How I learned to stop worrying and love writing kids’ games

In games, input from the child defines the whole experience. As designers, our task is to set up a compelling and fun game, of course, but it is also to listen.
December 12, 2011

When Carla called me a few years back and asked me to join her on a game writing project, I thought it’d be a piece of cake. After all, I’d already spent more than a decade writing just about everything there is to write in the realm of kids. In my job at an independent production company, I’d tried my hand at everything from television scripts and pitch documents to press releases to lesson plans. Heck, I’d even written blurbs for the back of DVD boxes. How different could writing games be?

The answer was very different. When I started writing games, one thing blew my mind over and over again –

We know what they’re doing and we need to respond to it.

In writing for television, I’d certainly thought about how kids sitting at home would respond to what they saw onscreen, but having any real way to individually interact with each child was out of the question. We were lucky if an enthusiastic parent sent us a picture of their child laughing as they were sniffed by Bear of Bear in the Big Blue House or posted a YouTube clip of their kid putting their hand up to Snook’s paw at the end of It’s a Big Big World.

In games, however, input from the child defines the whole experience. As designers, our task is to set up a compelling and fun game, of course, but it is also to listen – to check in and see whether the child is succeeding or not and to support them when they need help. We look for cues from the technology, be it a video game console, a touch screen, or a computer mouse, and use that input to guide our response. Is a hint required? A reward? Should we move on to another task or make the leveling more difficult? Accounting for all of these possibilities makes writing a game much more like writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book than a television script.

In future posts, I’ll talk about how we handle these kinds of support and reward systems in more detail, but the truly responsive nature of game design is one of the things about it that fascinates me the most. Which brings me to the next thing that blew my mind as I got to know game writing better –

We know what they’re doing, except when we don’t.

Even the best technology has its limits. One child’s correct answer is another child’s lucky click. Accidental wrong answers and inadvertent successes abound. A Wii Remote in the hands of a spazzy three-year-old can easily register as a wrong answer even if the child thinks they’re responding in the right way. Being flexible enough to anticipate and account for these kinds of inputs is truly a learned skill, one I’m definitely still working on, and I’ll explore more in another post. But it’s just one more fascinating aspect of game writing that I never would have thought about from the outside.

So for the game writers out there, I’m curious to know – what do you think are the most distinctive aspects of writing for games? And for those who are new to this area, what aspects of the game writing process would you like to hear more about? Drop us a line at kidsgotgame@nocrusts.com or post a comment below.

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