TAG | Gaming
This Christmas will see the 2012 Furby revival. The mechanical fur covered children’s must-have of the late nineties has been revamped and is back for a new generation of children to enjoy. The 2012 re – furbish – ments include LCD screen eyes which are even more disturbing that their slowly blinking predecessors, a more complicated mechanical body for an impressively large array of dance moves and more sensors so it will be even harder to turn off. Furbys remain without an off switch. But the most exciting addition is that the 2012 Furby comes with its own smart phone and tablet app.
You will be able to feed your Furby by virtually flinging food at it via an app – a vast improvement on just putting your finger in its mouth. And at last you can get an app that will translate Furbish. So you can finally understand that “yoo?” means “Why will you not play with me today?” along with the subtext “This usually means the Furby is upset”. This is, of course, only useful if you are too lazy to teach your Furby English.
The return of Furbys may not seem significant and indeed the popularity of the 2012 Furby may prove to be as short lived as its forebearers. But the kind of technology they offer and the uses to which it is employed are unlikely to be a fad.
Smart phone and tablet apps for children are very popular – 75% of parents share their smartphones with their children according to a recent study in the UK. There are thousands of apps specifically designed for children which range from educational games to apps for their favourite Disney character. The combination of an app with a physical – more traditional – toy is the next step in the evolution of children’s entertainment. The simplest way to integrate an app and toy is to create an app that functions as a remote control. For example, you can use your phone or tablet as steering wheel to control toy cars or helicopters. More impressive apps go beyond this, such as the app gun which uses a device’s camera to turn the screen into a view finder; transforming your surroundings into a battle field.
The app enhances the toy and the act of playing with it beyond the physicality of the toy itself and in doing so the app creates an augmented reality. Playing and experimenting is how children learn, so there will inevitably be worries regarding any detrimental effects relating to augmented reality i.e. that children will somehow be unable to function in reality.
Will it confuse children? Will it spoil them? Will it make them lazy? Whether augmented reality and gaming are beneficial to learning is a topic that we discuss regularly in this blog. Augmented reality creates new experiences and new ways to interact with topics and as a result facilitates learning.
Many commentators on news reports favour the ‘in my day we had nothing but imagination’ approach to attacking advances in augmented reality. The danger being that children could be presented with toys so brilliant that they don’t have to use their own imagination to have fun. These commentators forget that augmented reality works with imagination to ignite it not to replace it. Augmented reality involves the suspension of disbelief which requires imagination.
There are augmented reality apps that harness children’s imagination for their own benefit, for example the app that claims to make plasters fun. It aims to take away the fear associated with plasters for the child’s –minimal – health benefit demonstrating the possible constructive applications of this technology.
In 1998, age 8, I had a Furby for Christmas. A year later my sister had a Baby Furby. My main memories of the late nineties Furby craze are children telling horror stories. Terrifying tales of Furbys awakening mysteriously in the middle of the night were swapped around the classroom. Furbys that mysterious moved from across the bedroom through the night. Furbys that kept talking when they had their batteries removed.
Just typing the phrase ‘furbys are’ into google produces the above results indicating my recollections may be part of a wider phenomenon. It is very hard to prevent a child’s imagination from enhancing any toy and I doubt that the toys of the future, including this year’s Furby, will escape any imaginitive improvements.
Creativity’s a funny thing. Not only is it often thought of as an intangible quality that is bestowed on a rare fortunate few , but we are somewhat used to thinking that those rare few work alone, or that they at the very least, call the shots. Creative agencies have people called ‘creatives’, whose job it is to be creative and direct other people who aren’t creative.
Now of course we have partnerships like Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Morecambe and Wise, Adam and Joe, examples of people who were on the same wavelength to such an extent that they can produce things which are wonderfully more than the sum of their parts.
But lately I’ve got thinking that creativity itself is starting to take a different turn. Permit me to take you on a tangential dive into one of my pet loves.
Those who know me will know that I go on about gaming a lot. Too much, perhaps. And not in a l33t speak, last-weekend-I-played-CoDMW2-til-my-eyes-bled kind of way, but in a way which acknowledges that gaming’s move into mainstream is an event of real cultural significance, and that entertainment and art may never be the same again.
I have also been, for some time, fairly convinced of the analogy between a game having a designer and a novel having a writer – great novels can be crafted into works of art because often they are written by people with singular visions, who have control over every line, word and punctuation point (to a degree – I realise this is a somewhat naive conception of the contemporary publishing world, at least).
