Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gaming for Kids: Botanicula

Introducing a toddler to the world of gaming, is a bit of an undertaking. Its controversial, as many "experts" believe kids should have zero screen time. I certainly recognize the need to moderate, and control the amount of time one is in front of a screen, including myself. Life should be a mix of activities; from reading, to social physical play, to everything in between.  This includes gaming, as it introduces all types of new social aspects and skills to a child, if done properly. In fact, I personally can attribute my career to my gaming roots, as I had been contracted to create a team building simulator for the US Navy and Air Force.  Another justification lies in new evidence which suggests gaming can help ward off the effects of Alzheimer, for keeping the brain active. So, whats good enough for grandma and Uncle Sam...

Actually, they sit.
Finding the perfect game was the first challenge.  At the age of 2, my daughter,  learned the basic fundamentals of mouse and touch controls from apps like Sesame Street ABCs, and other PBS and no-name brand educational apps.  The hardest challenge for her, was actually knowing when it was okay to touch the screen (such as a tablet), and when she had to use the mouse.  Considering the tech industry is struggling with that same question, I was tolerant, and kept some screen cleaner nearby.

Tip: If your going to teach a toddler to use a mouse, find a classic mouse with the ball.  The new IR mice are fascinating to kids, and obviously, can't be good when pointed directly into the eyes.  An older physical ball mouse encourages proper control, and tends to have less buttons.  Placing a sticker on the primary (left) button also helped.

While these apps were good for teaching basic fundamentals and mechanics, for an adult who hates the grind and repetitive nature of MMOs, I found the process tedious.  After a few months, Elmo was dead to me, and I found myself leaving the room for a  moment of Zen.  Board games didn't fair much better. The concept of winning and objectives are very new to a child. At some point, you just have to let them create their own game out of Chutes and Ladders.  My daughters version generally ends up with the parents picking up all the pieces from around the house.

On second thought, lets not go to Candy Land, tis a silly place.
Tip:  Find an older board of Candy Land.  The newer ones are so bloody busy with cartoon artwork, I can't even find the color path.  Card games such as Memory and assorted Flash Cards, seem to be the best way to introduce objectives.

So, finding the perfect game that would keep both father and child interested from beginning to end was the first challenge.  In the movie world, 'Toy Story' tends to be the go-to; for when both parent and child want to watch something.  But for video games, for a 3 year old...not so many options. It was actually by stumbling upon an Indie Bundle promotion, that I discovered the game: Botanicula.

Botanicula, made by Amanita Design of the Czech Republic, has a reputation for making simplistic, low budget adventure games, harking back to the Golden Age of Point-and-Click Adventure.  There are plenty of professional reviews that cover the general scope of the game.

 Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar
You'd be hard pressed to find a review of the game, that didn't praise both the artwork and music of their games.  The artwork has a very pleasing hand-drawn look to it, reminiscent of the Eric Carle books.  Just on artwork alone, a child is quickly able to pick up on the goods and evils of the world.  Well, it doesn't hurt that the "Bad guy" is a light/life sucking spider thingy.  As for the music; if a mother's womb had its own version of  Muzak, this is the type of music I would imagine - soothing and melodic.  In both cases, neither are overpowering or steal the moment from the scene or characters.

(from left to right) Feather Guy, Coconut, Mushroom Lady, Walnut, Tree Guy, & Bad Guy. 
None of the characters speak in the game, instead communication relies on the use of gestures and emotions to perceive the goal or task at hand.  It was interesting to ask my daughter what was going on in the scene, verses my interpretation.  The characters revolve around a group of unlikely friends, from different backgrounds, which are forced to work together for the common goal.  My daughter was quick to give them all names:  Feather guy, Coconut, Mushroom Lady, Walnut, Tree Guy, & Bad Guy.

The core gameplay is to click-on and collect stuff in order to move on to the next scene.  I'm astonished how autonomic the clepto gene is in humans. The concept was understood.  At any time, the player can check the count of something they need, which helps reinforce counting.  As mentioned before, my 3 year old, had no problem controlling the mouse, and therefore controlling the characters and solving the puzzles.  Many puzzles, are simple pixel hunts  (ie click on everything you see).  The game gets some slack for that from review sites, but for my daughter, it was entertaining for her to see what weird or quirky thing would happen with each click.  In many ways, its like those "interactive" story books on a tablet.  When the puzzles required a bit more (okay, some a lot more)  thinking, it was easy enough to direct her on what needed clicking.  A follow up, on why she needed to click on this-and-that to solve each puzzle, became part of the game.  In fact, it even instilled...values. In rare cases, did a puzzle required speed clicks, resulting in parental intervention.

Now that's just evil

Now everything wasn't wholly peachy.  There were times of conflict between parent and child. When it was time to say good night to the "tree people", things could turn ugly.  I kept a strict 20-30 minutes limit. "But we only have 2 more eggs to collect".   Nor could we check up on the tree people, whenever she asked.  I suppose, there's leaning in being rejected.  There were also times when my adult brain would say: okay, lets move on now to solve the puzzle, while her brain would say lets keep going in circles, or keep trying the same thing that more time.

Overall, the experience is one that I shall treasure.  While kids can talk about their first true game was Candy Land, my offspring will be the oddball kid talking about their adventure in Botanicula.  And you know, I wouldn't want it any other way.

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