games

When games are kids' stuff, what's a bored dad to do?

Video games for the youngest gamers — between the ages of 3 and 6 — are all about pushing licenses and movie tie-ins and have little to do with innovation. In short, "they are just crap." Or so says Ben Sawyer, a co-founder of the Serious Games Initiative, a game designer and producer, an author-editor of five books about game development and father of two — a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.

Speaking recently at the Montreal International Game Summit, Sawyer is on a personal crusade to convince game developers that "first games" for the very young ought to be not only fun but also a medium that parents and their children can participate in together.

"I just want to play cool games with my kids," he says. "I don't care if they learn something or they don't; this isn't about education. I just want us all to have fun together. Is that so much to ask?"

Instead, he says, all he finds are games that he can watch his kids play or games that they can watch him play but nothing that they can play together.

Sawyer believes this is a tremendous opportunity for game developers to create something innovative for a whole generation of parents who once were gamers, then tuned out and are now coming back to the video game market seeking shared experiences with their youngsters.

"I've spoken to other parents who agree there's nothing akin to what exists in other media," Sawyer says. "But in gaming, there's only crap."

In particular, Sawyer takes issue with what he calls "a whole slew of $50 fake computer laptops with so-called learning games embedded into them. The goal of practically every game is the same," he says, "whether it's picking out numbers or finding the words that begin with 'A' or the words that begin with 'B.' What's the difference between 'Dora the Explorer's ABCs' or 'SpongeBob SquarePants' ABCs'?"

But Ed Dille believes that the growing popularity of the Nintendo Wii and DS platforms is making accessible software that previously was inaccessible to youngsters.

Dille is chairman and CEO of Philadelphia-based FOG Studios, an agency that represents developers, especially those who create video games based on licenses.

"Until recently," he says, "children's software was largely a PC market, which made it difficult for the youngest children to handle the interfaces. But the point-and-click interfaces of the Wii and DS are making Mario-style platform games and classic arcade games easier for them to play. Are these kids' games? I say yes."

Dille agrees that virtually all of the "first games" that target a particular topic within a school grade — whether math, vocabulary, spelling, geography and so forth — are the same.

"Licensed characters are simply used to provide a familiar framework for each child in which to present the material," he says. Similar games starring different characters "exist for the same reason there are loads of different licensed lunchboxes. It's not just about getting a lunchbox; it's about getting your child's favorite characters on the lunchbox. Are these logo slaps meant to drive retail sales? Of course, but parents and children demand these choices."

While Dille says he understands Sawyer's interest in sharing the video game experience, he takes issue with criticizing games that youngsters might enjoy but Sawyer might not.

"I can understand wanting to help your kid get even more out of their gameplay," he notes, "but you can't mix our expectations with theirs. My granddaughter's favorite Christmas present was the PlayStation 2 version of 'Dancing With the Stars.' I would rather have sharp pointed sticks shoved into my eyes than play that game, but she loves it, and that is good enough for me."
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