How do you make a math game for kids who don’t know numbers, can’t read, can’t articulate why they’re confused or bored, and are clumsy with their fingers?
Last week we launched our new game Motion Math: Hungry Guppy. It’s our first game for 3- to 7-years olds and uses dots to teach numbers and addition. You can read about the game’s learning goals and features here and download it on the App Store. In this post we want to share how we created Hungry Guppy and some of the special design challenges we faced making an app for younger kids.
Old enough to play, too young to understand
Hungry Guppy began with an observation: very young children, kids as young as 18 months, liked playing our addition and subtraction game Hungry Fish. We saw preschoolers at user tests mesmerized by older siblings feeding the fish and we heard similar reports from parents. The only problem is that these young children usually don’t understand what the symbol 7 means, let alone more advanced numbers: 32, -19, etc. So while the interaction and main game mechanic of Hungry Fish engaged preschoolers, the content was too difficult.
There’s growing research showing that basic math skills are crucial for later development. Notably, Professor David Geary’s five-year longitudinal study at the University of Missouri correlates 1st and 5th grade math skills, controlling for IQ and socio-economic level. From our own survey of the app and software market, parents will struggle to find games that give young children a fluid visual experience for practicing addition. We decided to create a “prequel” to Hungry Fish that instead of numerals (3) would let children add with countable dots (●●●). But would 3-year-olds understand that our fish only wanted, for example, to eat ●●●, not ●● or ●?
First test: will they understand dots?
Before we write any code, we make rough physical prototypes – it’s a faster way to understand fundamental game interactions and potentially saves us weeks of time creating unusable software. So our first test was with this:
A little toy fish with a certain number of dots stuck on its head. We went to the Children’s Creativity Museum (big thanks to their staff – we were there every Thursday this summer) and showed three-year-olds a choice of dots to feed the toy. Over time they learned the rule – pick the matching number and the fish ate it; pick a different number of dots and the fish did nothing. These early tests gave us enough confidence to start coding a digital game.
What exactly are we teaching?
Next we wanted to clearly define the learning goals for Hungry Guppy. To understand addition, kids must learn that ● + ● makes ●●, that ● + ●● makes ●●●, etc. But ideally, after mastering Hungry Guppy, kids would “graduate” to the early levels of Hungry Fish; for that, they’d have to also learn the meaning of numerals, that 3 means ●●●. So we added levels with a mix of numerals and dots, as shown below.
Early on in testing we also realized that the game might be teaching kids to focus on shape instead of number. In other words, the kids could just be matching the visual pattern of dots on the fish to the visual configuration in the bubbles without focusing on how many dots were in each group. To prevent this “cheat” we added a set of levels that had a range of patterns for each number:
The learning goal: to understand that although these look different, they’re equal quantities. We also made the dots many different colors in these levels as another “distractor” so players learn to focus only on number, not on shape or color.
Can I get a hint?
After we had the basic dot and dot/number levels working, we set out to make a tutorial level. Before this point we sat next to kids and explained how to play; now we’d just hand them the iPad, keep our mouths shut, and let the tutorial do the explaining. Months earlier game guru Jesse Schell had made a trenchant suggestion for Hungry Fish: the game should start just with bubbles, without the fish (thanks Jesse!). That way, the user first gets to experience control by directly manipulating the bubbles. Only after they learn how to merge should the fish appear. We made this change but still some kids were confused. A visual hand hint that moves between the two dots and voice instructions greatly helped, and we added text hints (“Put the two dots together”) for the parents who will be helping their kids play.
We also noticed that some younger kids would forget the game’s goal during play. They’d be doing fine, feeding their fish the appropriate amount when suddenly they’d just started adding dots together compulsively to see how big the group could get. Fun? Sure! Learning? Not really. So we added a voice hint that reminds players “This fish only eats three’s” and also made the bubble pop if the amount exceeds five.
Little chubby fingers
In addition to being at a different cognitive level, younger children lack fine-motor skills, often (sometimes comically) inexact at dragging bubbles to the correct place on the screen. So we made the touch-areas bigger and also made the act of adding bubbles easier: instead of moving your finger and lifting it up to register a merge, in Hungry Guppy you only have to hover over another bubble for one second to make a merge happen.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Then we worked to simplify the menu structure of the game, removing any snags that would prevent kids from remaining in the fluid gameplay experience. We condensed all levels to one visual home screen that kids won’t even see if they just continue playing. We also simplified the fish customization screen from this:
Lastly, most of the target age kids for Hungry Guppy are not fluent readers, so our post-level stats page didn’t make sense. In fact, even an end-level screen with just a “continue” button confused many beta-testers. Which made us think: what is the point of ending a level anyway?
Losing = confusing
In Hungry Fish, if you don’t feed your fish enough numbers, it shrinks and eventually dies. The player loses and hopefully is motivated to beat the level they just lost (or perhaps he or she adjusts to an easier level).
Younger kids, however, didn’t seem motivated by losing, only confused. Losing was just an interruption to the pleasant gameplay experience, and it wasn’t clear that preschoolers really understood “winning” or “losing” the level anyway. That said, winning a level and watching your fish eat a prize and perhaps customizing the fish are fun, engaging short breaks from the main gameplay. So we decided to leave “winning” but remove “losing”; in Hungry Guppy a fish shrinks down to a small size but never dies.
Make it snazzy
Finally, we made our iPad game “Universal” so you can also play on iPhones and iPod touches, and added snazzy polish. Do young kids notice nice visual and musical touches? We’re not sure, but we know parents and teachers do! Our collaborator dSonic added wonderful new game music, and animator Emilia Forstreuter added gorgeous new backgrounds and fish fin animations.
…And we’re live
We’re very excited to hear what parents, teachers, and kids think of Hungry Guppy. We already heard one great reaction that we captured on video, and an awesome review from Kindertown Director of Learning Carolina Nugent: “I have yet to see anything this clearly focused for young children.” We’re hoping many parents will be pleasantly surprised, maybe even shocked, at how their young kids can learn math.