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Listen Up, It's Playtime

The GiggleBone Gang is alive and well at Seattle-based Headbone Interactive. Judith Shane explains it all.

I bring a couple of four year olds to the park, the only place around big enough to contain their joie de vivre--not to mention their joie de jouer. There is an empty grass playing field with a shallow muddy hole near one corner. The kids look it over. One of them picks up a small branch and pokes at the ground. Within two minutes, they start a game. Rules are yelled out, elaborated, solidified, dismissed. Play progresses. Stops. Starts over from the middle, the beginning. Points are won. Points lost. "You've had your turn." "That didn't count." Elaborate negotiations over instantaneously arcane rules of order. Roles emerge within seconds. Rituals fitting for a cabal are developed then discarded within the space of minutes. The only constant I recognize is the muddy hole. Twenty minutes of excited screaming, jumping and running around in quelching shoes is interrupted by the return of the mothers and time to go.

Infinity City: Time Museum Mix and Match. © Headbone Interactive.

Not an easy task to invent a game, unless, of course, you happen to be a child. Children excel at play. To capture their attention requires play at least as interesting as what kids can create on their own.

Can a CD-ROM do that? Can it even come close? Headbone Interactive thinks so and they may be right. From the release of their first CD in 1994 to their recent excursion into Internet programming, a drumbeat of kudos from print magazines to online magazines to the Parents' Choice Foundation have heralded the conclusion that Headbone indeed knows how to play.

The Operative Word

A Seattle animation company begun in 1993, Headbone Interactive is the brainchild of Susan Lammers and Walter Euyang, who also have children together in the real world. Headbone produces two series of interactive CD-ROMs for children., aged 4 to 10. The operative word is interactive. Both series combine cartoon-like animation against photographic backgrounds to produce simple animation rich in content with the wacky feel of a giggly kid who can't sit still.

The GiggleBone Gang series presently comprises three edutainment CDs (AlphaBonk Farm, Pantsylvania, Infinity City) directed to those aged four to, well, how old are you?

The What the Heck Will Elroy Do Next? series, is deemed appropriate for those aged 7 to 10. A new title, Iz & Oggie, is currently in beta testing.

Now there is beta testing and there is beta testing. Headbone consumer tests its products in the local public schools. And that too is an interactive process. With the help of interested teachers, The company's staff provides the CDs and goes into classrooms to observe the children playing the games. Although the games don't require more than one player, several children can take turns and play at the same time.

The staff overhears as well as questions the kids and they listen to the answers.

To make a user-friendly CD for children, it helps to think the way the kids do, or at least be aware of their cosmology. Taking into account a child's eye view of the world, a successful game will help kids have wonderful ideas and feel good about themselves for having them.

Animation & Design Issues

I asked Scott Hudson, the Creative Director at Headbone, who developed their animation technique, what he was aiming for, games or education.

"We take different approaches with the different age groups," Hudson said, depending on who is doing the buying. When the parents are buying, the market is for edutainment. Specifically, the most education for the buck. For the older kids, the games are primarily games. The kids themselves are behind the purchases."

He pointed out that the major design issues are: "1) to produce enough work to sustain the story and 2) create an interface that is simple to use. The Elroy titles and Iz and Oggie have two hours of animation apiece and are story-driven.

Elroy and Syd, the heros of Elroy Hits the Pavement.

"We needed to be able to produce a lot of animation quickly, so we use one tool only and create a flat, stripped-down character design with a low frame rate. We don't worry about the jagged edges, as they blend with the photographic backgrounds, which in turn help to create a simple transparent interface for the player. I prefer to concentrate on an idea, and not the laborious execution of the idea. A good model is the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which were content rich but had simple drawings."

When I asked Hudson about the production process, he said that, "We develop a scrapbook of multiple positions for each character and work from that. Generally about 100 to begin and approaching 1,000 by the time we finish. And we are always writing while in production. It is a true team effort to produce one of these titles.

"We have a staff of 8 to 10, not counting the actors: 4 animators, 3 writers, 1 person for sound effects, 1 for music, 2 programmers, a photographer and a producer/director. It will be 11 months from idea to [projected] shipping date for Iz and Oggie. And we were in production for four months."

A Simple Style

Aside from expediency, there is another reason for Hudson to champion a simple cartoon style, one beautifully elucidated in Douglas Rushkoff"s Playing The Future, with the telling subtitle, How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us To Thrive in an Age of Chaos.

