ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Dust or Magic Institute on the Design of Children’s Interactive Media

by Krystina Madej

Dust or Magic Institute on the Design of Children’s Interactive Media,
November 4-6, 2018. Inn at Lambertville Station, Lambertville, NJ

The conference started on a perfect fall day – blue sky, crisp air, leaves falling from multi-hued trees to create a carpet of color. The Inn at Lambertville Station, a historic location on the Delaware River, welcomed old friends who shared hugs, smiles, and news. Newcomers were quickly and easily absorbed into the warmth of greetings and laughter. The Dust or Magic Institute first met in this venue 18 years ago. It is now one of a triumvirate of events organized by Warren Buckleitner, founder of Children's Technology Review, that bring together game developers, child development researchers, and toy and game reviewers, to discuss the state of the industry.

Key to this year's discussion was the reality that quality, commercial-free children's interactive media had entered a "brand new world" in which the distribution of products is controlled by companies whose interest is in the bottom line, not in the needs of children who use these products. It is worth quoting Buckleitner's perspective:

"It's fair to say that the modern children's media landscape has evolved quickly, creating confusion and loopholes for markets. Almost overnight it has become dominated by technology companies who lack an understanding of children's issues. Apple has been asking children's app publishers to increase subscriptions and onboarding activities while heavily promoting apps with ads, IAP (In App Purchases), and inappropriate content. Recently, Google promoted a list of Dress Up apps that includes Star Girl – a series of free apps with cringe-worthy ethnic and gender stereotypes. Google's YouTube is now every child's personal television with all the answers and no filters. Media giants like Disney and Hasbro now freely promote "click trap" experiences specifically engineered to lure a child in with a few easy levels before offering items for sale. They also use apps to promote toys or to harvest information with push notifications. Apple, Google, and Amazon don't make the apps that rob children of time and adults of money; but they are benefitting financially by driving the get-away car, and they show no signs of changing their behavior."

Buckleitner has been raising issues such as these since 1993 when he started Children's Technology Review (CTR) in order to include an educational voice in the review of children's digital games. As people settled in to the first events of the evening, Buckleitner introduced the  Institute's theme for this year – How do we make goodness attractive in the digital age?  A direct response to the rapidly moving changes in online media practices the theme is based in the philosophy of television personality and child advocate, Fred Rogers – that creating ethical media for children was critically important.

To ensure the idea would continue to take root and grow, Buckleitner proposed a "Fund to Rescue Ethical Digital Media for Children" or FRED. The proposal speaks to the need for action, not just discussion, and suggests concrete steps such as: establishing a Code of Ethics that includes the industry pledge "I will do to other people's children what I would do to my own," building a fund from industries that benefit from selling digital products for children, and introducing small fast grants to revive older ethical apps and fund new work.

Buckleitner welcomed panelists as they convened in front of the audience and presented viewpoints of how the year had unfolded in the game and toy industry: the space for innovation seemed to be shrinking because of the direction of online media; the number of companies creating good games was shrinking because of this phenomenon; the game Fortnite, as an epic narrative, was taking over from Minecraft, and adding ; Pokémon Go AR games had added dinosaurs, Harry Potter, and Jesus to their games; even as more online resources were being made available to teachers and students through LTI integration, students seemed to be less engaged as their social/emotional issues were not being addressed; upcoming toys had more integration of play with technology. 

During the remainder of the evening and over the next two days, participants listened to presentations on social media for younger children, interactive narrative, business practices, children's engagement and play, meaningful experiences for teens, new directions in learning games, and some exciting applications of technology.

Sunday and Monday presentations included:

Emily Schlemmer, UX Researcher at Facebook and Barbara Chamberlin, Professor at NMSU Learning Games Lab, presented on the making of Facebook Messenger Kids and the research involved in making an age appropriate communication experience for children as young as 7.

Carolyn Handler Miller, author of Digital Storytelling, now in its 3rd edition, spoke on interactive narrative and her involvement as a writer in the immersive environment The House of Eternal Return, produced by the arts and entertainment company Meow Wolf.

Mark Schlichting, CEO Noodleworks, creator of Brøderbund's CD-ROM Living Books, discussed engagement and children's play patterns, spoke about Bandura and children's belief in being able to reach their goal, and talked about the importance of bringing surprise to children's games. "Learning is fun – it's our job as designers not to screw it up."

