MMO Family: Exploring game writing for short attention spans

Karen Bryan
K. Bryan|10.17.12

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MMO Family: Exploring game writing for short attention spans
MMO Family  Elizabeth McLaren explores writing for short attention spans at GDC Online
Trying to create a virtual world that's engaging and compelling is no easy task. But for an adult designer, trying to do so for a young audience is even more challenging. Kids' interests are not necessarily the same as adults' interests, and their life experiences are much different. On top of that, you can't even lump all child age groups together; a four-year-old, nine-year-old, and 12-year-old are all tackling vastly different challenges in their lives.

At this year's GDC Online, Elizabeth McLaren from 1st Playable Productions gave a talk about this very topic, titled Short Attention Span Theatre -- Writing for Child Gamers. In it, she looked to the book publishing industry to see what themes and interests exist for particular age groups and how they can be integrated into video game writing. Read on for highlights of the panel and a brief look at the mind of a child gamer.

McLaren began by explaining the iterative process of making kid-friendly video games. She said they rely on focus groups of children to see what they like and what interests them. They have kid-testers participating in test sessions throughout the process. But she added that the team also spends a lot of time researching the developmental needs, social needs, and interests of children in various age groups in order to write games that really appeal to the audience. In children's literature, for example, the protagonists tend to be of a similar age to their intended audience, a theme that game studios can apply to game design.

She explained that you can break down reading age groups into soft categories. Beginning readers ages three to five are learning about the world around them, including how their actions affect things. They're learning physical coordination, exploring big ideas, and asking questions about their world. For book publishers, the focus is on picture books, and any narrative has a small, tight, emotional arc. When it comes to game design, it's mainly about creating a world that imitates their own world and letting them explore it in a similar way. She adds that if you watch young children playing with blocks, the breaking down is as important as the building up. That's the type of experience you want to give them in games you design.

Cliffhangers and humor

The next age group is in to chapter books and tends to be around the age of six to eight, although she stresses that the age categories are not firm and that in fact it's not unheard of for an older child to occasionally go back to a picture book for time to time. Books for this audience still tend to be based in the real world, and the chapters rely on cliffhangers to keep readers engaged. Kids in this age group are dealing with social situations, fitting in, and learning that there are consequences to their choices. Parental figures are in the background and are mainly there for support. These themes are all important when designing games for this age group, and while some overlap those of the beginning reader group, they tend to be a bit more complex and sophisticated.

The next group is made up of middle school readers. These children are ready to explore adventures in fictional worlds. Generally, they're concerned about the ramifications of their choices, and they're beginning to socialize in mixed gender groups. Their friends and social status are very important, and it's at this age that children also experience losing friends. In literature, parents are around but have very limited roles in the story. This is also an age when kids begin to really face tough questions in their lives.

In games, this is a perfect age for made-up virtual worlds. These worlds are also a great setting to let kids test out various choices to situations and see their consequences, which can be extremely valuable as they hone decision making skills in their real lives. McLaren adds that it's even useful to have periphery characters make the wrong decisions so that children can see those consequences in a virtual setting. Humor is very important at this age too. Sadly, McLaren believes this is the last chance for literature publishers to encourage boys to read and that they often begin to drop off after this. This is an area where game studios could potentially help, though. Good games that are well-written could actually help encourage kids, and boys in particular, to keep reading.

MMO Family  Elizabeth McLaren explores writing for short attention spans at GDC Online
The next group McLaren introduced was the teen reader age group, and she did so by showing a picture from a section in Barnes and Noble labeled "Teen Paranormal Romance." (Yep, sparkly vampires). While there is more to teen literature than paranormal romance, that theme tends to connect with the age group in general. She said the audience is largely female and that there's a real complexity to the social and emotional issues faced at this age. But while there are many teen protagonists that are well known from children's literature, she points out that it's hard to find a teen protagonist in a teen-rated video game. This is an age group that seems to get overlooked by studios, since there's a jump from kid-friendly straight to adult without really targeting the teen audience.

She then branched off to talk about more specific types of children's literature that often deals with "edgy" topics, such as death or drug use. She stresses that if a game studio does attempt to treat more provocative, emotional issues in a teen's development, it shouldn't involve the main character but instead be something that a side character experiences. It's important to have a little distance between the issue and the player, she adds.

Learning and fun

Meanwhile, educational games can learn from the changes that educational literature has undergone over the years. McLaren argued that the dry biographies she had to read as a child have been transformed and now are told more as story than as nonfiction. Educational topics are told from a different angle and often involve humor. If you want to teach about tall ships, for example, then instead of putting up a picture of a tall ship, you should have a child be a pirate who's traveling on the ship.

For game studios, the idea is similar. Her studio developed a game that integrates science with a fun storyline. In it, kids are exploring a vampire-infested cave with companion robot whose fuel system models photosynthesis and who can synthesize molecules. Just as literature publishers have made learning more fun in their nonfiction, studios can follow their lead and do the same for educational games.

While her talk was more tailored toward video games in general, there is plenty for MMO designers to take away from the panel. The connection between children's literature and game design is an important one, and the themes in children's literature fit well with writing a good kid-friendly game. Meanwhile, good games could help encourage children to read more and stick with it well into adulthood.

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
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