Friday, 16 September 2011

Appy Ever After?

This week's Nosy Crow event at the SCBWI Professional Series was ostensibly about what it means to be a small publisher. The managing director, Kate Wilson, set out their brand philosophy and talked about their products. But, inevitably, all anyone wanted to know about was apps. This isn't surprising, because picture book apps - particularly the ones that Nosy Crow have so far produced - trigger a wonderfully childish glee in everyone who sees them. You'd have to be a pretty hard-hearted purist (Alberto Manguel, say) to not find a little bit of excitement for the possibilities of the form.

Yet, there's still a part of me that wants to bemoan the projected downfall of The Book, and the implications for literacy that entails. Kate Wilson argues that any "reading experience" is a good one, and that a child reading an app is just as engaged in learning as one with a physical book. But I think there's a spiritual and emotional depth that's being lost here - reading should be more than a functional exercise. Will the children who have grown up with picture book apps transition to e-chapter books? Or will they instead move onto other apps?

Working in software and surrounded by people saying, "Why haven't we got an app for that?" all the time, I tend to get quite jaded about the march of technology. All too often, companies are producing these things because they think they should, not because there's a need or even a market. I'm not saying that this criticism applies to Nosy Crow, who are very clear on their target demographic and corporate vision. But I suspect there are other publishers who are playing catch-up on all this, trying to shoehorn existing characters into interactive platforms just because they know this will shift a few units.

Apps and traditional books are both interactive, but in very different ways. With an app, the interaction happens on a (quite literally) surface level - the tapping, pinching and dragging influences what happens onscreen. The interaction with a traditional narrative happens in the reader's subconscious, a kind of transference between the author and the reader. Video game designers have been struggling for years to reach the emotional Holy Grail - a game that can make you cry. So far, that's eluded them, and I wonder if it's the very active nature of games that precludes this? Perhaps it's easier to induce that state in a more reflective, passive reader.

When I asked her about the dividing line between a picture book app and a game, Kate Wilson wasn't able to tell me - it's something that Nosy Crow are still exploring. But their apps do have definite game-like qualities, and I wonder if we aren't a million miles away from the kind of graphical text adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island that were so popular during the early 90s. Perhaps that's a valid way forward for older readers, combining a strong text-based aesthetic with a nonlinear plot. I also note that those fondly remembered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are being released as iPhone and iPad apps, although their appeal seems to be largely nostalgic right now. These were one of the earliest examples of a reading/game hybrid, and without them I probably wouldn't be writing this blog today. Is there a modern equivalent that can engage today's children and promote literacy at the same time? Can we reimagine the traditional narrative to provide emotional sustenance on interactive platforms? I don't know, but it's certainly a challenge worth engaging with.



  1. Woo! Fighting Fantasy. I was the king of Deathtrap Dungeon.

  2. City of Thieves was my favourite. But they were fiendishly difficult and it's even worse on the iPhone, apparently, because you can't cheat by turning back and choosing again. Not that I ever did that. *ahem*

  3. Huh. Nick, you just managed to post on a topic I'm not all that interested in, but yet you completely held my interest, and have me still thinking about the ramifications of interaction and games in the book world. Wow. Very insightful.

  4. I'm very excited about the potential for apps to enhance the reading experience, but I would hate books to suffer a demise as a result. As you say, it's a challenge – and a very interesting one at that.