Organising Playtest Sessions to Get Great Feedback from Children

Children think about things differently.

For us, as adults, it’s practically impossible to put ourselves in the ‘mindset of a child’, in order to experience their interpretation of our real world.

The same is also true for virtual worlds. It’s impossible to put yourself in the head of a child to emulate how they experience video games. It can make designing children’s games a difficult challenge.

Game Designers rely on having a meaningful understanding of their players’ emotions, behaviours and thought processes, in order to influence them through game design.

So, when making games for children it’s therefore essential to playtest regularly with real kids: to examine their behaviours, emotions and thinking, in order to adapt the game design and improve it. For Researchers conducting these playtesting sessions it’s also essential to adopt traditional playtesting protocols, both to having children as our testers, and also toward exploring the particular challenges that designing children’s games presents.

Researchers must design sessions that can ‘build a bridge’ between children and adults, unlocking a window into their experience.

Adults Thinking vs. Kids Thinking

In his book User Research with Kids, Thomas Visby Snitker explains that children have their own world they are evolving in, that we have forgotten as adults. They have their own needs, capabilities, goals and success criteria, and user journeys. More than that, they express themselves differently from adults. He calls this Kids Experience (KX) in contrast with UX that would be for adults and has different scales and ways of evaluating the user experience.

Kids learn and develop through play, and the form of this play evolves as they get older. Gareth Griffiths GDC talk Skylanders and Playtesting with Children’, explores how kids from different age ranges will approach problems differently, and have very differing views of the world. For example, in the 2-year gap between a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, the older will be more at ease with holding a controller in their hands, and will have stronger reading and greater puzzle-solving ability.

Kids between 6 and 8 will often take things very literally compared to kids from 9 to 11. The latter will already have a very strong understanding of the world and can draw upon that experience. At 8, they’ll start to draw things from the real world, as their perception is getting more acute compared to 6 year olds.

All of this makes games user research with children both essential and complicated. Let’s dig deeper into how Player Research adapts our approaches to playtesting with children.

Playtesting with Children

Playtesting — the act of putting real players in front of prototype games to examine the player experience — is already a nuanced and challenging activity. With children it requires yet more planning and patience.

Often the first challenge is you deciding: how old should the playtesters be?

Most games have a ‘target audience’, but it’s rare that playtests can accommodate the twenty or thirty children that might be needed to truly examine broad age ranges. But just a year-or-two of difference can completely change the player experience.

Focusing our playtesting on younger kids means they’re likely to be more shy and less able to express their experiences. Their focus and attention are low, and they get easily distracted, especially during interviews. Data will be harder to interpret, but is likely to be the most-insightful.

Alternatively, focusing our playtesting on older children might unlock better verbatim feedback, but also skips-over any playability issues that might be specific to the youngest players in our target market.

Our advice for teams is to focus on younger children foremost, and to divide up regular playtesting sessions among specific age groups, rather than running fewer, larger playtests that aim to explore all ages.

Creating a Safe Space

Children tend to be more emotionally sensitive to the playtest environment than adults. Researchers must do all they can to craft an environment in which children and their guardians feel safe and reassured, leading them to play comfortably and naturally.

A guardian’s presence can be necessary to reassure a child, especially younger and more anxious children.

Having parents/guardians nearby — in eyeshot or earshot — is an essential component of making a comfortable space for children.

Adults are also a normal part of the child’s gameplay experience in everyday life, as children play accompanied, or seek the assistance of an adult when stuck, or even asking in on play.

As such, Researchers need to be deliberate in managing the presence, proximity and involvement of the adults accompanying the children during the playtest.

Using a strategically-placed mirror in the playtest lab can be extremely helpful, both for Researchers to observe adult/child interactions, and to allow their parent/guardian to watch the child play from physically further way or without direct line-of-sight, and vice versa for the child.

Playtests are typically designed to explore the child’s experience of the game alone, rather than the adults’ interpretation. Parents are nonetheless typically keen to help their child, or overcome barriers for them, which disrupts research objectives. It’s necessary to brief the guardian that they shouldn’t feel obliged to give the answers to questions, nor to overcome any issues their children face, nor to distract. Using the child’s name when asking questions, and giving them your full attention as the question-asker will help their guardians stay neutral.

Parents/Guardians can necessarily take a more active role in interviewing, sometimes with little warning. For shy children speaking quietly, or with children you’re finding difficult to understand, the parent can be a necessary interpreter. The very shiest of children might not feel comfortable talking to anyone except their parent/guardian at all. You can try having the parent repeat your questions to their child, or even resort to having them take over completely. Be ready, in either case, to rephrase your questions to suit the new situation.

Setting out a Playtest’s Content and Questions

It’s essential to allocate the time during a single research session differently to better accommodate children.

For example, Researchers should allow more time to build a rapport with the child, and be friendly with them, than would be typical for a sessions with adults. This will allow them to be less shy in the Researchers’ presence and be more at ease with talking. Otherwise, they could shy away and just stop talking, and we really don’t want that! Using an ice breaker at the start of the session can help tremendously, for example asking about games they love.

