‘Reading the Future’…where do games fit in to this? (ASSESS)

If you work in a creative field then you should be able to learn something from anything. It was with that thought in mind that I went to a Bath Children’s Literature Festival panel called ‘Reading the Future.’, hosted by Bath Spa.  It which was chaired by Janine Amos, children’s author, and hosted speakers Kate Pullinger, creator of Inanimate Alice and a lecturer of mine, and Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow. It was focused on ‘digital reading experiences’, which includes apps, QR codes, etc. – in fact, it was really rather broad. At the front of my game-orientated mind was whether they could offer competition against games, and games were at the front of both writer’s minds. The only way this can happen is if we know the answer to this question: can they provide an equally educational literary experience?

In the 1990s, the CD-Rom brought a surge of educational games that covered virtually every topic a child needed to know. Parents who were worried that games were doing little for their child’s literacy skills could place games such as Sonic Schoolhouse and Reader Rabbit in front of them (I dabbled with the latter anthropomorphic creature). Even consoles were covered, with titles such as Rayman Junior on the PlayStation teaching children words through platofrming.

Of course, when gaming was graphically limited, interactive fiction was a dominant genre. Gaming could have been seen a form of teaching literacy but, importantly, it was fun. It doesn’t seem to have been the preserve of children, or even heavily played by them – it seems that older teens were most familiar. Martyn Carroll’s swear-laden retrospective on Eurogamer is clear evidence of this.

The Hobbit is one of the most famous text adventures. (Image credit to Digital Spy, game by Beam Software/Melbourne House)

The modern age hasn’t seen consoles take up the reigns of the educational gaming world, but has seen reading apps appear on mobile phones and tablets. Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow, is at the forefront of this. Nosy Crow makes print and digital books for children from the ages of 0-12. Wilson explained the reasoning for this cut-off point, which is that, according to research, there is a significant drop-off in print-book reading around 11 or 12.

Wilson’s view of writing was firmly focused on the future, with Nosy Crow clearly aware of the present state and the prospects of their market. She explained how the company engaged with readers through social media, and that such communication is expectation of a digital world. She also talked about Gamification, where games, digital or otherwise, are used to interest people in particular tasks or products; it seems to have succeeded to such a degree that a wiki has been created around it. Nosy Crow has wisely taken advantage of this phenomenon.

I was very impressed with the apps she showed. A Little Red Riding Hood tale told the story with the ability to quite literally choose a path, which brought to mind Fighting Fantasy. One idea used in Nosy Crow’s books that really connected with was Stories Aloud. It is simple, really. The Stories Aloud books have QR codes that lead to audio to be used in conjunction with the books.

Ideas such as Stories Aloud already have equivalents in video games. The Wonderbook peripheral, when shown to the PlayStation Eye, makes it look as if stories are coming alive from your ‘book’. This could be easily adapted to include words on the screen, therefore being an educational tool but in a manner subtle enough that children aren’t able to see that they are being taught. However, apart from the augmented reality aspect and the use of the Move controller, there would be little to make it stand out from the sort of experience you’d find in an app.

The second Kate of the day touched on some of the same themes as Wilson. She particularly looked at participation, which has been central to her project Inanimate Alice. The series is divided into episodes which tell the story of the titular Alice. They are told through text, background video and occasional games. However, the project is developed in a small budget by only two people. Pullinger had the surprise of discovering that school projects have helped them along by producing fan episodes.

The creativity and interactivity on display in Inanimate Alice is reflected in some degree in the gaming world. LittleBigPlanet gives children a pretty broad canvas to experiment on, but it’s literary merits are somewhat limited. It does, however, allow for some of the imagination necessary to enjoy Inanimate Alice; you don’t ever see the characters in Pullinger’s project. LittleBigPlanet allows for customisation of the central character, which is similar good for a child’s mind. Play is essential for development, as supported by Vygotsky (1978).

Variations of LittleBigPlanet’s protagonist, Sackboy (Image credit to Wikipedia, game by Media Molecule/Sony)

The question and answer session showed that there was a real thirst for both sorts of developments, and a strongly positive reaction from teachers, children and parents. However, it was hard to avoid feeling that the games industry hasn’t tapped into this raw potential, and is focused a little too intently on the revenue stream coming from blockbuster adult franchises such as Grand Theft Auto.

Disguising learning through the medium of play is clearly an effective tool. However, it’s also clear that interactive fiction that leans more towards traditional storytelling is currently a more effective digital tool. It is time for game developers to use the creativity favoured by children and to make a game that combines the literacy-enhancing potential of Wonderbook with the creative tools available in Little Big Planet. It’s time for change.

Book References

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard: Harvard University Press.


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