“All Ages” Isn’t Necessarily “Kid Friendly”

When we were at DexCon, the kids and I got to play a board game in development called Game of Thorns. It combined the themes of hobbits, gardening, and Game of Thrones to see who would be ruler of the rose garden. Another kid and adult joined us, and the last player was an adult without a kid in the game.

We had a lot of fun, but none of the kids were familiar with Game of Thrones, which meant they didn’t get the conspiring and backstabbing aspect of it. So they simply didn’t do that. Within an hour, the game was over because my girl (playing “Daynearus”) persuasively explained that she wouldn’t kill us with her dragons as long as we invited her to our garden party. So we all wisely said yes, worked together, and won the game as a team. While that was awesome in its way—and preferable from my point of view because my kids have a limited attention span and an hour or so is plenty for one game—I felt bad for the non-kidded adult who didn’t get to actually experience the game the way it’s intended to be played. He was a great sport, but that’s not the experience he signed up for.

As more and more gamers start bringing their kids to gaming conventions, I’ve definitely noticed the atmosphere, at least at the conventions we go to, getting more family friendly. There are a lot more activities for kids and a lot of things available to all ages and explicitly welcoming of beginners.

Our kids are a weird age, though. Most of the stuff aimed kids is really aimed at much younger kids, like early elementary and younger. Most of the “all ages” stuff applies to content and not to the realities of tweens around the gaming table.

Our kids want to play grown up games, but they haven’t quite mastered some of the skills required for that—like sitting still for 4 hours and focusing on what everyone else is doing without dropping your dice on the floor, repeatedly bumping the table, and making distracting noises. At home, we’re prepared to deal with that. At a con game, you can’t assume that the players and the GM or moderator are actually signing on for that kind of experience. It’s nerve-wracking for the parents, frustrating for the kids, and potentially annoying for other gamers.

At Origins, we deal with it by not signing up for any scheduled games. We play in the Board Room and in the hotel lobby with just our family or with friends who know they’re sitting down to a game with kids. At DexCon, that approach left us without a lot to play at first.

We do, however, have amazing friends who can make anything kid friendly because they’re cool like that.

Shoshanna Kessock, John Adamus, and the rest of the crew in the Dresden Files LARP provided my girl with an incredible first LARP experience. She played the role of Ivy (the Archive) and had the time of her life—unsurprisingly, this wasn’t an all ages event, but since they had invited her to play they were ready to deal with a 12 year old wandering around well past her bedtime in the midst of werewolves, vampires, wizards, and a variety of questionably intentioned fae. Because the moderators were looking out for her, a late night LARP about the impending destruction of the world became kid friendly.

When Clark and I wanted to playtest The New World with Bill White (which was arguably all ages, but definitely not kid friendly), Tim Rodriguez hung out with our kids and played Star Munchkin and playtested his own card game with them. Because he’s patient and a good teacher, it was one of the highlights of the con for them, even though learning the game was challenging. Playtesting can absolutely be kid friendly, if that’s what the playtester is trying to do.

As anyone who’s ever been in middle school is painfully aware, there’s this weird middle ground where you’re ready to start acting like an adult some of the time, but you’re not quite up to doing it all of the time. When you have middle school kids at a game convention, they’re probably not going to want to get grouped in with the little kids—they’re ready for more, and for them to grow as gamers we need to offer them more. However, they’re often not ready to game like adults, at least not consistently and predictably.

You’ve probably heard people talk about how video games are threatening the future of tabletop gaming. That kids these days would rather play on some game system than crack open a game book or learn a new board game. One way to attract young gamers is to make them welcome at convention games, giving them a place where they feel like they belong. This is less about appropriate content and more about the atmosphere at the table.

Maybe this can happen by the convention itself ensuring that there’s a track of games that actively welcome young players and is labeled accordingly. Or maybe Games on Demand could offer a family slot aimed at encouraging parents to bring their kids to the table. Perhaps it’s just a few GMs each labeling a session or two as aimed at young players. I’d love to see a “kid friendly” or “young players welcome” designation for convention games because, as a parent, “all ages” doesn’t give me the necessary information to know if my kids (and the people playing with my kids) will have a good experience.

Games that welcome young players should have:

  • a patient GM or moderator
  • a flexible GM or moderator who can deal with distracted players and streamline things as needed to keep the game moving
  • players with an expectation of some silliness and a certain tolerance for noise, movement, and distraction
  • a limited timeframe—probably no more than 2 hours for board games and RPGs
  • a clear statement that this game is not a babysitting service—children under 11 or so should be accompanied by an adult

A kids’ room like they have at Origins, while fantastic for younger kids, doesn’t solve the problem of tween players. My kids want to experience the convention, not spend a weekend in one room, no matter how many crafts and games are there. My hope is that a “kid friendly” or “young players” designation would help parents find convention games for their kids that are appropriate not only in content but in expectations.

 

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2 Responses to “All Ages” Isn’t Necessarily “Kid Friendly”

  1. Matt Troedson says:

    Reading your post, it sounds to me like a tween-friendly LARP is in order. Or, a Tabletop/LARP hybrid. This may require a really aware GM, but sitting at the table for 20min-30min, then actively moving while still trying to be in character might work really well. That should take care of their natural fidgets while still allowing them to play a game. It will also gently move them towards the usual 4 hour tabletop block of a con.

    I think the hard part is to make a game tween-friendly, though. To know what is too young and what is too adult. It’s a fine line, and not all children are at the same point in that line, either. I wonder if the cons have access to any gamers who are teachers or people who work with children on a regular basis? Those folks might make awesome GMs.

    Good luck with this quest. :)

    -Matt

    • ayvalentine says:

      I love the idea of a mixed LARP/tabletop game for tweens!

      There are definitely gamers who are teachers, and I’ve been in touch with some of them about moving forward on making some sessions more friendly to young gamers. It is a tough age – they grow up so much in those years and at different rates. But I think GMs who are used to responding to the needs of their players (which is ideal for GMs for adults, too) will be able to work with it.

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