This week marks the launch of Eurogamer's dedicated kids site, Megaton.co.uk. Check it out and if you're a parent, we're interested in your feedback - either via the contact form or on the Editor's blog. Thanks!
Becoming a parent changes your perception of a lot of things. Some of these are obvious - you only realise how many terrifyingly sharp corners your house has once there's a two-foot maniac running around it, for example. But others sneak up on you. Like the way parenthood makes you reappraise the games you play, how you play them and why you started playing them in the first place.
That's what happened to me when my son first picked up a joypad at the age of three and started smashing Burnout cars into one another. I realised that even though I'd spent most of my life playing games, I'd taken a lot of them for granted. I could recall early encounters with home computers and arcade cabinets, but I drew a blank on specific details. Just like we can't remember how we learned to speak, I found it hard to pinpoint how it felt to take my first faltering steps in the digital domain. Now, as a dad, I was getting a second chance to see how we first interact with the last major new media form of the 20th century.
There's a whole world of subtle subtextual cues and nudges at work in gaming, every bit as advanced as the supermarket psychology that draws you down every aisle when you just popped in for some milk, only instead of brainwashing you into buying a different brand of shampoo it's steering you through an imaginary world and, hopefully, making sure you love every minute of it.
It's as a kid that these interactions are at their most potent, and their effects the most obvious, since it starts with a blank slate. TV and print are hard to avoid, their ubiquity making it all but impossible to determine when exposure begins. For gaming, where interactivity is the defining feature, the connection is only made when you pick up the joypad and start pressing buttons.
Watching my son play over the years, several things stand out. The first is that early fixation on Burnout. Like a lot of boys, he had a thing for cars, but this was clearly different to brumming Matchbox toys around the living room (though he did plenty of that as well, in case it sound like I've kept him trapped in some weird psychiatric digital study). The striking thing was the immediacy of it. Press this button and the car zooms forwards. That was awesome enough.
Then he learned to press another button to go backwards. Instinctively, he pressed another button. The car disappeared. He'd switched to the in-car view, but for him it was like magic. Not only that, it was empowering. He was in control of something on the telly. As adults, with our knowledge of game engines and videogame traditions, it's easy to forget how powerful that interaction can be. To a child, it offers the freedom of a vivid dream in the tangible real world.
As his familiarity grew over the years, I sat him down with games that I presumed would suit his age. I soon realised that the things I took for granted as someone with decades of gaming experience and years of virtual trial-and-error to fall back on meant nothing to someone coming to the medium as a neophyte.
Genre standards like "double jump" had no context, and watching him become frustrated with modern 3D platform games was like witnessing someone with no feeling in their limbs and no depth of vision try to navigate an obstacle course. While I could easily guide Crash Bandicoot from one tree stump to another, for him there was no feedback, no sensory context for the actions he had to perform. He was learning to walk all over again.
It was LEGO Star Wars that provided the breakthrough. At the time, I suspected it was because practice and experience was paying off, but I soon came to realise that it was because the game made no assumptions about its players. This was a game that understood that kids progress in increments, and made sure to reward them at every step. Like a surrogate gaming parent, LEGO Star Wars taught my son how to play. Ever since then, I've been fascinated by children's games and how they work (or, more frequently, why they don't).
"We aspired to make a game that was accessible to the widest possible audience, but delivered real depth, linked to the collection of characters and a continual expansion of the player's powers," says Jonathan Smith, head of production at Traveller's Tales and the director of the LEGO games, when I quiz him on the design ethos that so effortlessly won my son over.
"It's closely related to our belief that players have the most fun when they come to believe that the world around them is full of secrets which will reward exploration. That encourages experimentation and creative play. We've continued to elaborate on that framework in various slightly different ways for each subsequent title.
"It's quite easy to sketch out the basic relationships between those structures at the start, and everyone on the team has a pretty intuitive awareness of how they should interact; but the actual detailed placement, costing and balancing of each individual reward requires considerable attention from the designers, towards the very end of the project once the whole game is in view."
