Archive for the 'Learning Games' Category

Kid Testing and Facebook – What? Are You Crazy?!

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

How 360KID uses Facebook to find kid testers to improve their digital creations and apps.

This has been a busy year of development for my company. We’ve been creating multiple interactive products for kids. Some are learning apps, some are online games, some electronic toys. Some are for preschoolers, some for tweens. All of them have one thing in common. The completed products must successfully engage kids. In an effort to make sure we are making the best interactive products possible, we need to test our ideas with children. When I say “we” I mean the larger kids industry, not just my company. For those who develop any kind of product or media for kids (especially all those children’s app developers out there! I’m talking to you!) you MUST kid test your products. Get your software builds, your animations, your web games, your characters, your paper prototypes out there in front of real kids! Do not go to market without testing your assumptions, you may find you had it all wrong. Testing is an invaluable part of children’s media development and should be part of every product you make if you work in the kids biz.

There are a number of ways to recruit kids for testing. You can reach out to family and friends, kids in your neighborhood. However, sometimes you need to reach out beyond your known circle and find kids from another location; say kids that live in a city, or bilingual preschoolers, or eight to ten year olds that belong to Girl Scouts, or tweens that like to play baseball. What do you do then?

While you can reach out to specific youth groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other kid-focused organizations, you can also use Facebook. Now I know you’re saying “What?! Facebook? For recruiting kid testers? Are you crazy?!” As with all kid testing, you’re starting a conversation with a parent, and recruiting through Facebook means you are looking to have a conversation with a parent about kid testing.

Here’s a more detailed look at one kid testing ad campaign we placed on Facebook. We started by selecting a particular town we wished our testers to come from. The 10 mile radius around that town had 168,000 parents using Facebook. Selecting a thinner slice from that group, parents with children ages 4 to 12 resulted in 1,400 Facebook users. When you start a Facebook ad, you can get very specific about the kind of person you wish to reach. Do you want to reach just men 25 years of age or older? How about just women with a PhD? All of this is possible to define in your campaign. However, the more specific you get with your target demographic, the smaller your audience will become.

We posted an ad for kid testers for 45 days, with a maximum bid of $2.50 per click, not to exceed a cost of $50 a day. Our ad appeared over 712,000 times (impressions), reaching more than 8,200 Facebook users in our target age and location (demographic), resulting in a click-through rate (CTR) of 427. We heard from about 45 parents, leading to 22 parents bringing in 30 children, all for a total cost of $560, or about $1.30 per click.

Another way to look at our recruiting costs: $25 per parent or about $19 per child. This was just our advertising cost and did not include email communication time, phone calls, testing time, analysis of results, or the stipend we offered a parent for having their child come in to test with us.

Was it worth it? Yes, in the end Facebook definitely helped us find kids from a specific geo-targeted location to test with.

Was it perfect? Hardly. There were many frustrating parts to working with Facebook. First time advertisers will be annoyed that once you place an ad, it can take many days before your campaign is approved and goes live. While you’re waiting, all you can do is think about what you did wrong and why your ad is not producing. During this time you’ll probably change your ad copy and up the daily maximum bid thinking it will help. But hold tight, Facebook is just being Facebook. It takes time for an ad to kick in, and you will receive next to no communication from Facebook while you are pulling out your hair, wondering what’s going on.

Were there any surprises? You bet. While many parents found our ad on Facebook, there were some “uber parents” that helped spread the word around their neighborhood that we were looking for kid testers. About four parents that came in were in this category. They were great at helping reach many more parents, including non-Facebook users as well.

In the end we met many great parents with some wonderful kids. All of which helped us refine our product and made it better. We couldn’t be happier, and our finished product shines as a result of the feedback we incorporated back into development! Thank you parents and our 360KID testers!

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter how you find kids to test with, using Facebook or some other means, what matters is that you test! Doing so will only help make your product shine, stand out from the pack, and lead to more successful interactions through your product with kids. Now get out there and start testing!

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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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360KID Learning Game Trends at Casual Connect

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Casual Connect is an annual conference in the US that explores the business and development of casual games. This conference also travels to Europe and Singapore. This year’s US event recently held in Seattle, had a day long track focused on Children & Family Entertainment. 360KID CEO Scott Traylor was asked to deliver a presentation on trends and best practices for developing learning games. The video below is a recording of his talk called “Technology, Kids, & Learning: The Future and the Opportunities”.

Links to specific research cited in this presentation are listed below.

Do you need help developing a learning game for the classroom or just need some advice for creating a consumer-based learning game? Be it online, offline, electronic toy, iOS or Andriod, give us a call.

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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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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:


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?


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)

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