ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Taking on Serious Topics in Children’s Entertainment Games

By Krystina Madej

In the early 1920s, psychoanalyst Melanie Klein worked with children as young as two to discover how they related to the objects around them. Klein theorized that in playing with artifacts, including toys and objects like spoons, pictures, letters, words, and food items such as Cheerios, children conferred meaning on them. As children negotiate their relationship with the object, they invest it with their own images and feelings and give it symbolic meaning. They do so within the context of their daily play. The psychologist D.W. Winnicott, who studied with Klein, went further in his theorizing about play. He believed it to be fundamental to all human development, and necessary for the freedom to be creative. For Winnicott, the exciting part about play was the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual artifacts. This interplay is one reason why children, as well as adults, are drawn to video games. From infancy, people develop skills by playing with the different artifacts they encounter and then, because they are not satisfied with the status quo, they push forward to gain new understanding and skills. The psychologist Lev Vygotsky identifies this process of achieving the next level of expertise during a child’s development as “critical periods”. During these periods, children work hard to attain expertise so they can move on from where they are, whether it is to learn to write, use a skateboard, or save Princess Peach. Games provide repeatable experiences that help with understanding and memorization – a scaffold to the next level that is more meaningful because they must work through it independently.  

From this perspective, all games are learning opportunities for children, whether they are labeled “serious games” or more commonly, “edutainment games”. When they were first developed in the 1970s-80s, edutainment games were usually linked to school curriculum or to age-related learning objectives. Once the link between entertainment and education was well established in video games, and then habituated in children’s Internet activities, new types of educational goals came to the fore, such as those that addressed social responsibility. Parents and educators found that games about issues related to social responsibility such as learning to work with others, listening and working through conflicts, and anti-bullying, were a way that these topics could be introduced to children in an engaging way. Game narratives in which players represented characters involved in challenging situations helped to create meaning and provided experience in how to resolve problems. Arcade-action games such as The Adventures of Rubberkid  (2012) provide a black and white view of bullying: bullying = bad! Compliments = good! Narrative games can offer a more nuanced view. Only a few entertainment game developers have taken on weighty topics such as anti-bullying and developed them as game narratives that encourage understanding of the problem and compassion for the victim. Sumoboy, released in 2014, is a narrative based game in which the warrior is Oji, a “chubby orphan tormented by jerky peers.”  It encourages empathy with the character and engages the player through an emotional involvement in the situations Oji finds himself.



Figure 1. Rubberkid, arcade-action anti-bullying game



Figure 2. Sumoboy, narrative based anti-bullying game


Encouraging social relevance in game development

Each spring, I’ve had the opportunity teach a short course to Erasmus students at the University of Lower Silesia in Wroclaw, Poland. One of my favorite courses to teach is about children’s games. I have students consider physical engagement other than the traditional click, point, and swish of most games and the value of narrative in the game. Recently, I’ve been asking the students to think about social responsibility when planning themes for a set of two projects in the course. In this set, students are first challenged to create an analog game that is narrative based yet physically engaging for a group of players. They then need to take this game and look at how it can be structured as a digital game. They can plan the analog game with the digital game in mind, and some do. Or they can develop their first game, play test it, and then see if there are ways to make it digital that is beneficial to the gameplay. They have to consider advantages and disadvantages of either adding digital components or of making it completely digital. Sometimes, their analog games do not have potential to be very engaging digitally and so they decide to create a completely new game. All digital avenues are open to them from traditional screen based click and point to mobile multiple reality (MR). The rationale for the set is that when students are set to the task of including a physical component, they almost invariably revert to their paradigm of screen-based click, point, and swish action. Beginning with analog games moves them away from this paradigm and encourages them to consider tangibles first.

Students in the Erasmus program are from countries across the EU. Because students from the undergraduate digital media program at ULS are also welcome, the country set expands. This year, the sixteen students in the course were from Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the Ukraine. In the past students have come from as far away as Finland, Mongolia, and even the USA. While there was potential for a great diversity of approach, interestingly, many of the topics chosen were similar to ones of importance in North America. A few, however, were more specific to the region that the students were from.

The requirement to look at themes that were considered socially responsible, include physical interaction, and come up with an appealing, relevant narrative, was met with different levels of ingeniousness. Working in teams of two, the students addressed a broad range of topics than expected for their analog games: encouraging kids to learn about and eat more healthy foods (FitFurFriends), strategizing how, as rabbits, to collect sufficient carrots to stay alive from local fields when the farmer has set traps (Rabbit Run), protecting trees from being cut down near their local village (The Lumberjacks), being able to tell truth from fiction when being bombarded with facts about current events (AwarKids), being aware of their surroundings to help themselves get out of sticky situations (Hansel and Gretel), saving the ocean from pollution caused by sewage from industry (Save the Ocean), and being aware of situations in which they might be kidnapped (West Freak).

While the other games adhered to the strict analog requirement, in West Freak, the designers Petya Petrova and Nicola Tamboia introduced the use of mobile phones and QR codes to make the game more pertinent and engaging for today’s children. Petrova and Tamboia “agreed that the social relevance would be the human trafficking problem in Bulgaria.” This is where Petya is from, and the topic is one that she felt would be beneficial to pre-teen girls and boys. Using game and development theories studied in class as well as their own research, their report identified they looked at the rhythm and harmony of the game (Huizinga), its mimicry or performance aspects (Caillois), and chose to have children problem solve through play (Chateau). They determined the age group as 9-11, the concrete operational stage when children are becoming more aware of themselves in the world and are developing logical thinking (Piaget).

