Friday, July 4, 2014

Monday, July 30, 2012

Affordances and the Mobile Market: Why Go Mobile?

Raise your hand if you have ever seen an app in the app market and thought, "What the heck is this!?" or "How can they put such a stupid game on the app market?" Now put your hands down because, frankly, you might look a bit silly right now. But I'm sure that many of you agree with me when I say that the app availability, especially for kids, ranges to the incredibly high quality to the embarrassingly quality-less. One could argue that the same sort of spectrum exists for Internet games. However, most online gaming for kids is free - so if you do run into a terrible game, it's no harm no foul. Additionally, the access to online games tends to be frictionless. In the app world, however, many of these low-quality apps still sell themselves for $0.99 or at least bombard their user with ads. Additionally, the process of having to download and uninstall these games forces the user to become far more invested in a bad gaming experience than if they were just browsing the web.

So often do we see a terrible game, grumble at ourselves for accessing it, and walk away. But more often, we should really consider what made that game so bad. What was it that made us hurumph in despair over wasting 99 cents on a game that was supposed to be educational and fun but was ultimately content-weak and boring? As I think about this idea more and more, I can't help but wonder if people really consider the platform in which they are creating for. The mobile and touch-screen market is a nascent place still waiting to be fully discovered. So often, people build mobile and tablet experiences based on what they already know; mainly, how games work well on computers and consoles. But what we need to start thinking about is affordances: mainly, what is it that the tablet gives us that other experiences don't? What can we utilize that can't be utilized elsewhere? Ultimately, I think that the mobile market will improve leaps and bounds if we start considering these questions more often in building mobile experiences.

Let's consider the three broadest affordances that tablets and mobile devices give us. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a good place to start. The first is portability. Unlike laptops, consoles, and handheld gaming, mobile apps are arguably the most portable. What feeds into this portability even more is the fact that these games and activities live on devices that people already carry with them (i.e. their phones and tablets). No longer does is an entirely separate platform needed to engage in a game in any space. While most young children don't have devices of their own, countless studies have discussed the pass-back effect - the act of parents passing their devices to their children to play games or watch videos in the car, doctors office, or anywhere else.

Mobile devices also give us touch-screen capability. No longer does a child need to have the acute motor skills to move a mouse, type on a keyboard, or use a gaming controller. By just touching objects with their finger(s), they can manipulate an entire world in an enriching and interesting way. Some argue that dependency on touch screen can slow-down development on developing motor skills such as crayon holding or handling objects in real space. Nonetheless, the touch-screen capability is an affordance of mobile devices not found in most other spaces.

The last affordance I believe that is worth considering is one that actually exists in most gaming experiences: the ability to access worlds and experiences that a child could not normally access. Most children I know can't fly, can't make food regenerate, or can't jump from platform to platform. However, in a gaming universe, any of this is totally possible. Gaming allows kids to have a multitude of experiences they may not otherwise have. This affordance becomes unique to the mobile experience when combined with the other affordances discussed: the portability and the touch-screen capability. Kids can now have experiences beyond their means anywhere in the world and in a way that is easy for them to control.

So what makes a bad game? It's a game that doesn't take into account its affordances. If an experience in an app can just as easily be experienced in the child's real and accessible world, that's a bad app. If the movements needed to control an app are ones that are better suited for another screen environment, like a computer, that's a bad app. If the downloaded app doesn't take into consideration the places it will be played and how the user approaches the experience, that's a bad app.

It seems simple enough to ask these questions of an app as you develop it for the mobile market, but so often, this consideration is pushed to the wayside for the sake of a developer and designer's vision. With just a step-back worth of perspective, I believe that the educational and overall app market can drastically change for the better.


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Modding Generation - If You Don't Love It, Change It!

Not too long ago, I overheard a conversation between two co-workers that really has had me thinking. They were exploring the idea of types of creativity and had settled on two distinct types. They felt that some people and circumstances lend them to have inventive creativity - a state where you can create something new and innovative out of scratch (or at least nearly-so). Yet there is another type of creativity - one that springboards off of a previous idea in order to create something new. While we tend to pair the ability to be creative with the ability to be wholly original, I think that there is something to be said about taking someone's idea and modifying it. Truly, if we look at the digital culture we live in, we are surrounded by the springboard creative types - that's pretty much what the Internet is used for. It seems no wonder, therefore, that the world of gaming has taken to showcasing this type of talent as well in the form of game modification. And thus, the game modding generation is born.

