Archive for the 'Interview' Category

Cooney Study Leaves New Questions for Educational Media Creators

Monday, January 27th, 2014

[The following is an article I wrote for the Jan. 24, 2014 issue of KidScreen.]

Vicky Rideout during her survey presentation at the Cooney Center Breakthrough Learning Forum.

Media research reports are great for offering insights about an industry. They help media creators take stock in where they are today with their media creation efforts on different platforms, and they also provide ideas on how we can best serve an intended audience. At the same time, what is gained from a new study almost always leads to many more new questions that can’t immediately be answered.

That’s certainly the case with the latest Joan Ganz Cooney Center report entitled Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America. According to Vicky Rideout, children’s media researcher and the report’s main author, this is the first time “we have tried to quantify, on a national basis, what portion of kids screen time is devoted to educational content.”

The report digs deep into parents’ thoughts on their child’s use of educational media across a number of different platforms. One big finding that will not be a big surprise to broadcasters: Television is still king when it comes to delivering educational content, even though access to alternative platforms like mobile, computers and videogames has increased greatly in recent years. Television is the preferred platform by a long shot for educational media. Granted, the television industry has also had decades more time, almost 50 years’ worth, of creating and delivering educational content to young children than its younger media platform relatives. Still, with the explosive growth of mobile, this data point begs the question if parents are aware of the educational opportunities available to them on other platforms?

Among the many insights offered, children engage with educational media less as they age. Two-to four-year-olds consume 1:16 (one hour and sixteen minutes) of educational media daily, dropping to 0:50 for five-to seven-year-olds, and further still to 0:42 for eight-to 10-year-olds. Even at this lower end for eight-to 10-year-olds, you could consider their educational media use as an added class of learning material each day. However, as a child ages they also spend more overall time consuming media, educational or not, to the point where eight to 10-year-old media usage almost doubles compared to that of two-to four-year-olds. Surprisingly, while this older group consumes less educational media content daily, their parents report seeing their child demonstration of “a particular action as a result of something they saw or did with educational media” more so than the younger age groups. This could very well be a cumulative effect of educational media use consumed over many years, but still, it’s striking data point in the research. One could strongly argue, this “particular action” is evidence of mastery of the educational content that is consumed.

Other noteworthy findings:

  • Parents see a greater perceived learning impact in the areas of cognitive skills, reading, and math from educational media use but less impact with learning science or anything related to the arts.
  • The greater a parent’s education, the less educational media is consumed.
  • The greater the family’s income, the less educational media consumed.
  • Hispanic/Latino households reports less “actions taken” from educational media use than Black or White families.

These are just a few of the many findings called out in this report. There’s also data on parent and child sharing in the educational media experience together (often referred to as “joint media engagement”) as well as findings on traditional book reading and eBook use.

With just these few items I’ve called out above, the report forces us to consider many big, unanswered questions:

  • As children grow, why do they engage less with educational media, yet consume more media at the same time? Is there a need to create more engaging educational content for this age group than what is currently being offered?
  • What is it that we’re doing wrong, or not doing at all, to better engage Hispanic/Latino families with educational media?
  • Are parents less aware of the educational offerings available through mobile, computers and video games? If so, should we get behind a national awareness campaign to make ratings and reviews websites like Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review better known to parents?

Perhaps the biggest question raised in this report is whether educational media use, which appears to have great benefit at an early age, leads to greater media consumption that is of less benefit to children as they age?

Michael Levine, the executive director of the Cooney Center shares this report is the beginning of a larger conversation around educational media use. “There’s a lot of interest in having children view educational media, but less fulfillment of the wish as illustrated by this report, particularly for low income and Hispanic and Latino families,” he says.

As media creators, it is imperative to understand what can be done to up our game in the educational media space, no matter what the delivery vehicle. Part of that entails informing parents about resources available to them today to help them find the best educational content broadcasters and software publishers have to offer. The Cooney Center as well as many other interested groups, foundations, and policy makers are already quickly working on the next new report, and latest research findings that will one day in the near future move the industry needle even further ahead, as well as create many more questions we’ve yet to imagine, as evidence by the volume of questions this report is sure to generate.

