Impact of new information resources: Multimedia and networks
Disney's animated storybook
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Running the CD-Rom
Ease of Use
Children and the virtual world
Toy Story was the first completely computer-animated feature film ever produced. A co-production of Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar, it was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker John Lasseter and came out in 199?. To capitalize on the film's huge success, a series of interactive multimedia products (including a CD-rom and a 3D video game) as well as more traditional products (including books and toys) were launched. A site specifically dedicated to Toy Story was set up within the Disney site. The Toy Story site contains information about the movie, its stars, its production, the various products for sale, as well as animated images from the movie, games and soundtracks. The site, which won several awards, gives a good idea of the sophistication of the Toy Story animated storybook on CD-rom, which was the subject of my analysis. The CD-rom is indeed of extremely high and remarkable quality, in terms of 3D animation (depth and dimension), style, colors, sound and script. It is not only highly entertaining (and as such was a pleasure to analyze) but also serves an educational purpose for the 3 to 9 year-old children it is targeted at.
The story's main characters are the toys of a young boy Andy, which have the special characteristic of coming to life when people aren't around. The toys are brought to life, not just through the quality of the 3D animation, but also importantly by the famous Hollywood stars who lend their voices to the toys (such as Tom Hanks). Andy's favorite toy is a beat-up old cowboy doll named Woody; Woody maintains law and order in Andy's room and is looked up to and respected by all the other toys. The other toys include a delicate porcelain beauty Bo Peep, a know-it-all piggy bank Hamm, an insecure dinosaur Rex, an acerbic Mr. Potato Head, a loyal pooch Slinky Dog, a band of mutant toys and other toys who have secondary roles in the story. Andy, on his eighth birthday receives a new toy, named Buzz Lightyear, which turns Sheriff Woody's world upside-down. Buzz is a Space Ranger, equipped with a laser, retractable jet wings, and a microchip processor which gives him a vocabulary superior to that of an average high school science teacher. The story shows how Woody, who initially set out on a mission to maintain his position as Andy's favorite toy, after a series of adventures, becomes best friend with Buzz.
Running the CD-Rom
The animated StoryBook starts just like a movie, as the aim is to make the experience of running the CD-rom similar to going to the movies, namely an exciting event. After the opening, Hamm the piggy-bank appears with an open book behind him, introduces the story and explains the procedures. You are supposed to click on arrows on the book with your mouse to skim through the book and see the story develop in front of your eyes. The first picture on the right page of the book represents the first scene and you can either move forward or backwards in the book; you can also click directly on the picture to move to the first scene. Two wings at the top of each scene enables you to move to the next/previous scenes.
The story is divided up in 15 successive scenes, each scene telling a part of the story. The difference with the movie is that you are asked to participate in the story's development by clicking on characters or objects to hear them talk and/or see them move or asked to carry out assignments to help Woody and Buzz escape bad boy Sid, catch a moving van, etc. One assignment consists in identifying objects, clicking on them and bringing them to the place on the screen where their shadow is depicted, or with the help of a voice which tells you whether you are getting closer or not to where the objects belong. Another assigment consists in trying to catch a van by driving through streets without being caught by a dog running after you. Once you have had enough of one scene, you can click on one of the wings at the top of the scene; the scene is wrapped up in order to provide a transition with the next scene to which you are moved. The CD-rom is only interactive if you choose to click on the picture; if you do not want to interact, you do not have to as each scene has an in-built small story which is played automatically. The only thing you have to do is click to move to the next scene.
Ease of Use
The CD-rom can be run on both Windows or Macintosh, and installing and starting the program is easily done. This did not prevent me from having a few technical hiccups such as the computer crashing twice. The CD-rom is aimed at children aged between 3 and 9 years old so I tried, despite my old age, to put myself in the small shoes of a 3-9 year old child in order to get an understanding of the impact of the CD-rom on its target customers.
