INplay’s world is made of Lego. Or that is what Mark Surman, Executive Director of Mozilla Foundation , wants us to see. Not a far reach for the kid creatives in the audience who were looking for inspiration and ideas at this year’s international event.
Mark started the INplay 2012 conference  off with his keynote, getting the audience to think about the web as pieces. Pieces that can be hacked, changed, mashedup, and parodied. So, why would we want the web to be in pieces? Because kids expect to play. This includes content on the web.
His project, Hackasaurus , provides tools that make it easy for kids to remix, create and share on the web. The X-ray Goggles tool can see the code behind the Google logo, on the Google home page and through some simple steps, the user can change it to any other image they want and then send it to friends to show their amazing work.
MEEmoo  is another example. This framework connects open-source modules, powered by any web technology. So you choose a module, then another one. Then you connect them with this fun, colourful wire. Voila, a new app! The fascinating part was a new app was created in the time it took him to explain what it was he was doing.
His point: the web is made up of digital assets that can be remixed together because the work is modifiable and changeable for self-expression. It’s the joy of learning and creating. Just like Lego.
Co-Creating with Kids
David Fono from Atmosphere Industries  walked us through a compelling case study of creating a game for kids, with a team of seven kids aged 8-10. The result was Watchers , a game about online privacy. Two young game creators joined the panel to share key learning points:
- Snacks are mandatory
- No direct “educational” stuff. Boring.
- Turning off the lights and running around can be productive.
- Lots of Breaks
- Make the process “Gameful.” Make it fun. Even the adults admitted they had more fun creating.
- Don’t present classifications. Instead, let the kids create from their own experience.
- If you can make a Zombie with milk and pig feet, anything is possible.
- “Multiple funs”. Just because you think it’s fun, doesn’t mean I think it’s fun. Thus, multiple funs need to be created.
Narrative is NOT STORY in gaming
It is the narrative of the activity, not the story when it comes to gaming. This is a huge shift in thinking for traditional story creatives.
When approaching a mobile device for kids, the screen does not matter. It’s the touch capability that does. A mobile device is not a phone for a 4 year old. It’s where they play games, create stuff and read books.
A touch screen cuts across all demographics. Kids take to it immediately. In fact, kids are getting so good at eye/ hand coordination that their tests are extraordinary. Just don’t get them to thread a needle. They can’t. Traditional eye/hand coordination activities are dying.
Focus on the user and their experience. If the experience is easy and fun, you’ve got a great narrative.
It’s not always about winning
Björn Jeffery, co-founder of Toca Boca , approaches kid gaming design by creating an environment where they use their imagination and foster co-play. Oh… and there is nothing to win. Their games are designed to be open-ended, designed around a theme and the gameplay is up to the user.
Image their Tea Party app . A child invites a parent to sit down and play. Maybe add a few stuffed friends. You pour tea. Tell stories. Share snacks. It’s just like the real thing, with the play happening between the kid, parent and stuffies, with no mess to worry about. Oh.. and if you do spill your tea in the app, there is a cloth to wipe it up.
The device and the game are simply props. The real interaction and the fun is between people using the screen. Definitely a win, win.
Interactive Design Principles for Children
Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, the founder of No Crusts Interactive , is a game designer with a research obsession, and much to the audience’s delight, she shared some really great insights about how to design specifically for kids.
- Kids’ fingers are not perfect. Make big areas for them to touch, because they are not necessarily accurate.
- Drag and drop is tough. Give them incremental steps as they go along to encourage success.
- Repeat, Repeat, Repeat instructions.
- Immediate feedback is needed. When the child does / touches something, there should be sound, a visual clue, maybe balloons.
- Expect multiplayer chaos. Carla played this very cute and amazing video of 7 kids playing Dance Dance Revolution at the same time.
- Create in purchase gates. Don’t interrupt game play for purchasing prompts.
Families Play Together Online
If you want to create games that trigger deep routed emotion, use the strongest emotional force that humans know – the connection between parents and children.
Technology, by design, rips family apart by putting family members in their own technology silos. Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell games , walked us through the psychology and mechanics that work best for bringing families together.
So let’s face it. As a parent, playing with a child, it can get… um…. boring. My friends call it death by Candyland. So creating an app that attracts both the child and the parent requires something for both of them. It is a shared experience around a theme that both kids and parents care about.
One way to do this is to provide an experience that a family can do together. Jesse showed a video where a child was driving a car collecting words for the parent to unscramble. The child sees the word correctly, runs into it and then the parents sees it on a different part of the screen to unscramble. The more words the parent unscrambles, the more boosts the child gets for driving their car. The trick here is that the word is on the screen before the parent has to unscramble. Therefore, the thinking is that the parent knows what the word is before it arrives in their unscrammbler. Yet, since the scrambling area is on a different part of the screen, the parent doesn’t see the word. They are appearing too quickly. The team learns quickly that to achieve ultimate success the child has to say the word out loud. This is true cooperative play.
Self Publishing. Not the scary. Really.
If an app is in the app store, does anyone know it’s there? How does one self publish and then get users to purchase?
The panelists of this session agreed on how to get noticed and get sales for your self-published game.
- Make sure your game is world class. If it’s not great, nothing will help it.
- Remove all obstacles to getting the game. Make it easy and simple.
- Create a demo video and place it on YouTube.
- Do community reach, long term. Create a Facebook fan page and talk to your audience. Often.
- Be free. Temporarily. Get people to try it and encourage them to talk about it.
At the end of the day, it’s about Play
The common theme this year was play. Playing with Lego, playing with kids and families, making it fun and easy for kids to play.
As for the future, it’s unclear. Participants all agreed there is one, but technology and the industry are moving too fast to accurately predict.
For me, the conference sparked a lot of ideas and I made a ton of new connections. But after sitting down for 2 days, my only request is that each day at 2pm, we should have turned off the lights and run around.