The Need to Represent the World in Children’s Learning Apps

As a kid, I always wondered why so many games didn’t have interesting girl characters. I grew up in the era of Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Zelda, and an assortment of first-person shooter games starring tough white guys. You know the situation’s not great when Princess Peach is the closest you get to seeing someone even vaguely like yourself in a game–and you can’t even play as her.

One of the major challenges of designing a game for a diverse worldwide audience is tackling issues of representation. We need to ensure that we provide a set of character options that allow children to create a character who could represent them while exposing them to children who differ from them.

Many recent articles have highlighted the dearth of people of color in popular children’s books. The Census Bureau estimates that about half of children in the U.S. under the age of 5 are nonwhite, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only about 14% percent of children’s books published involve or are written by people of color.

The concern about the lack of representation in children’s media is twofold and impacts all children, not just those underrepresented. First, for underrepresented groups, it makes it difficult to see themselves in different roles or conveys the idea that their experiences don’t matter. Second, for overrepresented groups, it makes it difficult for them to see others as belonging and also prevents them from learning about the similarities and differences across groups and cultures.

This problem extends to children’s games as well, and as app creators, we feel it’s our responsibility to work to correct this issue in our products.

We are in the process of developing supporting characters in our learning games to ensure that children learn more about others. As a child progresses through the app, he/she will meet characters who expose them to different cultures and people. Although this requires extra effort to research and revise, we know that it’s an important part of ensuring that our app leads to excellent learning outcomes outside of just the academic content.

We are also building an interface that allows children to create their own character using a variety of different skin tones, hair colors, eye shapes, clothing, and other features. We want every child to be able to point to their character and say, “That’s me!” and know that they too can be the protagonist of any adventure they can imagine.

A few early versions of possible characters with clothes more common to the U.S. Many more to come!

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