In addition to the way that age does (and doesn’t matter), I think there are the other two important parts of designing games for kids:
EVERY KID (AND ADULT) SHOULD BE ABLE TO PLAY
It’s not possible to make a game that everyone excels at because everyone has different skills. Numbers will be the bane of some players, while writing is the arch nemesis of others. As a kid, I failed at any game that required me to stand up and do something in front of people, because I was incredibly shy. Games like Charades terrified me.
But it is possible to make a game that everyone is able to play and have a good time at. For kids, some of the biggest hurdles to game playing are the four “R”s — Rules, Reading, Writing, and Reflection. Taking a close look at these elements during the design process helps young players jump into a game quickly and easily.
The Rules: Rules should be accessible, necessary, and interesting. If a rule isn’t necessary, or takes a long time to explain, consider whether it’s vital to the game (or whether it’s just too detailed). To me, the goal of rules is clarity and guidance. If a rule confuses things, constrains the players for no reason, or stops a GM from saying “Okay!” then I think long and hard about whether it’s necessary.
Sometimes the rule is necessary:[combat] “I want to swing my sword and kill all the monsters in this room!”
Sometimes the rule isn’t necessary, because it would force the GM to say no to something fun for the players, even though saying yes wouldn’t impact gameplay:[combat] “I want my armor to look like a dinosaur and I want to yell Rawr! while I swing my sword!”
Rules are important, and kids will look for those boundaries and push them. The boundaries that matter should matter a lot. But once players understand those limits of the game, they should feel free to be as creative as possible inside them.
Reading: Some kids are fantastic, enthusiastic readers who will read entire corebooks for pleasure. Others will read the bare minimum for what they need to know right now. Others will do everything possible to avoid reading. This might be because they haven’t picked up the skill, they’re struggling with issues like dyslexia, or they can read but just don’t like to.
Ways to help this are by choosing easy-to-read fonts in appropriate sizes and colors (I’ll talk more about this in part 3, and talk about fonts, styles, and sizes that seem to be most accessible). Symbols, icons, color coding, and shapes are all useful cues for struggling readers. Additionally, using graphic elements to point out the most important elements on the page will help players focus in on what they need to read, and will allow them to skip the non-essential reading until they’re ready.
Charts, tables, and even dice are another important element of this. Lots of numbers, lists, and lines can be overwhelming even to good readers. Dice, especially, need to be easily readable, as there’s nothing more frustrating than rolling and not being able to instantly see whether you’ve hit your goal.
Writing: The same aspects of reading are also true of writing. Some kids love to write. Others hate it. It can be useful to give players the option to write if they want to—or to play the game without picking up a pen. Good character sheets with large and interesting writing and drawing spaces facilitate interaction for those who want to scribble, while easy-to-hold and use tokens, cards, stickers, and other elements provide non-writers with other ways to keep track of things.
Reflection: Reflection is the idea that you see yourself in a roleplaying game. This, to me, has two parts that are closely linked. The first is that you can see yourself as yourself in the game. The second is that you can see yourself as someone else in the game.
Seeing yourself as yourself means that there are images and characters that look like you (or that look the way that you see yourself). This means depicting characters with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, personalities, and outfits. This is especially true in a game with human characters. Most games that focus on non-human characters, say, aliens, show every alien differently. Blue skin, yellow skin, round, square, stick-like. But when you look at kids’ games with human characters, they’re often thin, white boys. (Not that there’s anything wrong with thin, white boys — they should be able to see themselves reflected in a game too). However, having more options means that more kids will find someone they can instantly relate to. Of course, you can’t make a reflection of every person who’s going to play your game, but making every character truly unique means that there’s a larger chance that kids will find someone they can really see themselves in and feel proud of.
Seeing yourself as someone else is the creative- and empathy-building element of roleplaying games. When you start playing characters who look and act differently than you do, you begin to understand them better, you move outside yourself into a creative space, and you start to develop human empathy that translates into the real world. Games can help players do that by providing a wide range of character options in terms of race, culture, personality, gender, skills and more (within the constraints of the game and the world, of course).
YOU’RE COMPETING WITH PUPPIES (AKA: DON’T BE BORING)
The number one thing I know about designing RPGs for kids might be this: Don’t be boring. Keeping kids at the table – both in mind and body – will be a difficult enough task for the gamemaster. Don’t make it more difficult with the game design itself. Anticipate that young players will be incredibly creative, incredibly smart, and easily distracted. If something isn’t the coolest, funnest, most interesting that you can possibly make it, then cut it or rethink it. When you’re doing playtests, watch for those moments when the kids get bored (or ask them — they will absolutely tell you, probably in great detail, about all of the most boring parts of your game).
