Tips for Play-Testing

The following article by Anna Jordan-Douglass – one of the great folks at The Jim Henson Company that I’ve had a chance to do play-testing for over the past few years – shares a wealth of great tips for ensuring games are fun and functional by testing them throughout the development process.

The Tests the Thing: Making Sure Your Product is Fun and Playable (In Games + Learning: )

Among Anna’s tips: Keep it simple – play testing sessions don’t have to be too long, or too formal, or include too many participants; you can find important things letting a few kids spend a few minutes playing a game somewhat informally.  Sometimes, its not what kids say, but rather what they do, that tells you what they really think about a game – if they don’t want to quit playing, its a good sign that you are on the right path to a fun game that other kids will enjoy as well.

As I’ve been cleaning through some files and reviewing reports for the “Where Fun and Learning Clicks!” project that I worked on toward the earlier part of this past decade, I’ve been reflecting on some of the other things I’ve learned over the course of a decade’s worth of play-testing apps and websites with youth. Where Fun and Learning Clicks! was a program led by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to fund development and test the impact of five websites geared toward tweens. I hope to share a more formal recap about my efforts on that project at a later point, but in the mean-time, here are a few play-testing tips that I would throw into the mix:

1) Not every kid will like every game – and that’s okay! There are many different types of successful game genres for adults, and there’s a reason for that – not all adults like playing the same kinds of games, and the same goes for children. Some games might have greater general appeal, but it is reasonable to assume that there will be some variation in how much any game appeals to different children.

2) Never underestimate a child’s ability to innovate. Kids are incredible innovators when it comes to games.  Given time and free reign to do so, they can take an ordinary game to the next level by creating new ways of playing or competing with other players. Given two weeks of free play time, I once saw a group of kids transform a relatively simple flip-book style game wherein different outfits could be created, into an awesome variation on a collection game wherein they were competitively comparing the collections of different outfits they’d amassed.

3) To get good data, its important to make sure that a child is at ease and feels comfortable in the environment where the testing is done. We’ve had great success doing testing in homes and, when home testing is not an option, typically prefer to run testing sessions in community centers or libraries that children are familiar with, but when it is too tricky to work out the logistics associated with testing in multiple sites, or setting up sessions in a remote site, we do everything we can to make our play-testing room as kid-friendly as possible, with a low table, bright posters, and a few strategically placed stuffed animals that help to make the room more comfortable and inviting to young children.

4) What kids do is sometimes more important than what they say.  Sometimes a kid will tell you that he loves a game, but every other minute he might be looking or asking for other games he can play.  Another child may not be able to say much about what she likes about a game, but the fact that she doesn’t want to stop playing (as Anna mentions in her article), actually says quite a bit in and of itself.  There’s a great deal that can also be gleaned by watching for body language cues during play testing sessions – i.e., watching for things like signs of determination, distraction, or joy.

5) Because there’s so much value in being able to see what kids are doing – recorded video can be a super-valuable tool for facilitating more extensive review and analysis of play-testing sessions and/or helping clients see strengths and weaknesses of their games. When testing computer games, over the shoulder video (esp. coupled with screen capture + webcam captured video) is great – but things get a little trickier when kids are testing games or apps on handheld devices. When taping play-testing sessions on handheld devices, we’ve found that recording with a handheld iPod or digital video camera is a simple way to keep all the action in-frame, even as a child moves around.


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