I am building a game for children.

The game contains questions.

Age range: 5-18.

Context: learning.

Before the questions I have a screen where the children select a difficulty level:

enter image description here

I want to replace the text "Level.." with somthing else which is not textual language.

I thought about colors or symbols. What is the best user experience for kids?

  • 2
    How many levels do you need to represent? The answer is very different if there are 3 vs. if there are 10. – JohnGB Mar 11 '13 at 11:36
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    Quick thoughts: (fish - barracuda - shark), (kitten - cat - tiger), (scooter - car - racecar). It would be nice to choose something appropriate to the kind of game you're making and the kind of children you expect. Alternatively, you may consider removing the choice, and letting the game detect the level of play (and reflecting the difficulty level as a player attribute). – Peter Mar 11 '13 at 15:52
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    I know you are looking for something is "not textual language", but as an aside, would you consider showing the child an example question for each level to help them decide which level they would like to attempt? – Matt Obee Mar 11 '13 at 15:54
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    What age are we talking about specifically @user80042? Can you throw a number out? There are many child development considerations here. "Typically-developing" children have a tendency to be able to grasp some concepts at particular age thresholds. – Preston Mar 11 '13 at 20:35
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    That's an enormous age range: or to put it another way that's 'Thomas The Tank Engine' to 'Grand Theft Auto' – PhillipW Mar 13 '13 at 16:07

17 Answers 17


You could use several cues to reinforce each other: Background getting slightly darker at more difficulty. Use a star - which is a positive symbol, whatever the difficulty. Use more of the stars for more difficult levels Use colours for the stars.

For example:

enter image description here

  • Very nice idea! – user80042 Mar 11 '13 at 12:48
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    I'm not sure the stars thing would work... I can't really make the connection between stars and difficulty. – João Portela Mar 11 '13 at 19:27
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    The star itself is not a metaphor for something being difficult. The star is like a rating, so this is about being a difficulty rating. I'm not saying the children need to understand a rating system to make sense of this, but they should be familiar with a concept of something that is harder work deserving more stars. – Roger Attrill Mar 11 '13 at 19:40
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    My six year old had no hesitation in starting at option one given the above image. We still haven't been given a typical age range yet. See also, Tyler's comment below about kids being smarter than we might think. – Roger Attrill Mar 13 '13 at 7:33
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    So there we have it - the age range is 5 to 18, so not such small children, but a heck of a wide range. That age range worries me a bit, but it's all the more reason not to use childish images. – Roger Attrill Mar 13 '13 at 15:20

I would recommend going with a combination of pictures and colors to convey information as studies have shown that children relate to bright and vivid colors better as mentioned in this article

Ever notice that toys, books and children's web sites usually contain large blocks of bright, primary colors? Young children prefer these colors and respond more positively than they do to to pastels or muted blends.

Here are some recommendations of how you could potentially show the different difficulty options to children based upon the use of visual images and color options

This option uses different colors to communicate difficulty levels

enter image description here

This approach uses visual images to communicate increasing difficulty levels

enter image description here

Here is another example which uses a combination of visual images and relative image sizing to convey difficulty levels.

enter image description here

Another option is to use visual metaphors of increasing levels of progression to show the difficulty levels

enter image description here

  • 10
    The second image is pretty confusing! Do they mean I'll fight the enemy with a sword so the game will be easy (since it's a stronger weapon than a knife)? But the sword requires more skill to use than a kitchen knife! The axe is bigger than the knife, is it stronger than the knife? Then why is the game more difficult! Damn, I guess I'm not a kid anymore! – Adi Mar 11 '13 at 14:27
  • @Adnan or your enemy might be fighting you with a big axe and hence it would be more difficult – Mervin Mar 11 '13 at 14:30
  • I'd be more scared if the enemy is fighting me with a small sword than a medium-sized kitchen knife. (just want to say, this is in noway about the quality of your answer I +1ed it) – Adi Mar 11 '13 at 14:32
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    FWIW, I think this is the best answer... I think children are smarter than most people in this thread give them credit for. Heck, I was playing Doom when I was quite young and managed to choose the easiest settings, and they were all just in the same red text. If children are old enough to be manipulating computers and running programs, they can most likely understand the latter picture (If they aren't, then someone is helping them and can show them which difficulty to select anyway...) – Tyler Bailey Mar 12 '13 at 0:47

There are some comics stereotypes that are related to the knowledge - you can use them - for example - little girl in pink dress with flowers (easy), then girl with schoolbag - medium and girl with glasses, pile of books and pencil behind the ear - hard. The same icons can be created with boy faces - depending on the player gender, or with two kids on the icon - girl and boy.

