Instead of using a braille writer to create bumps on paper that spell out words, kids with a set of Braille Bricks can spell them out on a baseplate, which also means they can easily make corrections if they’ve made a spelling mistake. And the Braille Bricks can be stacked and assembled to build other objects, so they double as a genuine toy.
That’s where Hackaball comes in. The creation of London-based “innovation accelerator” Made by Many, Hackaball is a durable, croquet-ball-sized sphere that kids can program via iPad to respond with light, sound, and vibration. Kids are invited to use the ball’s functionality to create their own games and use cases (imagine the cathartic wonders of an alarm clock that you can turn off by throwing it against a wall).
It’s difficult to predict which skills will be valuable in the future, and even more challenging to see the connection between our children’s interests and these skills. Nothing illustrates this better than Minecraft, a popular game that might be best described as virtual LEGOs. Calling it a game belies the transformation it has sparked: An entire generation is learning how to create 3D models using a computer. It makes me wonder what sort of jobs, entertainment or art will be possible now. Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet. I bet today’s kids will eventually explore outcomes and create businesses only made possible by the influence of Minecraft in their lives.
This is the fundamental thing most game designers get wrong. Between tabletop gaming’s celebritizing of designers and digital games’ ability to function as increasingly perfect score-keepers, we’re becoming obsessed with rules. Game designers have become pedant legislators, trying to make sure players are playing our games the right way. We’ve become obsessed with controlling play.
I can usually gauge whether I’ll like a game by how thick the rulebook is. It’s an indicator of whether I should expect to be playing with my friends or just playing out the rules. We’ve started thinking of players not as collaborators but as just a kind of lubrication for the systems we design—essentially passive, even though they may be hitting buttons and pushing joysticks.
Geeky teachers have brought Minecraft to subjects ranging from history to biology to probability. The game is being rolled out to every secondary school in Northern Ireland this month. If you’re a parent, you’ve noticed Minecraft offerings spawning in your local summer camp listings. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a Minecraft camp for budding builders. Ninety-two libraries participated in the International Games Day Minecraft Hunger Games tournament, and crowned a 13-year-old girl as its champion. And, I’ve helped launch Connected Camps’ Summer of Minecraft, a new in-game online camp.
The most recent issue of the American Journal of Play (Fall, 2014) includes an article (link is external) by researchers Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green summarizing recent research demonstrating long-lasting positive effects of video games on basic mental processes–such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. Most of the research involves effects of action video games—that is, games that require players to move rapidly, keep track of many items at once, hold a good deal of information in their mind at once, and make split-second decisions. Many of the abilities tapped by such games are precisely those that psychologists consider to be the basic building blocks of intelligence.
The Baining believe, quite correctly, that play is the natural activity of children, and precisely for that reason they do what they can to discourage or prevent it. They refer to children’s play as “splashing in the mud,” an activity of pigs, not appropriate for humans. They do not allow infants to crawl and explore on their own. When one tries to do so an adult picks it up and restrains it. Beyond infancy, children are encouraged or coerced to spend their days working and are often punished—sometimes by such harsh means as shoving the child’s hand into the fire—for playing. On those occasions when Fajans did get an adult to talk about his or her childhood, the narrative was typically about the challenge of embracing work and overcoming the shameful desire to play. Part of the reason the Baining are reluctant to talk about themselves, apparently, derives from their strong sense of shame about their natural drives and desires.
Beyond robotic pets and flying, buzzing or remote-controlled gadgets, many of the trends in today’s toy industry hint at a future of playthings that put parents’ minds at ease that their children are actually learning something valuable during recess.
One thing I’ve struggled with a lot as a dad is letting my kids make and learn from their own mistakes. After all, I know from my own experience that most of what my parents told me went in one ear and out the other, but when there were natural consequences for making a bad decision, I rarely made that same mistake again. It’s really hard with a young child to know when and how to let those mistakes happen, though; you spend the first several years just trying to keep your child out of harm’s way, then suddenly you have this small human who’s capable of making her own decisions about things.