Archive for the 'Learning Games' Category

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.

Linkography:

Share this article...

Game On with Katie Salen at Quest to Learn

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Katie Salen, visionary behind a new school in New York City called Quest to Learn

It seems wherever I travel, educational publishers, learning theorists, and teachers of all kinds bring up the concept of learning through interactive games. It’s an idea that’s been picking up steam over the last few years, and why not? Research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project last year found that 98% kids ages 12 – 17 play video games. Organizations like the MacArthur Foundation have been funding a small number of projects to test out new ideas for using interactive games with learning in mind. A few months ago I came across a great article in the Economist about a new public school opening in New York City that uses gaming principles to teach its students. At the recent Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference held at the Google headquarters, I had the opportunity to speak with Katie Salen, the visionary behind this initiative. You can view a short video of my interview with Katie on the Cooney Center YouTube channel or read the complete interview below. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity:

QUICK QUESTION PICKER:

Tell us about your new school, Quest to Learn.

How did you recruit teachers for your school?

Was it hard to get teachers around the concept of teaching from a game design perspective?

How are the students working with the teachers who apply this teaching model?

How do you divide up the class day?

Is it your intent to open up more Quest to Learn schools?

INTERVIEW:

Scott Traylor: Tell us about the work you’re involved in with the start of your new school, Quest to Learn.

Katie Salen: I run a nonprofit called Institute of Play. Two years ago we started work on a new school with an organization called New Visions for Public Schools. Our new school is called Quest to Learn. The MacArthur Foundation gave us a two year planning grant around the school. The work that we’ve been doing at the Institute of Play centers around the idea of games and learning. We’re really interested in the idea of how we can develop a school that doesn’t necessarily use games in the classroom, but does use game design principles in learning spaces. Our idea was to design a school from the ground up built on those ideas.

We opened Quest to Learn this past September. It will eventually be a 6 to 12th grade school but we started with just the sixth grade this year. Next year we will roll in another grade, continuing to add an additional grade each year for the next six years.

Today we have six teachers and 79 students. We’re located in New York City, in Manhattan. It’s a district two school so we could recruit kids from a specific geographic area in Manhattan. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: How did you go about recruiting teachers for your school?

Salen: We think the way we recruit teachers is actually very interesting. Our process is one in which anybody we bring into the school needs to be immersed in our model. We held a series of four-hour workshops on Sundays for teachers that were interested in our school. They come in, we put them through a learning problem that kids would have and then they do some work with us around assessment. From the list of interested teachers we narrowed it down to a smaller group and then took them through a series of interviews. We also do direct observation in our classrooms.

We had some really specific criteria for the teachers we were looking for. First, teachers had to be content experts, they had to really know their content. Next, the teachers we looked for have to be really good collaborators. Teachers didn’t necessarily have to be technology people, and a lot of them weren’t necessarily gaming people either, but they were able to work in teams or had come from schools where they worked in teams. They had to have a very good sense of how to enable kids to be innovators. This was very important to us. And finally, teachers had to have done project-based work before, our curriculum includes project-based work in it. Those were the three criteria that we looked for. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Was it hard to get teachers around the concept of teaching from a game design perspective?

Salen: You know, when you begin to explain to a teacher how a game designer thinks about the design of the game, and we’re able to show them a one-to-one parallel with how they think about teaching students, they say “Oh, it’s the same thing.” Then they realize “Oh, maybe it’s the words that are different” and so it’s about helping them understand and translate between something like the term “core mechanic” in games, which talks about the primary activity of the player, and the learning design, because the curriculum is the basic activity of the lesson. It’s a learning curve for everybody. Game language, as with any other language, can feel very specialist, but the concepts aren’t so new. That’s our whole argument. Games actually model good learning and good teachers are immersed in good learning all the time. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Quest to Learn has only been in operation for a short while now. Any observations this early about how the students are working with the teachers who apply this model?

Salen: Well the interesting thing is that the kids are so excited to come to school every day. We have parents saying this is the first time that their student has ever come home excited to tell them about what they’re doing in school. This is the first time that their child gets up out of bed and wants to go to school. So that’s great just from an engagement perspective. It’s a place where kids feel safe. It’s a place where they feel excited about coming which is no small feat for a new school where kids are coming from many different neighborhoods. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: How do you divide up the class day?

