Unintended Play Patterns: Using E-Lit to Bridge the Gap Between Imagination and Affordance

8:30 AM, Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 (1 hour 15 minutes)
During a recent flight, I sat beside an engineer who works for a major toy company. During our conversation, she casually mentioned toys’ intended “play patterns” and how important these are to innovative design practices.

“Play pattern” is a term that describes the ways that users interact with a toy, and—while there is little corporate information available to verify the specifics of such guiding paradigms, the toy industry seems to be basing this approach on the psychological theories of Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Mildred Parten. Andy Russell writes: “While there are hundreds of new toys and games released each year, every one of them is rooted in core play patterns derived from basic human behaviors. The not-so-great toys (Pet Rocks) are inherently limited to one or two play patterns (collecting and… well, collecting), but the best toys, like LEGOs, appeal to a variety of play patterns (modeling, collecting, storytelling, invention) over a range of ages and developmental stages. These are called “grow-with-me” toys because kids’ play with the toys adapts over time with their cognitive development…”

Toys are thus designed to encourage a variety of intended patterns of play and use, similar to ways that stories are mediated and engineered to evoke diverse interpretations and reactions. Language, like LEGO, can modularly appeal to a broad range of age ranges and flexible play patterns if it is used as a creative instrument, and--as Umberto Eco recognizes in The Open Work—certain employments of language in storytelling situations can maintain such flexible interpretative potential. However, traditional print-language-based forms of storytelling permit a much more particular and limited range of interpretative patterns. While this curational approach is the key to powerful communication (similar to the ways that toys are designed to specifically enable particular patterns of engagement), it is also limited and limiting in that such prefabrications of material and meaning potential are primarily dictated by authoritative prescriptions.

Addressing this shortcoming, Russell continues: “there is a gap between what the child imagines and what his or her tools (toys) currently afford. As a designer, this insight is invaluable. What can we create to help kids bridge this gap and realize their imaginations in a format that is more easily shared with friends and family? (Note: The goal here shouldn’t be to replace the child’s imagination, but to spark it with creative tools.)”

Multi-media and multi-modal forms of representation can be designed to extend more limited engagement ranges, potentially defamiliarizing and destabilizing familiar habits of interpretative perception, and creating increased opportunities for playful and creative forms of interaction. If e-lit is a kind of literary toy or game, how can the idea of play patterns illuminate the ways that e-lit is designed or experienced? Theoretically, it might be useful to understand e-lit not as exclusively literature, game, or toy, but as a mode of participatory interactive experience that bridges the gaps between all three, pluralizes interpretative patterns, and provokes unconventional play patterns.
Acadia University

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