Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ages 12 and Up: Developmental Psychology and Gaming

Do not mess with this man.
My formal training in college had a lot to do with psychology and child development. I know my fair share of counseling techniques as a result of this, and surprisingly I've been able to carry over some of those skills into the gaming hobby, but that's for an article (honestly - it's already planned) for a different time. When given the option in college I chose to take developmental psychology courses to fulfill my general psychology requirements. All of this is to say that the opinions and ideas I present to you today are infallible. I cannot be wrong because I took several college courses focusing on the topic at hand. I am perfect.

Back to the real world! I've been thinking a lot lately about how games have a recommended minimum age for enjoyment of the game. I don't know why I put never put this together, but the most common ages I've seen is "9 and up" and "12 and up" - and these ages seem to match pretty well to Piaget's theory of childhood development. Unfortunately I don't have too many textbooks around from my undergrad days, so I'll direct you to wikipedia for more information and as my general resource. Keep Reading to see more of my ramblings!

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget is probably the most famous childhood development expert. He was a pioneer in the field and interestingly enough he never locked himself into one static theory but allowed his work to evolve over time. Piaget believed in four distinct stages of psychosocial development. Before reading these it's important to always remember that the ages matched to these stages are always an average and subjective to every individual's own developmental pace. Check them out below, borrowed directly from wikipedia with emphases added by me:

"1. Sensorimotor stage: from birth to age 2. Children experience the world through movement and senses (use five senses to explore the world). During the sensorimotor stage children are extremely egocentric, meaning they cannot perceive the world from others' viewpoints."

Of course the important thing here is that the child can't view other people's viewpoints (this is egocentrism). Besides the fact that 2 year olds don't grasp language (and some scientists question if babies even do what we adults call "thinking" to begin with), egocentrism would be a huge challenge to overcome. While we've all run into an adult gamer who could be described in these terms as egocentrism, a person who is truly egocentric biologically can't process what another person is processing. Cooperation requires that we have empathy for the other party. With egocentrism, there's no empathy, so there's no cooperation - there's no possibility for a coordinated effort to have fun. A.K.A. no gaming! Alright, so we've established it would be no fun to game with a 2 year old - big surprise - let's move on.

"2. Preoperational stage: from ages 2 to 7 Magical thinking predominates - Acquisition of motor skills. Egocentrism begins strongly and then weakens. Children cannot conserve or use logical thinking."

Alright, no we're starting to get to the fun age of kids for the board gaming parent. .The preoperational stage trademark is the fact that kids are starting to communicate a lot (great for gaming!) but are making a lot of mistakes in the way they're thinking. Like with egocentrism, it's a simple matter of the physical structure of the brain. Conservation is the ability to realize that certain qualities of objects will remain the same even if a different quality changes. The common example is pouring water from a wide short cup into a skinny tall cup and the child who can't conserve believes there's more water now when obviously it's the same volume. It's a kind of abstract logical thinking that's going to be critical for a lot of gaming when you think about it. It also is necessary for developing a strategy beyond the next move - something critical in almost any game out there.

"3. Concrete operational stage: from ages 7 to 12 (children begin to think logically but are very concrete in their thinking). Children can now conserve and think logically but only with practical aids. They are no longer egocentric.

And now we've hit the magical age. Children are now thinking logically and they can conserve, but the games you play with them need to have very strong gaming aids (thank you Board Game Geek!). The big lacking area here is in the abstract thinking. This would be the first stage where I would even think of introducing a kid to role-playing. While the fluff and content of the game would obviously be very important (Mouse Guard would be a great property as long as you pull back the lethality and violence of the setting), but I would say that the level of imagination required is even more important. I would say the more bits and pieces required for a game, the better it would be for the concrete operational child. Of course you don't want to get too complex - I wouldn't try teaching a 10 year old Warhammer Fantasy 3rd Edition - but the more physical ways you have to show the kid in this stage, the more likely they'll be able to follow the action and plot and even spontaneously introduce their own ideas. Also important to note is that egocentrism is pretty much done by this stage, so you're a lot more likely to run into a kid who wants to make the game fun for the group, and not just themselves - the perfect gamer!

"4. Formal operational stage: from age 12 onwards (development of abstract reasoning). Children develop abstract thought and can easily conserve and think logically in their mind."

Welcome to your stage of development, congratulations! And now we've discovered the secret of "12 and up" and its pervasiveness across board games and RPGs. I would recommend you start your 12 year old out with an RPG like D&D 4th Ed. (they'll pick it up - I promise) before moving to onto Mouse Guard so they get a feel for role-playing. However, the good news is you shouldn't have to wait too long to get them into the good, abstract stuff. Kids in this stage should be able to handle more complex board games requiring advance strategies and be able to play beyond just the tactical turn-to-turn plans. 

Also this guy. Don't mess with him either.
There's a lot to talk about when it comes to psychology and gaming. I didn't even tough on the benefits of gaming as a learning process for children to help develop some of these skills and diminish some of the challenges. Of course then there's other theorists like Erik Erikson (who you can see to the left here). As I finish this short but dense post I'd like to leave you with some food for thought. Below I've posted some games with their recommended age minimums for enjoyment. I'll admit to having not played all of them, but (at least to me) it presents some interesting food for thought.

Arkham Horror: 12 and up
Battlestar Galactica: 10 and up
Chaos in the Old World: 13 and up (probably due to content more than it being so advance - but it is fairly complex)
Horus Heresy: 13 and up (same as above)
Twilight Imperium: 14 and up
Claustrophia: 14 and up
Pandemic: 10 and up
Neuroshima Hex!: 10 and up
Monopoly: 8 and up
Connect Four: 6 and up
Guess Who: 6 and up

Note that there's no RPG's on the list. There's a good reason - I couldn't find any with age recommendations on them. Even Warhammer Fantasy from FFG doesn't have an age listed on their site - I was pretty surprised, but I guess it makes sense given that there's not really a tradition of it like there is in board games.


  1. Good topic. Check it out these RPG for kids at Darkshire

    Instead of Piaget's theory I prefer Paul Harris's Theory: The Work of the Imagination

    [Sorry for first comment, wrong account]

  2. Good topic. Check it out these RPG for kids at Darkshire

    Instead of Piaget's theory I prefer Paul Harris's Theory: The Work of the Imagination.

    [Sorry for the previous comment, wrong account]

  3. Good topic. Check it out this RPG for kids http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/whatis/kids.html

    Instead of Piaget's theory I prefer Paul Harris's Theory: http://books.google.com.co/books?id=y_etbuBtVogC&printsec=frontcover&dq=paul+harris+work+of+imagination&source=bl&ots=MxGZ6JXbZ5&sig=R_dFujKx_Y0Y-VtuGVVMLPGwqL4&hl=es&ei=qXSZTOKkGMaAlAf1q6RU&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CDUQ6AEwBA

  4. I would argue that there are no age suggestions on RPGs because this is something we inherently do from birth. We've all played house, cowboys, cops and robbers, and so on. Role playing games are merely the manifestation of our adult urge to classify and codify the world into something we can manipulate efficiently. You might say RPGs are the adult effort to recapture the ability to play so freely as we did as a child.


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