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  Toddler vs. Video Games, Round 1  
 
 
Posted 2005-12-28 by Tony Walsh
 
 
     
 
Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down with a 4 year-old boy in front of a Nintendo 64 game console and observe how he played for several hours. This is the youngest gamer I have ever observed in action, and the findings were useful to me in terms of future design and interactive usability considerations for pre-school users. We spent some time playing Tarzan, Bomberman 64, Banjo Tooie, Hot Wheels Turbo Racing, and A Bug's Life.

Although the games played were aimed at young users, none were made for players as young as 4 years. The greatest hinderance to game play, however, was that the physical controls were too numerous and not made for small hands. As a result, the youngster had difficulty holding the controller and simultaneously reaching all the required buttons. A game console made for 4 year-olds would need not only to have much smaller controllers, but also fewer controls--perhaps as few as one thumbstick and two buttons.

Most games required fine motor control just beyond the skills of the toddler. While he could move around fairly easily in Banjo Tooie, he continually fell off the edges of Bomberman's levels to his death. Bomberman was quickly shelved in favour of the more forgiving Banjo.

Some games simply contained game play too complex to be comprehended. A Bug's Life fell into this category, as did Bomberman. Tarzan was challenging nearly to the degree of frustration, but it's possible the toddler might have mastered the game's complexity over time. Banjo Tooie provided enough enjoyable play that the more complex aspects could be ignored in favour of exploration and repetitive baddie-killing.

All of the games required basic reading skills, but this didn't greatly affect the illiterate toddler's enjoyment of the games played. Although I had to assist with menus from time to time, it's conceivable that, over time, the boy would have been able to learn the positions of the menu items most commonly used.

The toddler didn't care about the stories within the games. It is fair to say that he wasn't even aware that some of the games contained a narrative. There were no concerns about who the characters were or what relationships might have existed between them and the main character, outside of "good guys" and "bad guys" (or sometimes just "things to be avoided").

As with most game players, the toddler became confused when understood rules were broken, or when inconsistent interactions were encountered. For example, he was confused when invisible barriers blocked him from moving outside the level created by the game designers. He might have understood that a cliff could block his movement, but not an invisible barrier.

Of all the games played, the one most enjoyed was Hot Wheels Turbo Racing. The primary reason is probably because the toddler enjoys playing with toy cars. The secondary reason is because this game has very simple play: cars go forward and backward; cars cannot drive off the designated race track (steering is almost optional); tricks seem to be performed automatically. The young gamer didn't care if he was going forward or backward on the track, and ignored "Wrong Way" messages if he happened to have turned 180 degrees. All he was concerned about was that the car was moving. Later in game play, he learned that the Nintendo 64 controller's trigger-button activated a "Turbo" mode on cars, and added this button to his repertoire, even if he didn't understand that Turbo was only available periodically during the game. The Turbo button still made a noise when pressed, so enjoyment seemed to be derived simply from exacting a response from the game.

The toddler's favourite question was "Where am I?" even when the character he was controlling was clearly visible on the screen. I wasn't really able to answer the question, as I didn't understand exactly what was meant by it. I believe he might have liked me to tell him how to get from where his character was to some other location he wanted to go. Or perhaps he wanted some narrative context for his location. I would have asked for more information, but there's only so much detail you can get out of a 4 year-old.

The boy couldn't play the game alone because of the complexity of menus, starting, and finishing levels. Additionally, some aspects of game play were too difficult in terms of the manual (and perhaps mental) dexterity required. Furthermore, the boy enjoyed playing with an adult: He directed game play and made specific suggestions as to what the adult should do at any given time. This often lead to the boy becoming frustrated as the his instructions weren't necessarily executed in the way he wanted (but wasn't able to articulate).

Overall, I was surprised that a 4 year-old was able to play games designed for older children without becoming completely frustrated. I was surprised by the player's aptitude, even if he wasn't able to handle the finer points of play. If I were to design a console game for a 4 year-old, I would ensure that:
  • The story was extremely basic. Understanding the story would be less important than an easy-to-grasp context for game play.
  • The characters were larger on the screen compared to games for older kids.
  • There would be as few controls as possible. The controller itself would have one thumbstick and up to two buttons. The controller would be about half the size of a "standard" game controller.
  • All game objects would behave as expected for an object of that type. For example, a ball might bounce or roll. A cube wouldn't roll.
  • All functions in the game were consistent. For example, if you can break a crate, all crates must be breakable; if you can climb a wall, all walls are climable.
  • All feedback would be consistent and appropriate according to context. For example, attempting to climb a wall that is too steep would result in the character scrambling and then sliding down. This would always be the feedback in this situation.
  • Reading would not be a requirement, but if text is used, it would be as streamlined as possible--mono- rather than multi-syllabic, for example. All text would be narrated clearly, slowly, and without too much characterization (many character voices are hard to understand).
  • Game play would be introduced slowly, one function at a time. Each button would only have one function. All functions would be able to be performed from the outset of the game, even if they aren't applicable yet.
  • The game camera perspective would be consistent, and the game would not require the player to move the camera.
  • There would be few obstructions to movement in each level. In particular, it would never be possible to "die" by moving somewhere undesirable.
  • "Winning" and "losing" situations would be clearly presented with both audio and visual cues. In most of the games played, the death of the character wasn't made extremely obvious, nor was the completion of a level. I would design a game for toddlers where winning and losing situations would appear exaggerated by the standards of older gamers.
 
     
 
   
 
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  2 Comments  
 
   
 
Comment posted by katoninetales
January 3, 2006 @ 12:34 am
     
 
When my son turned four, he was a proficient enough reader to play games that required it, and was old enough to be interested in the narrative as he would be a story. This is preschool age, not a "toddler," and old enough to be learning beginning words even if motor skills are still catching up. Since before his fourth birthday (he's barely five now), my son has been proficient at XBox and computer games of various types, only some geared to children his age. The keyboard controls are probably slightly easier for him, but he's played games geared to a much older audience (like some auto-racing games) since he truly was a toddler. Sometimes he gets frustrated with the controls, but kids learn as you allow them to, and scaling the games down to them isn't as useful as scaling their abilities up to the games.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
January 3, 2006 @ 10:05 am
     
 
Thanks for the comments, katoninetales.

I have no experience as a parent or early childhood educator, but it sounds like your son is rather exceptionally-developed for his age. Congratulations.

As for the semantic disagreement, some people consider a toddler to be aged from 2 to 5. The dictionary doesn't seem to give a specific age. Perhaps there is a scientific or legal designation I'm not aware of.

I agree that kids have an amazing capacity to learn, but disagree that scaling down is not useful. In my limited experience with children, too much complexity can overwhelm and frustrate, which can lead to an aversion to the medium at issue. The best games are capable of scaling in proportion to player's needs. Too little challenge is boring. Too much challenge is frustrating.

I'm not even sure the design choices I discuss in the entry are examples of scaling down (which I take to mean "dumbing down"). Many of the choices might help a child learn--A pre-literate child isn't going to learn to read without seeing the word and hearing it spoken, for example. Other choices are good design decisions regardless of the player's age--particularly with regards to functional consistency. A game controller with fewer buttons isn't necessarily a handicapped controller. Do we really need over a dozen buttons in games for adults? Some of the best adult games are also the most simple.
 
     
 
     
   
 
 
     
 
     
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