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Game Design: Exploring Creativity with Children

Well, no, I really can’t describe Mitch Allen for you. Creator of games, web designer and word player, fount of fantastical ideas that stretch my perception of what I think I know… Above all, he’s a deeply dedicated father, as this first guest post from the Allen household will show. Enjoy! ~ Jen

 

Game Design: Exploring Creativity with Children

 

Mitchell Allen Monopoly Rules

I remember playing Monopoly with my dad.

He taught me many things about wheeling and dealing.

Whenever he purchased Boardwalk, he would ceremoniously place the card into his shirt pocket, symbolically telling me that I would NEVER get it. Mostly, I remember that he would nearly always win.

Yet, my fondest memories are of his creation of a game called Card Monopoly.

He made it with a deck of cards and two record album covers slit open and taped together. The rules were simple, requiring only a second deck of cards, two dice and a couple of tokens. We played quite a few games of Card Monopoly.

I remember thinking that my dad was a genius to be able to invent a game.

Zillions of Games

Dad went on to create many more games, including a computer word game! He instilled in me a love for making games. He also tempered my competitive nature.

board game Now, as a father, it’s my turn.

With five children, the fun is amplified. We have made up games as one group. We have made games for each other as Christmas presents. We have done solo efforts and used each other as play testers…

So, how did all this come about?

Come take a trip back in time, when the children were young and impressionable…

Inspiration

Where did our game ideas originate? It may be cliché to say that inspiration comes from everywhere but, for us, that was pretty close to the truth.

BEDTIME STORIES

The first games we ever made up were bedtime story adventures. I invented dungeons and forests through which the kids traveled as a team. Each child had opportunities to change the course of the story:

“Ryan the Brave looked at the fork in the road. Does he go left or right?”

The bedtime stories were so much fun that we began playing them during the day. We would sit in the living room and spin wild, fanciful tales of treasure hunts, quests and spelunking (caves are great settings for game stories!)

EXISTING GAMES

My wife and I spent a lot of time choosing fun, family-oriented games that would appeal to most of us. While my older sons and I enjoyed competitive games, my wife, daughter and youngest son were more laid back. Sure, they would get into the spirit of the moment, but for them, it was not an all-consuming affair. It was rare to find the perfect game.

Our short-list included:

  • Liar’s Dice
  • Stacker
  • Boom-o
  • Boggle (no scoring)

When we created new games from existing games, we either changed the rules or we combined two or more games into one mega-game!

MASS MEDIA

PC games, fiction, sitcoms, cartoons and movies have all played a role in inspiring us. All five kids have collaborated on creating a town populated with television characters lovingly drawn on the backs of my old business cards. The town is on a poster board, complete with a mall. I have no clue about the game, but I hear constant laughter coming from their bedroom as they play-act their way through this adult-free world.

SCHOOL SUBJECTS

As Homeschoolers, whenever my wife an I introduced topics to our kids, we either supplemented them with computer games (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Zoombini’s Logical Adventure, etc.) or we created our own. One such creation was Chemistrivia. As you can imagine, it was designed to test knowledge of basic chemistry.

Guiding Theme

board game I think it is critical to recognize the elements that make a game fun for children.

Kids don’t always tell you how they feel, but it’s pretty easy to detect boredom and frustration. Getting trounced by big people is no fun for junior — although apparently, it’s okay for him to dance all over our vanquished ruins.

Having one daughter and four sons sitting around the table, I’m keenly aware of gender stereotypes.

Finally, I realize that sometimes, sibling rivalry intrudes on the game, making Sheldon, the oldest, disproportionately targeted for all the evil cards and whammies.

On a positive note, I have learned that Dominique displays the best lateral-thinking skills; Evan is the most analytical and enjoys numbers; Kayla — like her grandpop — drives a hard bargain and can be quite sneaky; Sheldon exploits all the loopholes in the rules; Ryan loves to play, as long as he can sit on mom’s lap and help her.

By minimizing or eliminating the potentially unattractive parts of games, we have a handle on the “fun bits.”

Going back to our sources of inspiration, I looked for ideas that either minimized competition to the most trivial level, or fostered team play.  Here are just two examples of each theme ideal.

Trivial Pursuit of Happyness

Scrap Paper Game exemplifies trivial competition. By making the acquisition less important than the surrounding activity, we created a game that was fun for a six year-old as well as a fourteen year-old.

With nothing more than pencils and six pieces of scrap paper per player, we each drew one animal per scrap, assigned it a value from one to six, and wrote that value down. We also wrote down their natural habitat. We arbitrarily ranked the habitats (Ocean-dwellers were stronger than Desert animals).

