Is it a book or a game? Who cares... is it any good? / by James Huggins

This week’s blog post was inspired by a Twitter exchange over the weekend. Essentially, it was sparked off by the following question:

At what level of interactivity does a children's book app become a game instead of a book?

The discussion that followed inevitably led to the tricky task of defining words like ‘book’, ‘game’ and ‘toy’. A book implies reading, but not always in the case of picture books. A game implies a success or fail condition, but what if there is no win or lose, just different outcomes, is it still a game? A toy is not a game by definition but a foil for play and so has the potential to support all kinds of games and creative play.

Before long everyone is reaching for the aspirin and whale music because nothing hurts the old grey matter more than trying to define these things. What technology has done is force, not just publishers, but everyone to care less about the form that children’s media takes and more about the results. What is it that children should be getting out of the experience? Fun, laughter, learning, or all of the above? From a publisher’s perspective this dissolving confidence in knowing what it is they make exactly, will only make them focus on why they make stuff in the first place. It’s a nerve-wracking but ultimately healthy process that will see everyone involved in the publishing industry worry a bit less about what they do and ask themselves why they do it. Without clarity here it will be increasingly difficult for anyone to make decisions about the projects they invest in and the products they create. Having worked with the guys at Penguin Children's I’ve seen this process first hand. They now describe themselves not as a publisher of books, but of stories, and will provide those story experiences to customers in whatever format and on whatever device they choose. Does this mean they will end up creating interactive experiences that bare little resemblance to the printed book? Most probably. But an open appraisal of the hugely exciting and diverse range of digital tools now available to storytellers is only the beginning.

The reason I’m excited by technology is that it is very rapidly eroding the walls that delineated industries according to format - books, games, music, film, TV, toys. This was convenient for everyone because it reminded the people making stuff to work within an accepted criteria and gave customers a good idea of what they were buying before they did. Technology has allowed everyone to get into everyone else’s game. Authors are publishing e-books, developers are publishing games, publishers are developing software, online retailers are publishing... it’s a free-for-all!

Perhaps I’m just being naive but I think that this all makes for a very interesting time ahead. As a creator, never before has there been so many ways to make engaging and valuable experiences for children. As an entrepreneur there has never been so many ways for a small fish like us to reach customers and ultimately (hopefully) get paid. Any balance of words, pictures, animation and gameplay should be deliberately chosen only on the basis that they serve the experience. If this makes your product diffciult to categorise, so be it, maybe you just invented a new format.

So regardless of whether you’re a publisher contemplating new projects, or a parent pondering a purchase, don’t worry so much about whether it’s a book or a game and just make sure it's good.

Thanks to the Twitter folk who inspired this week's blog post. If you're interested in the digital publishing space you should follow all of them!