Children’s Games, from Turtle to Squirtle
MIT 1967, Pokémon GO 2016
We are acutely aware that children use media all day, every day and that a part of that use is playing video games. Today four out of five US households own game consoles (Lofgren 2016) and in 2017 sales of children’s mobile games alone are expected to reach $2.2 billion (Children’s Mobile Game n.d.). In 2013, 38% of children who were 2 years old used mobile devices; in the two previous years, the rate of use for two to four-year-olds climbed from 39% to 80% (Rideout 2013). Now a 91 billion dollar business worldwide (2016) (Fuscaldo 2016), video games were first developed barely 60 years ago. Adults have long used children’s games to entertain as well as educate. Plato’s comments in The Republic (380 bce) on the value of structured play for developing young children into socially responsible and well-adjusted adults, John Locke’s entreaty in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) to make education entertaining because children “love to be busy, change and variety are what they delight in; curiosity is but an appetite for knowledge,” and John Dewey’s proponing in Democracy and Education (1922) that children learn best through experience, demonstrate to us society’s ongoing desire to take advantage of children’s proclivity to learn as they play (Madej 2016). It’s not surprising then that children’s video games had their start with a desire to use technology to benefit learning. It is also not surprising that, on their own, children prefer to accentuate entertainment over education.
Since the late 1960s, when the first programming language for children was developed at MIT, until today’s mixed reality applications, games for children have travelled a continuum committed to both learning and entertainment objectives. The brief history that follows shows children’s games as evolving from two different beginnings: computer applications with educational objectives for specific age groups and computer and console games designed to entertain a wide audience. The differentiation between children’s and adult’s games is difficult to establish because of children’s facility with technology, the social nature of playing games, whether with older siblings, parents, or other children, and the nature of some games that can be played across age groups. Too, children are precocious – their nature is to challenge themselves with new things; they seldom stay within their age category for long for any activity. As an important market, children have been a motivating force in the evolution of game genres. While not all genres are covered in the following history, those discussed are representative of innovations in technology and shifts in interest that have encouraged change. These include early educational and arcade style games, handheld games, massive multiplayer online games, active games, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality games. Our trajectory takes us from the first LOGO Turtle to today’s augmented reality Pokémon Go Squirtle.
1960s: The Very Beginnings – LOGO and Education Through Constructive Play
Early Interest in Education and Entertainment
Educators found that children were drawn to the active engagement computers offered and became interested in providing their students with subject-based programs to take advantage of this increased eagerness to learn. They were supported by educational organizations such as the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), which developed statewide systems for learning about how to use new technologies and software applications for different age groups, grade levels, and subject categories (For more information on MECC see Jancer (2016). For a list of programs available through MECC in 1983 see Atari Program Exchange Catalog (1983)). To reinforce learning at home, MECC sold its school software to parents and by 1983 offered more than 150 subject-related applications for children age three-and-up in its annual catalog. One of its popular school offerings, Oregon Trail (1978), a game about settlers who made the difficult pioneer journey from Independence, Kansas to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, became a notable success when it was released to the general public as a game title in 1985 (Wong 2017). Other programs that became popular included DinoPark Tycoon (1993) and StoryWeaver (1994).
Evolving Entertainment and Edutainment for Computers and Consoles in the 1980s
Entertainment games evolved along two main paths in the late 1970s – as arcade-action games and as text adventure games. In an arcade-action game, although the game might consist of cause and effect events, it did not require a story to be successful. By the early 1980s, original Pong action had evolved and included: maze games – Pac-Man (1980), players needed to avoid four ghosts while eating up all the dots; platform games, called climbing games at the time – Donkey Kong (1981), players jumped obstacles and enemies through four different levels; and simulation games – Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator (1982), players had to defend the Starship Enterprise from Klingon invaders.
Text-adventure games, on the other hand, were based in story. Players achieved their goals not by repeating arcade-type actions but by asking questions of game characters, unlocking secrets, and overcoming obstacles to reach a goal. As Spacewar! (1962) gave rise to all later action games beginning with Pong, Adventure (1975) became the first text adventure game that spawned all other text adventures. Popular in university and corporate intranets, Adventure was initially created to be shared with children. Will Crowther, the designer, writes “I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids [his two daughters], and perhaps some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing…. The kids thought it was fun” (The origins of “Adventure,” Crowther n.d.).
