Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Children’s technology- where the wild things are

Maurice Sendak’s critically acclaimed children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are quickly become a classic and was widely popular as soon as it was published in 1963. It’s a story written with heart and a keen insight to the experience of childhood and, perhaps, what adults find uncomfortable about it. What’s so compelling about the story is that it seems to be written to challenge the way adults might prefer to imagine children and childhood. Similarly, this week’s readings in Children and Technology remind us that children think, act, and process very differently than we do as adults. More importantly, they act and think very different than we would like to believe they do. In The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology (Druin, 2002) Druin challenges designers not to discard incorrect or inappropriate assumptions about children:
In designing for children it is crucial to become aware of one’s own assumptions about the nature of childhood. Designers should be able to articulate their assumptions and be ready to revise them based on empirical evidence.
Druin argues that designers must study children and involve them in the design process, and outlines a number of methods to do so. Beyond understanding and including children we must challenge and our assumptions about how children should experience technology and study the impact of the technology we design on their development. [1]

Alyx’s hurt feelings
In Nathan Frier’s 2008 paper Children Distinguish Conventional from Moral Violations in Interactions with a Personified Agent he raises interesting questions about personified agents that children are spending more and more time with. Often these agents are designed to be helpful and subservient. If children view interactions with these technologies as social interactions that lack moral features this may diminish children’s understanding of “the relationship that exists between social reciprocity and morality”. [2]

Freier’s study involves 8 and 9 year old children observing a researcher play a game of tic tac toe with a personified agent. The agent was constructed from the source engine for a videogame character from Half-Life 2 named Alyx and displayed on a computer monitor. In the experiment, subjects witnessed the researcher committing two violations. One of the violations was against a rule of the game (cheating) and the other violation involved insulting Alyx (the agent).

In the experimental condition the subject witnessed Alyx expressing hurt feelings and advocating for the right to be treated with respect as a response to the insult. In the control condition Alyx appeared to be unaffected by the insult. The results suggested that when Alyx appeared to advocate for itself, children were much more likely to view the insult as a moral violation against the Alyx. In discussing design recommendations, Freier suggests that it may be better for children to interact with personified technologies that respond to possible harms and make claims to their own rights than those that do not. [2]

Carol’s temper
My five year old child, is a big fan of games on my iphone and has been playing them since he was . Recently we downloaded an application that was used to promote the October 2009 premiere of Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

The application is well designed and usable. In addition to featuring promotional material for the movie the movie, the game hosts a personified agent based on the main monster of the movie, Carol. There are a number of ways to interact with Carol. Tap Carol with a soft tickle and he will laugh, play music from your itunes collection and Carol will dance, you can select one of your personal pictures to give to Carol and he might point at the picture with a smile and laugh, throw it on the ground and stomp on it, or tilt his head back and chomp and swallow the picture. If you shake your phone, carol will fall down and look hurt and confused, poke him and he will grimace, you can even throw rocks at him… ouch. If you do any of these things Carol might throw a rock back or get right in your face and throw a punch that vibrates the phone violently and appears to crack the screen.

Here are some video demonstrations of the app:

My son had played similar games where, for example, you could stretch, squeeze, shake, and tickle sponge bob. With these games the response of the agent was clowny and cartoonish. What was different about this game was that when you hurt Carol he would respond with anger, frustration, a threatening glare, or a measured and moderately violent response. Showing him a picture could just as easily make him point at the picture & smile as throw the picture to the ground and stomp on it. It is rare in games to have agents advocate for themselves or communicate frustration or disappointment, it’s even more rare for a game like this to utilize an interface that a two year old can use.

The Where the Wild Things Are game has over 5,000 ratings on the iphone app store and many of the reviewers report that their children were highly interested in the game. I was surprised that my son was so interested in the game and went back to it time after time when I thought the novelty would have worn off. He shared with his friends and they were just as interested. It seems that an agent that advocates for itself and expresses is very compelling to young children and it would be interesting to study this further.

Many of the reviewers recommend the application as being great for 3 – 12 year olds. While others say things like “not for little ones… Fun app for adults but it scared my five-year-old when he saw Carol eat a picture of his little brother. Then he told me it’s not nice to throw rocks at people”

Personally, I felt a little uncomfortable that my son enjoyed this game so much. He was participating in an emotionally complicated relationship with the agent where they could play, laugh, and enjoy the interactions and just as easily be throwing rocks and hitting each other. In HCI for Kids, Bruckman et al site Carolyn Miller’s seven mistakes commonly made by people designing games for kids. Miller explains that designers assume children want their games to be sweet and safe (with no dramatic tension), wholesome characters, and a little preachy. It seems I have made many of those same assumptions about the kinds of games my child should be playing. So many of us must make similar assumptions about what children should have in games that may or may not be true. [3]

So, in thinking about my child and this application it’s interesting to consider Freier’s recommendation that personified agents be designed to respond to possible harms and make claims to their own rights. If so, should personified agents respond with the same diverse range of emotion and behavior (from looking hurt to throwing rocks) that people do? Do submissive and accommodating personified agents teach children to take advantage of others? Are we doing children a disservice by making these agents not human enough or is the problem that these agents are becoming too human? As young children who are beginning to develop morals and learn social behavior are being exposed to this technology, these are important questions to ask and could benefit from further research.


1. Freier, N. G. (2008).
Children attribute moral standing to a personified agent. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing (CHI 2008). (pp. 343-352). Florence, Italy.

2. Druin, A. (2002). The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour and Information Technology, 21(1) 1-25.

3. Bruckman, A., Bandlow, A., & Forte, A. (2007). HCI for kids.
In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 793-810). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cereal Box as Interface
UPDATE: I discovered this video that I thought I'd add to my response paper.

In HCI for Kids by Bruckman et. al review specially designed interfaces that are suitable for children who cannot manipulate a mouse or keyboard [3]. Along those lines, I wanted to share this video to document the advances in inexpensive interfaces for children. In the video below... cereal box as interface:

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