Let's talk about interactive children's entertainment, children's literature, and magic

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April 23, 2011

Games For Health

In 2007, I partnered with Eliza Gregory, who was then working at Harvard Medical Center, to envision a simple game that addressed flu pandemic. What resulted was a series of 3 mini-games, each of which served different functions during the three phases of a disease outbreak: outbreak, spread, and pandemic.

The first two games focused on proper hygiene methods, helping prevent a player from getting infected, then, at later stages of an outbreak, helping them stop from spreading it or infecting others. The third game was inspired by google’s report of its ability to track flu by tracking related searches. By playing a simple memory game that challenged a user to remember where they had been over the incubation period of the disease, the game collects data that can help an organization such as the CDC track and manage the crisis.

The Young Linguists

Children and Learning in the Interactive World 

Someone once told me a story: a long time ago, imperialists had a lot of problems. Sure, they had weapons and knew a lot about mass suppression of local inhabitants, but what they often didn’t have was a way of talking to them, which posed a challenge when they wanted to do more than kill whoever they found. This happened a lot--destruction had fewer benefits than taking. If they destroyed in the process of taking, swell, but taking came first. Learning languages was not such an obstacle in large regions that only spoke one, slightly-relatable language, but in exotic parts of the world, the jungle terrain meant densely packed, segregated societies of natives with totally exotic dialects. Even if you conquered them, they wouldn’t know how to surrender efficiently. The solution to this problem was innovative, simple, and enlightening: drop a young child off with members of every expedition, and leave them with the locals. When they came back, they had a young translator. Boom. Done. 

Modern technology is today’s jungle. We aren’t oppressing a race any more, our interactive systems trade input and output. But that makes communication even more vital. There is so much innovation that we have had to use imaginary words to define them. It’s the first time in a long time that children are more adept at learning vital skills than their elders. Kids teach their elders how to do things with their computer that have become essential to life, advancement, and community.

What this means: Anyone working on an interactive system should approach their process of educating users as a toymaker might build a puzzle. If it can be fun and easy, if its output can grow in complexity in unison with the progress of its input—it will ultimately become a tool that benefits its user and the toolmaker as well.

 Make it fun, ramp it up gradually, and don’t be boring.

April 17, 2011

Universal Kids Lit Question: What to do with parents?

Anyone who has ever written in children's entertainment, whether hundreds of years ago or today's most successful brand, must always deal with the same question: what do I do with the characters parents to make way for the story?

Sure, you occasionally have exceptions like Danny The Champion Of The World, which is all about the main character's father. But for the most part, writers resort to the same solutions, and they all have their own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.
"Look, no parental supervision!"
By far the most popular solution to this problem is orphanage--the main character's parents have been lost and the character is forced to confront the challenges of the story on his own. Roald Dahl did this a lot. 

Take for example,  James and The Giant Peach, whose main character's parents are killed in a rhinoceros accident. 

If the orphan hero/heroine of the story does not leave the normal world like in Peach, the orphanage often plays a role in the story too. Such is the case with BFG

Grandma is sick!

The orphan often has a protective figure, like an aunt--which leads the writer back to the same problem, only with the protector now. In the case of The Witches, Dahl gives the grandmother pneumonia, which gives his character the freedom to go get turned into a mouse, etc.

lightning bolt: translation: Rowling removed
my parents but won't let me or my
readers forget them.

And of course today's most famous orphan is Harry Potter,whose lightning bolt scar is a constant reminder of Harry's parents and the night they were permanently removed from his story.


Sometimes a story is so bazaar it doesn't even need to answer the question of parents. In my favorite animated series of all time, Adventure Time With Finn and Jake, the world of the story suggests that Finn is the last human in the world. Some episodes suggest he was adopted by Jake's dog family, but it's never answered directly.

Leaving Them Behind
When an author sets his story in an imaginary world, removed from the normal, he or she often decides to simply leave the parental figures in the real world. This is exactly what happens in Where the Wild Things are.

The problem here is, what to do when the character returns? 

4/18/11: Update: Check out http://sommerleigh.com/archives/540 on 'the epidemic of absentee parents in YA' and http://forums.nathanbransford.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1686&start=30

April 14, 2011

The Engagement Reveal

During his or her daily life, a non-magician will experience many processes and techniques employed by a magician without ever knowing it.

Lately, the most interesting example of this has come out of my friends' getting engaged. Once the fiancée has a ring on her finger, she must hide it from view until the moment she informs someone of her engagement. This informing often happens in person, especially with ones considered close, so there is a very pregnant moment between the informing and the ring reveal.

The result is, in magician's terms, a very big, sparkling prop, resting in prime position to be seen by the audience. The risk of it being seen too soon creates tension for the performer/fiance, because the engaged couple want to tell them themselves, rather than disclose the news by a glimpse of the ring.

In magic, I like to break a routine down into two phases--the mechanics, and the reveal. The mechanics (see my earlier post here) incorporate everything the magician does to present the illusion, but the illusion does not become apparent to the audience until it is revealed.

If a magician found himself with a sparkly ring on his/her finger, they would make an extensive effort to conceal it in the open, subtly suggesting that the hand's fingers are empty when it really bares a ring. 

In reality, the non-magician fiancées I meet are full of nervous energy, because the prop sits on their finger, hiding, waiting to be revealed. This feeling of anxiety between the mechanics and the reveal is something the magician feels over and over again, and difficult to describe. Just try being calm in the moment before revealing an elephant.  

April 08, 2011

Joseph Campbell and Kids

Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell
Campbell's 4 Functions of Mythology, and how they relate to Children's Entertainment

In Occidental Mythology (1964), Joseph Campbell first said that mythology serves 4 functions...which means that every great story does the following:

  • AWE The story opens its audience up to the wonder of the universe. The audience says WOW, the universe holds more than I can ever know.