Additional video links:
1.) Vicky Rideout – Learning from Home report overview
2.) Michael Levine – Learning from Home report overview
3.) Playlist of all Learning from Home speakers
4.) The complete Learning from Home discussion (speakers with audience discussion)

[Scott Traylor is the CEO and founder of 360KID, a youth-focused organization that specializes in developing interactive content, apps, and games for broadcasters, publishers and organizations that wish to engage kids of any age.]

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A Conversation With Vicky Rideout

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Summarizing “Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use in America 2013″

[The following is an article I wrote for the November 2013 issue of Children's Technology Review. A PDF copy of the article from this magazine can be downloaded here.]

A photo of Vicky Rideout from an earlier 2013 presentation

For those of us that work in children’s media, there’s nothing like finding a fresh, data filled report.

Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use in America 2013” is Vicki Rideout’s latest in a series of reports commissioned by Common Sense Media. Having followed Vicky’s work for more than a decade, I asked her for an overview of her findings.

The first key finding is this: Television and video game use is down for children compared to just two years ago. (Yes, down, not up!) In addition, overall screen media use is down compared to what was recorded just two years ago.

Television viewing in the bedroom is also down by a sizable amount. As with the television and video game drop Vicky says “I’d like to look back on these data points from a future report to see if this is a bump or a trend.” This finding does beg some additional questions that cannot be answered through the report, like has there been a drop in the number of televisions owned in the home? Has the drop in television viewing in the bedroom shifted to video viewing on a tablet in the bedroom? Vicky says it is too early to tell if this is a trend.

According to Rideout “Little drops in each platform add up to a half hour of less screen time per day on traditional screens. Then when you add in the increase in mobile use it brings that number down to 20 minutes less screen time per day. While this drop in overall screen time is significant and noteworthy, I’d like to see what the research says in another two years.”

There’s a lot of material in this report about tablet and related mobile media use. For example, two years ago only 8% of parents owned a tablet. “Today it’s 40% and children’s tablet ownership is nearly similar to that of their parents from the 2011 report. Years ago handheld video game manufacturers noted that when an older sibling purchased a new handheld gaming device, a younger sibling would ultimately receive the older device. Could the same thing be happening here with parents purchasing a new tablet and giving the children their old one? This report can’t answer that question specifically, but one thing is clear: Tablet ownership by children will increase in the years to come.

Another key trend: there is a giant shift in media use, and “the tablet is a game changer.” Vicky told me that there is “some computer use among young children, starting as early as four years of age, but because the tablet has simplified the interface so much and made things so intuitive, we see really young children successfully using this platform. If a one or two year old child can turn the pages of a board book, that same child can touch and swipe a tablet. If that child can point to an image on a board book, then that child can launch an app. As a result, a large world of content is made available to these young children. The floor for how young children use this platform has gone way down compared to other technological innovations, even compared to the Wii, which was a huge leap forward in terms of intuitive use and interface deign.”

In addition Vicky notes: “People keep saying how children are so technologically smart. We have that notion backwards. It’s the technology that’s become smart, so smart that a kid, or even a baby can use it. This change is also opening up access to content that is not just about passive video watching.

“People keep asking me ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’ Unless you believe that a screen per se is a bad thing for kids no matter what, I usually respond that this is just a thing, it’s just a tablet. The good or bad about a tablet depends on the quality of the content you share with a child through this new medium.”

Vicky’s comments just begin to scratch the surface of what’s included in this new report. However, Vicky also shared she is working on a new report, focused on the same zero to eight demographic, but this time she’s writing it for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. This report will take a deep dive into educational media, eBooks, and joint media engagement (a fancy term for parents who share in the same media experience with their child). The scheduled date of release is January 23, 2014. We look forward to reading more!