There's a definite sweet spot for successful children's gaming, and hitting it requires more time and effort than most code shops working to hit a movie release date can afford. Overestimate their abilities and you frustrate them, underestimate and you leave them bored. Both are the kiss of death for an audience that has little patience for things that don't deliver the goods.
"The average 10-year-old is often capable of understanding much of what you would expect an older player to," reckons George Andreas, design director at Rare, another venerable developer that has built its reputation on delivering to younger audiences without pandering to them. That my son loves Banjo-Kazooie with the same fervour I once held for Sabre Wulf says much for the enduring quality control of this most enigmatic of developers.
When changes are made to a Rare title for the benefit of kids, it's always to streamline the experience. "Elements that we have added or removed to help younger players tend to be things we (mistakenly) take for granted, like terminology," Andreas says.
"Banjo-Kazooie's 'power' vehicle parts used to be called 'propulsion' until a younger player asked us what propulsion meant. Or extra steps in tutorials - several steps were added to Viva Piņata's tutorial after younger players were getting lost. You have to ensure you don't overly dumb down the playing experience, as modern younger players are often far more capable than you think!"
As I've pestered more developers for insights into how kids games work, the surprising capability of younger gamers is a theme that keeps recurring. Brian Allgeier of Insomniac Games started out designing levels for Spyro the Dragon, and he's now the design director responsible for the Ratchet & Clank series. His approach is, revealingly, much the same as that employed by Traveller's Tales and Rare.
"I think it's easy for game developers to underestimate kids' coping abilities," he says. "When I was a kid, I didn't play games that were nearly as sophisticated as the ones that are out now! Children are growing up in a much different world and learning at a rapid pace. I'm often surprised when I hear that a kid has completed a Ratchet & Clank game and they're only six or seven! We used to target 13 to 15 year-olds in terms of the gameplay complexity, but we've discovered that the games are now being enjoyed by a much wider and younger audience."
Something else that became clear to me as I compared my gaming habits with those of my son was how much more pleasure he seemed to take in it. Obviously, working as a games reviewer, the boundaries between work and play become blurred, but even when I was gaming off-duty I'd find myself grinding through a game that wasn't really doing much for me, often on the flimsy basis that it was the latest game I had, or because I wanted to get some value for money out it, albeit grudgingly.
Kids don't play like that. If it's not fun they'll move on and, for kids, fun requires a much more active engagement than we often credit them with. While it suits our jaded adult worldview to consider the young 'uns to be passive, undiscerning consumers, easily placated with generic mediocrity, the truth is rather more complex. In many ways, they're harder to please than grown-ups.
"Children are voracious learners, and incredibly adept at developing new skills; far more so than older gamers, who very quickly reject experiences which don't conform precisely to generic expectations," explains Jonathan Smith.
"Play is closely related to learning. When we have fun, we're experimenting, discovering and developing our own abilities. This is especially true for children, who have the most at stake in situations of play and learning - the most to gain. That's why play is more important to children. That's why they're the best at it."
The fact that Traveller's Tales draws on academic research, even in an elliptical way, says a lot about the nuances of designing for this demanding audience. "There was an interesting research project from the University of Cambridge a few years ago," Smith continues, "which asked children to describe in their own words the qualities of 'good' and 'bad' teachers - and I think they're very closely applicable to game designs.
"According to children, the key qualities of good teachers were that they 'explain things clearly' and 'turn teaching into problem-solving rather than just giving information'. Clarity is certainly the number one priority in game feedback - 'explaining things clearly' so players can focus entirely on making their own informed choices without hindrance, confusion or frustration.
"I think that's a universally-acknowledged value. 'Problem-solving rather than just giving information' is perhaps a more subjective point, and it speaks to our belief in the LEGO games that players are most engaged when they're playing, and discovering things for themselves; that they should feel free at all times to explore and make choices. Anything which gets in the way of that process, or attempts to over-determine any moment of experience, risks creating a poor learning environment, and that's not fun."
Rare's George Andreas also favours the nurturing approach. "I think the key thing is that you structure such mechanics in a way that kids can understand and want to understand," he says. "A simple concept can prove to be daunting to a younger player if it is structured poorly, yet if you approach complex mechanics correctly, kids can understand much more than a lot of people expect."
