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A Digital Game That Can Still Foster Open-Ended Play

Can screen-based experiences still spark imaginative, open play in kids? Israeli interactive designer Matan Stauber thinks so.

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"Video games are very specific, there’s something you have to accomplish," says Tel Aviv-based interactive designer Matan Stauber. "There's a very narrow system and storyline—the entire experience is a closed experience."

Stauber is describing a frustration shared by parents and kids' app developers alike, about the limitations of digital toys: there can be little room left for the imagination.

Yet there's a new wave of kids' games—including one from the Brooklyn-based Tinybop and the programming app Hopscotch—that are developing new kinds of apps to encourage open-ended play.

Stauber has recently joined their ranks with Pieces, a speculative project that uses physical controllers to manipulate an animated, interactive surface, allowing kids can create their own story lines.

Stauber designed the game as part of a class on interactive surfaces at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Tel Aviv. "I had this obsession with the fact that everything we have is more digitalized—it's a flat image—and I was wondering if it's possible to add physical elements," he says. So he conceptualized a game in which translucent disks could be used to control an animation on a surface or a screen. Each disk corresponds to either a character (typically, some sort of colorful, androgynous monster), an environmental factor (the background or landscape), objects (i.e. the sun) or actions (zoom in, zoom out). At this point, the game is just a concept, but the idea is that the images will be projected onto a surface and controlled by the disks. Moving the one corresponding to a monster, for example, will move the monster, or moving the one corresponding to the sun can make it rise and fall.

Thought Stauber says he'd need a bigger team than just himself—someone who could program the game, for one—he also says there's "nothing sci-fi about it," meaning all of the technology needed to make it real already exists. He created the characters and objects in the game by collaging images of paper and different types of trash, animating them in front of a green screen. The point of the game is that the narrative is open-ended, so that kids can create their own storyline and even their own characters. By tapping two character controllers together, you can create a new, hybrid-character. And users can expand the environment by adding new surfaces (Stauber says these could be paper, or any thin, flexible material).

"The idea was you can always combine different screens," he says. "If you’re playing with friends and they bring their own screens, you can turn the entire floor of your house in a big playground area. You also have to play on it, not by sitting front of a screen, but by place objects on a screen and moving around on a screen."

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