Father/daughter game developers Ryan and Cassie Creighton exemplify the benefits of raising a computer-savvy kid.
Modern parents are afraid of many things, and technology ranks right near the top. Though touchscreens might as well have been developed with young children in mind, many of us fetishize stuff like wooden toys while fretting that anything with digital bells and whistles, much less a dreaded screen, will rot our kids’ tiny little brains.
Game developer Ryan Creighton of Toronto studio Untold Entertainment thinks you have it all wrong—and the proof is in Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, the hand-drawn, point-and-click game he created last year with his then-five-year-old daughter Cassie. The pair are speaking at today’s TEDxToronto conference, using their unicorn-pony game to illustrate the importance of computer education for young children.
“A lot of parents say crazy things, like ‘I’m glad that there’s no technology in my kid’s school, and that the cafeteria serves organic food,’” Creighton says. “That’s from an actual Facebook conversation I read last week. There’s this idea that technology is poisonous. Clearly, computers aren’t going anywhere, so it feels like I have a golden opportunity to help my children get a leg up. If we keep at it, my girls will be light years ahead of their classmates.”
Last summer, Creighton brought Cassie to the Toronto Game Jam, an annual weekend gathering of indie developers who create entire games during a three-day marathon session.
“Being an entrepreneur, my most demanding child is my business,” he says. “I attend TOJam for the entire weekend every year, but this particular TOJam had me feeling quite guilty about spending yet another weekend away from my family. I brought Cassie along because Saturday is [our] family day.”
Cassie handled the story, art, and voices while dad coded it all together. Thanks to a surfeit of what one game reviewer described as “military-grade cuteness,” the free browser game got a ton of coverage in both gamer and mainstream media (from Kotaku to Canada A.M.) while going viral on social-media and getting tens of thousands of plays in the first couple days. Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was also a finalist for Indiecade 2011’s “Community Impact Award,” saw young Cassie named one of the most notable Canadians in Digital Media by Backbone magazine, and raised about $3,500 for her eventual university education.
If the Creightons’ story sounds a little like that of Caine’s Arcade—that viral video of an amazing dad who encouraged his nine-year-old son Caine to build a cardboard midway—you’re not off-base.
“As a fellow cardboard engineer, I really appreciate [Caine's] moxy,” Creighton says. “If your kid shows a keen interest in, say, mechanical engineering like Caine did, even if it’s not your bag and you don’t know much about it, you really owe it to your child to explore that with him and fuel his passion. It’s the same with videogames: if your kid is obsessed with a videogame, don’t turn off the game in fear. Try to understand what part of your child’s brain that game is activating, and see if you can magnify that passion.”
This isn’t to say the experience has been all rainbows and, well, ponycorns. Though Creighton says the Toronto gaming community supported him, other developers accused him of exploiting his daughter, especially after he was asked to speak at the Independent Games Summit for the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
“They complained that I was trying to become rich and famous from her efforts—they even compared me to Macaulay Culkin’s parents,” he says, adding that the Ponycorn project actually put him a few thousand in debt.
“The truth is that this was an Untold Entertainment corporate product, and I did try to maximize the financial return and notoriety stemming from its viral success. Cassie legally owns a percentage of the Ponycorns IP, and the donations to her education are currently accruing interest in an education-savings plan, as promised.”
Creighton says the Ponycorn experience is helping Cassie “dive into other scientific and technical pursuits that are typically male-dominated, like mathematics” and that subsequent spin-offs—like the TEDx talk, where she is one of the youngest-ever speakers—will teach her skills to “help her grow up to become a confident, knowledgeable, and inspiring young woman. It’s a sin to call that exploitative.”
Admittedly, though, Creighton does feel guilty that the project gave him a closeness with Cassie that he doesn’t currently have with his younger daughter, Izzy.
“I worry Izzy feels left out. I’m definitely dreaming up neat projects for Izzy and me to build together. Maybe something involving robots?”