The Queen Rania Foundation (QRF) is on a mission to find the best approaches to improving learning outcomes for children across the Arab world. One of the many approaches QRF has been piloting is using games to increase student engagement and help them get over some of their apprehension about learning. QRF’s efforts in the space have ranged from using analog games to teach math to young adults, to creating apps for very young children to use with their parents. QRF has been learning a lot from these pilots and the challenges that come with them. As such, we have been spending more time thinking about the power of play and how we can use that to engage children in positive and meaningful learning experiences. In that light, we reached out to Chris Lingerden who until recently was working as part of a team that pioneered a new kind of gaming apps focused on exploratory play. We reached out to Ms. Lingerden to learn more about her experience and share it with a wider audience interested in the power of play.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
QRF: Thank you for your time with us today. You have a very unique profile and have gone through an interesting journey to get there that we think a lot of aspiring educational game designers would be keen to learn more about. Can you start by telling us about your story, and how you entered the space of designing games for Children or a “Play Designer”?
Chris Lindgren (CL): My journey effectively started right after finishing school in Sweden when I was 18. It was the mid-90s, and I wanted to work in the the “web space”. I studied web development at Hyper Island which really focused on immersive experiences and a “learning by doing”. After graduation, I got my first job as a programmer for a local company.
Despite being initially excited by the job, I realized that I wanted to be more invested and enthused by the content I was developing and had always keen on working with children. At that point, I enrolled in another degree in Children’s Culture at the University of Stockholm. My first project was for the Swedish Public Service TV’s website where I was asked to create games to correspond to their TV programming. I really enjoyed that experience, and after that my carerr as a “play designer” was put into motion.
While at SVT, I heard about a startup that was pioneering using touch screens with kids . This was in 2010, the same year as the first iPad was released. That startup was Toca Boca and I was one of the first two employees to join the team. At Toca Boca, we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do: create apps that were centered on exploratory play rather than gaming or traditional education. The App Store at the time was almost completely empty of such apps. As such, we really pioneered the creation of games for play and imagination. We started looking at kids from 3 - 6 and then gradually expanded our games to serve children up to 9 years of age. Over the last 3 years, I transitioned from being a play designer to a research manager focused on bringing kids’ perspectives into the design process to improve the quality of all of our products . I had a fantastic time at Toca Boca but have now moved on to do more freelance work. Currently, I’m working on supporting a publisher with children’s books.
QRF: How is designing games for children, or UX for children, different than doing that for adults? How do you include children in the process?
CL: The really important aspect for me is being able to give everybody across the game production journey the perspective of young children (since nobody in the process is a child!). This is harder to do at larger companies - and in fact has been more challenging to do that as Toca Boca has grown. Naturally, the best way to do this is to get team members to spend as much time as possible with children and if that is not possible to record all the sessions with children under the appropriate methods and frameworks. While quantitative research is important, I believe that when working with design for children, qualitative research is key.
When conducting qualitative research, there are several methodologies to include children depending on the phase of the game development process. For example early on, focus on open exploration to gain inspiration around the theme of the game you are creating - let the research be led by the children and their questions. In pre-production, you can do paper prototyping and finally different stages of digital prototyping throughout the production. Make sure to maintain an iterative and flexible mindset - do not be afraid to start over. You want to always include time to reevaluate your plan as the kids are full of surprises. It’s impossible to predict how they will respond.
QRF: What are your sources of inspiration? What resources do you recommend to learn more about designing games for children?
CL: At the risk of sounding repetitive, the best source is spending time with children. It is the best way to get inspiration and learn more about the UX from a child’s perspective.
Throughout my career, I’ve been to some great conferences that I highly recommend for inspiration and insights. First, the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, second the Children’s Global Media Summit, and also the more academic Interaction Design and Children. I also want to highlight Designing for Children's Rights which is an initiative centered on taking an ethical approach to designing for children.
QRF: What advice do you have for foundations and individuals looking to get into this space?
CL: My advice would be to not go too far into gamification as it risks focusing too much on extrinsic motivation. It’s important to remember that it is possible to design a rich experience where the intrinsic human desire to play can be tapped into. Second, I would also recommend interviewing children and parents together about their experience with your app - as the experience of apps always results in a parent-child dynamic. Finally, it is difficult to understate how quickly children develop and grow. As such, there is a big difference between age groups and their interests. It’s important to be conscious of that and be conscious about the core age group you are designing for.
QRF: Thank you for your time!