The Games People Don’t Play

Every once in a while – not often, you understand – I lose track of one of my kids. I usually know where he or she is, but let’s be realistic: they’re fast, low to the ground, and ready to take advantage of even a moment’s inattention. Recently, my son wandered off in the library and when I found him, he was sitting at a public computer playing Dora the Explorer with the laser-like focus that he is able to muster at will but not, seemingly, at my command.


Games had not been a huge part of his life until last year when we began playing cooperative games, not only because we enjoy the content, but also because it’s a great way to spend some time together. But here he was, by himself, playing a game he had never seen before. I sat and watched, curious about how he’d do without me there to guide him. His easy success in the game proved what I had suspected for a few years: He’d been playing Dora the entire time he was watching her on TV – all he’d lacked was the controller.

Dora the Explorer, Nickelodeon’s series about a seven-year-old, football-headed Latina, is essentially an interactive videogame presented as a TV show. The show’s creators have admitted as much, at least as far as the interactivity goes. The effectiveness of this approach is shown every time my kids sit down to play any of the Dora games: The show has already trained them to view and interact with the world in exactly the same ways they view and interact with the games. Since Dora first appeared eleven years ago, other shows have adopted a similar sort of presentation. From the Dora the Explorer spinoff, Go, Diego, Go!, to Disney’s new Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, television producers are finding the methods we use to interact with videogames are a convenient solution to the educational needs of children’s television.

Games have tremendous educational potential, which is often obscured by their primary role as a medium of entertainment. Like television, games also suffer an unfair bias among some parenting and watchdog groups, who are quick to ride the wave of anecdotal evidence to prove that the media du jour is the cause of violence or apathy among today’s youth (as if youth need a reason to be violent or apathetic, or parents a reason to mistrust them). While there are some shows of questionable value, we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water here. There are television shows out there trying to teach problem solving and general computer literacy and, more and more, they are drawing directly from the world of videogames to present that content.

Each episode of Dora is essentially a linear quest where Dora is tasked with helping someone or retrieving a lost item. Throughout the course of the episode, the show prompts the viewer with game-specific symbols, like floating mouse cursors or glowing highlights around important objects. Each episode features one or more active sequences, where kids are asked to get up and help Dora negotiate a tough obstacle, which are little more than a redressing of Mario jumping over barrels in Donkey Kong.

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The story might involve Dora traveling through the jungle and choosing between two branches of a river, one of which will be infested with crocodiles and the other will not. Dora asks the viewer to choose which path to take while a mouse cursor floats up onto the screen and clicks on the safe branch. Children who watch begin to understand this kind of interaction long before they take any active part in it. When they later sit down at a computer and need to select something, they know immediately that they need to move the mouse cursor and click on it. It’s become intuitive before they even get any hands-on time.


As a gamer and a dad, it’s gratifying to see kids exposed to the concepts and techniques from videogames in this other, more accessible format. Long before they encounter games, Dora and shows like it familiarize them with the forms and function of key gameplay concepts. It’s of clear benefit to kids to develop this sort of game literacy early, if only because games are starting to become a greater part of mainstream entertainment. Dora may not be teaching kids some of the more direct life lessons taught in other shows, but the format and iconography of videogames is becoming more and more a part of our general cultural literacy.

This goes far beyond simply recognizing what a mouse cursor is and what it’s for. Like any good videogame character, Dora even has her own inventory and map, which she uses throughout each episode to complete specific challenges and discover where to go next. The map – which talks, by the way – outlines each of the three or four locations Dora must travel through to get to her destination and occasionally points out any specific items needing to be collected along the way. Much the same as most videogames, Dora the Explorer progresses linearly from location to location.

At several points in each episode, Dora takes a page from classic adventure games like Monkey Island by reaching into her backpack for whatever particular item she needs to overcome the current challenge. The various pogo sticks, ropes, tomatoes, and whatnots found in her dimension-defying backpack are all trotted out in what is essentially a radial menu and the viewer is prompted to find the right item for the given situation. One mouse move and highlight later and we’re back in business. Consistent with the adventure game analogy, each item is only useful once and is replaced with new items for each episode. There’s a nice balance here between promoting both game literacy and general problem solving. Kids can learn, for instance, to cross a river by picking a raft out of a collection of items, which requires not just reasoning out the problem, but also reading the show’s “interface” to find an appropriate solution.

Still, not every attempt to incorporate the symbols of games in the show works well. Newer episodes include collectable stars and power-ups, which abandons the educational or developmental agenda to simply fill out the show with yet another videogame trope. It’s not about avoiding alligators or learning that the park is on the other side of the bridge- this is straight up collecting. Dora finds the sparkling stars scattered throughout the episode and must gather them in her backpack. Every once in a while, a special Explorer star will even come along to grant her special powers she needs to overcome an obstacle in her way. She might, for instance, get a Super Jumping Star, which allows her to – you guessed it – gather even more stars. They’re even anticipated by a regular music cue that lets viewers know to start looking for them.

In fact, every moment of importance in the show is tied to a specific musical cue. The same way that Link has a chest-opening theme in Zelda, Dora has regular music cues for the important things she accomplishes in each episode. The end of each location on the map is even called out by the small Fiesta Trio who highlight the transition. At the end of it all, Dora and all the other people and animals that appeared in the episode join in a musical celebration of their accomplishment.


All these associations are made even more apparent in the episode about the videogame “Save the Puppies.” In this episode, Dora actually jumps into a videogame to rescue puppies that are being kept in cages. Despite the overall premise of the show, Dora’s actions within the videogame aren’t any different than anything she’d be doing in her own world. She relies on all the same videogame conventions and interactions that serve her in every other episode.

Some parents may be concerned by the show’s reliance on the language of videogames – assuming they’re even aware of it – but I think it’s of definite benefit to the children viewing the show. The industry has lately begun examining the trend towards gamification, which incorporates videogame-style systems in a larger context, from DMV tests to supermarket check-out counters to kid’s homework. Though it’s an absolutely terrible word, the concept itself is exciting and important. Game developers spend their entire careers trying to get us to understand and process information on screens. As interacting with screens becomes a more significant part of everyone’s experiences outside of gaming, it’s gratifying to see shows like Dora the Explorer begin to teach children the skills they’ll need to adapt to the challenges they’ll face tomorrow.

Interestingly, the show’s creators other main goal, to get kids up off the couch and have them actively respond to the show by both speaking and mimicking Dora’s movements, is exactly what the three big console manufacturers have been trying to do with motion controls. Nintendo was first out of the gate with its Wii Motion controls, but Microsoft’s Kinect has moved beyond accelerometers and gyroscopes and now our bodies – and soon, even our voices – can be the controllers. So when Dora shouts for kids to “Get up” or asks them to stop Swiper the Fox from stealing by saying, “Swiper, no swiping!” she’s setting a pattern that Microsoft hopes to follow.

I don’t suggest that this last connection is intentional. The show’s creators are merely trying to get the viewer translate his or her attention into activity, either by moving or speaking. The creators of Dora have been striving to find ways to get viewers to interact with the show without the benefit of a controller, which is exactly what Microsoft is trying with Kinect, so the kids who have learned to tell Dora’s friends to jump over a puddle will have no trouble telling Liara to take cover behind a wall and fire on the enemy Geth.

Now if they could just make an episode about how you’re not supposed to go running off the second your father’s back is turned, we’d be in business.

Steve Butts is already putting out Hi-C and graham crackers for the inevitable visit of the social workers.

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