Guest Post: The Impact of Interactivity On Children's Books

This guest post is written by Annie Bacon, a freelance game designer (www.anniebacon.com) living in Montreal. She’s also the author of the youth novel series Terra Incognita and akidstory.com personalized books.

It all started with this link to a blog post with a YouTube video in which someone puts an iPhone into an actual physical book to make it interactive. My first feeling upon looking at the video is a simple and complete “wow”, isn’t that remarkable! Considering that I’m both a youth novel writer and game designer, it looked like the best of both worlds merging book and videogame together. But then, I started to wonder why is the physical book frame needed? The interesting part is how the touch screen of the iPhone allows for the story to come alive; the rest is just a pretty shell… or is it?

After years of laissé-faire (70s and 80s), parents have started putting their foot down on the amount of time their kids spend in front of the TV. “Obesity” and “passivity” were the two words most currently used to demonize the entire medium. By association, videogames and computer games are also considered “time wasters” even though they actively engage the child with their interactivity. “Less TV” has quickly become “Less time in front of a screen”, even in my own home, I must admit!

Interactive stories have been on the market as CD-ROMs and websites for years, and yet none of them ever got the reaction that the aforementioned YouTube video got. Why? Because they were not cleverly disguised as the sacred object that is a book! Books are wholesome! They make kids smarter! They prevent school drop-out! Not actual reading, just the books itself!

Books vs. Screen

This brings me to the electronic book. I follow a lot of writers and editors on both Twitter and Facebook, and the “what do you think of the Kindle” conversations are multiplying. A lot of purists are strongly against them, as if the smell of the paper was more important to the experience than the story contained within. Again, it’s the screen that causes a problem. If e-readers were made of paper with magical ink instead of plastic and pixels, they might be more widely accepted, and yet, the experience would be exactly the same. Some wonder if they’re here to stay. Of course they are! But they’ll also transform. They’ll add colors to accommodate illustrations, then sound, then interactivity, and suddenly the line between books and web-like content will blur.

What it means: It’s the habit of this blog to have a thought-provoking analysis at the end of a post. I would have liked to do the same but I find I have more questions than answers. Once children books are on interactive e-readers, will parents see them as acceptable reading material, or will they just be thrown in the “more screens” category? Will authors need to adjust to the new philosophy and add bells and whistles (read interactivity) to their books if they want to go mainstream? Will books, interactive content, videogames and movies stay in separate categories or are we looking at a merger of media? Will the next generation really care about those categories or just think of it as Entertainment with a capital E? Two things are certain: first, the paper book is not going to disappear any time soon. After all, in this “MP3” world, my daughter still listens to good old vinyl records once in a while! Secondly, creators and consumers should rejoice: in whatever form it takes, the future of entertainment is going to be exciting! Like in a good book, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Impact of Interactivity On Children's Books

  1. Hi Annie,
    Very good thoughts. I like conversations on topics such as this, but perhaps first I’d like to introduce you to the project my company initiated. Our “games” are more accurately open-narrative toys running on a personal computer. The idea behind “The Meadow” is that parent and child sit together, explore together, and imagine together by way of making up stories, or simply describing things in the game.
    It’s my own interpretation on how an interactive space (ie game) can invoke creativity in a child rather than passivity.
    Best Regards,
    Ken Kavanagh

  2. I believe the problem is that the video screen is not aware of the people around it. This is true of the printed page, of course, but print CAN invite a second person to read just by waiting patiently. The video often will not wait, and like TV is gone forever if not watched intently. Fortunately my DVR keeps track of live video, so I can answer the phone without concern. If video games could back up perhaps that would help. Anyway, it turns out that TV doesn’t help or hinder child development. Both sides won that war.

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