Related links:

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013
Common Sense Media

VIDEO – Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology – Vicky Rideout interview (2013)
360KID

Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology (2013)
Northwestern University


VIDEO – Vicky Rideout interview – Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use Research Overview (2011)

360KID

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America (2011)
Common Sense Media

Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (2010)
Kaiser Family Foundation


Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Yr-olds (2005)

Kaiser Family Foundation

The Effects of Electronic Media on Children Ages Zero to Six: A History of Research (2005)
Kaiser Family Foundation

Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers (2003)
Kaiser Family Foundation

Kids & Media @ The New Millennium (1999)
Kaiser Family Foundation

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Inside the World of Webkinz – An Interview With Creative Director Karl Borst

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

[The following is an interview I shared with Children's Technology Review in their November 2012 issue. I've wanted to interview someone close to Webkinz/Ganz for a very long time. The first article I wrote about Webkinz was in August 2009. After years of trying I finally connected with someone within Ganz and the rest is history (HT BL!). I'm very thankful for the opportunity, this is a very rare public look inside Ganz, and hope fans will enjoy the piece.]

Karl Borst is the Creative Director at Ganz for Webkinz and their new virtual world called Amazing World

Karl Borst is the Creative Director at Ganz for Webkinz; a position that has given him the front row on the turbulent world of children’s virtual worlds. Last week, Karl shared some insights about the past, present and future of Webkinz, including the latest 3D virtual world from Ganz called Amazing Worlds. Here are some selections of our conversation.

Scott Traylor: How long have you been working on Webkinz? Where did the idea come from?

Karl Borst: Development started in late 2003, and I joined on March 1, 2004. The original idea came from Howard Ganz himself. He loved the toys and wanted a new way to market them. Taking inspiration from Cabbage Patch Kids, he wanted to create an experience where the child “discovered” their new pet. Later we expanded this to the idea that your plush “came to life” inside the virtual world. It was very important to us that the player feel the connection between their toy and the pet online. This was where I was able to really expand the original idea. It was critical to me that the pet feel a part of the experience regardless of where you were in the world. Adding the pet’s image to the dock, along with the multiple emotional states and speech balloons may seem very obvious right now, but back in 2004 none of the pet sites had this. This was a big improvement in Webkinz.

ST: How long did it take to get the vision of Webkinz off the ground?

KB: Well it depends on where we finally got “off the ground.” In August of 2004, after a day of play testing with kids, we realized we were going in the wrong direction. Honestly, we threw out a big chunk of work that we’d done up to that date. This was a very difficult decision to make. The toys were paid for, sitting in the warehouse, and plans were well under way to release the toy that October. Going back to the drawing board meant that we’d miss the Holidays. That said, in our hearts we knew that it needed to be done, so we buckled down and got to it. We ended up launching in April 2005, and it was a tough first few months. Retailers didn’t understand the product. They didn’t get how the world and the toy related. We even made a video that explained the product and gave the retailers televisions to show it on. All the while we were adding features and content to the site. The amount of work we did in 2005 is mind blowing. Realize we weren’t even in the top 100,000 sites at the end of 2005. Yet in 2006 we started to see real momentum. Christmas had given us a lift and then Easter, and the players were coming in at a faster and faster rate. Then in 2007 we exploded, and by the end of that year we were a top 100 site, and the number four Google searched term. If there was anything that I could tell companies that are considering building a virtual world, it would be you need to have patience. None of the virtual worlds have exploded out of the gate – not Webkinz, not Neopets, not Wizard 101, not even Club Penguin. You need to commit to the project and invest in making it better until you’ve got the perfect world for your audience.

Screen capture of the Webkinz sign in page from April 2007.

Screen capture of the Webkinz sign in page from April 2007.

ST: What do you look for when testing with children?

KB: We try to focus on what the child is doing, not what they are saying. You can really learn a lot from the actions a child is taking, or more often not taking. When you ask questions you find that kids have a hard time describing what they did or why they did it, and many times they really want to please you and aren’t as harsh as you really need them to be. When you see them fail at an action, or skip over a feature you thought was key, it speaks volumes.