Salen: When you design a school from the ground up, you attend to every detail. One of the things we spent a lot of time thinking about was the daily schedule. A lot of schools use the Carnegie Unit, classes that are 45 to 50 minutes long. We don’t believe good learning can happen in 45 minutes. From the beginning we wanted to use block scheduling which are extended periods of time.

The main classes we offer, domain classes, last 88 minutes. In a typical day a student will take two domain classes. Since we have an integrated curriculum students will take a class that’s an integrated math/science class and an integrated math/English language arts class. They may be dealing with three or four subjects in a day, but only in two full classes.

There are shorter classes called annex classes, which are extended enrichment and literacy periods. There’s also a gym period for 50 minutes.

For elementary school kids it’s a bit of a shift to be in a class for 88 minutes because they’re used to changing topics with every 45-minute class period. Because our students are working in a problem-based way, the time goes by in a second. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Looking to the future, is it your intent to open up more Quest to Learn schools?

Salen: Everyone always asks us about scale. To be honest, it’s not the first thing we’re thinking about. We’re still in a fact-finding stage to understand what’s working about our model. However, our curriculum is modular. We piloted it in schools before we opened Quest. Everything we produce is open source and online. Any teacher can take what we’ve created and use it right now. The professional development program we have is something that could be used by any school. Our vision is not to make a hundred or two hundred Quest to Learn schools. Over time maybe other organizations will be inspired by the ideas we developed and seek to build schools that share a similar model. (Return to Question Picker)

Share this article...

James Paul Gee on Video Games and Learning

Monday, December 28th, 2009

James Paul Gee, noted expert on video games and learning

If you’re attending a conference on forward thinking ways to help kids learn, or maybe an event on learning through video games, chances are you will be listening to thoughts offered by James Paul Gee. Dr. Gee is a noted expert on the topic of video games and learning. He is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University and is a member of the National Academy of Education. His work has been published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences and education. Dr. Gee’s recent book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. His new book, Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning, written with Elisabeth R Hayes, will be available this coming May, 2010. At the recent Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference held at the Google headquarters, I had the opportunity to speak with James. You can view a short video of my interview with Dr. Gee on the Cooney Center YouTube channel or read the complete interview below. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity:

QUICK QUESTION PICKER:

What successes do you see in the learning games movement?

Why do you think games are not perceived as effective learning tools?

Would a funding approach that is similar to public television be a good model for the learning games industry?

What excites you when you see kids developing their own games?

How are learning games best used to accelerate learning?

INTERVIEW:

Scott Traylor: Where do you think things stand today with the learning games movement? What successes do you see?

James Paul Gee: Successes have been slow in coming, much more slowly than I would have thought, but they are coming. What I’m seeing is the beginning of noncommercial games for learning.

Looking back on the gaming industry, developers made products that were expectable, products that were designed by baby boomers and made by principles of instructional technology. These games didn’t break the mold, and didn’t break out of a pattern. They were not good games and did not include good learning. Today we’re beginning to see games being developed by young game designers who understand learning and understand game design. They’re making good games, and they are making things that work. Over the next few years we’re going to see a real explosion in better products. Some of this has to do with the appearance of the independent game studios. In the commercial world the independent games community has been very slow to develop. For a while there really was none, but now with downloading services across all major platforms, you’re seeing many independent games being developed. Games like Flower and Braid, made with relatively small budgets, but they are really top games. Independent games like these are doing as well as many of the commercial games out on the market, and they’re setting the standard for so called “serious games,” games that have the ability to teach. If we can make commercial games that are as good as Flower or Braid for a modest budget, we certainly can make games in the learning sphere that are equally as good. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Why do you think games are not perceived as effective learning tools?

Gee: I think the major reasons are cultural, along with the slow development of an independent game industry, but also the power of baby boomers. People of my age, baby boomers, have theories and are in relatively solid positions in institutions. They get to call the shots, but this is a changed world. We’re talking about learning and using technologies that people under thirty know a lot more about. It’s not surprising when they apply our theories and do a better job than when we applied our theories. I think that’s all good, we need to release that creative energy.

