Kid Pix How a 90s computer game inspired a whole generation of artists

Cover Image - Kid Pix

In the late 1980s, Craig Hickman’s hobbyist attitude to tinkering with programming, crossed with him being a father to a three-year-old led him to design one of the most famous creative children’s computer games of all time. Here, alongside testimonies from artists whose life this game changed, Liv Siddall speaks to him about Kid Pix, 30 years on from its launch.

Growing up, our family was lucky enough to have a computer: a big, hulking, greyish-white mass that gave off a hot, dusty smell from its behind and took about an hour to “boot up” when you pressed its fat, round power button. We’d use it in shifts. My brother destroyed trolls in a bloody battle game called Dark Legions that I was allowed to watch but not participate in. Mum would use it to write the annual family newsletter. Dad might play a few rounds of Solitaire on it on Saturday afternoons.

There wasn’t much available on the computer for a seven-year-old like me, until my mum brought home a game called Kid Pix in a bright green box. Much like the “Funday Times” supplement, or my plastic 35mm camera, this children’s-version-of-an-adult-thing was very appealing. Once loaded into the computer, I was hooked.

Turns out I was one of millions of young kids who spent the majority of the early ‘90s glued to Kid Pix. In case you were not one of us, imagine a really intuitive, happy version of Microsoft Paint, or a very cheerful, funny version of Adobe Illustrator. You could draw, paint, stamp, blob, drip, mush, spray paint all over the window’s canvas. If you didn’t like what you drew you could explode the whole thing with a stick of dynamite. The noises, colours, shapes and usability encouraged the reckless creative freedom that only childhood allows. Chaos aside, if you wanted to draw something accurate, you still could. Much like The Sims, Kid Pix had many iterations over the years: new versions coming with new features, new possibilities and new ways of nudging you to be creative. But again, like The Sims, the sublime, pure simplicity of the original game was hard to beat.

Kid Pix – which you can experience on a very well-designed emulator here – was created in the late ‘80s by Portland-based Craig Hickman who, after seeing his young son Ben’s interest in computers and recognising there wasn’t much for him to actually play with on it, decided to create a solution. As a natural tinkerer, Craig had previously found himself drawn to the alluring nature of the unseen possibilities of computers. He saw these strange, beguiling, typewriter-like machines as an opportunity rather than just a tool with which to get work done. “I never thought of it as something I needed to learn for my job, it was always exactly what I wanted it to be,” he says now. “I think, for most people, they have that kind of career focus and they don't think of it as a creative tool, it's a way to make a living.”

The first computer he owned was a “modest” Atari 400. It cost him $600 which, at the time, was a lot (“My wife always complains that I was happier the day that came than when we got married,” Craig laughs). They moved from Seattle to San Diego where Craig joined the Atari computer club. After presentations, him and the other club members would hang around and trade pirated software to trade with one another. Mostly games or copies of protective discs that someone had worked out how to “break.” The relative simplicity of the Atari allowed for a lot of tinkering and experimentation.

In 1984, Craig was so fascinated by the Apple announcement of the first Macintosh that he and his wife took out a loan to buy one. Intrigued by Apple’s user interface (very different from the Atari), Craig ”devoured” enormous Macintosh User Interface guideline books and began writing “nonsense programs and little desk accessories for his new computer. “It was to teach myself the graphics routines to make little games and little puzzles and things,” he recalls. “But it was just wonderful, the kind of brilliance that went into it and the level of discussion that went on around it. To find out the thinking behind the user was great.”

It was on this Mac that Craig discovered MacPaint, a program designed and programmed by Bill Atkinson at Apple that came with a Macintosh computer. Apple’s now famous graphic designer Susan Kare was the creative behind the look of the screen, the fonts, icons and features. Craig still considers the charming, intuitive MacPaint as one of the most beautiful pieces of software ever written. “One day in 1988 while I was using MacPaint, my three-year-old son Ben asked to try using the program,” Craig writes in his self-published article about Kid Pix. “I was surprised at how quickly he got the knack of using the mouse and how easily he was able to select tools. The problem was that he didn't have total control of the mouse and would sometimes pull down a menu and bring up a dialog box that he couldn't dismiss without being able to read. Everything was fine as long as I was in the room, but if I stepped out for a few minutes I would come back and find Ben kicking on the floor in frustration. This was not what I had in mind for his introduction to the computer. As it turned out I was looking for a good programming project. I decided to write a simple paint program for Ben to use. I also decided that I would probably give it away for free.”

