Understanding a twelve year old, and a games education!

I’ve been playing games with my daughter, Yasmin, since she was able to roll dice, pick up a card, and drop a counter in to make four of a kind. One of my greatest pleasures is to sit down for a day of gaming with her. Mansions of Madness is usually top of the list, and she knows the game inside out – often pointing out with glee, when I do something wrong!

I believe we should always encourage our children to play tabletop games, even better if we can sit down and share the experience with them. There is so much a child can learn from these experiences, especially if introduced at a young age, when they just devour information.

With the vast amount and variety of games hitting the market, there’s something out there for everyone, and so much the better if it’s got a strong educational theme. Now, by this I don’t mean it’s got to be boring old classroom stuff; games can often teach things without the child even realising it – they’re fun, and fun makes learning easy.

There is also a lot that an adult can learn about their children by playing games, and it’s amazing how often they can surprise us. Yasmin comes out with some brilliant strategies when playing Mansions, or Dungeons and Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil, and it often leaves me wondering just what goes on inside her head.

So, I though I’d interview her…

The Solo Meeple: What’s the first ‘grown up’ game you ever remember playing?

Yasmin: Top Trumps, or it could be connect four – Yes, Connect 4, as it would have been before I could read!

TSM: Do you think that playing games has taught you new skills, or helped develop things you find difficult?

Y: Yes. Games have helped improve my maths, and they have also taught me about problem solving and team work.

TSM: What are the best things about playing games?

Y: I get to learn and experience lots of new things. I get to spend time with my family, and best of all I get to beat my dad! (TSM – Not that I let it happen very often!)

TSM: What are your top ten favourite games to play?

Y: That’s a difficult one, Mansions of Madness is my favourite, then Harry Potter (Hogwarts Battle), after that I’m not sure, it depends what mood I’m in. I’ll have to write them down.

After three or four days, she finally made her mind up.

  1. Mansions of Madness
  2. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle
  3. Legacy of Dragonholt
  4. Magic: The Gathering
  5. Dungeons and Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil
  6. Tokaido
  7. Monopoly (especially Monopoly Empire)
  8. Ticket to Ride (Europe)
  9. Top Trumps
  10. Hotel Tycoon

TSM: Why is Mansions of Madness your number one?

Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
Yasmin’s Favourite.

Y: Mansions of Madness is my favourite game because I like to solve the mysteries. I like solving the problems and puzzles, and visiting the different locations. I also enjoy role-playing the characters.

TSM: Out of all the games, which is your favourite character to play, and why?

Y: My favourite character has to be Elaina in Legacy of Dragonholt, because I created her myself, and she’s great!

Here’s a copy of her character sheet

TSM: Do you have a lot of fun playing games?

Y: Yes, loads – The best time was when we were playing Trivial Pursuit one Christmas, and you started singing ‘I’m too sexy for my cheese’! Everybody found it really funny and I couldn’t stop laughing, and I videoed it… (TSM – Okay Yasmin, no need to go any further… SO embarrassing!)

TSM: What’s been your greatest achievement in gaming so far, and why?

Y: I finally managed to beat you once at Top Trumps. We’ve been playing for years and I’ve never been able to win a game before. I got to call you a loser and everything!

Top Trumps - various
There’s something for everybody.

TSM: If you were to design a game, what would it be about, and how would it work?

Y: It would have to be about singing, because I love singing. You would have to create your own character and progress through a career. You could learn new instruments to upgrade your character, and go on tour to gain more fans.

TSM: If a game includes miniatures, does it make you want to play the game more?

Y: Yes, I like to have a character that’s more than just a picture on a card or token. I like to be able to touch it, and move it around the board.

TSM: Some quick fire questions now. Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Y: Fantasy.

TSM: Fantasy or Horror.

Y: Fantasy.

TSM: Hidden identity games or co-op games?

Y: Co-op games.

TSM: Board game or card game?

Y: Board game.

TSM: Role-playing or dice rolling?

Y: Role-playing, cause I’m rubbish at rolling dice!

TSM: Playing Digital games or Analogue games?

Y: Both, because they both offer different experiences.

TSM: And finally, is it about the winning, or the taking part?

Y: It’s all about the winning, because when I beat my dad, I get a great big sense of satisfaction!

Were her answers what I expected? Some were, some weren’t, and some were quite eye opening! Let’s take a look.

