Playing by the Book: What eBooks Do Best

The workshop that I'm giving at this week's Sandbox Summit is called Play by the Book: Exploring Classic Stories in Games, and it focuses on developing game opportunities in classic stories like Hansel and Gretel. Which begs the question, what are the things that interactive eBooks do especially well?
April 15, 2013

As Carla mentioned in her last post, we’re at the always interesting Sandbox Summit this week to conduct a couple of workshops and take in as much as we can of the brilliance that’s always zipping around the MIT classrooms thanks to the amazing community of speakers and attendees that Wendy and Claire bring in for the conference. The workshop that I’m giving is called Play by the Book: Exploring Classic Stories in Games, and it focuses on developing game opportunities in classic stories like Jack in the Beanstalk or Hansel and Gretel. (Come on, how fun would a push-the-witch-into-the-oven game be?)

One of the things I’ve been thinking about as I work on the session is how to strike a balance between an appreciation for the great qualities of classic fairy tales and the potential of looking at them through a new, interactive lens. For me, it comes down to respecting the fundamentals of the story and our existing relationship to it but also making the most of the opportunities unique to digital experiences. Which begs the question, what are the things that interactive eBooks do especially well?

Supporting Literacy

We’re all so used to eBooks at this point that it can be easy to take for granted some of the best practices that good eBook developers apply, but I think it’s worth re-emphasizing — there are a lot of great ways to support literacy and comprehension in eBooks that are unique to the medium. Simultaneously highlighting text with recorded audio, creating thoughtful tap-on support for both words in the text and elements in illustrations, and providing options to support different reading abilities are all wonderful ways to foster emergent reading skills. eBooks like Oceanhouse Media’s The Lorax and Sandra Boyton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat do this beautifully, without a lot of distracting bells and whistles. (Guest blogger Natalie Golub also discussed this issue in her earlier post on eReading).

Showing Different Perspectives

One of the most intriguing opportunities in eBooks is the ability to show different characters’ points of view. The Nosy Crow apps have a lovely and playful approach to this, where the user can tap on any of the characters at any time and they let the reader know what they’re thinking. When you think about it, this is something that’s incredibly hard to do in any other format. With a television series, stopping to hear each character’s perspective at any given time would need to be pre-planned and would break up any narrative in a pretty infeasible way. We can imagine different characters’ points of view as we read traditional books, certainly, but there’s something that I find totally charming in being surprised by what one of the three little pigs or Cinderella’s stepsisters is thinking midway through the story that feels particularly suited to an interactive experience.

Empowering the Reader

Making the reader an active part of the story experience is where story and game can really combine in interesting ways. I’m not talking about hugely complicated branching structures where the user’s input changes everything yet to come in the story (though those can certainly be fun too!). But even simple moments like swiping to make the wind blow in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore or hearing your name spoken by the pigeon in Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App give the user an agency and a presence in the story that’s engaging in a totally different way than reading a book aloud or watching a movie on a movie screen. Interacting with the story in an active way, a way that is immediate, visible, and makes an impact is exactly the sort of agency that is unique to an interactive experience.

So those are a few of my favorite ways that great eBooks take advantage of their medium. It’s not that I believe these qualities makes an eBook experience better than the experience of sitting down and reading a battered copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – shared and independent reading experiences with traditional books are, and I think always should be, a central part of a fostering a love of stories. But, as eBooks continue to evolve and the interactive eBook grows into its potential as a medium, it’s a treat to think about what kinds of stories these devices tell best, and how they can evoke as much wonder, surprise and fascination as any other fairy tale experience.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, Carla’s also posted about eBooks for The Fred Rogers Center and Random House Kids and we’ll be sure to share further insights and epiphanies from Sandbox when we return. In the meantime, you can reach us by email (kidsGotGame@NoCrusts.com) or follow us on Twitter (@NoCrusts).

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