As gaming and the means by which to create games became popularised over the last, say, 20 years, it has become more and more possible for the creators of computer games to exhibit an analogous level of control over their creations. Picture lone programmer/designers, hunched over their machines in the late hours, just as the penniless artist might at their desk furiously scribbling / painting / typing when in the throes of an idea on a dark night, until everything is Just. Right. I believed that if the trend continued, you would eventually get games which were just as honed, just as artful, as great novels.
However, having worked at a digital agency for some time now, it hit me the other day that that vision is unlikely to be the future, for computer games. I’m not discounting the possibility that single individuals can produce captivating gaming experiences; people like Jason Rohrer and Daniel Benmergui. But the thing about games is that they can be so complex and so full of variables, and require so many different skills, that actually the creativity you need to produce a great game is of a very different kind. Some games like Aquaria are created by designer – programmer collaborations, so you get a kind of Lennon-McCartney partnership, more still are created by small teams, like a band jamming to thrash out a song, and others are created by vast studios, like an entire orchestra getting together and saying ‘hey guys, shall we write a concerto? Dave, you take violin.’
To give an example: Bioshock contains innumerable imperceptible touches contributing to the feel of the game as a whole – the way that desks are left open when they’re searched; the way that Houdini splicers teleport in a plume of blood red mist; the way that lone enemies talk to themselves in wrecked corridors as a manifestation of their insanity.
Now, although it’s entirely possible that the same person came up with all of these little ideas, is it really likely? Is it likely that all of these were dictated by the same person who came up with the Ayn-Rand inspired dystopia that is Bioshock’s setting? Is it even likely that whoever decided to set the game in a decrepit, dripping art deco labyrinthine city under the sea, is an individual, rather than a group of writers?
Or is it more plausible that all of these things fell out of when a group of people threw everything they had into a Magimix and pressed ‘On’? For the record, I don’t know who came up with those ideas. Perhaps not even the people who came up with them know. Or maybe it was in fact all one person with a savant-like ability to describe the minutiae of a nightmare they had after finishing Atlas Shrugged in a single sitting.
To bring it back here, the point I’m making is that digital experiences are now so complex, so involved, that to rely on one person to call all of the creative shots would be a nightmare. I’ve produced websites with little touches which I couldn’t have foreseen and told a developer to implement – these decisions come out of discussions and collaboration, and that’s where creativity lies now. We’ve all heard about megalomaniacal directors or musicians dictating absolutely everything on the projects in which they’re involved – but that’s a very difficult thing to do with a digital experience, more so than anything else, I would venture.
And as digital experiences become increasingly common, and increasingly admired, perhaps that will change our conception of creativity. I’m not for a moment suggesting that there’s no room for an individual’s vision, or for the leadership of a creative team, but perhaps there will be less of an emphasis on “genius” as applied to an individual – perhaps what will be most important will be people’s capacity to interact with one another. If games (and digital experiences in general) will become significant contributions to culture, and many of those games are produced by teams, perhaps some of the most valuable contributions to culture in times to come will be put forth by groups, rather than lonely artists. Your thoughts, ladies and gents?
Fun end to the week at the Game Based Learning conference in the City of London. Highlights include a cabinet minister who actually gets technology and seems to want to support the industry (Tom Watson), the ever inspiring Derek Robertson from LT Scotland and Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell’s vision for the future of education. The latter caused quite a stir (shaking heads in the audience, grumblings on the twitter feed) as it appeared to envisage children in webcam-equipped cubicles and plugged into heart rate monitors to assess fitness levels. Refreshingly controversial! To say that some delegates had reservations would be somewhat of an understatement.
Derek Robertson and Ian Livingstone presented strong evidence that mainstream games (not ‘edutainment’ or ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’, as someone else called it) are having a fantastic impact on motivation and learning in schools where they are allowed/that are lucky enough to be able to afford them.
Gaming in general is changing, not just by making an appearance in classrooms. We are currently seeing a return of computer games into the mainstream. Nolan Bushnell and Ian Livingstone both made the point that 30 or so years ago computer games reached a mass audience.
Then, gradually, games became more complicated and generally more violent, causing the market to shrink dramatically. Game developers and publishers didn’t mind so much because the hard core gamers spent significant amounts of money and kept the industry going. Many casual gamers were alienated along the way, however. Now, of course, Nintendo is beginning to change all that with the Wii and DS platforms. You only need to look at their sales figures to realise that casual gamers hadn’t disappeared, they just hadn’t seen anything they liked for a few decades.
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There were a lot of nodding of heads at Online today in response to Keith Stuart’s article in the Education Guardian.
Well worth the read.