When Lucy stepped through the wardrobe and into Narnia, she found herself in a land full of magical possibility. It was a world where animals talked, mythical creatures offered her tea and, along with her siblings, she found herself on the frontline of a war between good and evil.
This was the ultimate reading experience: leaving one world and losing yourself in another. And as a young child, the idea that another world might even exist sent the imagination into overdrive.
Now with iOS devices – and the soon-to-launch tablets for children Archos and Fable – there is a new terrain in which these other worlds can be constructed. Unlike the fictional world of Narnia, theirs is a fully immersive experience – somewhere to find and read stories, play games, do activities on or offline, watch videos, even interact with the characters or communicate with peers.
To date, one of the most succesful online worlds for children is Moshi Monsters. Aimed at 7-11 years, it’s more gaming, less story-based, although it has spawned a series of print books published by Penguin. Currently it has 60 million (that’s 60 MILLION) registered users with a new sign up every second. I met Michael Acton Smith – Mind Candy’s CEO, founder, and modern-day Willy Wonka – at this year’s Do Lectures. The success of Moshi Monsters is well-documented. One reason for its popularity is that in the world of Moshi, your child is in charge. A stark contrast to normal life and constantly being told what to do, when and how. Not only that, there’s a 2-way conversation between Moshi and its users. Acton Smith told me that many of the ideas worked into the site come from their children’s blog. Someone is actually listening to them.
So while places like Moshi, Poptropica and Club Penguin attract emergent readers with a degree of techy prowess – what about their younger siblings?
The default site for most parents is CBeebies. It’s a trusted advertising-free zone that delivers a rich mix of educational games, stories and activites by a gaggle of characters and presenters that your offspring is on first name terms with.
Now there’s a new kid on the block. This week marks the launch of a new virtual world for children aged 2-6+ years. And it is firmly rooted in books and storytelling.
Magic Town is produced by interactive learning company MindShapes. As CEO David Begg says, ‘Magic Town is a ground-breaking way for parents and children to share story time. Our mission is to use storytelling to help children develop a lifelong passion for reading and learning.’
For a new kid, they’re already hanging out with some impressive people. Collaborations have been formed with established children’s book publishers including Andersen Press, Egmont, Usborne, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, OUP, to license content for the site. In return, they receive a percentage of subscriptions. It’s an innovative model that, so far, publishers seem willing to explore. As a result Magic Town launches with some of our favourite characters in residence: Little Princess, Winnie the Witch, Elmer, and Poppy and Sam from Usborne’s Farmyard Tales series.
At first glance Magic Town looks a bit like a poster for Camp Bestival. Colourful, bright, quirky, the welcoming landscape is dotted with individually-styled houses. One click on a house and you’re inside. Bright-eyed boy Max is there to greet you, tell you who lives there, and ask if you’d like to ‘read a book’ or ‘play a game’.
All books are digital and are read on-screen, either by parent or a narrator, using Mindshapes’ proprietary storytelling format, Livebook. As well as the well-known brands there will be ‘digital first’ titles by authors such as Janey Louise Jones and Ian Whybrow, and daily stories from zen-like story guru, Louis the Lion. Once Magic Town is established, this could be an incredible platform for new and lesser-known authors to find new readers, and vice-versa.
Magic Town uses gaming technology and a proprietory algorithm that will personalise your child’s experience and suggest new Livebooks based on previous choices. As David Begg says ‘Our strategy is to use gaming techniques to deliver a custom experience for each child. Every time children enter Magic Town they receive a new story tailored to their individual user profile. The more they read and play, the more their version of Magic Town grows.’
This is way more exciting and advanced than the Puffin Book Club that me and my brother belonged to as children (although you can’t beat a free badge and sticker).
So what is this land of books going to cost parents? Magic Town is free-to-access as are some stories, but to make it worthwhile you need to subscribe. One subscription, which covers up to four children, costs: £7.95/ €9.99/ $11.99 per month; for six months: £39.99/ €49.99/ $59.99, or one year: £49.99/ €59.99/ $74.99. Not bad when you compare it to the cost of an individual book.
So with TV shows, game consoles, DVDs, ‘educational’ websites, smart, engaging book apps, and virtual worlds, all jostling for the small amount of downtime that children get outside school – what’s a parent to do?
Surely it becomes a question of quality screen time. As Begg says, ‘Magic Town is a wholesome and engaging alternative to children’s TV and to games on computers and other devices’. Okay it doesn’t have the thrill of Super Mario Karts but for this demographic it is a friendly, welcoming, safe online environment for children to explore. And in the process, discover some of our finest children’s books and authors.
Virtual worlds for children will continue to expand and new ones will appear – let’s not forget Pottermore and its dark world forming offline as we speak. Magic Town is bringing something new – a place where children can lose themselves in a world of books and storytelling. As they take their first steps on a digital journey that will ultimately lead to the land of social networking and Facebook, it’s a pretty nice place to start.
Take a peek here