The BolognaRagazzi Digital Award and the future of digital content for children and young adults after the pandemic
by Roberta Franceschetti, co-founder of Mamamò and member of the BRDA jury.
The traditional Masterclass “Dust or Magic” was held as part of the digital edition of BCBF. Targeting all professionals interested in taking a deep dive into the latest digital media content for children and young adults, the meeting was organised in partnership with Children’s Technology Review, and was part of the Aldus program, the European Book Fairs’ network. As well as Elena Pasoli, Exhibition Manager of BCBF, facilitators included members of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award jury: Warren Buckleitner – editor of Children’s Technology Review (USA), Lucy Gill – creator of the Good App Guide and founder of Digills Consulting (United Kingdom), Neal Hoskins of Wingedchariot (United Kingdom), and for Italy, me, the writer of this article, and co-founder of Mamamò.
After a close look at the winners of the 2020 BolognaRagazzi Digital Award, the meeting considered the impact of Covid-19 on the market and family screen time.
The pandemic as a gamechanger
The first thing to come out of the masterclass was the extent to which the pandemic has been a gamechanger of the rules underpinning the market of digital content for young people.
Only a few months earlier, public debate around young children and digital media had been focused on screen time and the need for a balanced media diet. Today, the world has discovered it has 1.2 billion children out of school and families facing the difficulty of distance learning and the need to find quality content online.
These new requirements have led to a boom in the digital services targeting families. For example, in April our Mamamò website, which selects and reviewers digital content for young children, had three times more hits than in January. The Disney + on-demand platform doubled the number of subscribers during the pandemic, and Google Classroom was among the 10 most downloaded apps during March.
During the lockdown, people read books and very frequently switched on a screen. Can we say that new opportunities and challanges came out from these hard times, such as a new relationship between the book and the screen? What sort of content are families looking for?
During the lockdown, films were the most sought-after content, along with learning tools and programs for special-needs children. These three areas sum up the key concerns of families: entertainment, education, and special-needs.
Are parents willing to pay for digital content? During the pandemic, the research for free content continued as before. However, an increasing number of families were willing to buy products, especially digital educational and entertainment content. In the future, therefore, we will probably see more subscription-based educational platforms, like “Marco Polo World School” and “Super Simple” - both on this year’s BRDA shortlist – whose broad-content libraries range from videos and ebooks to videogames, all accessible through a simple intuitive interface.
What about market sustainability?
Recent years have seen app developers focus on cost-cutting global economies of scale and serialisation, for example, using the same code with new content and graphics. The Bologna shortlist in fact included “Thinkrolls Space” - a reinvention of the successful “Thinkrolls” puzzle format, this time in a space environment - and “Pango Musical March”, which builds on the universe of Studio Pango’s amusing characters, this time with a different gameplay. Both are wordless apps and so, easier to market globally requiring less localisation.
What is quality in an app?
A good app is an easily accessible product in which the most avant-garde technology is harnessed to create a well-constructed product of excellence. Apps are in fact complex products that require a mix of different professional skills. So, defining app quality means taking into account a combination of factors ranging from the illustration and sound design through to content and gameplay. Apps for young children also require a deep understanding of the target audience in order to design age-compatible interface, interaction and learning goals. What emerged from the masterclass was the primary need for an ethical approach to digital content for children and young adults, whether a book, app or virtual reality sequence. Children are a special “sacred audience”, to quote Fred Rogers, and many purely commercial products fail to respect children, their rights and development needs.
An example of a quality app is “Puku”. Included in this year’s BRDA shortlist, it translates the Merriam-Webster dictionary into an app for children, turning a dictionary into an interactive digital tool to broaden the user’s word stock. Puku combines a sound teaching tool with excellent user-experience design, fun sound effects, and an engaging teacher/guide – a caterpillar called Puku – who grows as the child user learns. Access and interaction modalities also become incrementally more difficult as the child proceeds and learns. Another example of excellence, also shortlisted this year, is the digital classic “Barefoot Atlas”, now released in a new interactive version allowing children to explore the world map.
“Paperbark”, another app on the Bologna shortlist, provides an interactive narrative featuring a small wombat in the Australian bush. The beautiful illustrations of the animal’s natural landscape convey an environmental message in an engaging and amusing way.
Augmented reality apps
Set up in past years, BRDA’s special augmented-reality category last year selected innovative immersive apps like “Wonderscope”, which combines AR and voice commands, and “Ghost’O Matic”, a mystery story combining the picturebook format with AR. Although there were decidedly fewer AR app submissions this year, the jury commended “AR Maker”, an app that allows children to create their own augmented reality scenes, putting the technology into the hands of the user.
What about storytelling?
In a connected world, narratives are fragmented across many different media, creating transmedia worlds in which each particular medium adds a piece to the story. The winner of the 2020 BRDA, “The Wanderer. Frankenstein’s Creature” reinvents Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” in the form of a videogame using remarkable illustrations and an interesting gameplay. “The Wanderer” is also an online prequel: a videogame featuring the author and how she wrote the novel during a stay near Lake Geneva with Byron. I wouldn’t be surprised if the splendid illustrations of this videogame also became a picturebook.
Today we must think in terms of mixed business models that embrace diverse on- and off-line media. We must work with physical and digital modes in a single interconnected ecosystem. This is not a new phenomenon in the world of children’s apps: the famous serial app character Fiete will feature in an animation series, and the Sago Mini characters have already become plush toys.