ST: How did you shape the online experience over time? What guided your thinking?

KB: I’m sure this is where I’m supposed to say that we closely analyzed user trends and data, but to be honest we didn’t. A lot of the time we went with our guts and with what we were hearing from the players. First we knew that we wanted to make the world as interactive as possible. We wanted every object that looked like it was functional to actually be functional. I honestly think this direction has made the Webkinz room engine the best on the market. We also knew we just needed “more”. More games, more items, more stuff to do. Kids love telling you what they want, so you end up with more information that you could ever really use. The real challenge is taking all of that information and finding the gems to follow through with. Then turning those ideas into features that kids actually want to play. We weren’t 100% successful in this, but we had some real hits, like the Employment Office and the Chef Challenge.

ST: How has Webkinz changed over time?

KB: Adding more and more makes things complicated. Webkinz is much, much larger now than when we started. Tons of sections, thousands of items, dozens of games, multi-player areas… When we started it was so simple. Players could jump in and figure it out. Now we need to help players through the initial few plays so that they don’t get overwhelmed by the options. There comes a point where adding new features doesn’t improve your game. Now we’re focusing on refining our features, and using those features to create engaging events on a regular basis.

ST: Do you see differences in how kids from different countries use Webkinz?

KB: Actually, we don’t. I think that we’re tapping into some universal ideas of play and imagination. The core activities for all of our players are play games in the Arcade, do their daily activities and then play with their pets in their virtual rooms. While we’ve added dozens of features since the launch of the game, these core features which we’ve had since day one still resonate the best.

ST: Ganz has a number of virtual worlds now, can you share a little about each?

KB: We have four. First of course is Webkinz, which has been running strong for seven and half years now. Next is Webkinz Jr. It was designed as a truly pre-school virtual world. It’s highly educational, and requires no reading. While it did not see the success that Webkinz did, parents of children who play absolutely love the site. This year we released two more virtual worlds. In Amazing World you play a “Zing,” helping out the characters you meet, shooing away the nasty Nix, and working together to make the world more amazing. Finally, we’re currently in Beta with another new virtual world called Nakamas. This world has been specifically designed for girls ages 5-11 who love making friendship bracelets and hanging with friends.

ST: How long has Amazing World been in development?

KB: While I can’t say exactly how long we’ve been working on it, the development time was similar to Webkinz. Again we went through a number of iterations. Sometimes building a game takes on a life of its own. Many of the features that are now in the game, like the Nix, were added very late in development. And we’re still improving the game. We haven’t been happy about the interiors of the homes for some time now, so we’re working on making them much cooler – really taking them in a new direction.

ST: What did you do differently in building Amazing World from that of Webkinz? Are there any similarities?

KB: From the very start of the development of Amazing World, I wanted to build a virtual world that complimented Webkinz. I wanted players to have a very different experience in AW than in Webkinz. This is why you don’t “take care” of your Zing, and it isn’t a “pet”. The player should be able to play Webkinz for half an hour, then jump over to Amazing World and never feel that they’re duplicating effort. The other obvious difference was that the game was working with Unity3D to create a world that you can really live in. This meant that we wanted our games and activities to feel part of that world, and not independent sections. The fact that there is no “arcade” was a conscious decision. It also allowed us to do much more with the Zing’s room. Now the home and the yard provide greater freedom of design, without the restriction of a “grid.” This freedom comes at the cost of some more complexity but I think we’ve done a good job of balancing this out.

Screen capture of the new Ganz virtual world for kids called Amazing World

Screen capture of Amazing World. (Click image to see larger version.)

ST: What are you hoping for with Amazing World?

KB: Naturally we’re hoping that Amazing World captures the imaginations of kids, like Webkinz. While we’ve all seen many toy-connected virtual worlds come and go, Amazing World has the potential to revitalize this space, and most importantly, Ganz is committed to making this world great. Most people don’t remember that when Webkinz was launched that it was quite small, but was teeming with potential. With a dedicated team, we were able to refine, expand and improve the game into what it is today. We have a team that is just as dedicated to Amazing World and I am confident that players who get into Amazing World will stay on board for a very wild and exciting ride.

