Keep It Simple. 
At First: Designing Game-Based
 Tools for Youth

Since its release in 2004, World of Warcraft (WoW) has become one of the most popular video games worldwide. Boasting an estimated player base of 11.5 million subscribers, WoW has achieved broad appeal among individuals across different age groups, geographies, and levels of gaming experience. This unusually diverse adoption is, in large part, due to WoW’s design. The game developers were able to lower the barrier to entry for consumers with little gaming background without “dumbing down” the game for experienced players familiar with typical gaming conventions.

WoW is a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG)—a networked video game that allows thousands of players (represented by avatars) simultaneous play in a persistent virtual world, where they communicate and collaborate with each other. At its core, WoW is a high fantasy-themed game about progression through quests to increase a character’s level while slaying monsters to receive better armor and weapons. The game becomes considerably more complicated at higher levels.

To understand what made WoW so accessible and engaging, we conducted a yearlong study with twenty-two boys aged twelve to eighteen years. We held monthly face-to-face meetings and regularly played WoW with the participants online. As they progressed in the game, we observed their experiences, as well as our own, and identified four main strategies to consider when designing games:

  1. Keep the interface simple at first.
  2.  Introduce information and functions as users need them.
  3. Minimize the amount of written information.
  4. Allow for interface customization.

Keep the Interface Simple at First

Not all of our participants had played WoW before taking part in our study. For those who were new to the game, WoW’s initially simple user interface meant that the boys were able to learn how to navigate it on their own with little facilitation from the researchers. We didn’t waste time writing game guides or even introducing the game. We just let them play.

A player’s screen begins with minimal buttons and icons (see Figure 1) then gradually builds up over time becoming highly complex (see Figure 2). This is key as users need time to adapt to the interface. In a highly graphical 3D virtual world like WoW, players, especially new users, can be overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the environment. Bombarding them with a complex user interface creates a steep learning curve leading to frustration.

screencap from video game

Figure 1. A new player’s simple user interface with minimal buttons and icons.

In WoW, an experienced player’s screen may contain sixty different icons and buttons. New players, on the other hand, start with only a handful of elements on their screen: their avatar’s portrait on the top left, a mini map on the top right, a few system icons on the bottom right, and two to four ability buttons on the bottom left. As players progress in the game, they accumulate ability buttons. Various other options and interfaces are unlocked as well. For the boys in our study, playing through the first several levels was the best way to become comfortable with navigation and to experience firsthand how their repertoire of skills and abilities builds over time.

screencap from videogame interface

Figure 2. An experienced player’s complex user interface with add-ons installed and dozens of buttons and icons.

Introduce Information and Functions as Users Need Them

The technique of progressive disclosure has new characters start with a simple interface and then build up complex functions over time—introducing features only as players need them to complete the task at hand (see Figure 3).
For example, early in WoW, players are asked to complete a quest requiring them to slay a certain number of monsters. Upon traveling to the monsters’ location, a question mark icon flashes along the bottom of the screen. Players then receive a tutorial pop-up with tips about how to target the monsters in order to combat them. This information is introduced right when players need it and can practice the particular skill.

This design strategy is important, as people—especially children and youth—are bad at dealing with information outside of its context for action. Information presented out of context or not immediately used is less likely to be remembered.

screencap of vidoegame

Figure 3. A tutorial window pops up giving the player information just when it is needed.

Minimize the Amount
of Written Information

While it is important to give players information as they need it, for a game as vast as WoW it would annoy players if a tutorial window popped up every minute of gameplay. Eventually, players obtain a good handle on the basics and can be self-sufficient without relying on tips. Therefore, it is important to provide written information to players only when it is essential, such as in the beginning levels when players may not know where to look for information on their own yet.

Most MMOGs have a built-in chat function, where players can talk to others logged on to the game world at the same time. As players progress, they begin to chat with others and can ask for information about more advanced game mechanics and concepts, as they need it.

There are also many user-produced guides and online tutorials available for most commercial games. In our study we observed the boys routinely switching between the game and online resources such as Wowhead and WoWWiki (see Figure 4). While many of these resources are written by adults and often in highly specialized language, younger players are willing to overcome these challenges. If a task is worth accomplishing, players will seek resources to help them accomplish it. All information isn’t, and shouldn’t be, provided in the game itself.

screencap of vidoegame and database screen

Figure 4. Players often look for game information on Wowhead with the game simultaneously running in the background.

Allow for Interface Customization

Much like the add-ons you can install for Internet browsers, add-ons enhance and personalize WoW’s user interface. As players gain expertise and their screens fill with numerous icons and buttons, they develop their own styles of gameplay which can be enhanced with personalization. For example, a popular add-on called Cartographer improves the in-game map by allowing players to mark their locations. If mining is your avatar’s profession, Cartographer enables you to map the locations of ores in an area.

Allowing players to develop and use these add-ons not only optimizes their efficiency but also helps build the player community. A number of the boys in our study have add-ons installed on their home computers and frequently share in our guild (group) chat channel the ones they currently use.

Even though the game is entirely functional without add-ons, when we provided computers for participants to use during our face-to-face meetings, they complained about the lack of add-ons. Our study participants have come to rely so heavily on them as part of gameplay that they expressed feeling handicapped without them.

While we draw from our research with adolescent boys who play WoW to show that much of these design heuristics will help make MMOGs more accessible for youth, these strategies will, in fact, help make a game more accessible for individuals of all ages. Additionally, because these strategies are employed mostly during moments of solo play in a multiplayer game, they will also prove useful for designing single player games requiring low-barrier entry points. The above design heuristics are relevant not just to MMOGs, but should be considered when designing other (play-based or otherwise) technologies as well.

Steinkuehler, C., Chu, S. (2011). Keep It Simple. 
At First: Designing Game-Based
 Tools for Youth. User Experience Magazine, 10(1).
Retrieved from

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