The story is based in a small town where a girl has been kidnapped. Two police officers are involved in the case and there are two kidnappers. To encourage players to “let their imagination roam free,” different pieces of evidence are provided to verify this was a real kidnapping. Significant (real) clues and fake clues have been left behind to encourage “the players to think logically.” Hints for moving through the board game are similar to those found in text adventures: “Go back, there is nothing for you here!” These are all accessible to the players on their smart phones through the QR codes. Figure 3 shows game testing with students in the class.


Figure 3. (a) Players engaged in the game. (b) Scanning the code. (c) Reading Evidence. (d) Four different colors represent Significant Clues, Fake Clues, Evidence, and Hints.

The classic detective schema is given context through evidence that is local to the region and immediacy and urgency through the use of the players’ personal mobile phones. Players are provided with the means to build up the scenario for themselves from the clues, evidence, and hints which invests them in the story and encourages a more empathetic response to Emily’s plight.

In the midst of the double assignment, as we were beginning work on the digital games, the Manchester Bombing occurred. On Monday, May 22, Arianna Grande was giving a concert at the Manchester Arena. Grande is a pop/r&b musician who in 2016 was considered one of the top 100 influential people in the world. Her audience at that Manchester Area concert included. As people were leaving the Manchester Arena after the concert, an extremist-inspired terrorist detonated a homemade bomb that killed twenty-three people and injured 250. England and the world were in shock at the senseless act of violence, which targeted young people at an evening out at an innocent concert.

The class was in the midst of designing socially relevant games and the bombing was a socially relevant issue. We’d already talked about the importance of seeing themselves as our next generation of leaders, and being responsible for making a better world, in class discussions. Creating relevant games that encouraged ways to think about and deal with social issues was one way to do this. As young adults who could see themselves at just such a concert, in just such a situation, this was an opportunity to bring something to the table by addressing one of the many aspects of the disaster in a game and benefit children by helping them to make meaning of it.

Discussing the bombing led the students to think about the many issues that surrounded such an event. Most immediately questions included: what, as a child, could be done to help family and friends, how to deal with panic, how to deal with grief; from a larger perspective the question asked was: what is known about terrorists and what could be done to prevent such occurrences. One of the students had been through a regional war and had been shot as a child. His opinion was that the world didn’t pay attention to the real reasons behind terrorist attacks, that certainly most people knew little if anything about the history of how terrorism had arisen in the Middle East (or anywhere else), that what they did know was not what people in the street knew. His view was that getting out was the best alternative because no one was prepared to listen to the reality: that rather than being religious, it was simply a matter of who was benefitting most financially.  The class suggested that perhaps he could tell this story and encourage children in particular to look more than superficially at events.

With only two working days to go, it would be a rare case if the students could indeed either include relevant issues in existing games that warranted such inclusion, or create new games.At the final presentation, three of the topics remained the same: FitFurFriends, The Lumberjacks, and West Freak. Two topics were augmented with new ideas: Rabbit Run became Jedediah’s Field in which rabbits now had to dodge land mines/bombs as well as traps, AwarKids which added facts about terrorist events. Hansel and Gretel, and Save the Ocean were changed to The Smurfs, in which children figure out how to help family and friends in a natural disaster such as an earthquake, and in A Dangerous Journey, children decide the best way to act when in an emergency, i.e. escaping a burning building.

One student, Jan Saleyko, broke from his team to begin development on a new game GOOD Corp. The game is about a group of genius kids, ‘Masterminds’, who are representatives of a mysterious organization: GOOD Corp. The players become members and GOOD Corp hires them to decode secret messages hidden in news reports in order to identify what is true and false so they can spot and exterminate terrorist hideouts. The traditional detective schema cum Enigma challenge used in the game is brought to 2017 through VR glasses and a motion game controller. Players decode by solving mathematical problems within a limited time frame. They write out the answer, which turns red or green on screen depending on whether it is correct or not. The player who solves the problem first, gets points. If any one of the group members fails, everybody fails. Players who decode the most messages are awarded Mastermind status.


Figure 4. GOOD Corp introduces the coded message



Figure 5. (a) Solving the mathematical problem and (b) learning if it is correct

Saleyko, like many players of his generation who have been raised with “edutainment,” was working within the belief that he needed to include “curriculum learning” such as math in his game to make it a learning game. However, in his presentation Saleyko identified he had created the game for three reasons that showed he was thinking past curricular learning to social learning, he just hadn’t quite made it: 1. Develop independent thinking in the younger generation and encourage mistrust of the mass media. 2. Represent the idea that mind can also be a weapon against terrorism. 3. Improve math skills, fast thinking, competitive abilities, and teamwork.

Moving from the typical to the atypical, from mathematical problem solving that increases cognitive skills, to social problem solving through narrative that teaches empathy, is a shift that will only be completed when the narrative in the game is explored and exploited more fully.  Social value in this game will be increased when a more nuanced narrative engagement is introduced, and in addition to the cognitive load of computing numbers, we add the challenge of using the results to investigate behind the news scene to uncover the more intriguing stories beyond the surface of coded messages. 

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