When kids DO get bored and turn away from the game, watch what they do instead. If you’re in the middle of a combat scene, and the kids jump away from the table to act out that scene, that’s not boredom, that’s engagement. If they jump away from the table to start playing with the dog, that’s boredom (and the power of dogs). So just imagine that with everything you’re creating, you’re competing with the power of a cute puppy (or a video game or a TV show) near the table. Can you keep the kids’ attention (or at least some of it), despite the adorableness of the puppy? Is the game flexible enough to incorporate the puppy as a companion or an escort or even as a friendly helper? Does it allow the GM to give the kids some kind of in-game benefit if they spend one minute away from the table as a group to play with the puppy?
Focusing in on the right age group (without talking down to them), decreasing hurdles to play, and never, ever allowing your game to be boring: Nail those three elements and you’re well on your way to making an amazing roleplaying game for kids (and their families).
Come back soon for Part 3, where I look more closely at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I became a gamer because of my grandmother. A librarian and an avid gamer herself, my grandmother was smart, creative, and utterly ruthless when it came to anything involving cards, dice, boards, and even controllers (it was at her house that I played my first ever game of Frogger). Every time the family got together, she brought out a new game that she was passionate about and got us all to play it.
We played games designed for adults and kids, and while she made sure that we kids understood everything, she never treated us—or even the most kid-focused of games—as anything other than equals and utterly worthy of her time and (competitive) attention. If you wanted to win, your age didn’t matter, but your skills did—you had better be two steps ahead of her (I never was). But if she was on your team, she would take you into the fold and teach you all her winning secrets. When I lost, I learned to take it well so that we could play again. If I was on her team, I felt like her equal. And when I finally won a game against her for the first time, I had already learned a lot about how to be a good winner, after having watched her whomp me graciously for so long.
She was a stickler for the rules—and for finding all kinds of creative ways to bend those rules without actually breaking them. On the other hand, if she thought a rule was stupid or bad for the game, she would explain why and suggest ways to work around it or offer ideas for creating a different, more useful rule instead. She made up games, too. (Or at least, I think she did. We played things when I was a kid that I have never seen anywhere else.).
It was because of her that I started looking at games from a design perspective early on (although I didn’t have the words for what I was doing). Why this rule and not that? What happened when you tweaked one thing but not the other? How could you work together as a team to accomplish the goal?
My grandmother passed away last year. Even as I write this, she’s probably teaching the devil a few new tricks in his favorite game. I’m so glad that she got to see my early game design projects, and I hope she knew how much of an influence she had on my life and work.
Right now, I’m working on a game that I wish she was going to be around to see—and to play with me. It’s a roleplaying game designed for smart kids (and their families, of course), and I bet she could teach me all the best house rules. I think of her often as I work on the game, and of all the lessons that she passed along that I’m using every day.
This is a three-part look at designing roleplaying games for kids. Part 1 and 2 will look at some general game design concepts: Age Matters (And It Totally Doesn’t); Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play; and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 will specifically explore the ideas of designing for accessibility, including for players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
AGE MATTERS (AND IT TOTALLY DOESN’T)
When you set out to make a game for adults, you are purposefully aiming for a wide age range. A 15-year-old can usually play the same game as a 90-year-old. And that’s one of the points of the game.
Games designed specifically for kids are a different matter. One of the first, and arguably most important, decisions you have to make is “What specific age group is this game designed for?”
“Kids” is a big category, with a lot of variation. A game designed for 5-year-olds needs to be very different than a game designed for 8-year-olds, and by the time you get to 11-year-olds, it needs to morph yet again. Not just the rules and language, of course, but also the entire world aesthetic, the goals of the game, the pacing, pretty much everything.
Within your answer, you’ll also need to be clear that while you have a specific age (say 5-8 years old), the game will have a secondary group of players who are probably adults (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.) as well as siblings, friends, and classmates who might be outside that age range.
Using the age ranges described by books can be helpful for narrowing in on your target audience. While the levels have many names, they generally run something like this (with lots of age overlap to compensate for varying skill levels):
Ages 0-3 / Listening / Board Books
Ages 3-6 / Beginning Reading / Picture Books
Ages 6-8 / Reading With Help / Easy Readers
Ages 7-10 / Reading Alone / Chapter Books
Ages 8-12 / Advanced Reading / Middle Grade Novels
Books in these categories can help you gain a better understanding of good image-to-text ratios for each age group, art style, word choices and sentence length, complexity of concepts, and even font choices and size. But of course, every kid is different and their ages may not reflect their reading or comprehension skills.
