Justine Cassell of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a virtual environment around a toy castle filled with dolls. But unlike most doll's houses, the child has to share this one with a 3D computer-animated androgynous playmate called Sam.
Sam's image is projected onto a screen on the other side of the castle, so children can see what he's up to by looking through the windows in each room. Sam is programmed to tell stories about the dolls and their adventures in the castle's different rooms. Sam then asks his real playmates to embellish the tale, pushing them to develop their storytelling skills by asking "and what did she do next" when they stop speaking.
To add realism, and to reinforce the sharing experience, Sam can even "hand" one of the dolls to players through a trapdoor. But if the child snatches the doll too soon, Sam will object, yelling something like "Hey, I was playing with that".
MIT originally created the castle to study language development, but in studies this summer with children from a south Boston school, Cassell was amazed to find they behaved much better with Sam than they did with their schoolmates. One little girl who didn't think much of Sam's contribution told him: "Try to tell a longer story next time, Sam."
Children tend to treat Sam as though they were looking after a younger child, says Cassell. They also use more complicated language to explain what they are thinking than they do when talking to adults. She thinks this happens because Sam's good behaviour rubs off on them and the stories structure the child's play in the same way as an imaginary playmate.
The civilising effect of the toy even works on two or more children, who share the dolls and explain their ideas to the group far better than when Sam isn't there. "They did argue but they came to agreements," Cassell says, "but when Sam wasn't there, they didn't really play and two of the kids even broke the castle."
David Walsh of the National Institute of Media and the Family, a Minneapolis-based group that lobbies against the harmful effects of technology on children, warns that it takes a lot of effort to develop and market toys that are truly educational but he thinks it's a good idea to try. "Although we talk about the harm technology can do, it can be used to teach very pro-social lessons," he says.
Author: Eugenie Samuel, Boston
New Scientist issue: 28 July 2001
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