ST: How challenging is it to manage the needs of a toy product with that of a related virtual world?

KB: Ganz started out as a toy company, so when it comes to creating the products themselves, we’ve got a great system. The challenge comes with creating unique, engaging online play for specific products under a single brand. If you look at any popular toy line, take Polly Pocket as an example, you’ve got small $5 figure packs and large houses for $50 with multiple figures, and special packs with animals, etc. When those are the toys by themselves, the value is right before your eyes and you either like what you’re about to open or not. When you have a connected virtual world, you have to make a decision. What does each item give you? What should a $50 toy get compared to a $5 toy? Despite the fact that the customer can see the value of the $50 toy, there is still an assumption that the online play value will be greater than a $5 toy. Do I think that we nailed it with Webkinz every time? No. We had some real knock out successes with our ancillary products and some real flubs. It was bound to happen as we felt out this uncharted territory. That said, what we did perfectly well was the initial toy purchase itself. The value that we give with a single Webkinz plush toy is exceptional, and has clearly driven our thinking for our new sites.

ST: What do you think of the virtual world space today? How about the toy industry? Any thoughts on where you see either industry going?

KB: Overall I feel that virtual worlds have an inherent challenge to their definition. Virtual Worlds aren’t MMOs in the classic sense, though they have many of the social, multi-player experiences that make MMOs great. They also aren’t game depots, like Miniclip, but are expected to have many, quick-play games to engage players while they work up the virtual currency to expand their homes and dress their avatars. Finally, they aren’t “games” per se. They need to be a sandbox of interactive systems that allow the players to choose the experience that they wish to make, while remaining a cohesive world that isn’t confusing to a new player. It is important to integrate casual games into the world experience itself, making social interaction and cooperation a core part of the player’s day-to-day activities and bringing the player more fully into the world through story and guided play. The future of virtual worlds — including Amazing World — is in bringing these components closer together.

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Duck Duck Moose Gets a Golden Egg

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

[Note: this is an excerpt from the upcoming October 2012 issue of Children's Technology Review.].

Children's app developer Duck Duck Moose

When it comes to apps that actively engage young children, one of the companies with products on every list is Duck Duck Moose Design. This three person studio — funny name and all – was one of the first to the children’s app scene, with an app called Wheels on the Bus.

Duck Duck Moose is a three person start-up based in San Mateo, CA. It launched it’s first app in 2009; today there are 14 DDM titles, collectively accounting for about 2.4 million paid downloads (publisher numbers).

On September 26, 2012, Duck Duck Moose announced it will be changing and expanding it’s business, with a $7 million investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia Capital and Stanford University. This type of investment raises questions that every small publisher hopes to deal with. “What do we do with lots of money?” “Is it possible to grow in a smart way, and keep the focus on quality?” And more importantly, “is this type of investment, and the constraints that come with it, a blessing or a curse?”

Of course, only time will tell. But we can say one thing for sure — Duck Duck Moose Design is once again charting new ground, as one of the first small mom-and-pop app publishers to get a big investment. Many other small children’s app publishers will be watching from the sidelines with great interest to see how this cash infusion will affect their work.

Children's app developer Duck Duck Moose
(Duck Duck Moose Founders Nicci Grabiel, Caroline Hu Flexer, and Michael Flexer)

A full interview with DDM co-founder Caroline Hu Flexer will appear in the October issue of Children’s Technology Review. In anticipation of that issue’s release, here are a few questions from the full interview to come.

Scott Traylor: Tell me about the first app you developed.