The other thing you touch on, and it’s a very serious matter, is that we really don’t have many new business models. Think about it. We’re trying to make things that do social good, but if the social good is done for free, it dies when the grant ends. Right? We now realize we have to think about how to make products that can go on for a long period of time, and at some level earn enough money to sustain themselves while still doing social good. Lots of people are now thinking about how we can create new and innovative business models so that everybody wins. Models that allow people to make enough money and at the same time spur new businesses, new enterprises to open up, models which will help everybody benefit. Until we really get that down, what you’ll end up seeing are products that are made on government dollars that die the day the grant is over. The same is true with academic research, the day the grant money stops coming in the research stops. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Would you suggest a financial approach that is similar to public television? Would that be a good model for growing a learning games industry?

Gee: There’s going be a whole new set of models. Open source, the public sharing of programming resources, is one very important area. A public television model around games that would include both design workshops as well as giving out products, and also encouraging consumers to make products, would certainly be one model. We just have to have new models for new businesses. There are going to be “double bottom line” businesses; businesses that are committed to social good by solving our educational problems but these same businesses would be committed to making money. Making money not just to enrich individuals, but to also keep the social good going. There are a number of models we can think of for that. As is true of many academics, we didn’t think that business models were important. Now people are starting to see that business models are needed to bring about long-term impact. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: What excites you when you see kids developing their own games?

Gee: I’m excited that so many young people today are taking gaming beyond gaming. They’re not just playing games. They’re making games. They’re designing things for games. They’re setting up discussions and guilds and websites around games. They’re learning new software, software that contributes to these sites and discussions and products. And very often, they organize themselves into learning communities to do all of this. Their passion for learning in these communities grows beyond their passion for the games themselves. In other words, it’s a trajectory towards learning communities, and towards thinking like a designer, and producing, and not just consuming, that some of our best games give rise to.

The video game Spore is a great example. Spore is designed so that you play, and then you design, and then you play, and you join a community, and you get the products you have designed to appear within the game, and then you design with others collaboratively. This game provides very good tools to do that. Anyone, from the very young to the very old, can play.

Another great example is the game Little Big Planet. There’s a whole bunch of products coming out that say why don’t you see playing and designing as things you can do together in a game. These things are integrated together, so the game becomes as much your product as it is ours, and becomes a community event and not just an individual event. The lessons here for education are massive, because it means we’re going have to start designing, not just pieces of software, but ways for people to set up learning communities that they’re productive within. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: So the perception that learning games alone will result in really good learning outcomes, is not the full story. What you’re saying is that learning games, supported by learning communities, are really the combination that accelerates the learning opportunity?

Gee: Those of us who study learning games make the distinction between a game, which is just the software, and the game with a capital “G”, which is the whole set of social learning interactions built around the game. We used to argue, if you’re going to use games for learning, you have to have a community of learning built around the game. Now the commercial industry realizes you won’t make money if you don’t build a learning community around the game. It’s an integral part to gaming, to participate in a collaborative community around the game.

My work has never been that of an advocate to put games into schools. That’s a fine thing to do, but that’s not what my work is about. It’s about putting the learning found in games into schools, learning that’s centered on problem solving and collaboration.

In school students get a bunch of facts and information. You can’t solve problems with it, so you get nothing. The interesting thing is if I make you solve a problem, and I really design the experience of that problem, guiding you and mentoring you, which is what good game design does, you get problem solving and you get facts and information, because you have to learn that in order to solve the problem. I will also get you to collaborate in a community where you might even innovate. You’re going to design new things and do new stuff. I want to see that model go into schools and that model doesn’t have to be a game. We can do that in the world in many different ways.

The other thing I really want to stress about games is that, in my opinion, it’s not a good idea to try to teach a whole curriculum through games. Industries are building up to try to do this. It’s too expensive. We want to learn in many different ways. Games are particularly good for preparation for future learning. If you want to motivate somebody in an area like chemistry or physics, a game is an ideal way to not only motivate that learning, to get learners to see why you do it, what is good about it, why it would be a turn on to do it, but it also prepares them to get ready for learning in the future. That future learning doesn’t have to occur in games. We tend to get obsessed with one platform, but just like in the world where kids don’t just game, they also go on the internet, and they write fiction, and they mod games. They do a whole bunch of stuff. We want our curriculum to be a whole bunch of stuff as well. (Return to Question Picker)

Share this article...