I am not sure that children aged between 3 and 9 would know how to start the program, although I may be underestimating their computer knowledge. Drawing from my personal experience with running the CD-rom I am also not sure whether they would understand what is required of them on each scene, but I may there again be underestimating them. Indeed the CD-rom does not provide apparent instructions or help. Parents are probably needed, especially the first time the CD-rom is used and the CD-rom actually includes a file to help out parents run the program. I did not run this program prior to using the CD-rom so this may explain why I had difficulties at time figuring out what I had to do and where I could click to see an animation.
The smooth incorporation of instructions into the body of the story (as these are told by the characters on the screen or by Hamm's voice), instead of writing them on the screen, aims to help us constantly remain in the toys' world and not to break the spell. The only visible instruction keys are the two wings I mentioned previously which enable you to move to the next/previous scene.
The story told is one to which children can easily relate to as it depicts a world they are familiar with and which appeals to them; this is a world where toys play an important role, where a nasty boy takes your toys away, where you go to Pizza Planet and where dogs run after you. Children have all had a favorite toy, which they have later neglected for a more modern toy. They would feel at ease in this world. It is however interesting to note that it is a world from which humans are nearly excluded as Andy, the young boy is not really seen or at least not seen in his entirety. Little by little the idea is to enter the world of toys and see the world with their eyes.
The adventure can last for as long as one wishes to, as there are 15 screens with hundreds of different clickables, including 5 assignments/interactive activities, some of them with different levels of difficulty. The time needed to carry out the assignments in particular will vary depending on the children's abilities or their desire to continue to play.
Although the game is intended for young children, I believe that it would fascinate many adults by the quality of the animation, the sophistication of the characters portrayed, the script and even some of the interactive assignments. In addition the story includes certain subtle references to which only adults (or possibly adolescents) would really grasp and appreciate fully; this proves that the target population can go much beyond the 3-9 age group.
The CD-rom's main purpose is entertainment and it succeeds brilliantly. It is similar to a movie in that for a good part you remain a spectator watching passively top-quality animated scenes being played in front of your eyes. In addition, however, the CD-rom invites you to participate actively (if you want) in the story, to help the main characters reach their goals. Although this is not its main role, the CD-rom clearly has an educational purpose.
First of all it aims to help children improve and practise their reading abilities. A short sentence, appearing at the top of each scene, is read by Hamm, while the words are highlighted when spoken. It is possible to click on the words to hear the pronunciation again. I learnt to read by putting my finger on the different words; here this function is performed by the highlighter. The difference is that with my finger I was able to look at levels below the word, looking at individual syllables and further down at individual letters and their pronunciation. This is not possible with Toy Story (but could be feasible technically). The reading element is however rather limited as there is only one sentence per scene; an option could have been to add a feature whereby you could click on objects and the words which is associated with these objects could appear on the screen.
The CD-rom's educational content lies more, I believe, in the assignments which, although they are presented as necessary to proceed through the story and as games, have a clear educational purpose. The CD-rom aims to help build children's critical thinking skills and provides different levels of difficulty for some of the assignments. One assignment consists in identifying shapes as you are told to take toys/objects and put them in their place (which is indicated by their shadow). Another assignment consists in identifying colors as you are told to catch small midgets of a special color and put them in a bag, also of a special color. The toys or Hamm congratulate you after your success. The CD-rom therefore enables children to learn by themselves as further instructions are given to help them match the right shape with their place if they are experiencing problems.
I therefore believe that the Toy Story CD-rom should succeed in helping children to learn, while at the same time entertaining them. Learning through playing is a very efficient way to proceed with young children who often have very limited attention span and like to be constantly entertained. The CD-rom should, by its quality, capture their attention, and help them acquire or develop skills without their noticing that they are being taught anything.
