September 15, 2003

Why is Children's Software so Uninspired?

Is there some reason I’m missing why no one has done anything of this kind? Why is so much children’s software so bad? Is it the need to appeal to parents with the proposition that it’s “educational”, which usually results in insincere, uninvolving, hack-design work in children’s culture as a whole? Anybody got any ideas?

-- Timothy Burke, "Software Industry Needs More Greedy Capitalists, Part XVIII"

When it comes to children's literature, there are some really wonderful books out there, and then there are the books that, as my husband puts it, might have been written by a machine. The formula seems to go something like this: take three parts formulaic character to two parts predictable setting, sprinkle liberally with didacticism, and stir.

According to Timothy Burke, much of the software aimed at small children has been designed according to a similar paint-by-numbers formula. Burke wants to know why. I don't the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the people who design software don't know much about children, while the people who do know something about children don't know much about software.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 15, 2003 06:01 PM

My theory: Software piracy has basically ruined the market for cheap consumer-oriented software. Games for the high-testosterone market are an exception, because there's a good supply of overeager fanboys who will snap up every new title as soon as it hits the shelves, and a company can amortize the cost of developing one "game engine" over several titles. But for everything else, if you can't sell a single copy for three figures, or you can't sell it to companies who will buy a hundred licenses at a time, then it's not worth developing.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at September 15, 2003 09:08 PM

I'm not sure what the reason is, but I don't think that's it. ("People who design software don't know much about children.")First, there are plenty of software people who have kids of their own. Second, in the typical software company, the product concept and definition is usually done by a product manager, not by the software developers themselves.

I'd hypothesize that the really good children's books are those written by a single individual, or a two-person writer-illustrator team, whereas those done as large scale "projects" are mostly as dismal as the software seems to be. If this is true, then the problem with the kids' software may be the dispersion of the creative process: too many cooks in the kitchen.

Posted by: David Foster at September 15, 2003 10:15 PM

I think both comments are right in some respects. Kid's software doesn't have the same kind of avid market, and there are free alternatives as well as pirated ones (and a couple of the free ones are pretty decent: the children's TV channel Noggin has some good games, for example).

And software of all kinds cannot be authored any longer by a single distinctive creative voice or even a two-person collaboration. Definitely a factor with computer games of all kinds.

I think it's also that parents have to buy it for kids, and the generation of parents buying for kids are still significantly a generation of parents who don't really know much about computers and aren't all that comfortable with them. Add in the imperative to be educational rather than entertaining, and voila! a junk market that no one is going to spend effort on, because the profit differential for something really good is so small.

I still think though that it would make tremendous sense to take the basic game engine for first-person shooters or games like Morrowind or Star Wars, make character creation graphically incredibly simple (just buttons and sliders) and let the kids walk through 3d worlds with keys on the keyboard. Maybe put some harmless creatures walking around. Maybe Emma's weird and likes it because she sees Daddy doing it but I suspect lots of 3-4 year olds would find that perfectly satisfying for quite a while.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at September 15, 2003 10:31 PM

"the generation of parents buying for kids are still significantly a generation of parents who don't really know much about computers and aren't all that comfortable with them."

That would be me. Well, at least before I started this blog, which has increased my comfort level significantly. Still, I wouldn't know what to look for/ask for in a children's software package.

"I'd hypothesize that the really good children's books are those written by a single individual, or a two-person writer-illustrator team, whereas those done as large scale 'projects' are mostly as dismal as the software seems to be."


And speaking of children's literature, Madonna has entered the field with a book that combines anglophilia with lessons drawn from the Kabbalah (which she claims to have been studying for years). It's called The English Roses and apparently it's all about envy:

First impressions have ranged from 'a fabulous, affirmative ending' to suggestions that with 'no characterisation, no story and a flat tone' it would never have been published if not for the name on the spine.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at September 15, 2003 10:51 PM

I was just going to say - why don't we ask Madonna since she is writing children's books now!!
Ask kids what they want - Some research is in order here. Personally, I would like to see children learning how to create their own games.

Posted by: Tracy Kennedy at September 15, 2003 11:49 PM

One of the more interesting pieces of childrens' "software" around isn't pure software: it also has a large hardware component. It's also responsive to Tracey's criterion of letting kids create their own games.

I'm talking about Lego Mindstorms, which lets kids assemble physical parts, together with software to control them, for a variety of robotics projects. Lots of scope for creativity.

Posted by: David Foster at September 16, 2003 12:16 AM

I am not sure about this, but I think games in general are designed by a relatively small group of people. It is the implementation of the game that requires many people. A very small group of people come up with the concept and storyline. Then a larger group of animators come in and do pretty much something like a story board. Then come the software developers who code up the stuff. As for the animators and coders, there isnt much difference in designing a children's game or something for adults.

I think the bottle neck is actually the shortage of creative talent that understands how to children and computer games interact. There are proberbly wonderful authors who know how to spin a good yarn, but dont necessary know how to translate that into a good game. Adult games have evolved for a very long time. There are more people outthere who know how adults interact with pcs.

