Creating a Children's Product That is "Magic"

I just got back from a great three day “Dust or Magic” conference run by Warren Buckleitner for people who create children’s technology products. (The title is a quote from a 17th century philosopher named Matsuo Basho: “An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.”) Guided by Warren, about 65 of us viewed products, learned from each other, and discussed best practices to create “magic” products and learning games that use technology to improve children’s lives.

And yes, we ALL agreed that children should spend most of their time playing with other children and adults, using real things, and going outside! And we also agreed that many — perhaps the majority? — of technology toys and online media are “dust”. But, and this is an important but, many products use technology in ways that open up new opportunities for children, and let them learn and explore and play in wonderful new ways. These are the products that are “magic”!

What Makes Up a Good Children’s Learning Product?

How can we make interactive media products — like DreamBox — “magic”? Here are some of the key ideas I walked away with:

  1. Let the child be the actor. Whenever possible, give the child control of what to do and create. Examples of this range from providing multiple choices for what to do next, to waiting for the child to indicate when its time to move ahead.
  2. Keep it simple. ‘Nuf said.
  3. Make it as open-ended as possible. Just as a blank piece of paper or a box of plain LEGOS inspires open-ended imaginative and creative play, make games that use technology as yet another open-ended tool. For example, in the world of math learning, we can create virtual manipulatives that children use and move to build numbers.

  • I also share this seemingly contradictory view that children (and people in general) should spend most of their time playing with other children and adults, using real things, and going outside, while also strongly believing in the importance and potential for technology (games in particular) to change the world for the better. This can lead to some interesting ways of looking at things. :p

    But anyway. Your three guidelines there match the conclusions I drew after getting some opinions on What Made Line Rider So Popular on the MochiAds forums. The consensus there was pretty much that it is the *simplicity* and *endless possibilities* that made it work so well. These are different than the guidelines I’ve accumulated for making a game viral, or fun in a game-like sense, but these all are certainly not mutually exclusive. 🙂

    Simplicity means that you can immediately start doing things and interacting, because the interface and “what you’re supposed to do” are obvious and easily grasped. The trick is that it must also be fun interaction, juicy, immersive, or satisfying. Also, the endless possibilities must be interesting.

    When it comes to games, “letting the player be the actor” is generally taken for granted, so I’d say these three are pretty well aligned. Though I suspect that the average Flash game doesn’t do as good a job of letting the player drive the experience as it could. 😉 flOw and Line Rider being two notable exceptions.

    So, thanks for that first one. I’d say the set is finally complete in my mind! Three is a good number.

    [wow that was a long comment…]

  • Thanks for your thoughts. I completely agree that Line Rider is a wonderful, open-ended game!

  • You’re welcome! 😀 Now the real question is, how do we make a wonderful, open-ended game about math instead of about gravity and momentum and slopes? It seems to me like it might have to do with logic and proof-building, but I’m not sure… :p