Legacy Interactive) and The Number Devil (Terzio) are both games with something to commend themselves to certain children even if they can’t completely escape the pitfalls of the spelling bee.

Zoo Vet

Zoo VetMany children love animals, and in Zoo Vet, they get to examine and treat animals with various ailments at a large zoo. The player has a number of animals to choose from at any time, and is free to play in any order. During the examination, the player commands a plethora of instruments for monitoring the animal’s vital signs, and for examining the specific ailment. Players can take blood tests, x-rays, even stool samples. And there are just as many choices for treating the animal. This kind of open-ended choice greatly enhances the chance that the child will engage in the invention and creativity we want for their playtime.

The game would be stronger if there were more emphasis on understanding rather than on parroting right answers. It insistently instructs players exactly what to do at each stage- even when it doesn’t explain why - and it scolds them when they try the “wrong” thing. Many children will feel obliged to joylessly do what they are told without gaining any real understanding of veterinary science. It’s true that the real world would have little tolerance for a Vet who applies the wrong treatment, but Zoo Vet is a game, not a professional simulation, and one wishes the creators were more open to the child’s experimentation. Still, if a child is already intrigued by the work of Veterinarians, she might really enjoy this exposure to the tools of the trade.

The Number Devil

The Number Devil refreshingly flies in the face of many current game conventions. The lovely 2D animation is much more attractive than the generic 3D of most current games. It has the whimsical look of a good children’s book, and that’s likely to get the player’s imagination in gear right from the start. And the Number Devil himself is a delightfully grumpy guide, with none of the treacle rah-rah qualities of many game characters. The game really wants the player to like math, not just do it efficiently. (In this case we’re talking upper elementary and middle school math.)

These good intentions show up best in the animated sequence that lead off each of the 11 games in the Number Devil. During these inventive and amusing scenes, the Devil explains some aspect of math like square roots or decimals. The only catch is that while these explanations are clever, they pass too quickly, and there is no guarantee the player has mastered the information. The subsequent games that make up the interactive part of the product sometimes reinforce the learning, but frequently do no better than quiz for right answers (often under time pressure) without enhancing understanding. For The Number Devil to really work its magic, a player would have to learn more through the playing of the games rather than the introductory animations. Just as Zoo Vet proves to be best for children already interested in Veterinary medicine, The Number Devil is likely to work best for the child who feels competent at math, and who will benefit from exposure to intriguingly quirky aspects of numbers and number relationships.

It’s not a bad thing to buy a game that reinforces your child’s interests or academic strengths, and these two games bring many appealing qualities to that task. They are not as open ended or rewarding as the best kinds of play, but there is an audience for each of them.

About the Author
Scot Osterweil is the creator of the Zoombinis, and the co-designer of "Zoombinis Logical Journey," "Zoombinis Mountain Rescue," and "Zoombinis Island Odyssey." His other computer games include "YOIKS!" and "Switchback." He lives with his wife and two sons near Boston.

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