  • 4
    I have never heard of these comic stereotypes, where did you hear about these? There is no way that I would know these type of images / icons would relate to difficulty (that may be just me of course, but it's not something I've ever come across). – JonW Mar 11 '13 at 10:14
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    Well, for example "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Phineas and Ferb" both movies uses such kind of stereotypes. – johnfound Mar 11 '13 at 10:30
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    Stereotypes are a very dangerous assumption to go with and should not be considered as an example of how things are done – Mervin Mar 11 '13 at 11:21
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    @Mervin: Every graphical image, used for UI icon is stereotype of some sort. Or you save your files on diskettes only? – johnfound Mar 11 '13 at 11:27
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    You are mixing metaphors and sterotypes – Mervin Mar 11 '13 at 11:40

This may be a bit wacky but I would use a child pushing a rock up a hill image / cartoon.

Something like this:

enter image description here

I'd keep making the rock bigger for the harder versions. I felt that's one image which is clear and universally accessible.

Alternatively, something like the image below:

enter image description here

  • 2
    Can you explain why these are suitable? These read like just 'nice ideas' that you have, but do you know if children will actually understand these? – JonW Mar 11 '13 at 11:31
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    @JonW: If you mean: "Do I have a Scientific Study to back this up?" then my answer is no. :) – curious_cat Mar 11 '13 at 11:35
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    It doesn't have to be a scientific study, but just if you've seen this in use in successful websites / apps aimed at this user group, or if you've had any feedback from children themselves that they would understand what this means. – JonW Mar 11 '13 at 11:37
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    Going just by my intuition here, but the pushing a rock uphill and @obelia answer seem like the best answers to this question: They clearly distinguish between difficulty levels, making it obvious which ones are harder than the others and don't stigmatize kids that go for lower difficulty levels. – João Portela Mar 11 '13 at 19:33
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    basically it also says, if your kid fails ... your kid gets squished by a rock... the second image kind of fails to deliver the message. does it mean I need 8 friends to play the game? – David K. Mar 12 '13 at 15:37

Remember when writing user-interfaces for children that you'll be dealing with a large amount of varied backgrounds and abilities.

  • remember that some of your users will be color-blind. As such, don't simply rely on colors to differentiate.
  • Take into account the age-level of the kids who will be using your application. For example, numbers are great when it comes to showing levels, as long as the user can count.
  • Don't forget that a user's ethnic and social background will come into play when using symbology to determine levels. For example, in Northern India a Mongoose will logically be a higher level than a cobra (because mongooses are known predators of cobra's, and both of those animals are prevelent in that region). However, for most of the rest of the world, a cobra would logically be a higher level than a mongoose.
  • Lastly, consider the symbology used for level advancement as a subtle training opportunity. Is there a point you teach related to the application being developed by choosing symbols smartly? Using the numbers example, using numbers to help teach counting in an application designed to teach math is a great idea. Animal symbols will be more acceptable for life-sciences training.

A cartoon picture of a kid riding a bike. On level ground for the easiest level, and then 2 or 3 increasing grades to indicate more difficult levels.

Alternatively, 3 or 4 different bicycles. Tricycle for easiest, then a training wheel bicycle, older child's bicycle, then racing or mountain bike.

  • I like the bicycles, because kids know that the bigger bikes are harder. – Mooing Duck Mar 13 '13 at 0:05

I think a good idea is to propose also a concept:

"The harder you play, the better you become"

Let me explain with a class dress progression from a famous title:

enter image description here

So children know the concept "level" and know the concept "improve while playing".

Obviously, the image I proposed is not suitable for a game for children but I hope you got the idea.

