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How your player’s thinking develop throughout their lives




Developmental psychology is the study of how our cognitive processes change throughout our lives. The field used to focus on children and how their cognitive abilities develop, but nowadays it is understood that we keep developing throughout our lives. This field of psychology might be one of the most interesting for game design. It can help you as a game designer understand players, how they think and what is challenging for them.

Developmental psychology started when psychologist began studying children and saw how their cognitive abilities were different from adults. Piaget was one of those psychologists, he proposed a stage theory based on his findings. His stage theory basically means that our cognitive abilities develop according to distinct stages. Children don’t understand object permanence until 1 or 2. Object permanence is the idea that objects still exist when they are hidden from view. That is why it’s so much fun to play peek-a-boo with little babies. They are genuinely surprised when they see you again. Conservation is understood around the age of 6. Children will start to understand that something doesn’t just magically become more because you manipulated it. For example: give a 4-year-old 1 cookie and give yourself 2 cookies. When you ask the child whether you fairly devided the cookies, he’ll say no. Then you take his cookie, break it in half. Now when you ask the child if you fairly devided the cookies he’ll say: “Yes, because we both have 2 cookies now”. Children before the age of 6 can’t make a distinction between appearance and reality yet (De Vries, 1969). Piaget’s experiment for testing if a child understand conservation are a little bit mean but also quite funny (and super cute): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnArvcWaH6I. Children aren’t able to take someone else’s point of view until they are around the age of 6 or 7. Piaget tested this ability in children with the picture story of Sally and Anne you see below. A child who says Sally should look in the box isn’t yet able to take someone else’s perspective. These children have trouble forming empathy as well, they don’t realize yet that other people have feelings too. Now you understand that creating a cooperative game for kids below the age of 6 might not be a good idea. Logical and hypothetical thinking develops around the age of 11 to 12. That is why children below 11 often have a hard time understanding games like chess or checkers. 11 or 12 is also the age children start to understand the idea of reversibility. Before this age, children don’t understand that numbers or object can be changed or returned to their original condition. Children don’t get that when their favorite ball isn’t broken when it is deflated and that it can be filled up again. The ability to think abstractly and hypothetically doesn’t develop until the age of 12 or later. However, it’s good to realize that cognitive development is personal. Some children’s cognitive abilities develop quicker than others. But these ages can be good guidelines when you design a game for kids.


As we age we change physically, we get a wrinkle and some grey hair but that’s just the outside. Our brain also changes as well, whether we like it or not. As we age, our reaction time declines and the same happens to our problem solving abilities (Ornstein & Light, 2010; Freedman et all., 2001). Around your 40s or 50s it starts becoming more difficult to learn something new like a new skill. That’s why your granny still doesn’t understand how to use her smart phone even though you’ve explained it a thousand times. You can understand why many older people don’t like to play hardcore games. Beyond your 40s or 50s you have to invest a lot more time to learn how to play the game. This doesn’t even take into account that many elderly people were already older than 40 or 50 when PC’s and game consoles became popular. Your memory declines with age as well. The decline actually already starts in your 20s (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2009). But it’s not all downhill from your 20s onwards. As you age, knowledge based on facts increases. You get exposed to facts every day, you will pick information up along the way. That’s probably why your granny likes the daily crossword puzzle from the newspaper and why Wordfeud is still popular with older people.

The ‘Tovertafel’
I’d like to talk about a console instead of a game this time: the ‘tovertafel’ (translates to magic table). ‘The tovertafel’ is an interactive projector that was first developed for elderly people with dementia (https://tovertafel.nl/). People can play games together on the ‘tovertafel’. Several games are included that can be played by anyone who suffers from dementia. Players interact with the ‘tovertafel’ by touching the projections on the table. Because of direct manipulation, there is no need for players to learn something new. Players can just touch a projection and see what happens. All the games that come with the ‘tovertafel’ are based on metaphors and knowledge older people remember from when they were younger such as a jigsaw puzzle, a game with flowers and a proverbs game. While some games require a bit of knowledge based on facts others games are more like play, so there is no need for a perfect memory. None of the games require a good reaction time from the player, they can interact with the game whenever they feel like.


Tips and suggestions when designing games for older people (40+)
Use metaphors, something the players are already familiar with. This can be anything from things they know from their youth to things they are familiar with on a daily basis. Direct manipulation interfaces such as touch screen are always a good idea. Touch screens allow you to design interactions players are used to from every day interaction such as touching or dragging. Don’t forget to keep the player’s reaction time in mind as well. Allow the player to interact with the game at their own speed. 

Dr. Panda’s bath time
Dr. Panda makes games kids can play on a Ipad, Iphone or Android. One of their games is called dr. panda bath time (https://drpanda.com/games/dr-panda-bath-time). It is a semi-educational game that teaches children about hygiene habits while also being fun. Children use direct manipulation to drag the characters and things around. The controls are very similar to what kids are used to on a daily basis. Players cannot make mistakes in the game, they are not punished. The game is ideal for children who don’t yet understand conservation. Children do not need to be familiar with abstract or hypothetical thinking. The game doesn’t have a score system and kids can just try things to see what happens. 


Tips and suggestions when designing for children
Metaphors are not just useful for older people, kids can understand them as well. Just make sure that you use metaphors kids use on a daily basis. For small children, touch interfaces would be the way to go. Direct manipulation doesn’t require the abstract thinking a mouse or keyboard would. It might seem simple to link a character’s movement to something like a mouse, but it already requires more abstract and hypothetical thinking. Since conservation isn’t developed until 6, it’s good practice to keep the mistakes a player can make to a minimum. It would be even better when every interaction a player makes is either right or neutral. Keep your age-range small when designing kids games. Children’s cognitive and mental abilities develop very quickly.

References and stuff

  • Paiget’s tasks for kids: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnArvcWaH6I
  • Ornstein, P. A., & Light, L. L. (2010). Memory development across the life span.The handbook of life-span development.
  • Freedman, V. A., Aykan, H., & Martin, L. G. (2001). Aggregate changes in severe cognitive impairment among older Americans: 1993 and 1998.The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences56(2), S100-S111.Park, D. C., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding. Annual review of psychology60, 173-196.
  • Müller, U., & Racine, T. P. (2010). The development of representation and concepts.The handbook of life-span development.
  • De Vries, R. (1969). Constancy of generic identity in the years three to six.Monographs of the society for research in child development34(3), iii-67.
  • Bialystok, E., & Craik, F. I. (2010). Structure and Process in Life‐Span Cognitive Development.The handbook of life-span development.Kesselring, T., & Müller, U. (2011). The concept of egocentrism in the context of Piaget’s theory. New Ideas in Psychology29(3), 327-345.
  • Phillips, J. L. (1975).The origins of intellect: Piaget’s theory (Vol. 1).


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