Carla Fisher is the President and Founder of No Crusts Interactive, which focuses on design, production, and research of children’s educational tech with particular emphasis on games.
What made you passionate about video games?
I’ve always loved games, even made them when I was a kid. I had a strange obsession with fortune telling games (I only wish I knew what my 10-year old self projected as fortunes back then!) But it wasn’t until after college that I found a career in games, when I was working at Highlights for Children. We were cranking out 2-3 games a month at times, all educational, and all for children, and I fell in love with the possibilities. Children are naturally curious. Games have incredible opportunities for fostering that curiosity, especially when it comes to education, and that’s what I love exploring time and time again.
How did you enter the video game industry?
I started in children’s media at Highlights for Children magazine, where I spent several years developing games and managing the community for HighlightsKids.com. Later, I moved to PBS KIDS and Sesame Workshop to produce interactive content, including a classroom initiative for struggling readers. During this time, I also earned a master’s degree in media studies and a doctorate in education. Over time, I found myself advising developers about design principles for children, and began speaking about the subject at various gaming conferences. A few years ago, I was asked to join the design team of the Sesame Street Nintendo games, which led to the founding of No Crusts Interactive.
Can you tell us about No Crusts Interactive? How has it helped further educational game production?
No Crusts Interactive is a children’s digital game design firm specializing in creating developmentally appropriate, educational interactive experiences. We design games for children of all ages on all platforms, from iPhone apps to Flash-based Web games, to console video games. Our clients include Sesame Workshop, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, HarperCollins Children, and Museum of Modern Art, among others.
Part of our company’s mission is to help game designers make better games for kids by sharing research and design principles.
There is often a perception that games for kids mean bigger buttons, shorter words, and watered-down game mechanics. But children have unique cognitive and physical needs that have to be taken into account in order to make successful, quality kids games.
By bridging academia and industry to share the latest research, we hope to contribute to an overall improvement in the quality of children’s games and a greater value for the kinds of games we produce.
How have your past career experiences helped you in your current position?
It’s been a long, windy road, but perhaps the best way to think about it is that all of my past career experiences have all been in service of making better brands and interactive products, from research and development, to production, to marketing and deployment. At No Crusts Interactive, we’re putting together all of those pieces to make thoughtfully-designed games.
How have smartphones and tablets affected the game market?
That’s a huge question. Touchscreen are introducing a whole new ballgame, especially in games for kids. For us, the most exciting thing is that touchscreen technologies mean more cognitively and physically accessible games for kids. The computer screen and the mouse are incredibly hard for preschoolers to use, and for a long time they were all we had to work with. Touchscreens are so much easier and more immediate. The research told us that the mouse and computer screen were cognitively challenging for kids, even in the 90s, but now that touchscreens are widely available, we’re finally being able to overcome that.
What qualities do successful children’s games share?
I hesitate to say that all successful children’s games must do any one thing, but there are a few things that I look to when I’m evaluating children’s games — or making them for that matter. Usability is obviously something that should be considered.
We always think its critical to recognize that kids are different from adults, cognitively and physically, and to make that understanding core to the design.
Whether it’s larger hotspots, thoughtful educational scaffolding, or voiceover for non-readers, seeing that a developer has thought in depth about their audience is always a good sign.
On a larger level, I think the most successful children’s games foster exploration and avoid the trap of becoming “electronic flashcards.” Games are a great way to support things like critical thinking skills, STEM learning (science, technology, engineering, and math), and exploratory play. There is definitely a place for the ABCs and 123s, but there are also games that challenge children to observe and interact with worlds, cooperate with one another (or with their parents) and practice things like trial and error. And of course great narrative and characters can enrich that experience and make it even more enjoyable for the user.
How is designing children’s games different than games for an older audience?
Kids have different cognitive and physical needs. They’re developing skills that we take for granted, including fine motor skills. Ever try moving the mouse with your non-dominant hand? That’s one way to think about a child’s developing skills. Or how about the last time you skimmed through a differential equations text?
Kids games are also often driven by curriculum, which means we have to not only answer to a commercial bottom line, but also an educational one. Balancing these with creating a fun experience can be challenging, and is different than just thinking about what mechanic is the most “fun” in some abstract way.
However, there is a lot that we as children’s developers can learn from games designed for an older audience. I recently gave a talk at SxSW 2012 entitled, “What Left 4 Dead Can Teach Us About Kids Games.” Left 4 Dead is a zombie, apocalyptic, first person shooter, and in no way appropriate for children. Yet the game features amazingly well-designed cooperative play, a skill that children need to practice as well as adults. So it’s important to be open to inspiration from a wide range of sources, while drawing from the knowledge we have about child development to make sure what we’re doing is appropriate.
What is a common mistake developers make when creating children’s games? How can it be avoided?
One mistake that developers commonly make when developing games for child is also a common error in developing games for adults — cluttering the screen with unnecessary design elements. Sometimes it can be hard to eliminate aspects of a design that make a screen look “pretty,” but children need a simple, directive design even more than adults. The cleaner the screen, the better. So take out the frills, and keep only the text and images needed to play. This will encourage easier usability from the start.
How can research benefit game development?
There’s two aspects to research — knowing what has been done before and then testing the things that are new to your particular product. We spend loads of time keeping up on the research to know what has been done elsewhere so that we’re not investing time and energy in reinventing the wheel.
But once we know what has been done and use that to inform the design, we also employ playtesting. In many cases, we observe users interacting with the games rather than ask for direct feedback. (Our users are often still developing their language skills anyway, so we’re as likely to hear about their stuffed hippo as we are to hear their thoughts on the game.) This way, we not only find out if the children are enjoying themselves and picking up what they’re supposed to be learning, but we also see them interacting with the device. This can be really revelatory, both in terms of usability issues (realizing we shouldn’t have put that button there!) or even seeing children pursue a different objective than the one we’d designed, like collecting objects rather than completing a level.
What are No Crusts Interactive’s plans for the future?
At No Crusts Interactive, we continue to provide design, creative, curriculum, and usability insight to children’s interactive products while incubating a number of our own projects.