Sesame Street and the Future of Learning – Interview with Sesame CEO Gary Knell

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Gary Knell, Sesame Workshop CEO & President

In the last week of October, I was invited to participate in a conference that was held at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA called Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age. While I was at the event I had the opportunity to interview a number of thought leaders involved in the world of technology and learning. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, I thought it fitting to begin with an interview I had with Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop. The following is a transcription of our discussion. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity. Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming days and weeks.

QUICK QUESTION PICKER:

When looking at expanding into other mediums, how will you apply the Sesame philosophy?

In terms of metrics, do you see Sesame’s on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Is it more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air?

In regards to testifying on Capitol Hill about the Children’s Television Act, what outcome are you looking for?

Do we need the Children’s Television Act for other media formats?

What is the Cooney Prize?

INTERVIEW:

Scott Traylor: Congratulations on the upcoming 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. It’s amazing to think how far the Sesame Street show has come, a show that is often called the “educational television standard.” When you look at expanding into other mediums, how do you think you will be applying that same Sesame philosophy?

Gary Knell: Well the show was invented 40 years ago and has now won more Emmy Awards than any television show in history. Recently we were awarded the lifetime achievement award at the Emmy’s with a standing ovation from, I think, everyone who ever worked in daytime television. But we know today that children are using applications that weren’t invented back when we started the show, and media and technology is getting faster, smaller, and cheaper. So it’s a world of on demand media, portability, those are places that we have to be because those are the access points to where kids are going to find Sesame Street. This was the first year we have ever seen more people and more children access Sesame Street content off television than on television. That’s through video on demand, that’s through iTunes, that’s through YouTube, that’s through our website. It’s through all of the different ways in which we are spreading our content now because that’s where the audience is going. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: So if you were just looking at the metrics of how viewers are watching Sesame Street, you see on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Knell: Well I think you’re generally seeing that across television, and certainly network television and PBS is no exception to that because there are a couple of things happening. Sesame Street was one of two preschool shows in 1988. Today there are 54 preschool shows on television. If you just look at market share, you’re not going to have the same market share today that you did 20 years ago. But more importantly, kids and parents are just accessing media differently today. For example, I was just chatting with someone at the University of California here who told me about her daughter who does not watch television but when she sees mom on her laptop, sits down in her lap and says, “Can we watch Elmo for ten minutes?” And I think that’s what’s happening now. I think you’re finding parents who are trying to have more of a control over their child’s viewing habits and behaviors. The TV becomes less of an available babysitter. Interactive technologies give us all the ability to have a more vibrant, richer learning experience than one-way television. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Do you think it’s more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air? In part I look at the example of Viacom recently folding the popular preschool channel Noggin into Nick Jr. I see this move as something that’s a detriment to the entire preschool space. It’s too bad there aren’t more outlets like that.

Knell: Yeah, I think there were a combination of factors to that decision which may have had to do mostly with branding, as well as the economics of children’s programming, because there are 54 shows, so I think Nickelodeon probably made the decision that, well, we need to be under this umbrella because it will attract more people to watch our programs. But I agree with you. I think we have to have some safe spaces for children, where moms and dads can leave their kids in a place where they’re not going to be marketed to, where they’re going to be safe from commercial messaging, and it’s a place where kids are going to have a learning experience. Because we do know, even with the youngest kids, that television teaches. As Joan Ganz Cooney always says, “It’s not whether television teaches, it’s what does it teach.” So we’ve got to be in those spaces today just as we were in 1969. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Related to those safe spaces for children, I know earlier this summer you were testifying on Capitol Hill in front of Congress about the Children’s Television Act, a bill that a major children’s media advocate, Peggy Charren, was able to see turn into law many years ago. Could you talk a little bit about your latest efforts and what you hope will be achieved?

