Play Like a 3-Year-Old

I am now convinced that when it comes to game design we get stupider as we get older. This was made very clear to me the other day when my 3-year-old nephew spent a sick-day at my house. Apparently you’re not allowed to go to daycare when you’re still contagious, and both his parents have real, go-to-the-office jobs. So little Carter got to play with Aunt Wendy, who works on videogames from home.

The day went pretty much as you’d expect – chase the dogs for a while, haul the cat out from under the bed, go for a walk, put a puzzle together, color in a Spider-man coloring book. We were having a good time, but I was starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel when I faced the inevitable “Let’s do something else.” Finally the obvious hit me. Let’s play some videogames! I grabbed the first one off the top of the pile and put it in the PS2. Star Wars: Battlefront it is.

Carter’s father is a proper geek and has instilled in his children an appropriate adoration for all things Star Wars, so we were off and running. I started a new game and set it to “easy.” This kid’s too smart to try the old “Here, hold this controller while I play the game” thing.

Did you know you can win the first level of Star Wars just by standing in one place, turning in constant circles and holding down the “X” button? Aunt Wendy got something right. He was thrilled. And when he heard the cheerful chimes, a signal to those of all ages that you’ve won something, there was jumping around and fists in the air and lots of shouting I didn’t understand.

But then the next level came up, and things started to go downhill. The instant it began he looked confused. It took him a few seconds to put it into words, but then he said it. “I already won this level.”

I looked at Star Wars with new eyes. This truly was level 2. He really had won the first level. No cheating there. But the lovingly-rendered background and setting didn’t look all that different from the first level. Honestly, how would I know this was a different level if I hadn’t read the words on the screen? I picked out some very tiny details and showed him how it was different. He seemed unconvinced and was even more disappointed when he ran out of ammunition and couldn’t figure out how to reload or change guns. It just wasn’t intuitive enough. He was done.

“How about a different game?” I tried. He was up for that, so I grabbed the next one on my pile and stuffed it in the PS2. Up comes Jak and Daxter.

The cute characters caught my nephew’s attention immediately, and he was quite interested. For a while. Then his face clouded over and he looked at me like, who are you trying to fool?

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“This isn’t a videogame,” he said in that accusatory tone only 3-year-olds can truly master. “This is a movie. I don’t want a movie. I want a game.” The interminable introductory cinematics weren’t even half over at that point. I grabbed the controller and started trying to figure out how to skip them. Every time I skipped one it just went to another section of the cinematic. Then another. He didn’t wait around for the gameplay to start.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go hunt worms.” He knew the rain from last night would leave earthworms squirming on the sidewalks and he could count on the thrill of the (short) hunt and a satisfactory payoff, proving his bravery by picking them up with his own two fingers and depositing them in a pickle jar. Way better than any of the videogames in my stack.

Carter isn’t my only nephew who likes videogames. When I go visit my nephew Trevor I get to spend as many hours as I want playing videogames. We both enjoy it, and my sister considers it quality family time, so everybody wins. He’s not 3 years old anymore, but that’s when the tradition got its start. His drug of choice was Spider-Man on the computer. He sat on my lap and “helped” by telling me what to do and where to go. Then when we got to a fun part, he would take over the mouse and keyboard and do his thing.

His favorite thing to do was watch Spider-Man shooting webs and swinging around through the city. The physics and graphics were excellent, and you could really get a thrill from it. I liked playing that section, too, so I had no complaints. But this kid knew the game inside and out. Once, when we’d gotten part way through the narrative and were swinging around for fun, I heard someone calling for help. “Ah ha,” I thought. “We’re supposed to go that way and find someone and beat up the bad guys.” So I turned in that direction.

Trevor was quick to correct me. “No,” he said. “Don’t go that way.”

The rest of the conversation went something like this:

“But it sounds like a lady needs our help,” I said.
“Yeah, some bad guys stole her purse on top of a building over there.”
“Why was she on top of a building with a purse?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, shouldn’t we go help her?”
“No, nothing bad will happen to her if we leave them alone.”
“Are you sure? They’re bad guys, and they stole her purse.”
“Yeah, but they just stand there and wait for Spider-Man to come. They don’t do anything else.”
“Don’t you want to make Spider-Man fight them?”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t fight them very long and he can’t win.”
“That’s dumb.”
“Yeah. Go the other way.”

He was right. After he went to bed that night I went over and tried to save the lady with the purse. Spider-Man isn’t allowed to win that fight. After just a couple punches the cinematics take over, and these totally unimpressive thugs kick Spider-Man’s backside into next week. What a downer. He and I both wanted to play that game for the rush of being a superhero. Not for forced failure.

I’ve been to a lot of conference sessions talking about how to make games better than they are. I’ve read a lot of books about it and seen even more books on Amazon about it. The game industry likes to talk about this subject – a lot. And who knows? I may not have been able to identify what was annoying my little friends about these games if I hadn’t been studying the subject myself.

But I just can’t shake the feeling that all us game developers would learn these lessons better if we just sat down and played like a 3-year-old for a while. Even if we’re making games for grown-ups. As we get older we get jaded. We expect to be disappointed. We aren’t surprised by inadequacy and sloppy work. We tolerate mediocrity and even find comfort in the mistakes that have become tradition through repetition.

Why do I have to connect to the internet and wait for a long, boring download before I can play my game? Why do I have every line of dialog memorized? Couldn’t the designers be bothered to randomize Donatello’s barks a little?

I have yet another nephew – yes, we’re a large family of game players. Caleb is only 2 years old, and we were playing something on my Mac the other day because he couldn’t believe I used a computer only for work. He knew there had to be a game buried deep in the hard drive somewhere. And to my surprise, he was right. The previous owner of my refurbished Mac had installed Marble Blast Gold and the demo version of something called Nanosaur 2.

Once again, I wasn’t allowed to watch the boring cinematic opener. He already knows you can hit the space bar to skip it. So I have no clear idea why the dinosaurs had laser weapons and robots were shooting at the little pterodactyl we could control. But he was 2 years old and didn’t need any explanation for why a flying lizard could drop cluster bombs. What he wanted to know was this: If that dinosaur has feet, why can’t we stop flying and walk over to pick up more green things that make the guns work? Why did we have to fly in circles until I could get close enough for the program to guess what I was attempting?

Sorry, Caleb, I don’t know. They gave us feet we can’t use and ladies on top of skyscrapers and movies instead of games and ammunition drops in weird places because they grew up. And they forgot what it’s like to play like a 3-year-old.

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