Where age doesn’t matter is when it comes to treating the material and the players with respect. Try to stay away from art or language that talks down to kids, and always assume that they’re smarter and more creative than you are (they probably are). Respect every player fully for who they are, no matter whether they’re 4, 14, or 41.
This was one of the first lessons my grandmother taught me when I was a young player, and it’s something I try to carry over into both GMing and game design now that I’m an adult. I think a great game should be designed to make players of all ages feel smart, creative, and cool. And one of the ways a game can do that is to give them all the tools they need, and then assume that they will use those tools in brilliant, unexpected ways.
Continue on to Part 2, where I explore two more ideas: Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 (coming soon) will look at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I woke up this morning, and like that, I was 43 years old. I like to keep track of my years, my experiences, my growth as a person on this planet.
Some years, I am successful at this. Other years, not so much.
I wrote this post when I turned 41 and followed it up with a lot of writing and essays.
Last year, the year I turned 42, my grandmother died a few weeks before my birthday. I wrote about her death in March, and then I didn’t blog again until August, when my baby sister got married. That blank space of almost half a year between posts says a lot about my state of space during that time. It was a year that was filled with a lot of highs and lows, as every year is, but for some reason I felt the rollercoaster of it more deeply than I have probably since I was a teenager.
The highs: Numenera, the game of my heart, won a lot of awards and lots of people had a great time playing it. I love my job. I have a partner who makes me my very best self. We adopted an amazing dog. I lived for the first time ever in a house I owned. My life is full of amazing loved ones. My non-fiction book, “As Kinky As You Wanna Be” came out and is doing well. I had the opportunity to travel and meet some incredible, kind, wonderful people. My little sister, who I love with all my heart, got married and I was her maid of honor. My little brother is following his dream of becoming a police officer. My dad retired, finally, from his job as an engineer and is getting to do some of the things he loves best — being outside, building and making things, spending time with family.
The lows: The world is in a bad place–global warming, ISIS, wars small and large, discrimination and hatred and killings. The world is always in a bad place, I know, but this year felt particularly big and hard and unsolvable. The Internet, a place I loved, a place I felt at home in for so many years — is no longer a safe place for myself and for so many others. Shaming and blaming, dogpiling, lack of human empathy and understanding, death threats, and more have turned the Internet from a safe haven for misfits like me into an emotionally dangerous land. There was a lot of illness and tragedy and sadness among my friends and family this year. I lost far too many amazing people in my life to cancer this year. Fuck cancer so hard. This year, I dealt with some intense depression (which for me brings a binge-eating disorder and a lot of apathy along with it) — all issues I thought I had overcome long ago, but which reared their horrible heads in the midst of everything.
And I didn’t write very much, even though I promised myself I would. And that, right there, sums up the truth of the year for me. I didn’t write very much. That’s how I know my state of space is fucked up. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change the world for the better. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change myself for the better. It means I am not doing what I believe I exist on this planet to do.
Last year, at 42, I was supposed to be the answer to the life, the universe and everything. I’d waited a long time to turn 42 on 4/2/2014. The numbers promised so much. In the end, it turned out I was the answer to nothing. It was my year to be the question instead. Being the question is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just wasn’t what I was prepared for. I learned a lot, held my seat a lot, listened a lot. I fought hard, sometimes about the wrong things. And sometimes I gave up on the right things. Tough years teach us a lot, and one of things this past year taught me was that I am invincible, fierce, and powerful, even in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps especially so.
43 is a weird number, in the middle of things, half-prime, descending, the interrobang of numbers, sort of this, sort of that, a rhetorical exclamation. I am going in half-cocked this year, like a gun that’s stuck between the mantle and the hand that strokes it. I am going to live fast and dye my hair. I am going to bury the seeds of what could be with no expectation that they will grow. I am going to make promises I can’t keep, because I believe in the power of desires that extend beyond my reach. I will sing to the mermaids when they will not sing to me. I will measure out my life with kisses and coffee spoons and points of punctuation on the page.
Do I dare disturb the universe?
Yes. Yes, I fucking do.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).
At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.
But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.
It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.
Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.
The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:
a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.
b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.
c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.
Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.
One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.
Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.
In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.
And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!