Elementary Game Development

When I think of simplicity, I find myself recalling my childhood. It is easy to fall into nostalgia for those stress-free days of playground Pokemon battles, underground baseball card sales, and game design sessions. I am sure that I was not the only aspiring developer who spent hours conceiving of characters, levels, and weapons for their arcade fighting blockbuster, roleplaying epic, or frantic first-person shooter. I never merely “played” designer; these were games that I was going to make. Unaware of the artistic, technical, and (as should never be underplayed) motivational challenges of game development, I was free to imagine video games ridiculously ambitious in scale without an inner voice reminding me to be realistic; the concept of “ambition” was itself foreign to me. I’ve often wondered how my earliest games would have played, if I had held the power to create them. With this in mind, I sprang on an opportunity to design and teach a game development class at an elementary school summer program.

Using SilverCreator, a Mac-based Hypercard-esque program, I (and Ernst Angrand, my co-teacher) introduced groups of third, fourth, and fifth graders to basic game development. I felt that the adventure game format would offer the best balance of design flexibility and development difficulty, so I guided the students through the creation of graphical adventure games. SilverCreator programs are organized into cards: separate game “screens” that provide graphics and text contexts as well as interactable buttons. Given my instruction, the only player input students could harness was a click of such buttons. Buttons could be designed to quit the game, progress a story by displaying another card, play a sound effect, or do nothing. In this format, creating a complex adventure game with branching story paths is exponentially more difficult than developing a simpler game. From one card, different options lead the story through different cards, each of which presents its own options; the work of building the game is thus exponential. While teaching the class, I observed how students conceived of and implemented adventure games: while often frustrated in their efforts to create complex stories, many put limited mechanics to intriguing use, creating engaging meta and social gameplay within simple games.

At first, simplicity didn’t seem very appealing. Many students imagined deviously complex stories, only to be frustrated once they discovered how difficult they would be to develop. One group of third graders proudly showed me the first scene in their game, Death World vs. Good World: “You meet a bad guy what do you do? He lives in the dark world and you live in the good world.” The player could ‘stab,’ ‘shoot,’ ‘punch,’ or ‘bomb’ the bad guy. I clicked ‘shoot.’ Nothing happened. I tried ‘punch.’ Still nothing. Crestfallen, one of the students exclaimed, “you mean all of those buttons are supposed to do something!?” Some groups got around this issue by railroading the player along a predetermined path. In Ninjas and Snakes (a fourth grade project), for example, punching, bombing, and stabbing your evil twin brother all have the same effect; you defeat him and unlock your super power. Some made their games totally linear. The most disturbing example of this trend is Jaden Smith Marriage, a fifth grade game in which you MUST marry Jaden Smith. There is no way out.

Free will is an illusion

Despite the apparent temptation to employ some unsavory game design practices, many students embraced their limitations. Instead of trying to force complex stories onto basic mechanics, they retained simplicity in developing engaging meta and social experiences. To expand upon the former: some groups created “games within their games.” In Death World vs Good World, players were initially annoyed by the majority of the buttons’ lack of interactivity. The students solved this problem simply and brilliantly – they applied amusing sound effects to the inactive buttons. Now, while shooting, punching, or bombing the bad guy does nothing to complicate the game’s plot, players click away, giggling as gunshots, impacts, and explosions blend into a cacophony of violence. It isn’t too surprising that the school deemed Death World too violent to publish online, actually. Another third grade project, The Adventures of Reyana and Gabriella, uses sound to a similar effect. When the two titular characters are chased by goblins, the player has the option to ‘scream’ or ‘run.’ Clicking ‘scream’ does just that – the game lets out an ear-splitting shriek befitting an encounter with goblins. While this button does nothing to progress (and therefore complicate) the game’s story, most players clicked it a few times before running away from the goblins. The noise level in the computer lab was at times painful, I will admit, but the students had discovered an ingenious method of engaging players though simplicity, rather than at its expense.

Download this game and "horror scream." Then imagine six other computers screaming in unison at full volume

Other groups preserved both player interest and simplicity by adding a social element to their games. In The Prince and Princess, a third grade project, the inept adventurer may fail to save the princess from a group of monsters. “Oh no! The princess has been killed. Try again.” Players may ‘retry,’ ‘do nothing,’ or ‘go crazy.’ Choosing ‘do nothing’ does just that. While the unfortunate hero onscreen is unsure how exactly to ‘go crazy,’ enthusiastic players are happy to demonstrate. The reader may imagine the chaos of a computer lab full of third graders all giving their best impression of insanity. Ernst and I found the situation a bit anarchic, but the students clearly had fun. In The Princess and the Super Hero, a fourth grade project, victorious players win the princess’ heart: “You saved my life handsome boy thank you cutie.” They can either ‘leave’ or ‘do the boogy dance.’ Both options quit the game, but only one inspires a group of cooped-up fourth graders to dance frantically. Many of the player’s options in games such as The Prince and Princess and The Princess and the Super Hero are astonishingly simple. Technically, they at most quit the game, and several do nothing at all. However, their effect upon players is impressive – they allow the game to spread from the virtual into the material world, inviting players to revel in good-old fashioned physical social gameplay. You might have experienced this when you were a child. It is usually referred to, quite simply, as ‘play.’

"Boogy dancing" alone in front of your computer is fine too

Limitation, they say, breeds creativity. When it comes to game development, I cannot imagine a more limiting position than the one in which I placed my students: I expected them to create games with only a basic card-based development tool and an elementary schooler’s knowledge of engineering. Even so, students could attempt complex projects; adventure games with branching story paths. The extent to which students realized the futility of attempting to create complicated games surprised me. I was impressed further by the ways in which they compensated for this barrier, keeping their games simple and engaging players through meta and social gameplay. It was at first difficult for me to imagine my first game designs being realized in such a manner. Their mechanics were too fantastically complex and their scope too broad, it seemed. However, I’ve come to realize that with some creativity and perhaps a bit of naivety, games can be dramatically simplified without sacrificing their capacity to amuse and engage. Back in third grade, I could very well have done it – and older game designers should be aware of the powers of simplification.

More information about the elementary game design class and download links for most of the games described in this article can be found at www.arcadeoftheabsurd.com/waterside 

One Comment

  1. Addendum: 

    In a previous article, I presented a sort of manifesto of Absurdist game design (http://nightmaremode.net/2011/06/arcade-of-the-absurd-6343/). There, I argued that the main tenant of Absurdism (all ideals and attempts at perfection are ultimately pointless, so one should value the simplicity and reality of life over any quest for completion) can be integrated into video games by counting on counter-procedural mechanics to engage players. In other words, playing an Absurdist video game is only fun when one is not doing things necessary to complete the game. An unintended effect of my class was the distillation of this concept. Allowing additional player progression complicated my student’s games exponentially, thanks to the branching paths of adventure games. Students were greatly limited in their ability to complete such complex games, and thus ended up making their games remarkably linear. To make the games more engaging, then, the students were forced to introduce mechanics that did nothing to progress the story and complicate their creation. Unable to achieve ‘perfection’ in realizing their ambitious projects, my students designed their games around simple, almost anecdotal mechanics – their games were more fun for it.