Posted by: at September 16, 2003 01:29 AM

David Foster: "Knowing something about kids" isn't a prerequisite for parenting. And IME, some proportion of parents doesn't really learn.

I tend to think part of the problem is this Thick Black Line that keeps getting drawn between All Things Childish and All Things Adult. The reality is more complicated than that. Expunging anything from a game save what the guidebooks say is "age-appropriate" leaves behind pale, colorless, *dull-as-dirt* games.

Proposition for discussion: The good games for kids get made by adults who refuse to forget how to play. The crappy ones get made by adults who forgot long ago.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 16, 2003 10:14 AM

I think that probably the generic parent and those who sell to him / her probably distrusts gamers, and a lot of gamers are probably are child-unfriendly (not to use the geek word).

I think that PC and the didactic obsession has a lot to do with it. You end up longing for the German tales in which bad kids who fail to wash their hands are torn to pieces by dogs.

P.S. Off-topic, but I'll never get to ask again: how did people like Shrek? My nieces loved it and I found it amusing. (Except for th didactic part: the movie tells you that it's OK to be homely, but NOT OK to be short like Farquat, my brother, and I).

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 11:22 AM

I think that many toy and software designers see kids as perpetually cheerful, upbeat, and relentlessly happy. No child I know is any of these. The old fairytales were more accurate in terms of the downside of childhood.

Posted by: Cat at September 16, 2003 11:53 AM

Shrek was OK, though Zizka is quite right that the message was mixed and dilute at best. I wasn't bowled over by it the way some people were, but it was cute.

Apropos of this whole discussion, I recommend Gerard Jones, _Killing Monsters_. Even though he's far too much a proponent of the Thick Black Line, he's got a lot of good things to say about why kids like what they do, and why we shouldn't freak when they like something we wish they wouldn't.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 16, 2003 01:26 PM

Maybe there is crappier stuff for girls than boys, because I have to put the timer on when my four year old sits at the computer. He could play all day. He likes the JumpStart series and Reader Rabbit. Since he loves trains, he plays a lot of train simulator games. There is also good stuff at the Thomas the Tank Engine website, PBS kids, and the BBC. Even the Disney site keeps him amused.

But, you're right, there is a lot of crap out there in kiddie world. I particularly hate the books that are based on movies. We just got a book on Little Nemo. It doesn't make any sense.

Posted by: Laura at September 16, 2003 01:38 PM

Kids should be playing outside.

They'll be staring at a computer screen the rest of their life. Why let them sit in front of one when they are young?

Posted by: Alex at September 16, 2003 03:03 PM

"P.S. Off-topic, but I'll never get to ask again: how did people like Shrek? My nieces loved it and I found it amusing. (Except for th didactic part: the movie tells you that it's OK to be homely, but NOT OK to be short like Farquat, my brother, and I)."

I really liked Shrek -- and I thought the "didactic" part was a rather clever glimpse of how even people who have themselves been discriminated against because of something they cannot control aren't immune to doing the same to others. Whether that was intentional or not I have no idea (probably not; it was just an opportunity to make fun of the bad guy) but it's there nonetheless.

I don't have kids, but if I did I think it would be great to ask them whether they thought it was OK for Shrek to make fun of Farquad being short, and then why or why not.

Posted by: Eric at September 16, 2003 03:09 PM

I actually liked Shrek and would recommend it. My brother and I both noticed the inconsistency in the treatment of shortness and homeliness, but neither of us is affiliated with the burgeoning Short Identity movement (which we would rename the Normal Size movement, however, if we joined -- tall people waste resources the way big cars do, you know).

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 03:59 PM

Turtle Logo is *great* children's software.

I liked Edmark's science CDs, too - they don't plop a lot of idiot story on top of the ideas they're trying to illustrate. (Also, one of the points of the build-and-animate simple machines, IIRC, is that you get sliders for several physical constants and get to see how that affects the machine. Nice to have something that couldn't be done in the backyard.)

It may be characteristic that I want the physics without a story. The third thing I did with a computer was write a simple video game; the first thing my little brother did was play my video game, the second was to ask how I had written it, and he's been rrrrather a good programmer ever since. I know there are plenty of programmers who like twitch games, but I think they may be proportionally fewer than among nonprogrammers exposed to computer games. Dunno. Maybe just the programmers I like.

Posted by: clew at September 16, 2003 04:23 PM

I'm in the middle of writing a piece of children's software. I was layed off when my company closed our local office and have been doing this in my spare time the last few months. My target is the 3 - 5 year old range. I agree with most of the comments voiced here. One of the factors in software development that would cause problems in this range is that of feature creep. It is quite difficult in a traditional software development arena to keep extra features from being added in. And it takes quite a bit of courage for a company to release a very simple product. Even if it is what is best suited for the age group a company doesn't want to appear that this is the best it can do. In this age group my testing so far absolutely requires the simplest most consistant interface you can put together. Everything has to do something to immediately provide feedback. It is even better if the interface can be introduced gradually. Growing with the child as the master more basic parts of the program. Nice blog.

Posted by: Tom at October 7, 2003 01:03 PM