To be honest I can’t remember the first game we introduced her to, but connect four sounds about right. It’s a great game for young children – they can grasp the concept without having to be able to read, write, or do maths, and it teaches pattern recognition. We also remember playing games like ‘Don’t Wake Dad‘, and ‘The Magic Tooth Fairy Game‘, both of which Yasmin enjoyed, but I can honestly say I didn’t, though Sue, my wife, had an unhealthy liking for ‘Pop to The Shops‘. (Yasmin will tell you it’s because she cheats, though we have no hard evidence!)

Top Trumps was probably one of the first games we played once she had learnt to read. Pick a set that really interests the child, and you be amazed how quick they pick it up. It helps with reading, number recognition, memory, and, without them realising it, you’re introducing them to probability! You’d be surprised how quickly a child can memorise the cards, and once they’ve done that, they automatically work out which statistic of a given card will be the best to ask, often being able to recall roughly how many cards can beat it. As an early educational tool, Top Trumps is vastly underrated, and I bet you can find something that will not only spark your child’s interest, but will also appeal to you as an adult.

Plop Trumps - it's amazing what you can Learn
Plop Trumps! It’s amazing what you can learn!

I guessed that Yasmin would be able to identify some of the skills that games can teach, and knowing her strengths and weaknesses, I knew she’d highlight the maths. Maths isn’t all about numbers, it’s often buried deep in a game, but you can guarantee that almost every game has some maths within its mechanisms. It will most likely be statistical, working out probabilities, but can be simply the adding and subtracting of things, such as modifiers or, in the case of Bunny Kingdom, literally multiplying like rabbits!

Starting out with a simple game like Frustration (also known as Trouble), where you ‘pop’ the die and move your piece, can be rewarding, as your child can suddenly count to six. Though it can also swing the other way, as they throw the counters across the room refusing to play ever again! Move on to Monopoly and you increase their counting to 12, as well as introducing them to the aspects of money, and how quickly they can spend it!

There are games out there that solely include maths as their mechanism, like Trilemma, but trying to get your children to spend time playing them can be a feat in itself. So much the better if they can learn whilst having fun.

Educational? Yes… Fun? Er… No!

She also picked out problem solving, a vital skill for anyone, let alone children. Every game employs an aspect of problem solving; it’s the core ingredient that makes it a ‘game’. Whether it’s trying to discover the person in ‘Guess who‘; working out a move in draughts/checkers; even figuring out which box to place your cross in when playing noughts and crosses; It’s all problem solving, hey, even Jenga involves it!

So many aspects of life need you to be able to recognise and solve problems, and the earlier you start equipping your child with the ability to do so, then the more likely they will become good at it later in life. The trick is though, is to start simple, and keep it varied, they won’t even be aware that they are solving problems, to them it’s just, ‘what you do’, and make it fun.

By the time they are Yasmin’s age they should be able to cope with quite complex situations – working out several moves in advance, and the consequences of the different actions that confront them. Before you know it, they’re beating you at chess!

Teamwork and children don’t always go together, they can be very independent at a young age, and that’s no bad thing. Being able to work as part of a team is a skill that everyone is happy to say they are good at, but very few actually are! It’s a common interview question, and one that is honestly answered, ‘Yes, I’m a great team player’! But place most of these people in a room and ask them to solve a problem, and what do you get?

Well, there are those who dominate – the Alpha person, or player, as it’s termed in the games world; who will try and control the others, almost forcing their will on to them, and trying to get things done their way. They may not necessarily be a leader, and more often than not they will shun this role for fear of being held responsible, but they will be LOUD!

Then there are those who hide in the corner, not willing to put forward any ideas, usually because they fear being wrong, or just don’t like confrontation and being the centre of a conversation.

These tend to be the two extremes, but even the people in-between don’t always make good team players. A team consists of many roles, and it is the understanding of how to employ these roles that makes a good team. There are those who can lead, there are the ‘ideas’ people, there are the doers, there are the analysts, and the list goes on…

To be good at teamwork is to know what you are, and are not, good at, and for everyone else in the team to know this too. If you are all aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and prepared to listen to people when they speak, then the team will go from strength to strength. The importance of the leader here is, to make the decisions, based upon the information presented by the team, and decide upon the course of action to be followed. Of course, there’s a lot more to it that this, but that’s the basics.

Getting back to games… With the mass influx of cooperative games over the last few years, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use them to introduce your children to the idea of teamwork. We all know that it doesn’t necessarily come natural to children, especially those of us who are an only child. My toys were my own, and definitely not for sharing!

