Cheeky Little Gits
I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately creating games for kids, and playing games with kids – primarily my own two girls who are 6 and 9. I’ve come to the conclusion that the natural state of gaming for children is to get away with absolutely as much as possible and do what needs to be done to try and win the game or shape it to their satisfaction. I kinda love this about kids too, for several reasons. I admit that my sample pool is pretty small – my two kids who are always willing to play games in the name of science, and a few other sessions with other kids. So, take this report with a grain of salt.
For some systems, this is okay. There are a ton of kid oriented RPGs out there, my own Argyle & Crew being one of them. These tend to go a little lighter on the rules than RPGs aimed towards adults. The fact that kids seem to like to cheat is one of the reasons I built A&C like I did. Yet, rather than call it cheating, I simply call it imagination. We’ll get back to this in a few paragraphs.
Of all the kids I’ve played with over the past few years, it doesn’t matter what we’re playing – board games, RPGs, My Little Freaking Pony, many of them tend to let their imaginations really run wild. It’s an awesome experience. I can interject something strange, such as a Martian spacecraft into my daughter’s My Little Pony play session and not only does she take it in stride, it gets incorporated into her play in a matter of fact way. That’s not cheating.
When you’re playing Quarriors though, and she opts for eight dice rather than six, well that is cheating. Really in her mind it’s a much lesser form of cheating than say introducing my Godzilla action figure and my wife’s hairy Wonder Woman doll into the Pony mix. When she watches ponies on the tube, both Godzilla and Wonder Woman consistently fail to make an appearance. Yet here she is playing with dice already and she just wants to add two more. Sheesh, what’s the big deal?
Why when young kids cheat, it ain’t cheating
Back to my game and imagination – that’s why when I made a game for young kids, I built into it the ability for the person running the game to say “yes” as much as possible. Mixing atomic age giant monsters with golden aged comic people and talking ponies who have no hands yet somehow still build trains and stuff is perfectly okay! In a young kids mind there’s no barriers formed yet between what is, what should be and whatever. They’re still learning all this stuff about the world around them and what’s possible – to a 6 year old, just about anything is possible.
I don’t look at my 6 year old as cheating then, when she adds two dice to her six dice Quarrior pool – this is more of a creative way to get something that she wants. I should also stress that she doesn’t really play this game to win, she’s not on that level yet. She does play it to acquire the most of her favorite colored dice (the blue Questing Wizards, or anything even close to pink). She’d have a much easier time of it if she had more to spend, so in go the extra dice and hey, look at that, I can buy those blue dice now!
While this is no way to play Quarriors on a competitive level, it is a chance to turn a fun game with a fistful of dice into a teaching moment. To show her why it’s not right that she use eight dice while the rest of us are stuck with six, but also to let her know that she came up with a creative solution even if it won’t fly with the rest of the family. It was a real educational process for me finding out why she added the dice. She didn’t want to cheat to win, she wanted to buy more blue dice.
It’s one of the reasons I really like gaming with kids – they cheat via not following the expected norms all the time and it’s entertaining as all hell. Getting into that mindset myself has been the single biggest drive behind my creative process. We’ll get back to this in a bit, first lets take a quick look at older kids.
Why when older kids cheat, they’re testing the rules
My 9 year old daughter is a different story. She fully understands that when you roll your six dice in Quarriors, they stay where they fall and that’s that. It doesn’t stop her from occasionally trying to pull a fast one over on me. Or constantly doing it but being pretty damned good at it so I only see her cheating occasionally. For her, winning means a great deal – a lot more than it does to me. And she’ll do what she can to ensure that she has the best chance to win. Really, when you’re playing a game with a group of 9 year old kids, you’re sitting down with a bunch of cut-throat CEOs who’ll stop at nothing to come out on top. Sort of.
It’s taken me a little while to come to this conclusion, but she’s not really cheating just to win, and damn the family fallout. She’s really testing the rules to see how flexible they may be, or how flexible the other players may be. Doing this in the context of a game gives her a far safer environment to test the rules than say talking back to her teacher, or acting out with others. It’s her first steps into the pre-teen world of pushing boundaries. She can see that it’s okay to re-roll a die that fell on the ground, but it’s not okay to blatantly flip over a die that resulted in something she didn’t like, whether we’re all looking or not.
It’s been interesting to me because I get to see what rules make sense to her (in the context of a 9 year old’s head) and why the don’t when they don’t.
Where I ramble on a bit about cheating reality to make better games
I want to propose a very brief thought experiment. Suppose that you, the adult you, in real life are sitting at home alone. You’re on your couch with the television on or reading a book. Suddenly, out of nowhere, your coffee table turns to you and says “Man, I can’t stand American Idol. How can you watch that crap?”
How would you honestly react?
Me, I would probably scream just like my 6 year old daughter does when encountering a large spider and get the hell out. I’ve seen enough horror movies to understand that this won’t end well. To my 6 year old though, talking animals and furniture is just now becoming something outside the realm of the possible. She’s seen plenty of movies that show these things, so they must be real! The universe isn’t cheating when then happens, not in the 6 year old’s mind anyway.
Imagine you could harness that power, the ability to think so far out of the box that you can’t even see the box anymore. When you’re creating something, whether it’s tomorrow night’s adventure or the next big gaming sensation, it will be unique, interesting and cause adult people to say “where the hell did you come up with that?” Whatever that idea is, my 6 year old would look at it, shrug her shoulders and carry on.
If you’re creating something, then to some extent you’re already tapping in to your old childhood brain. I would highly, highly recommend doing more of this though. Try your hardest to remember what it was like to be 6, or 9. Remember back to when you didn’t feel a little odd playing with toys in front of other people. And if at all possibly, sit down with a kid and play with them. If you have kids, you’ll do this a lot – awesome on you! If you don’t have kids, find some friends who do and offer to babysit. You’ll not only have a chance to expand your creative mind, you’ll be a hero to a parent or two as well.
At first it’ll be awkward. You’ll watch the kid play for a bit, and then they’ll hand you that one toy you really didn’t want to play with, the purple car with three wheels say, and go “this is yours.” I’m telling you now, run with it. Only three wheels? Well, the forth must have been transformed into a bagel to save the starving village of horse sized amoebae! Get down with those toys and let anything happen. Then encourage the child your playing with to think differently by introducing strange things – like the tire/bagel connection. If they run with it, remember it. If they give you the stare – you may want to consider letting that idea go.
I’m not saying you sit there and take notes as you play, and when you walk away you’ll have your next adventure/game/novel in hand. No, what you are doing though is using your brain in ways it hasn’t been accustomed to in a while. You’re making it cheat on it’s own tidy version of reality. Do this for just a little while and wonderful things will happen.
When I design games now, I think a lot less about how the mechanics of the game before I come up with ideas. I do the idea part first, and figure out later what will work mechanically. Sure I throw some stuff out, but what I’m left with is a lot better than what I had been coming up with before I had kids and interacted with them all the time. I ‘cheat’ regularly now but throwing the rules out (even as I’m designing them) when I have a crazy-fun idea. I’ll make the rules fit later, or if I don’t, I’ll save the idea for another project.
To date, the freest I’ve felt while designing was making Argyle & Crew because at it’s core there are really only a few simple rules. You must make a sock puppet, you can only add two Extras to start with, and the Guide in the game must try their best to always say yes to a player. When my kids play A&C, they can get that cheating feeling all the time because the rules are so far in the background, they’re not really telling the players not to do something, but encouraging them to do anything.
Photo courtesy of Julien Haler, kid on a broomstick courtesy of the public domain.