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The 13th Annual Dust or Magic Institute: Magic-Making Factor #5-6

Empowerment.

The 5th Magic-Making factor of this series has the user making decisions about how to interact with the media product at their fingertips. And this, dear readers, was perhaps the most profound learning of all learnings at the 2013 Annual Dust or Magic Institute: That we've returned to the most early essentials of game play with the best of today's interactive digital media.

Let me paint you a picture with LEGOS.

Once upon a time, a parent purchased a big box of multicolored LEGO bricks of varying sizes. The lucky recipient tore open the box and spilled the many pieces onto the floor. Then alone or in the company of others, he or she set about to build something from the imagination: a town, an imaginary animal, a flying car. When done, the creation was broken apart and the process of creation began all over again.

Over the years, LEGOS became increasingly linked to blockbuster movies and televised content. The result being that what you can create now with a particular boxed set of bricks is more often than not predetermined by the manufacturer. Instead of throwing caution to the wind and letting creativity dictate the story in the bricks, the user is now obligated to follow an instruction booklet to build something specific. Upon completion, the creation earns pride of place on a shelf where it commences to collect dust until the next theme-driven box of LEGOS arrives home to replace it.

In today's most successful interactive children's media, however, choice is returned to the user, who is empowered to interact with the product in creative ways. Whether in games, online meeting places, interactive story books, educational websites, or products targeted to learning environments, the user/reader/gamer/player/learner has the power to decide once again.

Take Minecraft as an example. It's LEGOS on the screen, people! LEGOS on steroids! The environment just goes and goes and goes. The choices you can make are infinite. Within specific conditions and under game-determined potential threats, YOU get decide what you want to build, what you can build it out of, where you should build it, etc., depending on the aspect of the gaming world you venture into.

What's more, as with the original LEGOS, Minecraft can be played alone and socially. And because it's online, you don't have to be in the same room to scratch that social itch anymore.

Because here's Magic-Making Factor #6: We are social animals. Always have been. Always will be. We are social animals that love, and need, to play.

Play is something we humans do to learn and to be in community with others, and, of course, to relax. It's an essential part of growing up, but it's something we never really grow out of, if we're lucky. Our games may change as we age, and our tools may change as we develop as a species, but our need to play with others and the pleasure we derive from it never ever goes away.

Returning to Minecraft and why it Is so important as a model for interactive product developers: Minecraft is popular because it can be played socially. But it's addictive because it's empowering, and not just within the game.

"Minecrafters" can take Minecraft code, which is open-source, and create their own versions of the game. This spurs true engagement, tapped by intrinsic motivation. Users learn through play in the very best sense of the expression. Because they want to.

Serious Minecrafters are not just enjoying a little down time with friends. And they're certainly not "wasting" time in front of a screen. They are figuring out, on a technical level, such things as gaming mechanics, 3D modeling, APIs, protocol analysis, and environment integration -- all the stuff of a degree in software engineering. They're solving engineering questions by brainstorming solutions to real world questions and applying them to an imaginary world of their making. On a human level, they are gaining confidence in themselves and learning how to collaborate with others. They are tapping the foundations of the creative process, every time they play, by experimenting, testing, failing, trying again, and eventually succeeding before moving on to the next challenge.

They are constructing, one pixelated block at a time, an internal world of knowing that they will carry with them into the future.

And that is pure magic. What we should all be striving for in our tools and products.

Now, I'm off to re-think the Time Traveler Tours and Time Traveler Tales' models. I think it's about time I Level-Up!

Not convinced? Check out the video documentary above. Then let me know what you think.

If you liked this post, you might also like:
Magic-Making Factor #4
Magic-Making Factor #1-3

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The 13th Annual Dust or Magic Institute: Magic-Making Factors #1-3

For 14 years, researchers, reviewers, and thought leaders in the world of interactive media for kids convene at Dust or Magic events to discuss, dissect, discern, and determine where the magic lies – and where it doesn’t – in digital products for youth.

They are helping to chart the way forward for our field, while providing tried-and-true advice to developers as to what constitutes developmentally appropriate learning tools for young people.

I was thrilled to be a part of the Institute for the first time this year.

The overarching goal of the Dust or Magic Institute, I quickly learned, is to define the factors that contribute to making child-focused interactive digital media – whether apps, games, TV, web-based tools and programs, eBooks or toys – worthy of our esteem or otherwise, that is: Magic or Dust.

Products are demoed, analyzed, and critiqued through the lens of childhood development, learning theory, and what can be considered educational play.

At Dust or Magic, the judgments aimed at today’s offerings are binary. But that’s not to say it's all clear-cut. For the world of children’s interactive media is in its infancy – the equivalent of the silent picture show days in the evolution of film – and what makes something “best in class” is changing all the time.

Factors that made magic even five years ago may tend toward dust today. As the devices (hardware) evolve, so must the software, and with it the content. As we learn more about what we can do with our tools, so too expand the myriad options that suggest what we can do with pictures, stories, words, and games to engage and educate young people and lay the foundation for lifelong learning.

Magic-Making Factors #1, #2, & #3

One conclusion we reached this year is that the earliest digital products sought to create one-to-one relationships with users, mirroring the experiences one might have with a book. Also like the book, these products tended to be linear.

Today, however, the strongest products succeed in bursting linear boundaries. They also encourage group experiences and empower users to jump off the screen and relate to each other and their environment.

This can be seen in the many offerings of Toca Boca that inspire creative parallel play among the pre-school set, the screen being their starting point. In Tinybops’ brilliant interactive exploration of the human body, aimed at an older audience, navigating through the app is anything but linear. The same can be said for most of the apps coming out of Touch Press, including their latest: Disney Animated. And Time Traveler Tours’ own innovative approach to educational tourism, in which the screen and story launch users into an exploration of their physical surroundings, was also validated.

The video above shows me demoing not just Beware Madame la Guillotine, but the Time Traveler Tours & Tales concept in general. We came out with a strong 7 out of 10. Pretty good for a first-timer at the Dust or Magic institute, don't you think?

I hope you’ll take a look at it and give us your rating.

Do you have any questions about Dust or Magic? Ask them in the comments. I’ll be happy to address them in future posts. Meantime, stay tuned. More #DustorMagic musings to come!

All best, Sarah

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Tools of Change at Dust or Magic

It's conference time again and I'm off! This time to...

...the annual Institute of designers, researchers, and reviewers of interactive media (IM) for children and youth.

So stay tuned for blog posts from historic Lambertville, New Jersey, including:

  • updates on the latest product releases and their use in schools;

  • observations on the intersection between child development theory and emerging interactive teaching-and-learning tools;

  • highlights on what's new in interactive design; and

  • interviews with others who are passionate about the potential of interactive media for children

Meanwhile, I invite you to check out my blog post in O'Reilly's Tools of Change for Publishing about the 3rd, and last, TOC Bologna Conference, where I met many of the fine folks who are the magic behind Dust or Magic.

Your comments welcome!

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