Knell: Let’s think about how the world of media has changed in the last 20 years. The Internet did not exist 20 years ago, at least in its popular format. What we were trying to urge senators to do was to take a fresh look at this. Maybe the rules about having three hours of educational television on every broadcast station are sort of irrelevant today. I mean most kids don’t know what NBC is necessarily, or channel 9 versus channel 12. It’s really about shows that they’re watching or their platforms online. And I think you’ve got to redefine the space in terms of protecting children’s health and promoting education. So we were trying to promote the idea that there’s a real gap in educational programming today, especially for 6 to 9 year olds, in fact, a bigger gap than there is for preschoolers. The other thing is to make sure that children’s health and welfare are being taken into account. Things like childhood obesity, which have exploded in America over the last decade, in part, many people feel, because of the commercial messages targeting kids with foods that are less than healthy. These are things we were trying to urge Congress to take a fresh look back, 20 years after the initial act, which has become a little bit irrelevant if you go back and look at it. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: One might argue that it’s a bit of a challenge to think about the mindset of Children’s Television Act and applying it online or in other kinds of digital media delivery systems, that in principal it’s a great place to go, but in order to get everyone on the same page to try to implement it across numerous online media outlets, there’s a real challenge there.

Knell: It’s true. Although, you know, children’s content platforms are still children’s content platforms. And so you have these iconic characters who have a huge influence over children. When a major character on some channel is promoting double cheeseburgers, it has a big influence on a child’s behavior. It doesn’t really matter what the distribution platform happens to be. You’re looking at the use of licensed characters to promote unhealthy lifestyles. And those are the things that those of us who care about children’s health need to do something about, and that’s what we’re focusing on, along with a lot of other people. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: During the Breakthrough Learning event held at Google recently, you announced the Cooney Prize. Could you share a little bit about what you hope it will spark in the years ahead?

Gary Knell: Well we feel that we’re just beginning to unleash the power of digital media in learning applications. There are a lot of people talking about it. This is a way to specifically bring attention to 6 to 9 year olds, which the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is focused on, and try to promote digital learning for literacy using online platforms and also, specifically, mobile learning platforms. The iPod Touch, for example, could be a very powerful learning platform, without the cell phone component. And being able to connect kids to content in unique ways who otherwise disengage from learning could be a way that reaches them more directly. What we’re trying to do is spur innovation by having a prize contest. We will be giving cash awards to the most innovative people who come forward with the most innovative ideas. We hope this contest will spur innovation. We hope that these ideas can be incubated to go to market, and frankly, we hope that other people will copy this. We want to start a movement in which we challenge the conventional wisdom in the gaming community, for instance, that education can’t sell. This is the same challenge that Joan Cooney had before the launch of Sesame Street when she was told that education can’t sell on television. Well we certainly know that is not the case. You now have 54 shows on air, you have six competing networks, and all of this started because of a dinner party in Manhattan decades ago, when two people got together and thought about the idea of using television to teach children something, something more than showing them sugared cereal commercials. And look what happened. Now fast forward to 2009, we think we can spark a similar outcome. What we want to do is jump start this idea a little bit through these awards. (Return to Question Picker)

Share this article...

15 Minutes of Insight at the Toy Store

Monday, September 21st, 2009

The new tween Dora the Explorer display that greeted me at the door

I raced out the door last night with one of my young friends for a trip to Toys R Us. By the time we arrived, we had 15 minutes before closing time. We would not let this fact deter our mission, to purchase a very specific Nintendo DS title.

Walking into the store, we were immediately confronted a five foot tall box portraying the tweenage Dora. It welcomed visitors to the store with an announcement for the Dora Links online world that would become available in another week or so. My young companion was pulling my hand, trying to steer me in the direction of the video games department. “Please! Hurry up! They’re going to close!” she yelled as we passed the Star Wars section. My jaw dropped. An amazing display of new Lego and non-Lego Star Wars products called out to me. I immediately lost track of time and space, wishing to savor each shiny new Star Wars item displayed before me. There were many life sized Clone Wars images hanging from the rafters, but every one was labeled “Star Wars.” I wondered if other adults knew about the Clone Wars television show and if they too thought there was some mistake with the display’s labeling.

My friend continued to pull me by numerous Hannah Montana products until finally we made it into the video games section. We found the Nintendo DS isle, but the ScribbleNauts title we came for was nowhere to be found. Clearly this area was a hotbed of activity. We groaned out loud that the shelf was empty and a nearby clerk headed to the storage room to find another box full of ScribbleNauts titles to restock the shelf. It was at that point that I ran into the store manager. Now was my chance to get the inside scoop!

