Smartphones and three-year-olds: a parent’s-eye view

08 September 2013 | 2 comments

If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of our latest app, Sesame Street Family Play, which we’ve just announced. This project means an enormous amount to me personally, and not just because HOLY COW SESAME STREET but also because I’m father of two lovely girls, the eldest of whom (Esme) is three and a half. For someone so passionate about games in all their forms, I’ve been ambivalent about putting digital games into Esme’s hands so far. The reasons behind that are connected with the design goals of Family Play, so I thought I’d explain them a little.

Watching your child learn to play is a beautiful illustration of the extraordinary blooming of brain-power that happens as they grow. Esme has (inevitably) been playing hide and seek for a couple of years now. When she started out, she would wait for the count to start, toddle out of the room, and then toddle back in again, beaming and yelling “here I am!”… Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve gradually progressed to a closer approximation of the game itself but even now, she has a tendency to tell me where she’s going to hide before she hides there, and / or to yell out “I’m hiding behind the sofa!” as I start my search. What this does mean is that most of the time the game we’re playing is – well – not so fun for me. Delightful in an aah-isn’t-child-development lovely sort of way, but not so fun as in actually fun. So I’ve been playing around with the idea of games that can be genuinely fun for me and for Esme at the same time – games where two different brain-types can interact in a fair and enjoyable way – and testing them out on my unwitting offspring.

Esme’s also aware that smartphones are powerful and important things. I mean, they must be, right, otherwise why would Daddy spend so much time peering at them? In the social context of the family home, the smartphone’s multifunctional ubiquity can be problematic. Am I doing something semi-useful (like reading the news, say) or am I playing a game or (the worse sin) checking in on work emails at the weekend? We’re all aware of the siren pull away from the world around you into your device – when that world contains an observant child who’s keen for your company and copying you in everything she does, it takes on even greater significance.

And of course, as a game designer, I’m wise to many of the tricks that games employ. Many kids’ smartphone games retain the looping compulsions of their arcade forbears in ways I find somewhat inappropriate. The design goal is surely to entertain children, not prise more quarters out of passing teenagers… One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of the Toca Boca series is their status as toys, rather than games. They offer a steady kind of pleasure, free from the dopamine peaks of many games (or, for that matter, TV shows – I think the sound design of Peppa Pig owes an awful lot to Nintendo).

Often this potent combination of magic hardware and compelling experience can end in what all parents will recognise as the i-Tug-Of-War; accompanied by tears and upset as you prise the device out of unwilling hands…

These things have all been on my mind as we’ve developed the app, and I hope we’ve found a way to express them in concrete terms. Using the awesome power of game design, smartphones, apps and Sesame characters to stimulate real-world, intergenerational play is a dream come true.

2 comments on this post.

  • On 11 Sep 2013, David Lourie said:

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this post. I too have a 3 year old and I can totally connect with your hide and seek experience. I love the idea of connecting real life experiences and actions outside the app game to actions in the app game. Really looking forward to seeing the finished product and introducing my daughter to it.



    PS I think I might be inspired to try a ParkRun too!

  • On 12 Sep 2013, Alex said:

    Thanks David!

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