Animated movies were a natural source for children’s action-based games as their storylines already consisted of action that designers could mine. The puzzle game All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), the side-scrolling platform game Aladdin (1993), and the action-adventure Casper (1996) featured only action sequences rather than the entire story. Live films were also used to inspire action adventure games suitable for children. As is the case with animated films, most games use the story plot only loosely to take players through action sequences. In The Karate Kid (1987), for instance, the player uses karate moves on four levels and ends with Master Miyagi congratulating him/her on learning the moves needed to help Daniel successfully meet all the challenges (See a partial list of movies made into video games at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Video_games_based_on_films, Great video games based on movies n.d.).
The first video game that featured animation as polished as in animated movies was Disney Interactive’s The Lion King Animated Story Book (1995). Media Station, the developer, used breakthrough technology and skillful editing to ensure the original quality and continuity while affording interaction. Designed for children 3–8, the game became popular with children as well as adults who had enjoyed the movie. Other Interactive Storybooks based on Disney animated films followed: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Mulan, among others.
A game phenomenon that began in the 1980s and grew to great popularity in the 1990s was the simulation game. Simulation games had grown out of educational games such as Oregon Trail (1978) that had been designed to simulate real world activities and provide players with a greater appreciation of the real life events. The success of The Sims in 1990 and of Railroad Tycoon in 1993 encouraged the development of simulation games for children such as Harvest Moon (1997). In this game, children were responsible for allocating their time to best maintain a farm that had fallen in disrepair. They were provided daily tasks to complete, different environments to explore, and, among other things, weather to contend with. Simulation games such as this one were “learning in context,” and fit the genre, although were not always labeled, edutainment.
Such a learning simulation game that leads us into the next topic, handhelds, is Nintendogs (2005). Handhelds are particularly suited to providing children a means to carry out set tasks in real time. In Nintendogs, children take care of their pet dog on the Nintendo DS. Using the touchscreen, they can train their dog, take it to the park, and wash and brush it. They can also record commands that the puppy should obey if it has been trained correctly. A real-time simulation, the action is based in the DS’s calendar and clock so, for instance, a puppy would grow hungry if not fed on time; the game provides feedback for acting responsibly toward a pet.
Handhelds Prepare the Way
During the 1980s, handheld games gained tremendous popularity. Small and easily transportable, they could be used anywhere from the sofa to the car seat; playing video games no longer kept children tied to computers at a desk or console – a large part of handhelds’ charm for both children and parents. Introduced at the beginning of a new era, when parents trekked their kids from activity to activity in that other phenomenon of the time, the mini-van, handhelds became a part of children’s everyday life and probably more than any other game technology were the determinant of today’s generation of digital natives.
The success of Nintendo’s next handheld system, Game Boy, introduced in 1989, is based on the popularity of its games rather than in any sophisticated technology. In comparison to its competitors, its green screen was blurry and graphics were unimpressive, yet it became the most successful video game system ever – handheld or otherwise – because of its strong stable of notable games. It was released with what became the most popular game of all time, Tetris (Melanson 2006), and then featured a wide spectrum of game genres: puzzle games – Boxxle (1990), adventure games – Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1991), historic action adventure games – Prince of Thieves (1991), sports games – Ultra Golf (1992), fighting games –Street Fighter II (1995), pinball games – The Getaway: High Speed II (1995), racing games – Street Racer (1996), and side-scrolling platform games – Toy Story (1996).
Children enjoyed playing these games – parents saw their children were not only occupied but were also learning new skills: a win-win situation that helped establish playing handheld games as a go-to activity, one that translated readily to playing games on mobile phones, when that technology became available.
The most recent iteration of mobile gaming that continues children’s (and adults’) enthrallment with this genre of game play is the Nintendo Switch (2017), a hybrid console that can be played on-the-go as a handheld or on a TV at home. It consists of a main unit with Joy-Con controllers attached to each side that can be slid off so the screen can be propped up on a table for one- or two-player games. The Switch system also includes a charging cradle so games can be played on a big-screen TV. The design allows for players to get the same basic experience regardless of how they play (Thang 2018).