Krista Marks, CEO, Woot Math, previously Vice-President for User Generated Content at Disney and CEO of Kerpoof, brought her understanding of why companies succeed or fail and introduced the audience to her seven incantations for success.

Vikas Gupta, CEO, Wonder Workshop, which brought the robots Dash and Dot to children, told the story of how he arrived at the idea of robots to help kids learn coding, and shared his experience of encouraging social media connections around the world through competitions.

A special outing in Monday evening:

The local school bus took us on a wild ride (reminiscent of Toad's) through pouring rain to the College of New Jersey, where Buckleitner teaches, for a presentation by Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and Distinguished Professor of Entertainment Technologies at Carnegie Mellon, that was then followed by an industry panel. Schell showed the company's current projects and spoke about the future of VR and AR in games and social media to enthusiastic students who appreciated his 20 plus years of experience and the reality-based information he could provide in this much touted new genre.

The panelists, who included Chris Byrne, Robin Raskin, Barbara Chamberlin, Emmet O'Neill, Jim Marggraff and Mark Schlichting, each addressed a key idea they believed important for students to consider as they learned about the industry and where they might use their budding talents. Panelists fielded questions from students, including, as was to be expected, ones on what was most important to study to get a job in the industry. Students were encouraged to ask questions on a one-to-one basis at the tea and cookies mixer which followed.

Tuesday's presentations included:

Chris Byrne, The Toy Guy and author of Toys: Celebrating 100 years of the power of play, shared his extensive knowledge about the latest trends in toys and tech.

Shuli Gilutz, Children's Technology Lecturer at Tel Aviv University, skyped in to promote ideas from the Unicef-sponsored Designing for Children's Rights Association that would assist companies create a viable business while also respecting children's rights.

Robin Raskin, CEO of Living in Digital Times, identified technologies she believes are currently creating the greatest impact with the public: Alexa, AR/VR, AI at our fingertips (self-driving cars), tokenization of education, and the GIG economy.

Susan Rivers, CEO of iThrive games, spoke passionately about the need for games to offer meaningful experiences to teens, of designing intentionally with teens well-being in mind, and of helping develop competencies through agency.

Jim Marggraff was the final speaker for this year's institute. Creator of LeapPad, developer of LiveScribe, and founder of Eyefluence, Marggraff shared his process of innovation and encouraged participants to look at the problem to solve (PTS). He suggested everyone consider taking an RCR moment (Rocking Chair Retrospective), during which we visualize ourselves at ease in our rocking chair in our retirement years and look back at what we have done in our lives of which we are most proud.

In addition to listening to the presentations, participants reviewed games – both presented and on view, suggested inspiring quotations to support the Goodness theme, and (in teams) developed pyramids of the most valuable qualities of interactive games.

As the conference wound down and people began to leave, there were many promises of sharing research and maintaining contact throughout the year, until the next time.


In 1996, new media had taken children's publishing by storm. Warren Buckleitner was invited to develop a New Media Prize for the Bologna Children's Book Festival, the largest and most important children's book fair in the world. He asked that the prize be the result of a juried competition of practitioners who would meet to view product demonstrations and discuss them as a group. The first prize was awarded at the March 1997 Book Fair. When the market for software softened in 2001 the prize was discontinued but the idea of bringing together game developers, child development theorists, and reviewers to discuss the state of the industry had already fixed itself in Buckleitner's mind. The result? Dust and Magic Institute on the Design of Children’s Interactive Media, now in its 18th year.

The inspiration for the Institute's title is based in Bob Hughes 1999 book "Dust or Magic: Secrets of Successful Multimedia Design" in which Hughes quotes the Japanese 17th century Haiku poet Matsuo Basho, "An idea can turn from dust to magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it."

The two other events organized by Children's Technology Review are the Bologna Masterclass held each March at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, and the AppCamp held each June in Asilomar, California.

Industry Panel:



Mark Schlilchting:

Mark Schlilchting


Buckleitner with Wonder Works Robot:

Buckleitner with Wonder Works Robot


Vikas Gupta Wonder Workshop:

Vikas Gupta Wonder Workshop