Children will fatigue much quicker than adults, and tend to give up when tiredness sets in, unaware of any protocol to follow or that they are ‘on an assignment’.

We’re working hard to craft a comfortable environment where children feel un-pressured and able to speak freely, which includes “I don’t want to play this game any more”.

Sharing a visual timeline of the session’s activities can help children build confidence, knowing what they will do and when. It will help them focus and transition smoothly from one activity to another.

Managing A Child’s Attention During a Session

Keeping an impartial and neutral presence is important, even if children’s excitement can be contagious.

Needing to assert control during the playtest and bring activities back-on-track can happen often. Before questioning them or giving them instructions, make sure you have their full attention. You can use their name, ask what they’re currently doing, but try to not give the impression of shouting orders at them to not close them up.

Also, to avoid losing their attention, minimise opportunities for distraction: no books, games, figurines on the shelves, magazines, or spinning chairs.

Compared to adults, children can be very energetic, and trying to keep their attention on yourself can be cognitively and emotionally demanding, and therefore energy draining. So, make sure to have more unwinding time between sessions (~30 minutes) to have time to step out of the ‘Researcher’ character and take a breath.

Asking Questions to Children

To better understand the child’s experience with the game and their thinking process, we suggest staying in the same room, observing the play, and ask just a few essential questions during the session.

Long-form interviews typical to user research with adults are most-often not appropriate for sessions with children. Researchers will be more reliant on observational findings.

To dig deeper, interviews can be performed after the playtime. Having only one child at a time avoids having their perspective biased by others.

All research with children is unpredictable, but particularly in interviews, so easily derailed by wild imaginations, boredom, distraction, or embarrassment. Interviews can be very demanding on the Researcher to adapt across participants while remaining consistent.

Be careful to not use words or phrases that could confuse them. If you see that they don’t understand a word or sentence, don’t hesitate to change it to a simpler vocabulary.

To combat child’s fatigue and engage them for longer, it’s essential to provide a lot more breaks and shorter interviews than with adults, to allow them to unwind. To break the pacing of the session, think of inserting breaks between gameplay segments.

If the interview is performed in group, ask them to take turns to answer, and direct specific questions to specific kids. It will avoid them talking over one another, and having some individuals not speaking up. Additionally, try to keep the group size between 4 to 6 people to allow each the time and space to talk. Don’t mix in children of very different ages into group interviews.

Finally, to avoid them to get frustrated and giving up the playtest all together, it’s essential to regularly use encouraging, courteous language to ensure they’re not feeling judged for forgetting or not knowing.

Gathering and Analysing Data from Playtests

A couple of things will need to be done differently than during a usual playtest.

As mentioned before, being in the same room as the child to observe and question them if needed is the best setup.

During interviews children might understand the question, or see the game mechanics, differently to you, so you can gather the most accurate data with observation and listening to their commentary.

If they play in groups, listening to their conversation as they teach each other, and discuss their interpretation of the game in real-time, will give you a lot of information as well.

An efficient way of gathering qualitative data during interviews is to use the Bear Cards Feelings by John Veeken. On top of being extremely adorable, it helps children express their emotions and talk about their experience in detail while using their own words.

Regarding ratings, children won’t get the full extent of a 5 or 7 points scale, so the best is to have simplified ones. You can use vocabulary as well to help children understanding what the number means.

For example, from the Skylanders and playtest with children, Gareth Griffiths gives an interesting type of scale:

1) I really liked it — Cool! • 2) Kinda OK • 3) I really didn’t like it

After rating their appreciation of the game, give some space for them to express “why” so you can gather more information. Keep in mind that this process will take longer than with adults and that an interview might be better than presenting a scale, as some might not be able to read or understand numbers just yet. The Bear Cards Feelings mentioned earlier can be helpful in this situation.

Thomas Visby Snitker, in User Research with Kids, came up with the idea of a universal scoring system that he called “KX (Kids Experience) score” that would be an UX score but especially for children and that would allow more relevant data and therefore more informed decisions. We haven’t used this scale yet, but it’s interesting to note.

Bringing it All Together

In summary, observation and listening skills in playtests with children are vital, they have a lot of interesting things to say. Be prepared to adapt if playtesters need to work at a different pace, need more time to explain their experiences or longer breaks.

During the playtest, you need to make sure that children are at ease but still paying attention, that they understand your questions and what you ask them to do. Try to use simple vocabulary and put yourself at their level, without being condescending. Using a simpler scale can be interesting to gather quantitative data and using the Bear Cards Feelings can help to gather qualitative data.

And more importantly, know your audience and the age range of the kids you’re creating or testing the game for, as the life experience and abilities will be very different from one year to another.

Related Reading and Sources:

  • User Research with kids — Thomas Visby Snitker
  • 5 ways to playtest with children increases likelihood of launch success — Kidsbrand insight
  • Interview guide — Player Research experience with playtesting with Kids
  • Skylanders and Playtesting with Children — Gareth Griffiths

Written by: Mégane Lacroix

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