The Internet Introduces Community to Children’s Games
Online access also popularized Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), which, at the time, were considered an adult genre. In 1996, Starwave Corporation brought the genre to children 8+ with the game Castle Infinity. Entertainment video games had over the years stirred up considerable controversy with addictive and violent game play dominating the discussion; diverse opinions were held about the value of games for children. Multiplayer online games were equally suspect. Castle Infinity promoted the use of nonviolent ways of problem solving: how to get rid of monsters who were threatening the last of the dinosaurs in their home, the Castle. Children used a password and a unique name to join players around the world in cooperatively saving the dinosaurs.
By the 2000s, the major children’s publishers and media companies, from PBS Kids to National Geographic Kids, realized the promotional opportunities of engaging children online, and created sites that were based in children’s favorite characters and stories such as Arthur, Caillou, Clifford, Dragontales, and Sesame Street. These sites offered learning opportunities through entertainment, although initially they did not offer a multiplayer environment.
Today, many games are available in versions that can be downloaded from the Internet. The sandbox game Minecraft (2010), for instance, which is now the second most popular game after Tetris, can be purchased for single play or can be played online with friends. A sandbox game is an open-world game akin to playing with LEGO blocks and building objects or scenes, only the number of blocks is limitless. In Minecraft, children 6+ decide for themselves what to do and how to do it. They collect materials available in the space and build whatever their mind can imagine. As online friends they can cooperate to build worlds together.
Changing Handheld/Mobile Landscapes
Mobile devices have become very popular with parents for very young children as well. Designers have put such technology as the touch screen to great advantage in games for them. In Old Macdonald (2009), for instance, young children can use their fingers to push a tractor, open barn doors, jump with frogs, pop balloons, and swish their way through the rhyme as the tune plays to the animations. Together with parents or alone, children can also read, listen, and record themselves singing. This engages them not only cognitively but also physically in their play activity, creating stronger connections in their learning (Madej 2016).
The most recent developments in tablet and smartphone games, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), are at the end of a trajectory of evolution in action video games that, during the mid-1970s, took the form of accessories such as racing wheels, and today, has players moving about the neighborhood, the city, or even the world, searching and catching virtual Pokémon. While manifested in different ways, the main purpose of action games is to provide tangible or embodied interaction that engages the player physically and simulates real world activity. This could be by providing haptic feedback, physically engaging interaction, an immersive environment, or by augmenting an existing environment.
New types of interactive artifacts that engaged children physically were introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These included play mats on which children could enjoy dancing to the music video game Dance Dance Revolution (1998), konga drums they could beat in Donkey Konga (2003), and guitar controllers they could strum in Guitar Hero (2005). Each of these interfaces required improving skills to reach the next level of proficiency and provided for learning while playing.
Wii games were promoted for children as young as toddlers and games like Kirby’s Return to Dreamland were positively viewed as family friendly because of their multiage, cooperative play. But toddlers and preschoolers found the controls difficult, both in this and other games such as Reader Rabbit Kindergarten in which any precision was required (Healy 2011). Issues also arose when Microsoft introduced the next motion capture device to come on the market, the Kinect (2010). Older children could engage in simulated action in games but problems existed with recognition of younger children because of their height, as well as with light levels, the amount of space required to play, and recognition of movements (Kinect Sucks for Little Kids 2012).
Mixed reality games entered a new era when they began to include either or both VR and AR in their mix. Virtual glasses such as Google Cardboard, a simple, inexpensive version of a VR headset, became an asset in the development of immersive adventures for children. Edutainment benefitted in particular in games such as Jurassic Virtual Reality (2014), in which children go back to the time of the dinosaurs and can observe the creatures in their natural habitat from any angle. The ability to engage in a very personal way within an environment makes learning immediate and takes edutainment to a new height.
In 2017, 60 years passed since the LOGO Turtle was first introduced to the world. Seymour Papert’s interest during the 1960s in creating a playful environment with computer technology to benefit children’s learning continues to be pursued with vigor by the games industry today. Through an unflagging continuance of effort, and whether developing games solely either for learning or play, or developing games intended to do both, the different streams that have evolved are exploring technologies as quickly as they are emerging and taking advantage of new types of engagement to offer a mix of learning experiences. While some may not see searching for Squirtle as beneficial to learning, others have taken the idea, and exploited its potential to engage a generation of children, many of which, have never been without a digital gadget in their hands.
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