By Jeff Fulton
The modern-school playground, sans technology, not-that-different from-1977 and what game developers can learn from it.
My mornings are usually very busy. Normally I am up and out by 6:30 for a work out or training for a race (or injury recovery) and then I hit the Producto Studios office by about 9:00 or 9:30. Once there, we work on projects, meet clients, think of game ideas, do RFP responses, re-write chapters, learn new technologies, try to play the latest games (both board, video, tablet), keep up on the latest news, etc. I try to leave the office about 4:00 – 4:30, but when I get home, the lap-top is re-set up and in-between trying to to re-connect with my two young sons and my wife, I always have my eye on the iPhone or my email, or my thoughts are usually consumed with what project has just finished, what is coming next, and whether or not I have actually trained my body well enough to stave off injury and progress to the next level in my running career. Sleep is a luxury and special time with my two boys a premium that I don’t take lightly.
So, when I get a chance (at least one time a week), I blow off the usual routine and take one of my two boys to school. Today it was my first grader, who is the sweetest little boy in the world. He taught himself to read and use the DVR at 3, started to play the XBox and Wii by himself at 4, and now spends a majority of the free time we give him watching things like the Annoying Orange and playing Plants Vs Zombies on the Family iMac. He also uses the internet to look up strategies, etc. We try to limit this time because I see in him the potential for the type of all consuming “get everything done and more” personality that I have and it scares me to think that he might one day become a little version of me filled with the bad traits and none of the good. To us (in the 80’s), computers were new and a hobbyist tool for a creative outlet. To kids today, computers are the all in-one entertainment device that was always promised but was never possible until relatively recently. Creativity (for the most part) has been replaced with a zombie-like interactions with a device that sucks the time an life from the child and is a solitary experience. A good set of educational strategy games (Toca Boca, Angry Birds, etc) help stave off some of this, but for the most part games that target kids are not educational in the least.
We are very careful with what types of interactions our kids have on-line. For example, I NEVER let them register for a site. I always use my name and email address if a registration is absolutely necessary. This might come as a shock to many of the DISNEY, Mattel, Nick, and Hasbro web producers out here, but parents DO NOT want their kids to have an online identity. The only site my 7 year old has a personal account is Youtube, where he can post his own videos. The login is under my Google login as a sub account and no one has any way to contact him online.
So, how does this relate to walking my son to school and game design? The visceral experience of a morning walk to the elementary school and the actual interactions that kids have on the playground is a unique one that I hope everyone gets to experience a some point.
First, the walk.
There are many cars on the the street, filled with parents hurriedly “dragging and dropping” (see what I did there?) their children off at the “safe zones” set up for the children to walk into school in a protected environment. (On a side note, I think this would make an interesting time and resource management game of some sort.) My son and I walk to school, so we get to by-pass this frenzy and go straight to the playground. Before the 8:10 bell, there is no school-provided, adult supervision, but there are a few parents (me included of course) who hang out and keep and eye on the goings on.
Just like when I was 7 years old, I wanted some buffer time before the bell rang to take-in the freedom of the play ground. My son is exactly the same. We usually try to arrive at the playground about 7:50, giving us a full 20 minutes to interact together in an environment that is COMPLETELY DEVOID OF technology. There are not many children yet on the playground at this time, and the lack of electronic devices and sounds is a refreshing experience. My son and I first walk the playground perimeter. We watch as the kids gather, random games of various types begin organically and the children learn to socialize together in a face to face manner. During this time we walk and talk a little bit. As far as I can tell, video computer games are the furthest thing from my son’s mind. His basic need at this time in the morning is to find one or two of his favorite class mates and make up some sort of unstructured play.
I try to observe how all of the children interact and it is very interesting to note that the sites, sounds, smells, and especially the games and play patterns that children use (with usually no adult help to organize games) are very similar, if not identical to games we played at 7 years old. There are chase games, competitive tag games, hand and kick ball games, and of course play on the pre-built structures that have been carefully crafted to organize children into various play patterns even if they don’t realize it. For example, the slide on the structure is steep enough to make running up it the wrong direction difficult and forces the children to use the steps instead, then side down in a relatively safe manner. Obviously there are rogue kids who will figure out the “up the down stair case” method of playing any game or on any equipment and there are also those random kids who just freak out and run the playground (See Louis CK’s latest comedy special for his take on the same subject) trying to create chaos.
One thing there is NOT are kids sitting on the ground, playing iPhones, iPads, Gameboys or the like. There are a few kids who might have brought a Lego Magazine, and some are huddled around it, but that is the exception. The main interactions the children have with one another is face to face game play based around rules that are either easily understood, or part of classic play patterns.
As the bell rings at 8:10 and the children line up for their first structured activity of the day (some calisthenics), some of the Joie de vivre leaves the children, but it is replaced with a different element as the unstructured play is replaced with a semi-rigid set of exercises. Still, each child is allowed to perform these exercises in his or her own way without a lot of the controlled “hand slapping” or rigidity.
At this point, I take off and walk back home to start my work day. Every time I do this, I think of how the morning experienced can be applied to my work. Many times we have clients who are attempting to target children with Facebook games, or multi-player worlds with electronic “social” child to child interactions. None of those things give children the same tactile, face to face interactions that playground games provide. I am always astonished at the current lack of side-by-side multiplayer games available for the 3-10 year old age group. The Wii, PS3, and XBox all have games like these, but the majority of games aimed at children are single player or multiplayer over the internet.
Side-by-side games are not absent from the current gaming culture, but there certainly are not enough if them. Some games (Lego ones especially) on the consoles allow multiplayer on the same machine, but most iPad games seem to miss this feature. There certainly is enough room on the screen for side-by-side gaming on these devices. Having two children next to one another can certainly help them socialize much better than trying to play a game with some far off person they have never seen or met, but also it adds that “playground” feel back into the mix. Just as we would play Atari 2600 games side by side, then go outside to play a game of soccer or baseball, encouraging two players on the same device might also have the same desired effect. Side-by-side multiplayer also forces children to work out differences by actually communicating with one another. Obviously, they are kids, so fights and whining will break out, but see and hearing the actual person you are playing with goes a long was toward solving those problems in ways that a pure cyber relationship cannot.
For me, personally, I would love to see a renaissance in side-by-side gaming on the iPad and similar devices. I would love to see this become the norm. When they two children are done with the game, they don’t have to slink back to their own corners of the internet, but they can simply pick up another toy or a ball and create a new non-electronic game. That’s how we did it back in the good old days, and there is no reason why it can’t be the norm today. We would then play outside, refresh our brains, and be ready for another side-by-side electronic gaming experience.