Inspiring Creativity: The Development of Night Zookeeper

Josh Davidson

This is a guest post by Josh Davidson, founder and MD at Night Zookeeper. Their game, Night Zookeeper is a new online game that looks to inspire children to create, whilst being a free game with no advertising.

Night Zookeeper is a story about a young zookeeper exploring a strange Night Zoo and encountering magical animals. Eventually, the zookeeper must battle the evil Lord of Nulth, who has declared war on imagination. Children unlock pages of this story with their own creative illustrations and parents can reward them via email as they go. Night Zookeeper was developed with consultancy from Dubit.

In developing the game we drew inspiration from our in-school user testing with approximately 10,000 children, refining a series of prompts to get them excited and flexing their creative muscles. On top of this an additional 25,000 children in the UK, Canada, USA, Japan and South Africa have given feedback on the game after playing it.

Alongside the website, Night Zookeeper sends parents weekly, curriculum linked educational activities that children can complete away from their computer screens. Kids also receive stickers, a poster and a t-shirt in the post for a monthly subscription of £5 (US$7.99).

I’d like to use this post to talk you through three key parts of the game’s development: how we decided on the correct business model, how and why to implement parental sharing and how to inspire creativity.

Deciding on the Right Business Model

Before development we surveyed parents and found that their preference was for no advertising, no in-app purchases and for the game to be free. Obviously this isn’t a sustainable business mode so we had to find a compromise. To do this we looked at the emotional response to the terms ‘website subscription’ and ‘joining a fan club’. There was a huge preference towards ‘fan club’ so that’s what we went with, whilst also offering a one-time payment option. We believe the advantage to this model is that parents know exactly how much the game will cost and don’t need to worry about their children seeing advertising in the game.

The business will be parent led. If parents embrace Night Zookeeper, share it with their children and their friends, then I genuinely believe an honest and responsible approach to children’s games is possible.

Kids Needs to Share, but With Their Parents

Night Zookeeper is for 6-9 year olds. This is a transition period in the lives of children, which has typically been identified as a time when they try to step out from their parents shadows.  Parental involvement in ‘their game’ is therefore a quite controversial issue and needs to be carefully considered, as even a glance at the popular apps and games for children in this age group, reveals that family entertainment isn’t top of the list.

However common sense tells us that whenever a human being is proud of something, they want to share it with their parents and early data on our site, which we tested with over 25,000 kids around the world, shows that, when given the choice, a staggering 87% of children opted to share the creative work that they made in Night Zookeeper with their parents.

Parents can then decide whether to reward their children in the game, giving them a chance to play along in a very hands-off way. This is a form of digital, helicopter parenting, but done in a very positive way that encourages safety online.Something that is typically very hard to do in digital games as has been well documented.

In order to make an educational game as appealing to kids as a pure entertainment one we knew that we had to get parents involved. Hopefully our game does that in a balanced way for the kids and the parents.

How to Inspire Creativity

The whole point of Night Zookeeper is to inspire creativity; to get kids writing and drawing their own stories again, and to add value to creative play through technology, rather than distract from it.

From visiting classrooms we found that evidence of stifled imaginations all the time. One of the most overt signs (although it has many causes) is kids leaning over to copy their friends drawings because they aren’t comfortable expressing themselves.

That is why we developed the site so that kids can see lots and lots of other children’s artwork, of all standards and varieties, straight away. It helps them understand the range of possibilities so that they don’t just feel like they have to copy what the kids next to them have done.

Asking children the right questions at the right time, and giving them positive reinforcement as they go, are both important and have informed our development. We also look to build confidence. Some missions, such as imagining and drawing a ‘Thingamabob’ that can turn light into laughter, are far too abstract for some children when they first join the site. Therefore we start them designing a pattern or drawing the zoo gates. By the end, they can draw the ocean without the colour blue.

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