We exchanged some small talk around the successful launch of ScribbleNauts. There was a $15 dollar in-store gift card offer with the purchase of this title. I wondered what the video game store down the street was offering to pull people in. I was happy to avoid that’s store’s nine foot evil battlebot display that guarded the door to announce some futuristic XBox Armageddon game. I was excited to buy my copy at a toy store.

The TRU manager I spoke with was certainly on top of her game, despite the corporate cost savings measure to cancel this year’s event to share the latest and greatest product info with all of their store managers before the holiday.

The Disney netbook

We stood nearby a shelf lined with about nine different netbooks, those trimmed down laptop-like computers which are best used for web browsing and email. They typically cost between $300 and $350, a sizable sum for a toy store purchase. The only netbook I recognized by name was the Disney netbook. The recently announced Nickelodeon netbook was nowhere to be found. I noticed how each netbook was wrapped with three bulky secure straps, making them look less appealing. I asked the manager how the netbooks were selling. “Well, we’re seeing some movement with them, but not a lot. My assumption is that they’re doing better at stores like BestBuy and other consumer goods stores like that.” I asked specifically about the Disney netbook and she said it wasn’t moving any more than the others, though its light coloring and prominent shelf position made it easier to find over its competitors.

Thinking about the latest news in the video games world, I asked how The Beatles Rock Band title was doing.

“The title is doing well. The peripherals are selling nicely too.”

“Anything else of note that’s selling?” Nothing came to mind for her.

“How about that giant Dora display?” I asked.

“Well, I think people don’t quite know what to make of that one yet. Diego recently has been attracting more attention than Dora. While there are still many people that love Dora, Diego is hot. It’s doing well.”

The manager left to follow up on a call in another part of the store. My young friend told me the reason why Diego is doing better than Dora is because there are animals on Diego’s show. “Oh,” I said. “That makes sense.”

I then brought my ScribbleNauts title, along with the latest Professor Layton title to the counter. I was so excited about a new Professor Layton game, the last one was fantastic.

Trying to strike up a similar conversation with the clerk who was ringing up our purchase I realized there are two kinds of toy people in the world; Those who love toys, love talking about toys, love the business of toys and those who are simply there to punch a clock. I wondered how could anyone not love the toy world, warts and all?

Having completed my purchase, it was announced over the store’s sound system that the store was closed. Now it was my turn to grab my young friend’s hand and drag her through the outside path of the store quickly looking at products we had yet to see.

We scrambled through preschool. Nothing noteworthy stood out which I found very odd. There is always something of interest in this part of the store.

Opposite of the preschool isle there was an end cap display that offered Transformers masks complete with voice pitch shift capability. Cool!

Then we passed a dozen or so miniature, battery powered jeeps and SUVs, the standing out from the crowd. They were all so gigantic in size! My friend wanted to stay here and explore, but there was no time. I wondered how anyone would have space in their garage for such a thing?

VTech's toy laptop

Then there was a VTech end cap displaying two different “laptop” computers. These simplified electronic toy computers were targeting young children, but would the 3 inch black and white screen display be enough of a toy offer to maintain a child’s interest, even if that toy was priced for 60 bucks? I began to wonder if the rapid pace of technology change would result in five year olds demanding a real laptop with a real screen next holiday season.

At the end of another isle I was surprised to find that Publications International was still selling their talking books. VTech also had a similar, but smaller talking book display. Okay, maybe I’m jaded, but didn’t the LeapPad and PowerTouch talking book craze move on already? I wondered if the buzz around the Amazon Kindle was behind the decision to keep selling these talking books for another year. Couldn’t any new features be introduced over last year’s model in the domain of toys, reading and technology?

On the way towards the store exit, we passed the Star Wars display again. “No! We have to go!” shouted my young friend. As I was being dragged by the giant Dora display for a second and final time I said “Adiós amigo” and headed out the door. There was so much left to see, so much more to talk about with the store manager. It would have to wait for another visit. Maybe Dora the Explorer is a fitting guest to welcome you to the store after all, whatever her age happens to be, especially if you like to explore the business of toys.

Share this article...