Rushkoff says that, "Comic books may seem visually oversimplified and thematically primitive to most adults, but these very qualities are what permit an active participation from their readers. They communicate with basic symbols and relationships, and the rest is filled in by the audience. The parts of a drawing with the most impact tend to be the most simply drawn. The starkness of the image makes it stand out, while its iconic quality makes its meaning easy to recognize."

Overlooking the fact that adults in other (non-Western) cultures also relish cartoons, Rushkoff talks about how the simplicity of cartoon characters is just what lets children identify with them so completely across cultural and national divides.

The Gigglebone Gang on the way to Infinity City. © Headbone Interactive.

It's their generality which makes them universal. Makes them icons: Visually simple, conceptually fertile vehicles for remembering.

I asked Hudson whether, in the interest of expediency, he forsaw a change from a 2D cartoon animation to something digital for Headbone. "I try to be conservative," he replied, "and produce something people can use and enjoy Something that they'll buy again. You really don't need all that high-tech stuff. What people really want to see is a good story. Besides, consumer machines are pretty primitive. And without a high end computer, they won't be able to appreciate it.

Iz and Auggie decide how to deal with an Elite Qubic Pentameter Security Guard in the forthcoming Escape From Dimension Q. © Headbone Interactive.

Variability & Interactivity

Headbone stresses interactivity where kids are in control of shaping the scene and the action. But what is so special about the interactivity?

"We learned a lot observing the kids test the games," Hudson says. "The children weren't satisfied with just one story line. 'I wish there was some way to jump around,' they said. We realized that the children were willing to accept partial failure a lot more readily than total failure. So we developed games with different possible levels of achievement, both within the segments and throughout the whole game.

"For example, there is a math concept associated with each area in Infinity City, and each area gives a player five different ways to approach the concept. You can choose among different levels of difficulty, or play against time.

"That kind of variability plus, the sheer amount of material in each CD cannot be found in a book or on television. Nor can you match the immediacy of the situations in any other way. I mean, where else can you so easily combine a duck and a Volkswagen and get the learning hit and satisfaction from the result: a duckwagon.

Listening to Hudson, one can almost hear the developmental psychologist Piaget murmuring in the background his own words from Science of Education and Psychology of the Child: "... knowledge is derived from action ...To know an object is to act upon it and to transform it ... To know is therefore to assimilate reality into structures of transformation, and these are the structures that intelligence constructs as a direct extension of our actions."

Nowadays, many agree with Piaget that the aim of teaching should be to enable children to think creatively and innovatively on the one hand, and to develop the faculty of critical thinking on the other. And that if, as he believed, the aim of intellectual training is to produce "intellectual explorers," then the best way to go about it is to have the child discover or invent ways of dealing with objects for himself.

But not many put Piaget's ideas into practice so engagingly as do these CD-ROMs.

Netscapades

Headbone recently took Elroy to the Internet in Elroy's Netscapade, a "directed program" for exploring sites on the Web, designed as a treasure hunt with prizes for individuals and classrooms. The program takes the form of a cartoon mystery in seven episodes, which are released over a period of a week. The contestants search the Web to get information Elroy needs to solve the mystery.

Iz and Auggie decide how to deal with an Elite Qubic Pentameter Security Guard in the forthcoming Escape From Dimension Q. © Headbone Interactive.

I asked Hudson how the first netscapade, which occurred in May, went. "The response from teachers has been very gratifying," he noted, "especially from those teaching fifth to ninth grades. They're so thankful for something to do on the Internet with the kids. Future netscapades will take advantage of Narratives' Enliven software to stream animation over the Internet."

By design or serendipity, Headbone has evolved a winning combination of sophisticated software, cartoon characters and video games, which are presented with charm and humor within the framework of a child's cosmology. You don't have to "start at the beginning and go to the end and stop," as we once learned to do from Winnie the Pooh.

A Headbone story sets the stage to let the interactivity begin. The story line progresses according to a player's choices. Get all the bad guys, you proceed to one stage. Defeat half the bad guys, you go to a different stage. Or, you can decide to skip what's happening next and move forward or backward to another challenge. And with all of the games, the end of the game isn't the end of the game. You can play it again, Sam, indefinitely, or until you lose interest. Return to any point of interaction, do it over, check out the result and choose to move to the next step or jump around.

After all, children understand well that life does not proceed in an orderly fashion. And that you can always rewrite the script, at least until time out.

Judith Shane is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor.

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