Caroline Hu Flexer: As a hobby, we started designing the Wheels on the Bus app for our own child. My husband Michael, and our good friend Nicci Gabriel worked on developing the app part-time over a three month period. We all had other full-time jobs. We launched that app in 2009. Later that year we won a KAPi Award, our first children’s industry award, and that was the beginning. That’s when we realized that maybe this could become a business. Wheels on the Bus continues to sell three-and-a-half years after it’s launch, and it’s still in the top charts. It wasn’t until 2010 that Nicci and I started working full-time. Michael started full time in 2011. It was just the three of us up until early this year. Recently our good friend, Jesse Ambrose, a founding engineer at Siebel Systems with my husband Michael, joined our team full-time. The four of us basically created the first 11 titles. Today we’re a team of nine, including the three founders.

ST: How has your thinking changed about developing apps for kids since you started?

CHF: The core of it hasn’t changed. We’ve always put kids at the center of what we do, but we’re always learning different things with each app and with different ages we may be targeting. We’ve done a lot of different types of apps. We started with toddler apps, like The Wheels on the Bus, which had one or two things for a young child to focus on. We didn’t want our apps to be over-stimulating, to have too many things going on at the same time. From a developmental perspective, we wanted our apps for toddlers to have simple interactions, whereas as we develop for older children, our apps have been more open-ended and have evolved into more layered interactions. One example for older children is our Draw and Tell app, where children make their own drawings, record their own voices, and create their own story. It’s a very different approach to the interaction.

ST: While there are many more big companies with big brands going into the children’s app business, would you say big business has seen big success from those efforts?

CHF: There have been some successes. It’s still rare to find interesting new content. There are a lot of big children’s media companies that have good apps and include characters that really appeal to children, but I think it’s a very unique time where we can invent new experiences using new characters because it’s a new platform. We’re able to do something really creative, and I think that’s a pretty rare opportunity. There are not that many companies creating their own original story lines and characters. It’s much more fun to invent something new, and it’s a better business model for us too.

The first children's app from Duck Duck Moose called Wheels on the Bus
(The first children’s app from Duck Duck Moose called Wheels on the Bus)

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Will Wright on Game Design, Play and Learning

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

[The following is an article I wrote for the January 2012 issue of Children's Technology Review.]

Will Wright, video game developer extraordinaire, takes questions from the audience while sitting on stage

If somebody asked you to name the masters of interactive design, chances are good that Will Wright would be on your list. He created SimCity which led to SimAnt, The Sims, and Spore, and he’s currently working on a new social game called HiveMind. Last year in New York, I heard him speak and was struck by his thoughts about the learning opportunities he brings to his players, and asked him about it. What does he think about when he makes a game? What are some key influences? (Note that this was a long interview, and edits have been made for clarity).

Scott Traylor: In your presentations you often refer to learning theory, including your own Montessori education. It seems you have a passion for the topic.

Will Wright: Learning theory is certainly one of the factors that shapes my talks and my work in general, but it’s only one element. For me, making a game or a talk is a process of continual self-discovery.

Scott: Can this be attributed to your Montessori background?

Will: Montessori is good for self-discovery and exploration, but Montessori didn’t invent it. Self-discovery and exploration have existed for millennia before Montessori. it’s the way the human brain works. The whole constructivist approach to education simply leverages hardware that’s already built in.

Scott: When you say “constructivist” is it fair to say that you are thinking of Piaget and perhaps Seymore Papert?

Will: Oh, yes, and Alan Kay as well. This formalized approach to learning has really only been around for maybe a 100 years. We can go back hundreds and hundreds of years before that and see people understood this as the primary mode of learning. Consider the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci. At some point the pedagogy got wrapped around that inherent process. It’s something that has remained, almost becoming more relevant in terms of its implications with modern technology, or our imaginations, and our creativity. It’s almost more relevant now where people can approach a wider range of endeavors creatively, because of the tools we have, for gathering information, for creating things, for sharing things.

Scott: So you’re saying we’re at a point, technically speaking, where we are empowered as creators, as explorers, in anything that might interest us?

