Kid-friendly MMOs are a relatively new segment of the MMO industry, but it often feels like they're just grown-up MMOs with kid-friendly graphics. Sometimes, the games are even stripped of the grown-up features in an attempt to make them easier, but that often results in a less than compelling game. Here's a quest; do it. Here's a creature; zap it. Here's a pet; hug it. Here are some clothes and decorative items; buy them. I may sound a bit jaded, but that's only because I think kid-friendly MMOs can be so much better than they currently are.
To do that, we have to step back and examine how kids play, and studios must concentrate game design around that. In this week's MMO Family, I'll be looking at three areas of kids' play and exploring why games should look to Magic Markers, Jackpot, and Chutes and Ladders for inspiration.
The magic marker
I can't recall where I read it, but one parenting book or another talked about the importance of "the marker" in children's play. The author described a scenario in which a child is given a plain old magic marker and a rocket ship complete with flashing lights, moving doors, and rocket sounds. Despite the bells and whistles, or perhaps because of them, the child ends up neglecting the real rocket ship and substituting in the magic marker instead. From an adult perspective, it might not make sense; after all, the rocket ship looks like a rocket ship, sounds like a rocket ship, and certainly has everything a rocket ship is supposed to have. But for a child, it's more about leaving it to the imagination than it is anything else. If all the blanks are filled in, then what's the point of it? The boy with the marker is able to fill in the blanks. He can make the rocket sound the way he wants it to using his own voice. He can picture what the rocket looks like in his mind, and from there, he's in control of the world of that rocket ship. We see a kid flying a marker around the room and think little of it, but there's a lot going on in that child's head that is important to his development.
Video games need to have more markers, and by that I mean things that don't have specific uses and are left open-ended for the child to use and explore the way she chooses to. The building blocks of Free Realms come to mind here because I've seen players stack, layer, and pattern them into an endless number of structures, mazes, and racetracks. Yes, it's like playing with blocks, only in this case, your creations are seen by thousands of other players, and in some cases, they can even be chosen to be immortalized in the world. For a kid, that's an exciting proposition.
I'm on vacation this week, and watching my kids play with their cousins was a total nostalgia trip because they started up a game of Jackpot, something I hadn't played or even remembered since I was a kid. The way it works is that one kid is the "jackpot" and is in charge of throwing out the ball and calling out a value number. The other kids vie for position and then have to make a quick judgment on whether or not to catch the ball. In some cases, catching the ball rewards them with points; in others, it's a penalty. If they catch enough balls for points, they get a turn as jackpot. There are also variations in the rules, so the jackpot can improvise, make up rules, and set the conditions for play.
As you can imagine, there's a lot of potential for arguments with this game, since kids are both participants and judges. But that's also what makes the game so great -- the kids are forced to work out conflicts on their own, without an adult immediately stepping in to make the call. And even though there were disputes here and there, they were quickly defused, and the game moved on. The game requires the players to respect the judgment of the Jackpot, and it also relies on the fact that the Jackpot will be fair in his decisions. Surprisingly, that give and take worked out beautifully. I'm not sure whether that's because the players didn't want to disrupt the game or because they just didn't want an adult getting in the way, but whatever the reason, it was refreshing to see the kids play a self-directed game and resolve conflicts on their own.
I know it's not exactly the norm in MMOs, but it would be nice to see games let the players resolve differences on their own here and there, without limiting rulesets or constricting gameplay doing the job instead. In a previous column, we looked at chat restrictions and how they hamper gameplay in the name of safety. The same can be said of MMO rules in general in kids games. I think kids would do a surprisingly good job of policing themselves if things were relaxed a bit. That's hard to design into a world of thousands, but many kid-friendly MMOs contain minigames in which small groups of players are instanced into a match. That setting would be perfect for a little game of Jackpot or something similar.
Chutes and Ladders
On the first day of our trip, I glanced down to see my son playing Chutes and Ladders with his cousin, and this one happened to be Dora The Explorer-themed. I leaned over to watch them play and perhaps join them the next round, but what I ended up watching wasn't at all what I expected. Both of them have outgrown the show, and perhaps because of their dislike of everything Dora, they decided to make their own version of Chutes and Ladders. They had put the extra game pieces on the board, and those became the "bad guys." If they landed on a square with a bad guy, they carried out an imaginary duel, which always ended with their pieces winning, but on the surface, that was very much in doubt. If they landed on an extra long slide, it could cause their pieces to be injured, sometimes seriously. And if they landed on Dora's face, they lost the game. By the time they finished explaining things to me, both of them had declared defeat, and it was one of those rare moments when losing the game seemed to be the preferred choice.
When kids play, rules change. Sometimes, it's up to the parents to step in and reinforce the notion that there are rules and that everyone needs to stick to them. But in this case, the game was all about changing the rules. It wasn't about winning and losing but about learning the art of rulemaking. They were more interested in creating rules for their game then they were about even playing the game, and by doing that, they were able to step out of the usual role of participant and don the hat of GM for a little while.
A great MMO is one that allows a child to take the game and carve out his own variation, even if it's a little different than what's already established. I think MMOs allow for some flexibility in this regard, and even adults have chosen to play MMOs under self-directed rulesets. But surprisingly, that seems even harder to do in kids MMOs than in grown-up ones because of the stress on safety. That's understandable; MMOs are designed around large worlds of players, and the larger the audience, the greater the chance of griefing and antisocial behavior. If you look at a game like Minecraft, though, it's solved that problem nicely. Millions of players have registered and played the game, and yet players can set up their own servers and establish their own ground-rules for gameplay. These virtual neighborhoods offer a wide variety of rulesets, and you can find an endless number of ways to play the same game. As we speak, my two kids and their cousins are drafting up plans to build a treehouse with a roller coaster on the Massively Minecraft Guild server (no relation to the site). I'll take that over huggable pets any day.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.