  • 18
    I would be worried that a child would think "Oh wow, that last one looks best/strongest! I want to be her" and miss the meaning all together. – Preston Mar 11 '13 at 20:05
  • Ok, but the first time you play you loose. So you understand that you must improve your abilities before... – Seraphim's host Mar 11 '13 at 20:20
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    @Seraphim'shost but isn't that silly? The question is how to make the choice clear, not to present them with an ambiguous option that becomes clear once they make the wrong choice. – xdumaine Mar 12 '13 at 12:36
  • @roviuser/Preston Fitzgerald yes, you're right. Maybe I used a wrong pic to explain the concept. The character dress progression is used to attract the player and let him/her think "yes I want be her". I would be more confortable to suggest other options but I don't know anything about what "level" and "more difficult level" means in the game mentioned in the original question. – Seraphim's host Mar 12 '13 at 13:53
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    @Seraphim's host I would be afraid that after the first time they play and they lose, they would just leave the game all together instead of switching difficulty levels. Attention spans are getting shorter every day. – Yes I use MUMPS Mar 18 '13 at 17:23

How about barbells? It seems like a pretty universal concept that just about anyone can understand. A small barbell is easier to lift than a big heavy barbell. You could even show someone lifting the barbells. You could show progression from a skinny kid strugling to lift a tiny barbell up to a superhero lifting an olympic deadlift with one hand.

  • I think barbells are a great idea! (However, I wouldn't show people of different age/strength lifting them, because then some kids might be ashamed to choose a lower level.) – unor Mar 15 '13 at 10:08

This is not an actual answer to the question you asked, but did you consider not having levels at all, or at least not levels that the user chooses? Why not just start with medium level questions, and then automatically progress to harder ones if the kid answers them easily, and easier ones if he/she doesn't. You can modify the rate of progression so that the faster that they answer, the faster it progresses to higher difficulty (and visa versa).

Of course, getting this right will involve a lot of testing, to make sure that you don't get too hard too fast, but also that you don't bore the kid with too many easy questions. There are probably some good mathematical models and studies around for how to do this well.

The answers here are still relevant though if you want to let the player manually change his/her level while playing. You could have a little bar on the side representing the difficulty level, which can be adjusted, or some kind of "too easy?" or "too hard?" buttons which would bump the difficulty up or down a level.

  • I don't like this idea. I think kids will after a couple of games know the kind of level they like to play at, and coming to feel that each time they start the game, they still have to play through the early questions until they get to the good stuff... Think of how we feel about unskippable DVD menus and trailers. – AlexC Mar 14 '13 at 10:16
  • @asmeurer Some kids will not be able to solve medium level, that why I need difficulty level. – user80042 Mar 14 '13 at 14:01
  • Yeah, you would need some kind of user profiles to remember the level. Also, the point is that if they can't answer a question, you move them down a level. – asmeurer Mar 14 '13 at 14:28
  • This is sort of like the byki.com flashcard program (it's a free download if you want to take a look). If you get the first question correct, it adds some new more difficult questions into the rotation. If you get it wrong, it repeats the same question until you get it correct. It's a kind of automated difficulty level. Along that same vein, there is another piece of language learning software called duolingo which approaches it a bit differently. The more difficult level is unlocked when you complete an easier one or you can take a test at any level which unlocks all earlier levels. – Yes I use MUMPS Mar 18 '13 at 17:33

I think images of children of different ages could be useful. Images of younger kids indicate easier levels, older kids indicate harder levels.

The effectiveness of this of course would depend on the age range of the kids the game targets though. For example, the difference in age might not be as apparent between ages 5 and 6 as it would between 5 or 7.

Younger kids tend to look up to older kids also, so the desire of getting to the 'big kid' level could help with motivation to play the game.

  • 7
    That would be kind of penalising / stigmatising the older kids who are wanting to use the easier difficulty options though. – JonW Mar 11 '13 at 10:20
  • 1
    Yeah I agree, it could have that affect in reverse order. – Chris Mar 11 '13 at 10:44

For a kids game they should be able to count (even if they don't know the numbers they understand that 3 is more than 2) show showing a certain number of objects based on the difficulty is probably best. The objects you use should be based on the game you are creating. If all the games you create are going to be completely different then each game should have it's own images for the levels. If you games are going to be tied together with a common theme than you can use the same images for all you games.


I suggest the following graphics for levels:

  1. Kick scooter
  2. Bicycle
  3. Scooter (motorcycle)
  4. Kart racing or karting

The images could be of the common game style. Sorry, I'm not artist to quickly produce icons :-)

  • 3
    How do those imply varying difficulty? – DA01 Mar 12 '13 at 0:38
  • @DA01 This is usual or natural order of learning personal transport. As well as age restrictions for beginning to use it. – Serg Mar 12 '13 at 6:34
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    I like this metaphor because it's something kids would likely relate to in their (so far short) lives. However I'd probably do it Tricycle->Bicycle->Scooter->Car. – devios1 Mar 14 '13 at 18:08

You have a really fundamental flaw here, which is trying to design a game for age 5-18. It cannot be done, the design considerations for a 5 year old and an 18 year old have almost nothing in common, you need a far more focussed age range. Like 5-8.

