I loved reading this. I’m an art teacher, and worked for years as a preschool teacher, and growing up was always the sole young adult cousin with the patience for extended play with the “surprise-baby” toddler cousin who was 15 years younger than the rest of us. It’s been interesting vicariously playing/seeing certain games ‘through’ kids I work/play with to recognize elements of design I’d taken for granted.
Like, I’d always been aware that Kirby’s theming skewed younger than, say, Mario, but I’d thought of them as roughly mechanically comparable for years until about 2004, when I was loading up ROMs with my then-6-year-old cousin, and discovered that, while Mario World was a recipe for instant death, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was totally doable. Being able to float over pits, and to pull me in as a co-op player, as well as subtle aspects of the level designs themselves, clearly made it more friendly to a younger player.
In my preschool classroom, we were gifted some old PCs, and a kind parent gave me some of the Humongous Entertainment Putt-Putt games, which I ripped and loaded on for easy play by the 3-5-year-olds in our class. Being a seasoned SCUMM game player, but having little experience with Humongous Entertainment, it was amazing to see how thoughtfully the SCUMM interface and game design was massaged to make it kid-friendly. While there was a narrative framing, much of the world was open (maybe an extension of the “always have multiple puzzles available” ethos Ron Gilbert included in his adult games), allowing kids to mess around, and do various activities that weren’t part of the core narrative goal. There were also tons of “pointless” hot spots, areas you could click that “did” nothing, but rewarded you with some funny animation or sound, which was extremely satisfying for the kids I worked with. It incentivized their playful poking at this cartoon world. I also know we saw the credits roll a couple times on Putt-Putt, despite having a pretty strict time limit for each kid on the computer, indicating that the game WAS beatable by a 3-5-year-old, and that it could be done in a modest amount of time that respected their attention span.
Anyway, I taught high schoolers for years, and now teach college kids, and COVID has separated me from all the friends’ kids that are a part of my life right now, so I don’t really have these kinds of experiences any more (my baby cousin just graduated college!). I’m interested to see, when vaccines and stuff are out, and I can visit kiddos I love again, what kinds of digital games they’d enjoy. I’d love to try Mario Kart 8 with the various assists on, and see how they fare. Or spin up Drawful with a family filter on.