Admittedly, virtual worlds have been tapping into kids’ desires to customize their play through individual avatars and virtual abodes à la Club Penguin for the past few years, but the rules of the game are changing. At increasingly younger ages, kids are creating their own digital stories, tapping out a vocabulary of 35,000 words and fashioning video game experiences. And a growing number of digital platforms are lining up to let kids control content and use their imaginations in whole new ways.
‘The big buzzword right now is digital storytelling,’ says Craig Kapp, founder of New Jersey-based ZooBurst. The web-based tool of the same name allows visitors to create their own library of 3-D pop-up books. ‘Hundreds (of products) are letting kids take creative control on content, but limitations are there. It’s really empowering to let them have free reign over the environment.’
So how does it give kids the license to create? ZooBurst fuses new media with cutting-edge proprietary technology, giving children access to 12,000 clip art images that they can arrange to create a pop-up book. They can also outline specifications (like how far an image will ‘pop’) and install additional features such as chat bubbles. Kapp insists most children can build a book within 10 minutes. His data also shows that the majority of ZooBurst site visitors, ranging primarily between five and 10 years old, spend roughly 4.5 minutes reading and interacting with their newly created stories per session.
‘Kids can write their own stories, decide how the characters act and where they’re placed. There’s very little pre-made content. It’s all up to the kids to express themselves,’ says Kapp. (He developed ZooBurst with two colleagues over the course of eight months while doing post-grad work at New York University.)
What really sets ZooBurst apart from other digital storytelling tools is its augmented reality feature, which allows kids to view their newly created content in 3-D mode. With a webcam and Flash-based technology, kids can view their books through a virtual mirror and use gestures to flip pages thanks to ZooBurst’s motion-based algorithm that allows users to engage with the books without needing to touch the keyboard.
Drawing on the product’s literary bent and Kapp’s work in educational technology, ZooBurst has gained traction with US educators. Since its April 14 debut, more than 3,500 teachers from around the world have signed up for what is now a free model, with the largest demand coming from the US, Australian, New Zealand and UK markets. Kapp anticipates that the subscription fee, being introduced this month, will be less than US$120 per year. Varying subscription models will emerge with the addition of new features, such as giving kids the capability to voice their books’ characters.
Also thinking outside the box, quite literally, is Disney Interactive Studios with Toy Story 3, which launched on Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft consoles in June. The latest title based on the Toy Story franchise allows kids to play in a new Toy Box mode – a customizable world where buildings, characters and environments are created by the player. Targeting children’s imaginations and a wider audience, Toy Story 3 marks a first for Disney Interactive in that game play isn’t focused on completing levels and is more about finding different ways to express individuality and creativity. ‘The appeal is that you can play with Andy’s toys however you want,’ says Ashley Bernatt, marketing manager for Disney Interactive Studios Canada. ‘Each child has a different experience with them.’
The game gives players the option to either move through the linear story or create a new adventure using the same characters and environments. In this way, Toy Story 3 simulates an open-sandbox environment where the toys made popular from the films are malleable and users complete missions in order to earn rewards.
From a marketing standpoint, the title takes the Toy Story franchise out of its traditional media boundaries and allows viewers to engage with the characters and tailor content to meet their specific interests. ‘This [concept] is definitely something Disney will continue to do if this sticks,’ says Bernatt.
Already preceding Disney into the threshold of customizable gaming experiences is Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment with its growing Scribblenauts franchise that directly taps into gamers’ creative imaginations and vocabularies. The first Scribblenauts Nintendo DS game, which launched in 2009, allows users to randomly enter words that are then turned into digital objects on-screen. So revolutionary was the product, that it made history last year as the first portable game ever to win an E3 Best of Show Award.
Taking things one step further is Super Scribblenauts, WBIE’s newest title for the brand. The sequel to the initial title, which became the best-selling third-party Nintendo DS title in North America, is set to launch in October. This iteration adds a lineup of 10,000 adjectives to the original’s library of 35,000 nouns – all of which are accessed via WBIE’s Objectnaut recognition tool.
‘User-created worlds and experiences are definitely getting bigger,’ says Jeremiah Slaczka, a developer at Bellevue, Washington-based 5TH Cell and the creator of Super Scribblenauts. ‘Everyone has an imagination, so we figured let’s make a game that everyone can play.’
Developers like Slaczka are welcoming the challenge of creating a new model upon which players add seemingly limitless content. He and his team of roughly 40 people spent nearly a year getting the vocabulary in place and developing the Objectnaut tool, a proprietary hierarchical system that uses association to categorize and recognize objects. Any word entered into the game that relates to wood, for instance, can then be virtually burned by players.
That ability to associate and create objects is part of what makes customizable content so appealing to kids. According to Gary Pope, director of UK-based family market consulting firm Kids Industries, children ordinarily don’t have a great deal of power so they want to leverage any control afforded to them. Pope, a former school teacher who has made it his business to understand the kids entertainment industry through a developmental lens, says the personalization of characters and products – be it on an iPad, online or video game – meets with the ego-centric needs at the core of early childhood development. And it’s healthy.
‘Customizable content stands at a loose boundary between TV and active play, since open-ended play evokes that same level of imagination,’ Pope says. He also notes kids are more inclined to create and eat up bite-sized content, similar to the four-minute pop-up book viewing experience they get on ZooBurst.
Still, Pope insists that even in an open-ended play model children need parameters, which can be invoked through simple guidelines on a screen or other elements that allow kids to follow the creator’s universe but move along at their own speed.
The ultimate outcome of allowing kids to create their own content and gaming experiences will make them more selective about the media they consume down the road, contends Pope. ‘This is just another evolutionary step in the world of kids media.’