And why it might be worth the pain of pursuing all the design challenges.
In my work in both academia and the play industry I spend a lot of time exploring what makes a good play experience. From considering the best methods for observing and understanding play to how it can be theorised to make new or better play experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered play, in such a way, that it might be time to reconsider how designers and manufacturers of play products can best respond to these evolving needs.
I’ll start by showing why making an excellent connected-play experience is so difficult, before illustrating why it might be worth the while at this particular moment in time.
The Complexities of Designing a Connected Play Experience
It is possible to position play as a balance between three connected elements, that when combined impact on player experience:
- The product (toy/software)
- Places (contexts of play)
As toys, devices and software advance the ways of positioning play in relation to the above three elements multiplies; keeping a good design balance between them becomes harder to maintain. Here’s why.
At the level of the product, decisions must be made by the designer in relation to the affordances of the toy or other play product- essentially what it is possible to do with it. For a physical toy, this is limited to materials and size etc. This means that when the player creates a narrative with the physical toy during play, the choice of what sounds or movements to make in enacting the story are decisions made by the child.
Conversely, when toys have a digital component the modal choices made to convey the play narrative, or parts of it, are controlled more by the toy designer and less by the child. This is because the number of modes that can be included with digital media, such as, moving image, audio or movement is greater than what is possible with a purely physical toy. Further, each decision the designer makes about what modes to include adds but also simultaneously detracts something from the play experience. This can be understood by thinking about how story narratives change depending on how they are told. Take the following three examples of Dr Seuss’ story ‘Green Eggs and Ham’- the original book, an app and a song in the style of Led Zeppelin. Each version has exactly the same narrative but the modes used to convey it differ and thus bring about a different user experience. In the app the main character’s voice has been designed, whereas the book reader must use their imagination to explore what the character might sound like. Of course a non-reader would find benefits in hearing the story in the app; plus and minus. This example also acts to illustrate the importance of designing with the audience and how they will use the product in mind.
Designing play is no different. In the most complex example of toy design- connected play- that contains both a physical and a digital component, the toy designer must decide how the modes included in the play product can be used in different, yet complementary, ways to create a blended experience across physical, digital and/or virtual materials. Finding this balance is exceptionally hard for adult designers because children are connoisseurs of play across all platforms. They know exactly what is a good physical toy, a great animation or a brilliant video game and thus reject bad attempts to combine them.
Thus, in order to produce a fantastic cross-platform play experience expertise in all these areas needs to come together. This is difficult for many companies that are historically either experts in digital games or physical toys but rarely both. Research such as the Tech and Play project found that children make unofficial forms of connected play by combining the best elements of a range of toys. For example, using a physical ‘Paw Patrol’ play-set alongside the music from a ‘Paw Patrol’ app.
Players and Places
A range of people can engage in play with a child- siblings, friends, parents, grandparents- or the child might play alone. The play designer needs to decide how overtly to stipulate specific roles for different player. It is also important to remember that everyone has their own player identity. Recalling a childhood game of Monopoly can help to understand this:
Who took on the role of the banker? Who was generous when you are unable to pay the rent? Which player always refused to sell you the property you needed?
Hopefully, this example also demonstrates how a person’s ‘player identity’ can be different from how they behave when not playing. After all, one of the powers of play is that it affords us to be anyone or anything we want to be or try out.
When designing connected play it might be necessary to stipulate roles for a range of players who could have different abilities with regards to using technology. Traditionally, physical toys tended to be designed by keeping in mind what the player- primarily the child- was able to undertake developmentally. However, connected play needs to also take account of a diversity in tech skills, which will not solely be connected to developmental milestones, but instead depend on what access and opportunity they have had to use digital tools.
All these design considerations mean that creating a formula for producing excellent connected play experiences has been a hard nut to crack. Particularly, because there is no shortage of other types of well-designed toys and games that they must compete with. However, it could be argued that the current pandemic, which leaves many children isolated from friends and family, creates a combination of factors that could make now the perfect time to embrace connected play and push forward with new ideas. The pandemic has created a need that was not there previously, and consumers and audiences are likely to be open to new toys and play opportunities that aim to address this.
Is now the perfect timing for connected play?
Internet-enabled devices and toys make it possible for remotely located people to play together. This has been thrown into the spotlight during the current COVID-19 pandemic where people are restricted from meeting in person. Digital play spaces provide an easy means for socially-distanced children to group together.
The bigger question is how might the inclusion of a physical product facilitate friends and family to play together remotely in new ways that are not solely screen-based?
Over the past year, I have been fortunate to hear a range of theatre and live event creators talk about their experiences in the industry during lockdown, and how they are planning for the evolution of their field going forward.
Overall, rather than planning for a return to physical only performances they see the future as a hybrid model that allows an audience, that is split between being physically present and socially distanced, to come together and enjoy a live event. The challenge they are designing for is the role of the digitally-connected remote audience to have an active role in a physical experience happening elsewhere.
There are several companies that provide glimpses of ideas for meeting this challenge. For example, before the virus, Secret Cinema showed how it was possible to bring a digital product (a film) into physical spaces and simultaneously provide the audience with an interactive role. In this case an immersive cinema experience.
Last week, I watched the new ‘Audience of the Future’ performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s and Marshmallow Laser Feast called ‘Dream’. The performance allowed a remote audience to interact using an app to make a real-time difference to the live performance of an adaptation of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Finally, the hit Disney+ series Mandalorian is an example of live action performance in the context of a backdrop built in a digital gaming engine and fed to a massive 360-degree monitor that surrounds the actors and form a key part of the set design. This work signals further ideas for how a remote but digitally enabled player could control the play context for a fellow player using physical props and toys elsewhere.
Why do I believe these examples are important for play designers?
Because perhaps, as designers of play products, we should be addressing the same challenge that theatre is and consider how cross-platform, connected play or meta-verses could have possibilities to bring people together in this unique moment in time. We already have great toys, and excellent examples of digital play. For the two to be combined successfully, they might be best designed to provide a solution to a very contemporary problem. How can we be playful together with physical not only digital materials while also remain distanced from one another? After all, play is the most natural way for humans to recover from difficulties and trauma.