On FutureBook, Steve Richards (managing director of social media agency Yomego) has a brief piece looking at the rising popularity of online worlds (such as Pottermore and Scholastic’s Horrible Histories World) as ways to market books to kids. He offers a number of suggestions for how the runners of those virtual worlds can make them more attractive and user-friendly to their target audience.
Online environments don’t signal the death of reading – far from it. They can actively promote books to children, and pique their interest in new characters and stories. But just as a child will clamour to see a film adaptation of a favourite book, so they will seek out the virtual environment that brings that book to life. An online world that presents new challenges, new content and new games for a child is like giving them a new variation of that film every day, and letting them star in it.
Richards’s tips center around making the games more fun and rewarding and social for kids, but I can’t help thinking that in a way the idea of basing a world of games around the stories kind of misses the point of “letting [children] star in” their favorite story world.
There are other kinds of online worlds that fans of stories have been able to “star in” for something like twenty years now—text-based multi-user worlds such as PernMUSH (based on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series) or AmberMUSH (based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber). Given the freeform nature of MUSH interaction, it has the potential to be a lot more satisfying to people who want to interact with real people, not computer-generated NPCs, and to feel as if their actions really do affect the world they’re playing in. (Yes, I know, they’re entirely text-based. Guess what? So were the books!)
And from text-based on-line adventure realms, it’s just a small step up to writing and fanfiction collectives. I’ve talked about the ones I participated in back in the day in my “Paleo E-Books” series. Shared settings, both fanfic-based and original (such as the “Paradise” transformation story series), continue to this day, made even easier by the advent of such tools as wikis and EtherPad. It’s got the same feeling of interaction as MUSHes, but on a grander scale because you can cause more things to happen at a time in your “turns”.
Of course, not everybody is necessarily going to have enough of the creative impulse to want to take part in such freeform worlds, so perhaps appealing to the lowest common denominator is the way to go for publishers who want to sell as many of their books as possible. But it would be nice if there were officially-sanctioned places (as PernMUSH was sanctioned by McCaffrey) for the people who wanted to. Nurturing the creative impulse now leads to more availability of books later.