This post actually started out as a long email to some researchers I work with who study user experience, especially with families (they're the folks that did the fun Nokia/Sesame Street stuff). I thought about the email today and realized there was no reason I couldn't share it here as well, since I think it's truly fascinating.
My nine year old son Alex had a play date recently over at our house - after a while, he wanted to show his friend Minecraft Pocket Edition, which I just got for our iPads (we both have one, best investment I've made so far in his education). He and I had played for a couple hours on Saturday creating virtual castles and underground hideouts, etc. and it was a lot of fun.
If you haven't heard of it, Minecraft is an independently developed block-building-slash-survival game that hit it big over the last year, and they just came out with a tablet version a few weeks ago for both Android and iPad. The tablet version is actually a very light version of the game - there's no fighting or zombies, etc. like in the PC version, just the ability to build stuff. At first I wasn't going to buy the iOS version as it cost $7 on the iPad, but Google has been promoting apps for Android, and Minecraft went on sale for 10 cents, so I bought it for my Motorola Xoom (which I use mostly for testing). That's when I discovered how fun the game really was! I soon after bought the iPad version, and Alex and I have had a blast playing with it since.
That said, I wasn't sure if Alex's friend would be as interested as it's sort of geeky, but it was a huge hit. And because the Android and iPad versions are compatible, we were all able to jump into the same world together using all three tablets at once. We spent at least two solid hours that afternoon sitting in the living room with our individual tablets, excitedly building cool things both together and separately, and then running around the virtual world to see what the others had created. No blasting bad guys, no puzzles, no challenges. It was just pure virtual creation.
To me there's so many parts of this experience which I think are pretty novel:
- Minecraft PE isn't a 'game' in the traditional sense, simply a sandbox. Like Lego blocks, but much cooler as you're inside the world you're building.
- The interface is so simple, anyone can pick it up and have fun without previous experience - not normal for many video games or virtual worlds
- It's amazing how quickly you go from building a little shack or tunnel, to wanting to clear out 10 virtual acres of land to create the biggest castle ever. It was great to see the boys ambitions get ahead of themselves, then scale back, help each other, etc.
- The social aspect of sharing what you built is really compelling - though I did have to chide both kids at one point or another to go see what the other person had made, because they were so involved in what they were doing they didn't want to stop. Once they did though, there were lots of 'Oh! Cool! I want to help! Then come see mine!' This is the first time that sort of lesson has come up while playing any sort of co-op game that I've seen.
- Being able to easily jump in with the two boys and guide them along in case they stalled was great (in terms of new ideas, or simply getting lost - one boy tunneled all the way straight down to the border of the virtual world and then couldn't figure out how to get back to the surface. :-) )
- Cross platform compatibility - this is almost obvious, but it really did enable all the above.
- Finally, the boys did eventually figure out a game to play - Hide and Go Seek. Which, considering that you can create your own endless tunnels, was quite amusing.
It really was fascinating to watch the boys launch into the game together, start creating new stuff and having fun without any fuss. And though it seems that with all of us heads down on our own device, the experience would be less personal - it was actually way better than, say, a co-op video game where you all sit facing one direction communicating with grunts and the occasional elbow. Instead, we were all comfortably lounging around the living room, and would look up and chat with each other, lean over to see what the other was doing, etc. All in a much more 'normal' social manner than, say, a shared-screen experience.
Once again, I'm truly amazed at the leap forward tablet computers really are: Touch can make UIs so much more accessible and intuitive, and the tablet form-factor melds easily into social situations without creating barriers like a laptop or game console.
I think this is just another convincing example of how much of a technological leap forward that tablets really represent. Rather than being a third type of computing system that seems an odd fit compared to the PC and mobile phone, it's obvious to me now that tablets will end up being the principal computing device of the coming era. Maybe they'll just be considered PCs with touch interfaces or big mobile OSes, but the form factor that I think we've been waiting decades for is here, and it's as good as we all thought it could be, or better.