"How you entertain younger players, or where this entertainment comes from, often does have differences when compared to older players. You have to allow them to do what they want, even if it's not playing the game properly. Younger players have a great ability to create their own entertainment and some of the ways they play your games is very surprising, but also extremely refreshing.
"Another difference is how younger players see goals in games. They are much less likely to aspire to a long-term goal, preferring to favour lots of varied and short-term ones. However, with clever design, you can still make them reach that long-term goal by structuring it as a series of short-term ones. If there is a long-term goal, the goal is better as something that can be 'seen' and 'owned'."
This is something integral not just to videogames but to the concept of "play" in general. For boys in particular, the competitive nature of games - whether against other people or a games console - is all about progress and acquisition. "Boys play video games for territory typically," says Frank Gaskill, a child psychologist from North Carolina cool enough to give shout-outs to Metallica, Luke Skywalker and George Romero on his website.
"They have brains that get 'turned on' by conquering and controlling territory. It's a kind of empire thought process. Moving up the ladder of success appears to be very powerful and associated with socialisation, bragging rights and personal success experiences." In other words, beating a game, gaining Achievements or reaching goals is fun because it taps into and feeds an important part of our behavioural brain chemistry. We're built to play.
It seems that in recent years, certainly within the last few console generations, that the advance in graphical muscle has ghettoised the younger gamer, with design elements that were once traditional across most games now out of favour in a market that focuses largely on grey-and-brown shooters where the only primary colours come from garish gouts of blood.
Once upon a time there wasn't really such a thing as kids games - there were just games, and almost all of them were suitable for kids even if they weren't created with them in mind. Given that the AAA titles these days tend to be action-heavy games for teens and older, do the designers of today's best games for kids even consider them to be "kids games"?
"Most of the games in the early age of gaming were kids games, even if they weren't," argues Rare's George Andreas. "The limited graphical capabilities and the use of bright colours made it easy for people that didn't play games to label all games as kids games. Many games today that retain the use of bright colours are still seen as kids' games (again, even if they are not) because games aimed at teens and above often favour less colourful palettes.
"Viva Piņata and Banjo-Kazooie have very colourful palettes and are often regarded as kids' games, but speak to anyone that has played either and they'll hopefully tell you they are far more than that.
"I also think the criteria of a game 'designed for everyone' has broadened and changed over time. In the early days of gaming, 'everyone' simply meant 'everyone that regularly played games'. Now I would say that 'everyone' means 'everyone that plays, from as little as once a year to those that play all year'. This is a much wider scope and far fewer games fit into this category. As approachable as Viva Piņata and Banjo-Kazooie are, I would have to say they are classic rather than modern interpretations of 'games for everyone'."
"I am surprised by the ratio of games that tend to appeal to older gamers," agrees Insomniac's Brian Allgeier, whose studio also produces the bloody Resistance series. "I think many young players are either playing more mature games (which is unfortunate) or they're playing games outside of the standard consoles like on the web or portables. In the future it's very possible that most games will be played on the web or on portables and consoles won't exist. I guess that means that kids would be leaving us older gamers behind..."
I tend to feel that it's not so much that kids are leaving us older gamers behind, but that they're perhaps closer to what made us fall in love with gaming, still experiencing that early gaming rush that we're trying to reclaim as middle age rushes to meet us like a brick to the face.
While I was researching and writing this feature, my son was starting over on Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts using a new profile. He was as excited and inspired as the first time he played it, quickly drawn back into the ingenious overlapping systems of encouragement and reward that define the best games, not just for his age group but for all players.
His generation of gamers, and those who will follow, are simply experiencing an entertainment media that is now more elegant and evolved than the slightly awkward, wobbling baby fawn that was the games industry of the 1970s and 1980s. At their best, today's games for children are remarkable engines of inspiration and imagination, produced by people who understand the responsibility that power confers. That's why I'll always prefer see my son with a joypad in his hand than a TV remote.
Jonathan Smith is head of production at Traveller's Tales, Brian Allgeier is design director at Insomniac Games, George Andreas is design director at Rare and Frank Gaskill is a child psychologist. Dan Whitehead is Dan Whitehead, and we love him.