Working as part of a team for a child can be challenging, they are yet to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, so will either compete to be centre stage, or sit back and shy away. (There is, of course, those who will shout, scream, lie on the floor and kick their legs, but we can’t win ’em all!) So, introducing them to a team based game can be quite daunting.

RPG’s can often be a good place to start. If you’re a capable DM, then this should be fairly straightforward. You have two choices, give them pre-generated character, or let them create their own; personally I’m all for letting them create their own character, this way they will form a bond, wanting to look after them and increase their powers. By doing this they will have their character in front of them, with it’s own strengths and weaknesses, so in play, they are more ready to accept being told that their character can’t do something, than they would be if playing themselves.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle Decisions
Yasmin getting to grips with Harry Potter – A great game for teamwork.

Once your up and running it’s interesting how children will fall into character, and it’s amazing some of the things they come up with to get around the problems set by the DM. But not everyone is an RPG fan, and so you’ll have to look at the other co-op games on the market. Most are okay for older children, 10+, and cover a wide range of subjects. There are a few on the market aimed specifically at younger children, and I can recommend Magic Maze Kids, which is aimed at 5+.

Next, Yasmin points out two main reasons for enjoying games – Experiencing new things, and spending time with the family (I’ll get on to beating dad a little later!). Experiencing new things… it’s how we all learn as children, you encounter something new and you examine it, you play with it, some try to eat it, but in the end you learn something from it… even if it’s only that it tastes yuk!

I try to introduce Yasmin to all different Genre’s of games, utilising different game mechanisms, and totally different concepts of game play. It isn’t easy. There are some things she just looks at, and then gives me that look, the one that says, ‘You want me, to play that?’ At this point I know I’ve only got a very small chance of getting her to play it. But over time I have learnt what I stand a chance with, and what I’m better off playing on my own.

Spending time with the family. That gives me a really warm feeling; Yasmin likes to spend time with her family. Isn’t this what every child wants? I remember back to my childhood, when we regularly visited my Aunt and Uncles. We would play board games and card games together; I particularly remember playing a game called Scoop, one of my favourites of the time. Sitting down and playing family games has continued to this day, and we often have three generations of the family gathered around a board.

Her list of favourite games was quite interesting, not so much in its finished state, but some of her first attempts. When she first started to write the list she had Cluedo, Frustration, Trivial Pursuit (Harry Potter), and Hotel Tycoon all pretty high up. These were all some of the first games she ever learnt to play, so is it a case of familiarity that caused her to put these down first? After she had given it more consideration, and browsed through a list of all the games we have, she was able to put them in some sort of order (Out of my list she has played roughly 30 different games).

The first five games came as no surprise, but what was interesting though, was the fact that of the first five, four of them are co-op games; in fact they were the only co-op games on the list, and I was very surprised she hadn’t included Pandemic, which we play together quite a lot as a family. Tokaido, Monopoly, Ticket to Ride, and Hotel Tycoon, are family games, which leave Magic and Top Trumps, as the two player competitive games.

Hotel Tycoon - building 5 star luxury hotels has never been easier!
Hotel Tycoon – building 5 star luxury hotels has never been easier!

Surprisingly, Suburbia and Fluxx also missed out. But as she said, it depends upon what mood she’s in, and I think this is true of us all. I could easily list my top five, not necessarily in order, but after that things get little more difficult. As she admitted to me, Yasmin’s favourite games often depend upon whether she wins or not, how shallow is that! Well, for a child it can only be expected, hence her top five are co-op games, and ones where we frequently achieve some success in. Magic, at number four, is an indication that she can hold her own when playing, she averages one win in every three games!

The reasons given for Mansions being her favourite, pretty much sum Yasmin up. She likes solving puzzles, especially the murder mystery kind of puzzle. She really enjoys role-playing, even when not gaming she’s always putting on strange accents, and pretending to be someone else; It can make for some hilarious moments when it’s someone we know! Which is why Elaina being her favourite character to play doesn’t surprise me, after all, she created it all herself. I knew she was good at storytelling, but when she described her character to me, in all her glory, it really was eye opening. I just wish I’d recorded it; she hasn’t quite done herself justice with what she actually wrote down on the character sheet.