So before thinking about how to indicate difficultly, I'd really urge you to split your demographic and make separate games, or even just scrap two thirds of the age group that you are trying to hit.

Next, if a child perceives something as being slightly too young for them, they will regard it as babyish and will not be interested at all. So whatever you do, do not use the above suggestion of big blocks of bright primary colours. Give that to a 14 year old and you'll be laughed out of the building.

The general rule when designing for children is to age up the visuals and age down the interaction. So when thinking about the information you're trying to communicate, make it as simple and literal as possible, but then when creating the artwork, keep a much higher age-group in mind.

So for indication of difficulty, bearing in mind the above - if you are dealing with young children, you cannot rely on them reading anything, and you cannot rely on them understanding ANY metaphors. You must be as simple and as literal as possible. Forget about trying to find a metaphor to represent difficulty, and go directly to the source - create something that is a direct representation of what they will experience when they hit that button.

If a higher difficultly means enemies moving more quickly, show enemies moving more quickly on the button (eg. motion blur). If it means only 3 lives instead of 5, show three lives on the button.

If you are designing for children there are two excellent resources, the recommendations in both of them perfectly match everything that I've ever seen when testing with kids -

http://www.sesameworkshop.org/assets/1191/src/Best%20Practices%20Document%2011-26-12.pdf (may be too young for your audience)

http://www.nngroup.com/reports/children-on-the-web/ (costs money but highly worth it, there's a very short free summary here: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/childrens-websites-usability-issues/ and also a version covering teenagers here: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-of-websites-for-teenagers/


I would argue that something like a coloured gauge with the labels easy (in the green zone) and hard (in the red zone) would be a very clear sign.

I mean something like this:

enter image description here

Source of the image.

  • 5
    Except children might not be very familiar with the gauge metaphor. – asmeurer Mar 12 '13 at 0:53
  • @asmeurer is exactly right. When using metaphors, make sure your audience understands them, which is especially hard when dealing with a young audience. – devios1 Mar 14 '13 at 18:05

The best way of providing feedback such as this is through TEXT and therefore the image can be whatever you would like.

To use an image means that you must provide something that is universally accepted as a method of determining difficulty and understandable to children, this is a very hard thing to source.

Images are also completely open to interpretation by the individual. For example, where a frown may mean difficulty to one person, it may mean anger to another.

Text allows you to easily explain the difference in levels so it is universally accepted. The image can then relate to the design of your game so it fits with the rest of the user experience and interface.

You should use text such as EASY, MEDIUM, HARD, ADVANCED so that it ties in with a learning based program or if they are actually Levels that you need to complete in order, you should use LEVELS.

  • Disagree with "the image can be whatever you like". Just because the text may be obvious doesn't mean the metaphor becomes unimportant. Having a metaphor mismatch a textual label would be confusing, especially for young audiences. – devios1 Mar 14 '13 at 18:14
  • I'm just not sure what 5-yr-old wants to play a game full of text. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, but just a relavant observation, I've seen children play computer games without adult help (see NickJr.com) before they can speak a complete sentence, let alone read the word "Advanced." – Yes I use MUMPS Mar 18 '13 at 17:43

Since the game is questions, I'm assuming that means the kids can read. So why not just use some basic icon (like Roger Attrill's), but complement it with text, which briefly describes the categories of the contents of the questions. I would think that even a child knows what he knows, and what he doesn't know.

For example, if they are arithmetic questions, something like

  • Level 1: (Addition, Subtraction)
  • Level 2: (Multiplication, Division)
  • Level 3: (Fractions)

You complained on my other answer that the children might end up with questions they couldn't answer. That is actually possible even if they choose the level themselves, unless you tell them what the levels are.


One very understandable metaphor for children is age. Children of very young age are already familiar with the idea of grades in school, and that the bigger kids do harder work. Therefore a very simple way to represent difficulty is to represent the age of a child visually, for example by size.

For example it might go from toddler or baby up to an adolescent. Granted, depicting these differences obviously enough while still keeping the total age range at roughly your target audience would be difficult, and may require a bit of exaggeration on either end. And of course there could be negative connotations to making the easy level look too "babyish".

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