October 5, 2022

Good design entertains; great design teaches.

The science is in: play is powerful, and everyone knows it.

Game design has been factored into the way we learn, relax, and engage with nearly everything. Once you start looking through the lenses of game design, it’s nearly impossible not to spot and deconstruct design all around us, and some of it is great!

Games inside of games

Our son first tried soccer through a local YMCA program when he was just shy of four years old. We went in with very few expectations. Sure enough, when the dozens of children present formed a noisy cloud of dust and tiny shoes, Kiddo stepped off to the side, said, “Okay, bye friends!” the way he would at the park, and pulled us by the hand back to the car, happy as could be. We didn’t even correct him; we just went on with life.

We do believe in staying active and having fun sports-related experiences in early life, so we gave him a few years and revisited the topic. Those dust cloud kids are all at least seven years old now. Undoubtedly, some have gone semi-pro while others have started influencer channels and fought over scholarships. Team sports no longer seemed like the confidence builder we needed.

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My wife saved the day by finding a tennis program for a range of young ages that focused on bringing absolute beginners up to speed. I’ve never personally played tennis, and when I thought of learning it, I just pictured a ball machine or a human lobbing them over the net and yelling at me to follow through. Instead, these sessions have actually been brilliantly designed and featured a couple of mini-games that made us big kids wish we were playing too. In this post, I’ll break down two such games and point out some of the supremely clever design I noticed.

Game #1: Jail

The threat of jail is effective from a pretty early age

Teams: Every player for themself
Skills: turn-taking, footwork, hand-eye coordination, watching the ball, basic hits, aim and precision, in-bounds/out-of-bounds familiarity
Setup: The coach starts on the opposite side of the net from the kids with a basket of balls. The kids are lined up on rubber floor dots a little further than a racket swing apart. The line leads to a position mid-court where one kid swings at a time.

Gameplay: I would call this game The Blob, but I appreciate that some of these 7-year-olds aren’t caught up on the 1958 sci-fi/horror classic. The coach bounces a ball to the kid at the front of the line who tries to hit it back. At the coach’s discretion, they may require a certain kind of shot or throw it in such a way that a special shot is required. If the shot lands in bounds, the kid is safe and moves to the back of the line.

If the kid hits the ball into the net or elsewhere out of play, they go to jail or, if you ask me, becomes part of the blob. Either way, they go to the other side of the net without their racket, and play continues as the next kid in line moves forward.

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The blob kids on the coach’s side are tasked with trying to catch the ball the safe kid hits. If they catch one (either in the air or within a number of bounces decided by the coach), the blob kid gets to trade places with the safe kid and play continues. The last kid left in line is the winner.

My kid still doesn’t love being a wild dust cloud kid, but this time, he powered through.

Great design: I love this game because every single element of play is directly connected to learning or practicing a vital part of tennis while still being a blast on its own. The form and shot work is isolated on one side of the net while the kids on the other side get to run wild, training that footwork, watching the ball, and (hopefully) keeping tabs on partners. The game even has a near-perfect difficulty curve as the kids experienced enough to consistently hit the ball in-play still have the growing number of blob kids to contend with, each looking to catch their shot and take them out of play. I would play this with my friends as a full-grown man.

Game #2: Angry Alligator

Or something like that. I wasn’t listening that closely.

This one is also great for a TikTok video with your friends.

Teams: Coach vs. kids
Skills: hand-eye coordination, watching the ball, basic hits, aim and precision, in-bounds/out-of-bounds familiarity
Setup: The kids stand on a line of rubber dots on one side of the net in the ready position. The coach moves around the other side with the tennis balls.

Gameplay: This one is a good old-fashioned boss fight. The coach is the angry alligator (or again, whatever the hell he said he was) and kid by kid, he bounces a ball across the net, and they try to full-on blast him with it. If they hit him, he loses a body part (it’s intense, but the game requires conflict).

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There is some control to exercise here. If the kid hits the ball out of play, Coach Gator gets to bite off one of their limbs by, y’know, pointing to one and saying not to use it anymore. I can tell you it’s hard to remind little Madison of this while she’s trying to catch the coach directly in his face. I hope the kids have half the fun playing this that I have watching it.

Great design: It’s probably not easy to make a bunch of beginning tennis players under eight years old feel like a team, but this floating boss monster game really brings them together. When it comes to learning aim and precision, what greater reward could they ask for than the opportunity to take the safety off and ping one off of the coach?

As an adult, this game would raise more ethical and moral questions to participate in, so enjoy it while you can, kids.

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