Will: Yes, especially in things like the social dimension. I can create something and put it up on the web and then by tomorrow 1,000 people might’ve seen it. Think back 100 years ago what it would have taken for that to happen. It just wasn’t a possibility then, but now it’s a possibility for anyone.

Scott: While these theories have become more formalized in the last century or so, good teachers and good facilitators of learning have been aware of these things for ages. Now there’s the opportunity for learning to be amped up through technology and through participation in a way we have never experience before, in such an immediate way.

Will: Yeah, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay were among the first people to realize the impact that modern technology was going to have. Nicholas Negroponte, as well.

Scott: When you talk about games, or video games, you often refer to these things as playful objects. Is that intentional?

Will: Let’s take a look at that. People like to call the things I make games, but I tend to think of them as toys. There really needs to be more open-ended play experiences and that’s a broader world than the formal definition of games. I think a game is really a subset of the world of play. In substance it’s really just semantics but it’s cultural as well. A lot of people think of games, video games, as this brand new thing that’s popped up. But of course games have been around forever. Most games are based on some fundamental play experience that at some point becomes formalized. There are different connotations to play, and with that formal rules. You might play with others, or by yourself, the play might be a zero sum game, or not. These are just a few specialized versions of play in my mind.

Graphic displaying Will Wright's learning model, comparing the universe of play and games.

Scott: Are there any play experts you follow?

Will: Not really. There have been a lot of attempts in the game design community to come up with more formal structures of frameworks to understand this. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. They’re looking at the different perspectives on play coming from cognitive science or sociology or evolutionary psychology. I don’t think any one of these things is going to capture the subject completely. You have to triangulate from all these different perspectives.

Scott: Do you think the vocabulary around play and around games is evolving?

Will: In general, yes. A game is like the nucleus of the experience, but it’s not the whole experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about the meta-game, the experiences we’re having around the game, experiences that are the larger iceberg. For example, The Sims is a game on some level, where you can play with goal structures and rules. However, there’s a larger game where people make things and tell stories about the game. Then they try things with online communities. These are the things that people do outside the game. It is what I call the meta-game. To me, the more successful games are the ones that spark these larger meta-games.

Scott: You mean bringing the play or the game experience outside of the game, in some kind of social context, where people can talk about and interact around the game?

Will: Yes, in some sense the game in the player’s minds goes from being a specific entertainment experience to becoming a tool for self-expression. At first they were playing for the fun, just exploring. Then they start realizing they can be expressive with it. It’s almost like playing a musical instrument. At first, you experiment and press buttons. At some point you realize you can compose music. You might even start to perform. Eventually this toy becomes a tool to express one’s self.

Scott: Is it accurate to say that the opportunity for creative expression is also a central part of your games?

Will: it’s one of the more powerful benefits of technology. We can do things now that allow people to come in and craft more interesting experiences and share them with others. Somebody can take something from their imagination, create an external artifact, and then share it. They can even collaborate on larger imaginary structures. This is something that used to be confined to a small number of people that had very high skills in language. These individuals could write a book and describe some imaginary world, like Alice in Wonderland. But not many people had that skill set. Now average people are getting these tools that empower them, to create entire worlds, external to their imagination, to share with other people.

Scott: You have this amazing ability to translate complicated systems into successful play objects. What is your thought process?

Will: First, how much are these things representations of the real world? When I get started it’s usually with something that contains some aspect of the real world that fascinates me. I’ll start to imagine if I had a toy planet, what kind of things would I want to do with it? What kind of processes would I like to see? By connecting the toy to real world, it maintains a relevance. Later that toy becomes the scaffolding for building a more elaborate model. When people get to the point where they realize the toy’s limitations, they start discussing and debating what their more elaborate model is relative to that toy. When players first started playing SimCity they didn’t know what was going on. They started building things, they started exploring what caused land value to go up or down, they explored issues around crime, or pollution. Eventually they get to a point where they say, “I don’t think that’s the way traffic really works” or “I don’t think the land value model is very accurate because of this or that.” They could not have formalized these thoughts without the toy. When a player realizes the limitations of a toy, the user has created a better model for themselves internally that transcends the toy.

