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Baby Steps in Toddler Gaming

By Caitlin Friess

CS ACM Baby Steps

Brite-Lite game by Emily Trabert, Ariel Borochov, Jon Shifflett, and Ben Scaldini.

In the rising tide of toddler-friendly tech, it can be hard to tell what games actually appeal to tiny consumers. Simple swipes, primary colors, and pop-culture twists were all central themes in the AU ACM Baby Steps: A Game Jam for Toddlers hackathon, held at AU on March 21-23. Three teams from the university’s chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery competed against one another in a friendly 48-hour dash. Each team, consisting of three to five students with coding and graphic design skills, designed and built a tablet-friendly game aimed at toddlers aged three to six.

The focus on toddlers came from computer science professor Michael Black, the faculty supervisor for the AU ACM. Black came upon the idea after purchasing a child-specific tablet for his three-year-old daughter and finding it unsatisfactory.

“When you buy these tablets they come pre-loaded with all this spyware and manufacturer products that really don’t work for this kind of device, especially for children,” Black says.

Hackathon events such as this are a common phenomenon among universities and often involve teams from different universities competing against one another. AU ACM’s experience with these events made it easy for them to coordinate their own AU-specific weekend, according to club president James Matthews.

“It’s an interesting challenge to design for,” Matthews says, “Ordinarily you’re making a game and the trick is to balance the complexity, the level of difficulty, with how well you are able to understand the game itself. Those challenges still apply, but on a very different scale. It has to have few enough moving pieces and simple parts so four or five year olds can understand what’s going on.”

The teams also wanted to make sure their scope of ideas could be accomplished in one weekend at a casual pace without forcing members to sit and code for 36 straight hours. Instead, teams worked between 12 and 24 hours to finish their entries.

“There are hackathons where you do that,” says club treasurer Dri Torres, “So we put teams and ideas together on Friday and started hacking on Saturday morning.”

The final judging of the Android-optimized games took place on March 23 at 1:00 p.m., in a room full of toddler judges, their parents, and the hopeful teams. Each child was given a chance to play the games while their parents observed and filled in rubrics rating such qualities as the child’s interest in the game, how easy it was to play, and how it handled on the devices.

The scores were incredibly close, all ranked on a 75-point scale. In first place, with a score of 75 was Brite Lite, a reinvention of the old 1967 game Lite Brite optimized for tablet and web. Kids using the app piece together little colored dots to form an array of images, either on their own or using one of 20 templates.

Second place went to Toddler Selfie at 73 points. This app-only game was designed to capture a picture (or “selfie”) of the toddler through the device’s camera and break it into a puzzle on the screen that the child could piece together. There are two modes: “easy” with six pieces, and “hard” with 24.

The third place team came in a single point behind team two with 72 points. Alphabet Snake is another reinvention of an old classic and encourages toddlers to piece together the alphabet in the correct order without running their “snake” into itself as the line grows longer.

Each of the games created by the teams will soon be up and running on Google Play.