Then, we simply played out each animal, one round at a time, with the “strongest” animal collecting the rest of the critters.

At the end of the game, whoever had the most points got to draw a new animal with even more points. The rest of us got to draw weaker animals to add to our collection.

Then, we’d start all over again!

The Civil Board Game

board gameGem City was all about cooperative play.

We had to mine precious gems for a despotic king and his high-maintenance queen, while keeping the city running as efficiently as possible.

Each player was elected to a government position and made proposals that only got enacted if the majority voted in favor of them. With civil positions having conflicting agendas, a lesson in petty politics awaited my unsuspecting children!

I went all out on the construction of the game board, using spray paint for the river, forest and desert, sandpaper strips for dirt roads, and duct tape wrapped around cardboard strips to represent paved roads.

We bought some beads from the dollar store and these became gold, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. We borrowed the figures from RISK®. These became various citizens in the King’s realm. Other, one-of-kind remnants were used as props. Railroad tracks, mines and warehouses all came from whatever was lying around the house.

Although I built the city, the kids helped define the rules of play.

A regular deck of cards controlled the actions during the game. If one of the four Queens was drawn, we got a holiday, but she got all of the sapphires! If one of the four Kings was drawn, we had to pay taxes. Other cards controlled the growth of the population, work production, and the number of guards at the mines. The game was over when all four Kings were drawn.

The heart of the game was managing the city.

Each child had his or her own idea of the best way to accomplish various objectives.

Should we build more railroads or simply pave over the dirt roads?
What are we going do with all these people moving into the city?
We need more workers!
We need higher wages!
Why don’t we build a few more warehouses?
Because I’ll have to hire more guards and you just raised wages!

Teaching the kids the art of wheeling and dealing brought me full circle.

Now it’s their turn.

Mitchell Allen and his family own Morpho Designs, a website design company. Sheldon Allen owns GameDev Guru, an active recruiting site for game software developers.

Technorati Tags: games, children, creativity

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8 comments… add one

  • Megan Jones 2012/06/11, 4:23 pm

    Games were such an important part of my family bonding experience too. While we didn’t make our own games, we certainly utilized games as a common activity for all of us to learn important life skills and get to know one another better. I think people’s personalities really come out when gaming and it is a great way to understand your family dynamics.

  • Mitchell Allen 2009/10/19, 8:11 pm

    @Aaron, it’s okay with me, if you’ll overlook my even later reply :)
    I’ve had so much fun reading the articles on DomestikGodess and I wanted to go all out for Jen. I don’t know if she would want another one of these. :)
    But, with her permission, here is another article I wrote on andyouwill.com:
    http://andyouwill.com/2009/05/05/creating-board-games-with-your-kids/

    There is a bit of overlap, but that article focuses on design issues with children.

    Thanks for commenting!

    @Gracie, my new dear friend. Thanks for taking the time to read this article and for leaving such a wonderful response. I agree that the road signs need to be as clear as possible and I hope that my wife and I are doing that.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  • Gracie M. Collins 2009/10/19, 2:38 pm

    I learn something new everyday, but this is overwhelming to the point of no return. You and your family have an infinity of love, creativity and intelligence. These are the main ingredients in a recipe for a good life. The road to having a good, happy and successful life can sometimes be a tough journey. Some young travelers tend to take the wrong road which lead them to a very rough and bumpy road to travel. This happens when the signs on the road has no clear directions to follow. It is the creator of the signs responsible to make sure the directions are clear and all danger of the roads content is clear as well.

  • Aaron Stroud 2008/01/24, 7:13 pm

    Mitchell, I too found this article fascinating and encouraging. I’m looking forward to hearing more and would have commented sooner, but family life beckoned.

  • Mitchell Allen 2008/01/22, 8:57 pm

    Thanks, Adam!
    I plan to write more stories about games in our family.

  • Adam Snider 2008/01/21, 1:00 pm

    I have to second Michael’s comments. Interesting and inspiring post, Mitchell.

  • Mitchell Allen 2008/01/20, 11:42 pm

    Why, thank you, Michael!
    You’ve captured the essence of what games mean to me, as far as children go.
    As for the honorary title, I think I qualify under the banner of Frugal :D

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  • Michael Martine 2008/01/20, 7:34 pm

    Wow, Mitch, I had no idea there was this side to you! It’s rare enough to encounter a man who sticks around and is a good father that I feel like I have to mention it. You have my respect. Those games sound like great fun, the perfect thing for teaching important skills in a way that doesn’t even seem like teaching.

    So, are you now an honorary Domestik Goddess? ;)

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