An important question next – do you have fun gaming? Obviously I’m going to brush quickly over her answer, but what I will say is, for children, having fun when playing games is ‘THE’ thing. If they’re having fun playing games, especially if it’s with the family, does this not make you feel good? Does it not make you feel like your doing the right thing? That’s how it makes me feel; laughing together and having a great time can mean so much to our children, and it has the added bonus that, if they’re having fun, then they probably haven’t realised they’re adding up those dice, reading out that card, solving that puzzle, and generally learning from play. That’s great, isn’t it?

Her greatest achievement I’ll come back to later, let’s have a look at her games design. Singing, that doesn’t come as a surprise, she has this idea that she’s going to become a great superstar singer, and to that end she takes lessons, and takes part in shows and such like. Unfortunately she hasn’t realised that practise makes perfect, and, funny old thing, she’d rather be playing games than practicing! I love her ideas – creating a character and taking them through their career, learning instruments, going on tour, and gaining experience. The funny thing is that, a day after she told me this, I was listening to the Dice Tower Podcast (episode 560) when, either Zee or Sam, replied to a question about what kind of game they would like to see designed that isn’t currently on the market. And, hey, he almost said exactly the same as Yasmin! Queue Twilight Zone music…

It’s no surprise that a game including miniatures draws a child towards it, like Ice cream on a hot day! When you look at Kickstarter it does the same thing to adults, and I’m guilty of it myself (Time of Legends: Joan of Arc, ooh, those miniatures!); we all like a game that looks good, and looks interesting. The other draw for children, is having that miniature to represent themselves on the board, ‘Hey, this is me, and I’m great!’ It also makes it easier for them to relate to what is going on within the game. It can be hard for a child to grasp concepts when the board is covered with counters, tokens, and other paraphernalia. But, place miniatures representing the characters, foes, and even terrain, on the board, and it instantly becomes more recognisable. It allows them to see thing for what they are, and then they can concentrate on other things, like what is this Goblin doing creeping up behind me?

AVP In Play
Miniatures – A draw for children and adults alike.

The quick fire questions I just threw at her, and was really surprised by her first answer – I really thought she would say Horror. But then when I look back, I see that, other than Mansions, most of her favourite games are Fantasy based. The fact that she likes watching and reading Horror stories, doesn’t directly relate to the games she enjoys playing. She also seems to have no time for Science Fiction; I’ve tried introducing varies games of this genre to her, but to no avail – much to my disappointment!

I had to laugh when she said she was rubbish at rolling dice. It appears she follows in my footsteps, and we can both be relied upon to never make that, ‘all-important’, game winning roll!

Digital, or Analogue? In this day and age, I would expect the majority of children to answer the former, and a lot can be learnt from the digital platform. Yasmin enjoys a variety of games on the PlayStation and DS, and she has made leaps and bounds when it comes to hand-eye coordination, as well as speed of mental processing. I find it very difficult to keep up with her when playing games like ‘Lego Dimensions’ or the ‘Harry Potter’ series, though I’m better at the games which require a more logical though process.

It is interesting that she places them on an even keel; knowing her, I would have said she would preferred digital games, but then what do I know!

Finally, the question that is often debated throughout the schools, especially the Physical Education department. Is it about the winning, or the taking Part? But if winning doesn’t matter, why keep score?

You will note her earlier answer to her greatest achievement in gaming – ‘beating her dad’. This is her ultimate goal in gaming at the moment – To beat her dad!

Why would she say this? To start with, I never, ever, ever, let her win. I don’t believe in it.  When you compete at something, whether it is a board game, a maths quiz, or a running race, you should always give it your best shot, aiming to be the best. If you are a child, and allowed to win all the time, it gives you a false perspective of life. A child, who has always been allowed to win, will find it hard to accept when they lose. They will as likely never want to do that thing again, rather than try harder next time.

Yasmin knows, and accepts, the fact that I will never let her win. So, when she does beat me, she knows that it is through her own determination and skill, okay, sometimes a little luck too. This gives her a great big handful of satisfaction, and she will often rub in the fact that she’s won, giving it the big ‘L’ and all. Hey, she’s entitled to it, because at the moment she doesn’t win too often, but there will come the day when the roles are reversed, and I look forward to it.

So, that’s an insight into a twelve year olds gaming mind. All the conclusions I have drawn are my own opinion, and I’m sure there are those that will agree, and those who will disagree, with me. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments below; maybe you have some suggestions about using games to educate our children?

I’m in the process of putting together a future post purely on this subject, and so another perspective would be much appreciated.

Until then – get your kids gaming, and have fun!

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