Scott: Once a certain of level of mastery is achieved with a game, that’s the point when a player will go out and look for additional information to improve upon those models, those systems that they have in their mind?

Will: Yes, that’s the real model we’re building, actually. The computer is really just a compiler for that model.

In a Montessori classroom you will see thousands of tangible manipulatives. This photo is an example of bead work

Scott: What you have described in a sense are games that are digital manipulatives. Tangible manipulatives are a big part of the Montessori world and early learning. Sometimes I hear educators debate the benefit of digital manipulatives over tangible ones. Even if a digital manipulative doesn’t perfectly represent a system, they lead a user in a direction that helps facilitate further learning and growth and discovery that is more accurate and representational of the actual model.

Photo above: The typical Montessori learning experience is based on time with tangible manipulatives, such as these base 10 beads. There’s 1 bead, 10 beads, 100 beads, and 1,000 beads, in the form of a block. These physical manipulatives help young learners understand small and large, base-10 counting, and maybe even geometry (point, line, plane, volume). Substitute beads with the elements of a city, where you can freely experiment with a different kind of units and rules. Get the idea?

Will: Think about it. That’s what we call the scientific method. Quantum mechanics does not describe, is not reality, but it’s our best model so far for describing what we observe to be reality. it’s not the first model we built to describe it and it’s not the last model we’re going to build either. Each model is making a more accurate understanding of reality. They’re all just models and none of them are accurate representations of actual reality.

Scott: Does the knowledge a user gains through game play transfer into the real world? Do you have an example of people playing games where the user transferred something they learned from a game into the real world?

Will: There are a lot of things people learn from games that can’t be measured on any test. On the surface games don’t necessarily feel like education. But when you look deeper into them they really represent a fundamentally deeper level of education. There’s a common story I hear from players of The Sims. Someone will be playing the game and they really get into it. They make sure to take care of the basic needs of their Sims, getting them fed and rested before they go to work the next day. These players can get totally obsessed over making their virtual lives perfect. In doing so, a Sim might get a promotion at work the next day. At some point many players experience an “a-ha” moment — that its 2:00 in the morning, and they have to go to work the next day. Then somehow the players understand that they were taking better care of their Sim than they were of themselves. They were making sure their Sim got to bed on time, was well rested for work the next day, while the players were staying up late playing this silly computer game. For these players this is where they started understanding the strategy within the Sims as a time management game. it’s a game where you juggle many factors. Sometimes a player will step back for the first time and see their real life as a strategy game. As a player, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, they were making resource management decisions that would impact their Sim in the short term and long term. Then there’s the paradigm shift: What if your real life was a game, and you actually had these resources, and had to develop structures, how would you play it? This is one of those things you’re not going to measure on any standardized test. Through playing the player would walk away from the game thinking deeply about every aspect in their life. “Do I really need to do this now?” or “Should I really spend that money?” For the first time, the game caused them to clearly see the decisions they were making in every day life.

Scott: If the game is the model of a system, which happens to loosely or exactly parallel your own life, at some point, you might reach that a-ha moment.

Will: Right. People who think of themselves as really good strategy players, for some reason never think of their real life as a strategy game. If I were to treat my life as a strategy game how would I play it?

Scott: Will, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on play, learning, and games. While we have talked about a variety of inspirations and influences across a number of professions, is there one person that has done more to shape your thinking than any other?

Will: My mother, Beverlye Edwards. She supported me with all my crazy ideas as a child. If there was something I was interested in trying or doing, she believed that I knew what I was doing, even if at the time certain ideas seemed slightly odd. Just her believing in me allowed me to keep on trying new things, made me believe in myself, made me confident that I could do something big, something special. I thank my mother, for everything I have, everything I achieved, for her wonderful spirit and the great support she gave during my childhood years and in the years thereafter. I credit all my success in life to her unconditional belief in me and support in my trying something new.

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