by Amy Leask
I spend most of my working days in the company of an eight-year-old cartoon girl with crazy pigtails, and her robot sidekick. If someone had told me a decade ago, when I was teaching philosophy to college students, that this was where I’d be…well, there would be eyebrows raised. These days, my email signature says “Children’s Interactive Media Developer,” and this spring, myself and a group of talented educators, artists and programmers created a cartoon-based gaming app that embraces and nurtures a child’s drive to ask “Why?” Here’s our story.
What sparked this?
While there are a number of organizations worldwide striving to bring philosophy into the classroom, the majority of North American students still don’t get the chance to experience it at school. We set out to bring it into their homes. My team and I wanted to create something that was accessible to any kid with access to a mobile device, and that gave them the opportunity to at least try philosophy.
Although parents are generally keen to teach their children vital 21st century skills, and they recognize the value of critical thinking, they themselves aren’t familiar with philosophy. They don’t feel equipped to do it with their kids, like they are math or reading. The vast majority of parents we speak to don’t know that philosophy is an option for kids. We wanted to create something that a parent would find accessible and beneficial, even if they’d never set foot in a philosophy class.
We wanted to do our part in raising awareness for public philosophy in general, as we recognize thinking skills as necessary for navigating the 21st century.
Given our team’s skillset, and the popularity of games and mobile apps, we decided to venture into the digital space. We set the following benchmarks for our materials:
- They had to be fun, and include the kinds of questions a child might ask, in a way that a child would ask them.
- They had to be presented in a format with which digital natives would be both familiar and comfortable.
- They had to feature relatable, funny characters as guides. These characters needed to mimic a child’s natural drive to ask big questions, but also demonstrate that philosophical thinking is an ongoing process, and that one can learn from mistakes.
- They had to incorporate new media and digital technology, and make philosophy for children interactive. There had to be more than just passive viewing.
- The gaming experience had to include things we knew young gamers already enjoyed, like choosing an avatar, going on a quest in a virtual world, and collecting items.
- They had to encourage co-viewing and co-play with parents and other thinkers around them, with the goal of bringing adults into the practice of philosophy as well.
- The questions included had to be open-ended. We knew this would be a new approach for many young players, but we wanted to teach them how to think, instead of what to think.
- They had to include opportunities for a child to reflect upon and record their own thoughts in different of ways, and return to them as often as they liked.
How it works
In the Spring, we released a prototype for Wiseland, a cartoon-based gaming app for ages 7-11. In keeping with our objectives, the app contains:
- Animated shorts, each featuring a big question, with three possible answers to ponder, as well as encouragement to keep thinking about it. For example, we asked about fairness, what makes a human, and what makes a hero.
- A 3D exploration game in which players choose an avatar, an environment, and work to collect the various answers.
- Mini-games in which players formulate their own answers, and are asked to reflect on them.
- Creative tools like a doodle tool and a journal page, with which players can record their own thoughts, and return to them later.
- Brief introductions to famous thinkers who’ve also tackled these questions.
- Live action video clips of real children reasoning their way through similar situations.
When creating materials in this medium, there’s a fine balance between presenting philosophical questions in a way that’s simple enough for a child to comprehend, but still rich enough to present different answers/sides of an argument. We want to challenge players, and we expect them to pay attention and think, but we also want them to be entertained.
Getting parents on board, and making them comfortable enough with the material that they don’t mind their kids having a few extra minutes of screen time can be difficult. We not only want parents to recognize the benefits for their children, but we also want to promote public philosophy in general.
It’s important to us that inquiry doesn’t end when the device is turned off, but we’re working in an industry where (for obvious security reasons) there isn’t direct contact with the kids playing the games. We want to create a ripple effect, and have philosophy become part of their daily lives, but aside from number of downloads, it’s difficult to know how they’re playing.
Wiseland, in addition to being for children, is out there as part of a bigger goal of getting philosophy in front of more thinkers. Creating an overall buzz for a subject area that isn’t in the mainstream(yet) has been a lesson in marketing and PR.
Initial feedback for Wiseland has been positive, and we’re not only in the process of planning a second app, but also a web-portal with a teacher/parent resources marketplace. Most recently, we ventured into crowdfunding, releasing a Kickstarter venture to not only help fund the creation of more content (i.e. more big questions) for the first app, but also to raise awareness of public philosophy and its potential in the digital space.
Our hope is that our project serves as a springboard into philosophy for children and parents, and perhaps even a catalyst for teachers to bring it into their classroom. While an app can’t replace dialogue between thinkers, it can bring philosophy to the attention of thinkers who wouldn’t otherwise encounter it, and it can meet 21st century kids where they live, in a digital playground.