Kids these days

A few weeks ago we were at my brother-in-law’s house and I told my ten-year-old niece that we have a Kinect. She asked if we had the “cat game” and I said I didn’t, but I would download the demo and she could test it out for us next time she came over. The following weekend she came to our house ready to play. I set up a profile for her on my Xbox and she jumped into the Kinectimals demo. She laughed at the silly jungle cats in the intro and stood ready to play. She continued to stand for another 10 minutes.

The beginning of Kinectimals is frontloaded with a shockingly large amount of exposition. All of said exposition comes from the lips ofa goofy floating fairy-cat thing. He droned on and on and on about the island, some legend, the cats, the controls. My niece was getting impatient. He finally went away and she had fun with her cheetah, giving him a name (Slicer) and petting him. Then the fairy-cat returned for more exposition. He gabbed on while her cat did cute stuff in the background, out of reach of her virtual arms. Exasperated, she turned and said to me "Can you make him go away? I just want to play."

I laughed and told her I couldn’t. I turned to my wife and wondered aloud if anyone play-tested the intro with an actual child. Who was that exposition for? The kid doesn’t want or need an overly long spoken tutorial from a weird flying-meerkat thing; they know what the game is about from the commercial. My niece came to play with a jungle cat, and every second spent not doing that in Kinectimals is not a good one for her. I think the developers didn’t give kids enough credit.

As gamers we possess a learned adaptive skill. We turn on a game and immediately, almost unconsciously, determine the rules of the world we're playing in. It’s an analytical assessment skill we learn that I think can transfer nicely into real world problem solving (more on that here). You might not even realize you have this skill, but if you consider yourself a “gamer” you do. Ever get stuck in a game while a non-gaming friend is watching? They’ll suggest all kinds of crazy things: “Why don’t you jump on that box?” or “How come you can’t just blast through that door with your gun?” They don’t know; they haven’t cultivated that skill. A gamer will ask things like “Can you jump? No? Then what about crawl? Is there a duck button?” In other words s/he’ll use that adaptive skill and attempt to test the common rules he/she has learned in other games.

Just like most things—languages, musical instruments, sports—kids can learn this skill faster than adults. I showed my niece the basic controls of the Kinect once and she was ready to go, no long-winded story or fairy-cat required. Have you ever seen a child handle an iDevice? A friend of mine told me that her four-year-old daughter, who often plays with mommy’s iPad, presses every screen she sees expecting it to react. These intuitive actions make sense to kids, and while their adaptive skill still lacks refinement, they’re able to get up and running far quicker than most adults. I showed my niece a DS when she was five and she was switching between to the two screens like a pro in a matter of minutes. Stuff like that gets me excited for the future of games.

Older gamers always complain about kids these days, but I’m jealous. When I was 10 I remember thinking Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was the pinnacle of video game graphic achievement. My friends and I played those crazy “3D” bonus stages and yelled and cheered like we were riding a rollercoaster. My niece is 10 and she’s controlling a game by waving her arms! The 10-year-old me could only dream of something so cool. You remember that show Nick Arcade? I wanted to be on it so bad. The kids at the end got to go into the video game (who else was sad when they realized the final round of Nick Arcade was just a green screen?). Kinect Adventures blows Nick Arcade out of the water, and you can play it in your living room.

Imagine what kids today will create tomorrow. When these kids, whose first experience with games involves touching screens and waving arms, start making games themselves…it’s going to be great. I just hope they develop games that are old man friendly, and are free of weird flying-meerkat creatures.