Children and the Virtual World
The CD-rom differs from many video and computer games which, just like the Toy Story, also make you actively participate in the story. Indeed it does not give you the main role, but that of a helper. The story continues to unfold without you and Woody and Buzz remain the main heroes. This is very different from games such as Doom where you are on a mission to kill your enemies and you can see yourself on the screen and walk through the screen and see things with your eyes. With Toy Story you go in and out of the world of the toys, these have a life of their own, although they repeatedly establish contact with you by talking to you and asking you to help them. By jumping from one scene to the next, you lose the impression of continuity, of being in the toys' world continuously.
This make the experience less 'captivating' for the children and I believe that this is better for them, especially if they are very young and their experience of the real world is still limited. I don't think that it is good for children's development to get used to leaving the real world and start living entirely in a virtual world. Many children playing with video or computer games all day start losing touch with reality and drift more and more into an unreal world. Little by little they have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction, in particular as the depicted virtual world increasingly look like the real world. In the virtual world children (and adults as well) get used to having power and position which they often do not have in real life. Simply by clicking on a mouse, they are able to control not only their own destiny, but often that of the world itself.
By living too much in the virtual world, children fail to develop key interpersonal skills which they need to interact successfully with their peers in the real world. Children get used to interacting with 'virtual' characters, which like them without them having to do any effort. These characters are designed so that children will like them or may be designed by the children themselves. This does not prepare children for the real world where one has to 'make' friends and is not 'given' friends, and where people are not necessarily as you ideally would like them to be (e.g. they may be ugly). Children who live in a virtual world will find it difficult to adapt to a world where you do not get to choose how people look like, and where you do not decide on their destiny. In the real world, contrary to the virtual world, you do not always get to do what you want and efforts are needed.
The Toy Story CD-rom does not have these defaults as I do not believe that it would make children 'addicted' to it. Children will be entertained by the story and will take added pleasure in being able to participate in the story and help Woody and Buzz. They will enjoy the games and learn through playing. This will not however lead them to forget about the real world. Some of the assignments included in the CD-rom (such as putting toys in their place) can indeed be repeated in real life and made entertaining.
The CD-rom should also stimulate children's imagination. The very attractive combinations of colors, sound, 3D animation, script they are presented with and the wealth of feelings these combinations create should encourage them at least to try to recreate these combinations. Such experiments may give them confidence that they too can create unique combinations and may make them use their imagination. The CD-rom should also encourage children not to accept things as they look but learn to see beyond the evident, to be imaginative. Toys live and magic exists which enable Andy's room to be transformed from Woody's world (where all the items are 'Western-style") to a world which would fit Buzz.
Telling a story using virtual reality changes the way children imagine things. When I was little and I read or heard the story of H.C. Andersen's Tin Soldier (who only had one leg and fell in love with the ballerina doll whose leg was hidden under her long dress as she was dancing) I had to imagine how the characters looked, their expressions, how they moved. With virtual reality I would just have to watch it on the screen and I could type in instructions or click on the mouse and what I had to imagine in my head would appear on screen. At first thought I would have said that virtual reality left little to imagination; however thinking further about it, this may not be true as virtual reality provides an incredible set of tools to experiment and create. Where it may have negative effects on imagination is if it leads children and adults to forget to use their own mental imagination, if they become dependent on the tools to be imaginative, on always having to see things instead of simply imagining them in their head. The two ways of stimulating one's imagination should be preserved, i.e. children should continue to read or be told tales where they are no pictures or movie to support their imagination. This may mean more efforts, but also added pleasure as ultimately one's mental imagination does not have the constraints which virtual reality has. Disney realizes this and therefore also issues books which tell the Toy Story.
To conclude, I would strongly recommend to everyone to take a look at the Toy Story StoryBook or at least to check out the dedicated web site as both are really of outstanding quality. I have not seen the Toy Story movie but having looked at both the CD-rom and the web site entices me to go and see the real thing. I would also like to see other Disney CD-roms to see whether they are of similar high quality and as entertaining as the Toy Story was.