New tech puts young, old in touch with games

IPhone app developers have created hundreds of programs aimed at young children taking advantage of the intuitive touch screen interface.

As technology improves and video games become more popular and more mainstream, they push outside of its traditional audience of teenagers and young adults.

Irene Verner, 67, shows good form while bowling on the Nintendo Wii with researcher Dr. James Watzke at the York West Active Living Centre in Toronto. ((Darren Calabrese, Canadian Press))
Retirement homes bought up Nintendo's Wii consoles and seniors tried their hands at virtual bowling. And parents handed the Wiimote over to their toddlers to let them play tennis and Super Monkey Ball.

Touch screens, too, have proved very attractive to young ones, as any parent with an iPhone can confirm. IPhone app developers have created hundreds of programs aimed at young children that take advantage of the intuitive touch screen interface.

"It's very close to real-world interactions. It's very easy for them," said Erik von Harten of Bright Bunny Studios, developers of the iPhone games Gwen's Picnic and Roadtrip Bingo, both targeting pre-schoolers. "They do it on their own. They touch everything around them."

And just as the Wii's motion control appealed to both young and old, touch screens are pushing boundaries at both ends of the age spectrum.

"Touch screen isn't just more accessible to toddlers, it's also a lot more accessible to elderly people, people who've never touched a keyboard or a computer because they're intimidated by it," said von Harten.

Shortly after Apple's iPad came out, a YouTube video was posted showing Virginia Campbell, 99, of Lake Oswego, Oregon, using her first computer — an iPad. Despite her impaired vision, she immediately pecked out 12 limericks on the tablet's touch screen keyboard.

Mouse, keyboard barriers for tots

It isn't that game developers didn't try to appeal to toddlers before, but games for pre-schoolers were a limited market because of the ways people have traditionally used computers and game consoles. 

"We've been developing games and activities for young kids for years now, pretty much exclusively on desktop computers," said Jason Krogh of zinc Roe design, the Toronto new media studio that develops the Tickle Tap Apps suite of iPhone games for young kids.

"When you're building stuff for young kids, the keyboard and the mouse becomes quite a barrier, so touch devices work really well for young audiences," Krogh said.

Ella, 2, plays a game with her mom's iPhone while waiting at the doctor's office. ((John Bowman))
The mouse, in particular, can be a challenge for young ones.

"There's a bit of a disassociation between moving something on the table and noticing that it does something on the screen," said von Harten.

"For example, a simple operation like drag-and-drop is actually very difficult for a three-year-old to accomplish. It takes concerted effort," Krogh said.

Besides the physical and mental barriers that traditional desktop computers represent for youngsters, they usually aren't set up for fun. 

"Another issue is the fact that the PC, mouse and keyboard are typically set up at mom and dad's desk. So the setting becomes an office chair … which isn't necessarily the most comfortable and happy place for a three-year-old to be," said Krogh.

And although the consoles are specifically designed for games, toddlers don't always see the connection between the joystick or game controller and the action in the game.

"There's a cognitive leap between moving something with your hands and your fingers, like on a game controller, and what's actually going on on the screen," said Neil Randall, acting director of the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo.

As well, the controllers of current generation consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are designed for adult hands, so reaching all the buttons can be difficult for small children.

Touch screens as seen in smartphones and tablet computers address many of these issues.

"Now we've got something they can rest in their lap and that they are manipulating directly with their hands," said Krogh.

"The reason the touch screens work so well is precisely because it's been a neglected sense in gaming for a long time," Randall said.

Keeping games simple

Game designers have a lot to consider when building a game for toddlers, including the fact that their audience is just learning numbers and letters. Explaining how the game works with written instructions won't help.

Sound Shaker, a game for the iPhone aims at children three to five years old, uses the smartphone's touch screen and accelerometer to manipulate sound. ((Courtesy zinc Roe design))
 "You can't rely on a lot of text, so you have to use voice-over," said Krogh.

"You have to keep the game play and the game mechanic very simple. We also use the visual design to try to guide the kids' attention to the parts of the screen that they need to manipulate," he said.

Effectively designing a game for children isn't that much different from designing one for adults, Krogh said.

"A lot of the same rules of usability that apply to adults [apply to children]," he said. 

But adults have the patience to experiment and figure out how a game works and might even look up help documents.

"When you're 3½, you're just going to find something else to do," Krogh said.

Growing up with touch screens

All this means that we have a generation of kids who will have grown up touching their computer screens, which could mean big changes to the way games are made.

"I think in the future this generation's going to be used to interacting with technology in a much more physical way. Not only is there the touch interface, but there's the accelerometer in these devices. There's a gyroscope, there's a compass," said Krogh.

These additional gadgets in smartphones mean that developers can incorporate tilting, shaking or spinning around as ways to interact with a game.

For example, Sound Shaker, one of the Tickle Tap Apps iPhone games, allows children to tap to create sound objects that fall with gravity and move around when the iPhone is tilted or shaken.

The Woogie is a combination plush case and external speaker for the iPhone and iPod Touch. ((Courtesy Griffin Technology))
Some parents might bristle at the idea of giving a toddler an expensive smartphone as a toy, but case manufacturers have some solutions for that problem. Griffin makes a protective case called the Woogie for the iPhone and iPod Touch — it's part stuffed toy and part external speaker.

Developers are still figuring out how best to design games for young kids and what works and what doesn't, Krogh said.

"It's a new field and a lot of game designers need to use a bit of restraint. They have to look carefully at the functionality and the opportunities that are in these devices and then figure out how to make good and appropriate use of them for kids," he said. 

Hybrid board games

But a generation of digital kids won't mean the end of traditional toys and games like board games, any more than it means the end of storybooks, says Neil Randall.

"I don't think we'll ever see a time when the old Candy Land and Monopoly are going to disappear. There's always a market for the physical objects, even more with games than with books," he said.

"There's the tactile pleasure of picking up the physical piece."

New technology that combines touch screens with interactive physical objects, as seen in Microsoft's Surface, could open up a new type of game: hybrid board games.

The Microsoft Surface table-top touch computer, seen here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, can interact with physical objects that are tagged with chips or bar codes. ((Jae C. Hong/Associated Press))

"I think hybrids have become an interesting possibility," Randall said.

Imagine a game of Monopoly on a table-sized touch screen. The dice, money, Chance cards, houses, even the thimble and top hat, are all still there, but the computer keeps track of where they all are, thanks to chips or bar codes on the physical objects.

The players still have the tactile experience of moving the pieces, rolling the dice and placing hotels on Boardwalk, but the computer manages all the transactions and acts as referee.

"The hybrid can be a blessing because it gives you the best of the tactility, but it also hides the complexity from you and dispenses with rule arguments," said Randall.