Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tikatok: collaborative online book creation for kids

The following passage from the conclusion to my master's thesis was written to address the need for solutions to making educational video games more responsive and better platforms for creative expression.

The possibility for a technological solution is very exciting, but not the only solution. The single player to machine paradigm, basically the reader to book model, is becoming less ubiquitous as games and game consoles exploit greater networking capabilities. Next generation systems support peer-to-peer interactivity in a way that may provide an opportunity to think beyond the hyper-competitive, mano-a-mano multi-player formula of the first fighting and shooting games. Proving that humans are infinitely better than machines at predicting what other humans will find meaningful, the most popular e-commerce companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, compare profiles of similar users to provide seemingly intelligent product recommendations. Basically, they side-step the need for complex machine AI by anonymously connecting users with similar tastes. It may therefore be more productive to think of a platform on which players “co-create” stories with other human players instead of building relationships with software... A truly player “co-created” game would allow players to fundamentally co-design the game, not just allow a collective experience of the finished product... It might be possible to imagine a game in which world-builders interact in real-time with world-explorers, where one player designs the challenges that the other player faces, and both learn and adapt based on the outcomes of play.

It is instructive and perhaps prophetic that I used the "reader to book" model to explain my point about games. I did not know at the time that I would be given the opportunity to put these theories into practice and help build a platform that would connect kids online with the purpose of creating and sharing books, but this is exactly what I have been working on for the past several months along with some entrepreneurs and folks from the MIT Media Lab.

Tikatok is an online community and a set of creative tools that allow children aged 5-12 to write and share picture books. It provides a database of interactive story prompts called StorySparks to help get the creative juices flowing, and then lets kids connect to their peers in order to share the book, get feedback, discuss it in groups, and even collaborate. Finally, the books can be printed out into real bound hardcover and paperback copies using print on demand. Basically, it imagines children as authors of their own entertainment in the most literal way: as authors. And it again proves Marshall McLuhan's contention that the content of any new medium is an old medium.

We've been testing the system at public and private events in the Boston area, including workshops at the Boston Public Library, and now the site is finally open for its public beta launch. We've worked hard to make it a site were kids can express themselves and have fun, but also learn and grow. Kids have created some pretty amazing books, and we are anxious to see the direction the wider community will take it. If you have a child in your life, I invite you to create a book.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

At Last an Update

My research and writing all paid off in the end, my master's thesis entitled "Ceaseless Becoming: Narratives of Adolescence Across Media" was completed and successfully submitted to my committee. So ends my too-short journey at MIT's Comparative Media Studies program.

Speaking of which, you can download and read the thesis in its entirety from the CMS website. Or browse other amazing theses from the department here:

Myself and my school mates were thrilled when Cory Doctorow blogged favorably on BoingBoing about the program and our humble theses here:

As always, I would love to hear your comments about the work. I recently realized that blogger's moderation was filtering a lot of your comments. Oops. That's fixed, so comment away!

Now that I've dug myself out of schoolwork and the ensuing months of paralysis, I do hope to consider posting to this blog every now and then, although perhaps in a lighter and less analytic fashion.

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