I worked on the MeteoHeroes project in which six heroes join forces to save the Earth from climate change. It was broadcast as an animation series on Cartoonito a few weeks ago. However, the project started five years ago as an app whose characters and storytelling design were developed with future animated cartoon series, books, licensing and educational projects for schools in mind.
What are the implications of this new scenario for the publishing world?
Innovation is not just about technology. Innovation means finding new ways of designing and distributing content for children and young adults where the physical experience – including books - plays an important role.
In a digital world, while hardcopy books are not the only way of transferring knowledge to future generations, they still have a significant role as an authoritative, socially-relevant medium, even for young people. Indeed, YouTubers largely legitimise their success to mainstream media like books, and successful stories on Wattpad, a social reading platform mainly used by Millennials and the Z Generation, have become printed books, TV series or feature films.
This mixed narrative ecosystem is what we must bear in mind as we think of the future of publishing after the shock of the pandemic.
Assessing the publishing and digital media sectors requires that we step back and look at the overall scenario. New media comprise a range of different narrative components:
- Each medium contributes a piece to the overall narrative;
- Narrative streams can be long or short, as in the case of TV series;
- Some media fragments are devised for use on a mobile device, like a mobile phone. This is the case of chat stories, short stories released on social networks, or narratives like “Five Feet Under”, a linear story interspersed by images, animation, legends, and maps.
Conciseness – the ability to distil complex emotions and meaning in just a few lines - is an all important factor, especially for dissemination over the Internet. This is borne out by the popularity of online poetry, which has led to increased sales of printed poetry books. Books by Instapoets account for more than 12% of the U.K.’s poetry book market, helping drive a 50% increase in sales in this sector since 2014 (source: Nielsen Bookscan).
Text no longer belongs just to the verbal medium; it is also visual.
This does not mean that immersive reading – what we do when we read the printed page – disappears when we read on the screen. Screen reading, however, has different rules. On a platform like Wattpad, 80 million users – readers and authors, mainly Millennials and the Z Generation – have written more than 500 million long-format novels. This confirms that the screen is conducive to immersive reading, if, however, the reader can be a protagonist, make comments, give suggestions and indicate preferences. If engagement levels are high, immersive reading also takes place on the screen.
Wattpad is an interesting example also from another point of view. The stories developed on this platform have in many instances become printed books, TV series or feature films, confirming the broad narrative ecosystem publishers should bear in mind.
Profitable business models are therefore all about mixed business models that engage with online and off-line media. The physical and digital experience make up a single interconnected ecosystem.
This is borne out by several characters first developed within the context of children’s apps, like the character Fiete, which then became a cartoon series, or the Sago Mini characters, which are now also cuddly toys.
Returning to the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award, right from the outset the apps selected have provided a clear indication of the state of the market. In fact, after the initial enthusiasm for what appeared a global market accessible to everyone, apps have proved in just a few years to be a highly competitive environment demanding substantial marketing investments to ensure store visibility. Developers have found they have to work on economies of scale, serialisation – using the same code with different content and graphics – and an international approach if they are to cover development costs.
10 years on and the Bologna shortlist comprises products that repeat winning formulas and tried and tested formats, like Avokiddo, which re-proposes the successful Thinkrolls puzzle format, this time in a space environment, or Studio Pango, presenting its characters in a series of different gameplays. Both are mainly wordless apps, therefore requiring minimal localisation for global distribution. However, the problem of sustainability remains: high production costs are not offset by large numbers of parents willing to pay for digital content. Apple and Google, the two main stores, stay on the safe side, sticking to well-known character brands or players investing substantially in communication.
Adapting to the store ecosystem has required app developers abide by the following strategies:
- Free apps aimed at consolidating the value of brands known in other markets sectors, like food or clothing;
- Freemium or payment apps featuring well known public characters especially loved by children like, for example, Peppa Pig or the PJMasks that attract app download and subsequent purchase of further content;
- Apps combining the full range of publisher content made available through monthly subscriptions following the business model of VOD platforms like Netflix, creating both user loyalty and a constant revenue flow. An example is the Montessori-based educational content of Edoki Academy, a winner last year in Bologna, but also the Sago Mini Games for very small children;
- Pioneer apps like Toca Boca, an early mover on the market that has successfully asserted its brand by adopting series and economies of scale;
- Videogames developed as both apps but also suitable for other platform formats, accessible on subscription through stores like Apple’s Arcade.
This last trend was clearly apparent in the last two editions of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award where videogames with a strong narrative component won many prizes. Last year it was “The Gardens Between”, this year “The Wanderer. Frankenstein’s Creature” and “Paperbark”: products developed for a tablet device with powerful new visuals, a more intuitive interface combined with the interactive storytelling of graphic point-and-click adventure games first developed in the 1980s for the PC.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, on which many editors had initially banked, seems not to have made much headway, especially when still connected to the printed story version. The most interesting examples, like “Wonderscope” – a winner last year - have in fact freed themselves from the book version and introduced emerging technologies such as voice interaction commands.
Innovation is not just about technology. For publishers, innovation means finding new ways of designing and distributing content, and developing partnerships with other technology players.
The power of print: a niche market but one able to cultivate loyal, committed readers.