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FOO fighters instilling feelings of ownership yields big returns

Welcome to the first edition of Decoding the Digital Kid, a new series designed to help KidScreen readers working in the digital media and product space better serve their target audience. In my 25 years as an educator and child development researcher, I've learned that reaching children through interactive media involves a different psychology than that used in developing linear media.
August 1, 2008

Welcome to the first edition of Decoding the Digital Kid, a new series designed to help KidScreen readers working in the digital media and product space better serve their target audience. In my 25 years as an educator and child development researcher, I’ve learned that reaching children through interactive media involves a different psychology than that used in developing linear media.

What I’m hoping to do is highlight one aspect of this interactive magic in each column and shed some light on what goes into making a top-notch digital application for kids. I’m going to get the ball rolling by discussing something most people are interested in, making money. In fact, I’m going to tell you how you can make quite a bit in the digital space, and it’s perfectly legal.

The secret? You just need to employ the FOO factor. Instilling FOO (a.k.a. Feelings of Ownership) in children within their first few minutes of using a game, website or interactive application may be one of the most important keys to digital success. It works like magic. Just ask game designers Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo or Will Wright from Emeryville, California-based Maxis. Neither are strangers to the concept of FOO – or money.

Miyamoto’s Mii avatars populate the millions of Wiis installed in houses across the globe and represent the underlying philosophy of the revolutionary console-every player is instilled right off the bat with FOO on every game. Instead of filling the grandstands with animated characters in Mario Kart, for example, kids get to see their best friend’s Mii avatar cheering them on. They feel part of the game.

Wright has famously applied FOO to SimCity and the bestselling social game The Sims, which includes a powerful set of face and body editors. And Maxis is looking for lighting to strike again with Spore. This month, the company started giving people a sneak-peek with the Spore Creature Creator, a 300MB mini-application available as a free download from www.spore.com.

Maxis is also giving would-be users some free server space to share their creatures with others. Wright has ensured that people will fall in love with Spore by entrusting them with the tools they need to create a creature at the very start of the relationship.

But the best part of FOO is it’s royalty-free. No one entity owns the concept. And it’s not new. Remember Mr. Potato Head, Play-Doh, Lego and sandboxes? All are high in FOO.

So when it comes to attracting kids to your website or getting them interested in your new video game and keeping them intrigued, give the child some FOO. Not sure where to start? Keep the following in mind.

• Let kids choose the gender and ethnicity of their individual digital characters.

• Give the child a variety of ‘skins’ or customizable elements to choose from. For example, if the game or environment provides users with a room, give the kids the ability to click on the walls and toggle between different wallpaper designs. Also, make sure one is white, in case they don’t feel like having any designs pushed at them.

• On-the-fly control. If there’s music playing in the background, provide a mute button – or better yet, a radio icon so kids can choose the channel, just like Grand Theft Auto does in the adult digital space.

• A space of one’s own. One of the most compelling things about Club Penguin is that it lets kids have their own igloo, where they can store their stuff. Kids come to depend on having a place to sock away meaningful items, so it’s worth building that into an application, even if it isn’t the focus.

Kids aren’t always good at articulating what they need to adults, so let me try to translate for them. TVs and movies are your space. Interactive media, on the other hand, is as much their space as your space. Give them some. Finally, I’d like you to let me know how I’m doing, or if you have topics you’d like me to cover in an upcoming column. Just drop me an e-mail at warren@childrenssoftware.com.

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