Esther MacCallum-Stewart discusses how working with a group of children gave the team new insight into games and their players

Learning to make games with kids

[This article was written by Esther MacCallum-Stewart, research fellow at the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England, and Silas Adekunle, director at, Reach Robotics.]

Mighty Minis is a project developed with Reach Robotics and REACT Sandbox Play. It’s a game that aims to get kids to play away from the screen and make them more aware of their physical surroundings. During the day, users carry around an egg shaped object called a Soul, packed with sensors that record their activities. At the end of the day they can plug this into an app, and their activities are translated into points, which they then spend on their Mighty Mini – a creature based on an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. However, it’s the development process that makes Mighty Minis really extraordinary – a process that has relied on the input of a group of children in order to make it work.

REACT made the decision to engage with Young Coaches – a group of children aged 7-12, who would help each of the six projects selected by advising on their progress. For Mighty Minis, this consisted of a small, mixed group of highly articulate, tech savvy children. Taking feedback and advice from these coaches proved absolutely invaluable to the project.

Our first realisation for the Mighty Minis was almost immediate; children are deeply embedded in technology and have an implicit understanding of how it works. Concepts which we were anticipating spending time explaining are natural to them; we were treated to lengthy diatribes about micro-transactions and internet safety – no GPS in the Souls, they told us; it’s not safe. Their level of understanding of how Mighty Minis would work was grounded in a world where Pokemon, Skylanders and Minecraft had already given them a vocabulary of terms, ideas and game design concepts.

What they didn’t understand however was the development process itself. Children are so rarely presented with an unfinished piece of work that this rapidly became a crucial element of our time with them. Each workshop contained an update where we’d fill in the kids on what we’d be doing; including technical specifics from us, the project partners, Silas Adekunle and Esther MacCallum-Stewart (apparently this is just as interesting as making 3D objects!). After being unable to attend one session, the kids demanded that Silas appear in robot form next time, so that they could get details from him. We’re working on that…

Managing expectations, not only helped us with our timelines, but helped the Coaches understand development times. Gaming pioneers like Minecraft’s Markus Persson had convinced the Coaches that creating a product was almost instantaneous (we were reliably informed by them at one point that the entire Pokemon franchise was created by ‘nearly ten people’). So taking them through the process and allowing them to see objects that were untested, broke if they handled them too savagely, contained only limited amounts of content or simply demonstrated one aspect of the project was fascinating.

As they started to understand this, the Coaches responded by becoming more specific with their feedback, honing in on the specific elements we presented to them. During this stage we also learned that hardly any toy companies use children to test prototypes or give feedback, presumably because of franchise requirements or a presupposition of ‘tried and tested’ successes.

Many of the core changes in the project revolved around suggestions or observations that the Coaches made. They were heavily invested in the project, coming to each session full of ideas and comments, and updating us with their ideas in the same way as we gave them progress reports. One of the most useful series of tests we did was on the usability of the Souls.

During one session, we made the Coaches carry eggs with them, watching how they manipulated them, and supplying new ones when they broke. And although they broke a lot, they were also drawn on, given homes (which became the basis for early charging ports), poked, accidentally dropped, spun about and given names. We knew that they needed to be robust, but we hadn’t counted on them needing felt tip faces and ‘bases’ to live in! However, as one Coach pointed out ‘We’re indoors, and we aren’t playing very hard’. Cue Silas kicking the next prototype around the robotics lab and throwing it at the wall before he brought it over.

Another of the many changes we made was related to choice. We initially chose five Mighty Minis; a tiger, a dog, a dragon, a monkey and a chicken. The Coaches supervised the style of art used to develop these. To our surprise, it was the chicken that was most popular, evolving from a fluffy, cute chick, to a fearsome looking creature. The Coaches liked the chicken’s ‘weirdness’, and although the Mighty Minis are a non-violent, Tamagotchi style pet, it was their insistence that also means that the game will allow users to visit each other in-game. The idea that the Mighty Minis can be friends with each other and share items was a recurring theme in the Coaches’ demands.

Working with the Coaches has taught us a vast amount of things about both games and their players. It completely transformed the aims and objectives of Mighty Minis, and fortunately, the flexible nature of the REACT project and the prototyping that accompanied it through Reach Robotics allowed this to happen fairly easily. Overall, the project has produced some startling conclusions, and, we hope, an outdoor game that children will truly want to play.

You can find out more about Esther and Silas’s Mighty Minis and the REACT Sandbox process here.

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