Games with Handicap Systems

I\’ve been thinking recently about how to get kids involved with things they might not be interested in. I wanted to make this a more involved post, but I have to remember that blogs are all about interaction and refinement, so we\’ll start with what I\’ve got.

So, anyway, games seem to be an engaging way to get kids involved. But you have to be careful. If the game is unbalanced, it can actually be a deterrent for the kid. Now, you probably (if you know me) think I\’m trying to get kids to be more engaged in things like math and history or whatever, and build educational games. Actually, I\’m more concerned about physical games and sports. So, I\’m going to look at it from that angle.

The simplest method of handicapping is \”let them win,\” a very conscious attempt to limit yourself while playing with kids. It\’s hard to pull off, though. Kids are smart and they\’re likely to see through the attempt and get upset that you don\’t think they\’re good enough to win on their own.

A more obvious, but I think somewhat better system (since it lacks the dishonesty) is point advantages. Playing basketball with a kid, give him a 10-point head start. Games like go take this a step farther, where a handicap stone, while not a point, gives the player a strong advantage in the game. You also see this when kids play football; games played four against three (for example) in order to compensate for the abilities of the stronger players.

The problem with all of the preceding systems is that the handicap is artificial. There is some crude re-balancing going on that really doesn\’t give the kid much positive reinforcement. These attempts are obvious to the kid and can undermine the positive effects of him winning. I think a much better way is to design balanced games from scratch. Yeah, it\’s not going to be easy, but I think the benefits to the kid easily outweigh that. The kind of thing I have in mind, for example, is perhaps an obstacle course to race … part of the race could be a tunnel to crawl through. With a small enough tunnel, it could be easy for a kid to get through, but harder for an adult.

The kid learns to see how his own particular \”disadvantages\” (like being much smaller) can be turned around to benefit him and allow him to translate what he thinks of as shortcomings into differences that can be used to his advantage. In the end, such a well-balanced system can help convince a bookworm that running around can be fun, especially when he can beat his dad at it.

You don\’t even need to construct a new sport, really. You ever watch little kids ski? They put 90% of the adults out there to shame. It\’s a matter of putting them in situations where they can see that they\’re performing above average. I\’m really interested in hearing about any existant games or ideas for games (both physical and educational) where this sort of approach is used (even implictly, like the skiing example).

2 Responses to “Games with Handicap Systems”

  1. Wes Says:

    Kid climbers, now they’re the badassiest.

    The reason I don’t quite like chess games minus a piece as much as even ones (though still, they’re pretty fun) is because I keep seeing ways for my opponent to beat me (I mean, he is up a piece). And maybe because some of the game’s dynamism’s missing in these unevenly matched games, too; some of the dialog you sort of hold with your opponent.

    But what exactly is it you’re looking for here, games where skill or ability isn’t important? That’s no fun, either. I suppose you could always play nomic.

  2. Greg Pfeil Says:

    I’m not looking for games where skill isn’t important; I’m looking for games that slice skills different ways.

    Chess is most fun when you’re playing someone of a similar skill level. You both have a chance of winning, and it’s a real challenge. Go offers a bit more flexibility, but the handicap system still only gives a fairly small skill spread, and changes the gameplay.

    What I want to think about are ways to look at your opponent, and come up with a game in which the two of you are evenly matched. In particular, I want to think about how this can be done in an adult/child dynamic. What skills and abilities (or, in what situations are the skills and abilities) about equal in those two groups.

    Ultimately, I’m looking for a way to encourage kids to compete without resorting to “letting them win”.