Robot Turtles was billed from the start as a game designed to “sneakily teach” programming to kids. The Kickstarter page for the game informs adults with a wink and a nod that “Kids won’t know it but while they’re playing, they’re learning the fundamentals of programming.” This participates in a pervasive discourse of didacticism surrounding children’s media in general. In basic terms, it follows two premises: One, media directed specifically towards children ought to be educational, not just in a “video games build hand-eye coordination” or “maybe there’s a moral here somewhere” sense, but in the sense that it has a clear, deliberate moral and ideally can hit some checkboxes on school curricular objectives. Two, it must hide this educational intent from children at all costs, because if they discover they are learning something they will immediately rebel.
The idea that children’s media ought to be didactic has existed for at least as long as children’s literature. I’m not going to get into the full scope of that history here, but if you’re interested, I highly recommend Perry Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult. At any rate, this persistent notion means that the people who are actually buying children’s media, mainly parents, teachers, and librarians, are charged by society with choosing something edifying for their charges. Publishers know this, and so know that anything they market directly to kids has to signal to adults that they are educational if they want to maximize their chances, particularly if what’s being sold is expensive enough to require the parental purse strings to be involved.
At the same time that it signals educational content to parents, however, the text must hide that intent from the children who will ultimately be consuming it, because it is presumed that if the educational nature is too obvious or brazen, children will recoil. In this view, children either hate learning, or learn more effectively when they don’t know they are learning, both of which are rather ridiculous assertions. Children, in my experience, do not object to learning, they object to certain ways of being taught. Offer to teach a kid something fun and tangible, like a game, and they will generally respond positively. But if you want to teach a kid something abstract like “problem-solving skills,” then yeah, you probably need to find a way to punch it up a bit. Furthermore, it’s a lot more difficult to draw connections between skills if you don’t tell kids what they are learning. The trouble is in simultaneously signalling educational merit to parents without tipping your hand to the kids.
Which brings us back around to Robot Turtles, which circumvents that problem in a rather canny way. Since the adult is able to set up the game without ever letting the kids see the box or the rulebook, the game can put up a divider between the educational framework and the fun facade. The board and pieces, the only parts of the game that the kids will interact with directly, can present themselves purely as games with no apparent educational subtext. Meanwhile, the rulebook can exhaustively detail how the game can be used as a skill-building exercise, assuring parents that this is all working toward their child’s ultimate benefit. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the clear benefits of building towards an abstract skill like programming with something that provides tangible pieces to manipulate. I just wonder if it’s really necessary to go to such lengths to hide from children that they are learning. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to create the association that learning is fun by letting them in on the secret, rather than ceding the field to school and the unfortunate associations it can create? After all, Robot Turtles may be priming kids to learn programming, but if the game doesn’t tell them that, they won’t necessarily make the connection on their own.
In The Hidden Adult, Nodelman often argues that children’s media is more about what adults need–what they need to believe children are like, what they need to believe they should be doing for children, etc.–than the children themselves. At the core, Robot Turtles has a very adult-centric structure. Kids were not the audience for the Kickstarter, and so it was conspicuously geared towards adults. At the level of the game box the awareness of kids starts to be taken into account, but it is still constructed as a tool to be used by adults for kids. The interesting thing is that Robot Turtles ultimately does not need an adult. There’s nothing stopping kids from setting up their own boards and moving their own turtles. While this might not work out for a four year-old, I wonder at what point the adult becomes superfluous to the whole project.