Game modding, in a nutshell, is a culture of people who alter already established games to create unique add-ons or entirely new games. This concept has been explored in past iterations of game development, some say starting in the 1980's with such games as Castle Wolfenstein, but the ability to do this was left to those with a true penchant for computer programming. Over time, the concept of modding began to take hold as small changes were made to popular games such as the present characters or settings of the game. However, mods such as these were not something that was celebrated by the creators of the original content. Like covering a song without permission, modding an established game was looked at as something to generally keep on the DL.

Over time though, companies, such as Valve, started to see the mod-culture as an inevitability as well as something to support and celebrate. As such, the culture shifted away from thwarting creativity to, instead, allowing users to change already made games into something totally new. One of the best examples of this is Garry's Mod, a mod of Half-Life 2 delivered through Valve's content server, Steam. While the popularity of Half-Life 2 is undeniable, the boom of Garry's Mod was incredible. The mod morphed the experience into an open world physics engine where users were given tools with which to do what they liked. Produced by Facepunch Studios, a relatively unsuccessful game development company up until their release of the mod, the game now live in its own right in the Steam collective. The open-endedness of this game paired with familiar aspects of the Half-Life experience make it a really rich and fun gaming experience.

Today, I wouldn't be surprised if you picked up a game or heard about a game that is actually a mod of a different game. Their wild popularity is leading the market in all sorts of new directions. If you've ever played on an XBox, you know that the communities of indie games are incredibly popular and are populated with new content all the time. Another example of modding has gotten my entire office to spend many of their lunch hours playing - a zombie game called DayZ which is a mod of Arma 2 (a shooting simulator). Modding has even extended itself to entire platforms. The video game console to-be, Ouya, will be centered on creating an open source market where users can contribute unique and modified games for a community to play. And there are many more examples. Ultimately, I think that this mod culture has given a huge group of people a form of creative expression they may not have been able to find in earlier days. Even more so than that, these people have opportunities to be celebrated for their creative feats on hugely popular platforms they may not have been able to reach before.

Furthermore, I think there is a lot of educational opportunity in giving modding capabilities to kids as part of a learning experience. Just as an entire generation of adults learned that they too could be creative without creating an entire game from scratch, so would kids benefit from the confidence boost of a borrowing culture. Just look at the success of Scratch, a thriving visual programming community based on sharing. Not only is creativity explored in such communities, but media literacy and the importance of an "open-source" attitude. Ultimately, I see this generation as being chock-full of sprinboarding creative types who look at games not as a stagnant digital object, but rather, an opportunity to improve upon and make something totally new.


A silly mod, but a mod nonetheless, take a look at Skyrim with My Little Pony dragons

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Introduction

Hello everyone, and welcome to my challenge to myself. I realized that blogging is something I enjoy and connect to. I appreciate the millions of bloggers out there that keep up with the trends and share interesting anecdotes and information of what they are passionate about. I realized that through my various experiences and my current studies, I too have a passion I would love to talk more about. What is that you might ask?: Children's media and technology. So in order to try and share in the affinities that bloggers get to share, I too want to start updating experts and non-experts alike on the findings, intersections, and developments in children's media, technology, and education. I look forward to sharing and discussing with any readers out there what I am seeing in the worlds of research, product development, and ideology.

A bit about myself, I am currently a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education studying Technology, Innovation, and Education working towards a Masters in Education. In the past years, I have interned and freelanced for companies such as Sesame Workshop, CloudKid, and WGBH as an researcher, evaluator, and producer of broadcast, interactive, and outreach materials. I have a particular love for the use of gaming in education - particular for mobile devices. I also have a particular interest in preschool and early elementary educational development.

I am hoping to update this weekly if possible and try to post on a variety of topics. I am excited to start this: even if it ends up being me talking to myself!