And so, using his self-taught knowledge of computer programming and his new Mac, Craig began making an early iteration of Kid Pix: a children’s art program that, in his words, “had all the capabilities of MacPaint, but would not have any, kind of, blind would just keep going, no matter what.” To create a program so intuitive that a three-year-old could use it, Craig would sit down and think of features (filling the canvas with paint, for example) and ask his body, or his hand, where it wanted to be to do a certain job, questioning what would be the most obvious way to do it. This led to the selection of tools available to any child that played it, each of which would come with an immensely satisfying sound that would – speaking from experience – remain etched on your brain forever. Clicking an icon of an unhappy man’s face would “undo” a last move (with a sound effect of a man saying “oh no!”), drawing a line with a drippy brush would make plopping sounds, using the spray paint feature would make a satisfying hiss of an aerosol can and stamping icons would make the sound of a bang of a drum. In case of a child being hit with a bout of artist’s block, a series of “Draw Me” prompts would suggest wacky things to draw, by people with Sesame Street-style voices.

This memorable undo feature in Kid Pix was inspired by a font designed by Susan Kare for Cairo, a Macintosh typeface. When Craig met Susan and she was telling him how much she liked Kid Pix, he admitted he had borrowed the image from her typeface. "Yes," she replied in mock sternness, "I noticed."

Kid Pix was a hit with Craig’s son Ben. Then a hit with Ben’s classmates, who tried out early iterations of the game while Craig watched on, feverishly taking notes as they played so that he could update the interface according to the way they used it. Then a hit with people who began buying the game directly from Craig, for $25 a pop, via mail order directly to him. The game was then picked up by Broderbund who became the game’s publisher and began work in collaboration with Craig on the official Kid Pix 1.0 for Mac.

It was released in March 1991 to huge critical acclaim. “I think Broderbund didn't expect it to be that popular,” Craig shrugs. “There's some Buddy Holly story where he drives into town in Nashville or something and he turns on the radio and everybody's playing his song...That was kind of the way I felt!” No one knew of Craig as a computer programmer before that. He came out of nowhere and changed the whole scene. Kid Pix 1.0 went on to win multiple awards and gain a huge amount of press attention and positive reviews. Most importantly, millions of children around the world adored it, after it had been distributed and adapted into dozens of languages.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a time when very young children weren’t glued to iPads, often messing around on art games that are probably directly inspired by Kid Pix. But encouraging children to spend even more time on screens was as delicate and divisive a subject back in the early ‘90s as it is now. Craig feels conflicted in this particular argument. “If people are talking about screen time, well actually, you do lots of things on the screen, you know, you can be reading a book, you can be drawing, you can be researching something on the internet, it’s not just one thing.” he says. “We don't talk about people having too much paper time, even though it's acknowledged that there are lots of good and bad things that are on paper. But with the screen, it always looks like they're doing the same thing from the outside.”

For many, the days of taking your turn on the big, greyish family PC are over. Games are played on phones, tablets, consoles. On laptops in bedrooms, on iPads in cars. “I would be curious to see what would happen if that original version was back out there and usable,” he says. Original iterations of Kid Pix are hard to come by. But you can play a pretty good version here. “I wonder whether kids would be disappointed because it didn't do that much? Or whether it would retain that surprising quality?”

Craig still looks around at what’s on offer for kids these days with regards to creative screen programs. Some are great, but a lot are missing the point a little. “The ones that are specifically made for children I think are not so good because they sometimes talk down to the kids,” he says. “I think when people are designing for children they think children want to be entertained and they do things like put characters in and be ‘entertaining,’ but actually, the child is the artist, they're the ones who want to do the entertaining, they're the ones making something. In the end, whatever's on the screen should be about what they're doing, what they make, not about what is around it that looks cool. Does that make sense?”