The Internet of Toys: A Posthuman and Multimodal Analysis of Connected Play
by Jackie Marsh — 2017
Background: The study reported in this article focuses on an exploration of the role and nature of play in young children’s use of toys that connect physical and digital domains.
Purpose: The purpose of the article is to explore the nature of the connections that are made in play that transverses physical and virtual domains. The article draws on posthuman theory to explain some of the complexity of the play that occurs in these contexts.
Research Design: The research took place in the United Kingdom, and the overall study consisted of four distinct stages: (a) A survey of 2,000 parents of children aged 0–5 years, focusing on children’s access to and use of tablet apps; (b) case studies of preschool children’s use of apps in six families; (c) observations of children aged 3–5 years in a school using apps; and (d) content and multimodal analysis of apps. The focus of this article is on (b), although some of the survey data from the first stage of the study are also shared to provide context.
Data Collection and Analysis: The focus for this article is the play of a three-year-old girl, Amy. In addition to ethnographic data constructed over a 2-month period (field notes, interviews, photographs, and films), Amy’s mother collected data between the researchers’ visits by making films of her daughter’s use of apps. Amy also collected data herself by wearing a GoPro chestcam. The data that inform the analysis in this article are from a film created by Amy (11:05 minutes) and a video filmed by Amy’s mother (5.21 minutes). Data were both inductively analyzed using multimodal (inter)action analysis and deductively analyzed using a posthumanist approach.
Findings: Amy’s play connected digital and nondigital components in complex ways. An app and related physical object that typify the Internet of Toys provided opportunities for Amy’s play to take place across physical and digital domains, and the inorganic objects embedded in the electronic toy and related app were an important element of this play, shaping Amy’s responses at times. However, Amy’s play was not always determined by the design of the electronic objects, and she demonstrated agency within play episodes. There were multiple connections made across a variety of domains/ dimensions, which added to the complexity of the play.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Young children’s play increasingly connects digital and nondigital domains, and posthumanist theories can enhance understanding of how connections across these time/spaces are made.
Play in the digital world is becoming increasingly complex because of childrens use of technologies, and this use creates synergies between online and offline play. What is central to contemporary play practices is that they take place across a range of digital and nondigital domains and construct complex networks as children play with both known and unknown others. Contemporary play sites cross virtual- and physical-world boundaries as children play with or without playthings in homes, streets, playgrounds, parks, and gardens and online in virtual worlds, on game sites, and so on (Burke & Marsh, 2013).
The concept of connected play represents the complex set of activities that take place when children play across sites and domains in this way. As Kafai and Fields (2013) have remarked, Connections are at the core of play in the digital playgrounds of the twenty-first century (p. 2). Kafai and Fields referred primarily to the connections between virtual and physical domains in childrens play and the social connections that children make through this play. Similarly, Edwards (2013) argued that in postindustrial times, it is necessary to consider the nature of converged play, in which traditional play with toys converges with newer forms of digital play. In this article, however, the principle of connection rather than convergence is used to examine more peripheral as well as core connections between various aspects of play. Convergence may occur in some of these connections but not necessarily so if the connection is of a more ephemeral nature. A key aim of the article, therefore, is to explore the complexities of contemporary connected play in order to trace the influences on its construction and performance.
An important aspect of play as it is examined in this article is its instantiation across virtual and physical domains, which has traditionally been studied as mixed reality (MR) gaming (Bonsignire et al., 2012). MR play can be seen as play that moves across a physical/virtual continuum. Milgram, Takemura, Utsumi, and Kishino (1994) suggested that there is a realityvirtuality (RV) continuum, with the physical world at one end of the continuum and virtual reality at the other. Between these two, they suggest, are augmented reality (AR), in which physical environments are digitally enriched through the use of technology, and augmented virtuality (AV), which are graphic display environments, either completely immersive, partially immersive, or otherwise, to which some amount of (video or texture mapped) 'reality' has been added (Milgram et al., 1994, p. 285). Although Milgram et al. do not consider mixed reality an appropriate term to use for either end of the continuum, immersive virtual reality (VR) environments, such as are possible with Oculus Rift headsets, for example, can still be conceived as MR because the user/ player is located within the physical world, and the physical world may have some bearing on how the virtual reality environment is experienced. In this study, the role of AR apps in promoting play and creativity was examined in particular because of the growth of such apps and related toys in the early childhood market, such as Lego Fusion.
There has been a recent increase in popularity of smart toys, or toys that connect electronically to electronic devices and/or the Internet. These kinds of play resources can be characterized as constituting an Internet of Toys (Chaudron et al., 2017; Wang, Kuo, King, & Chang, 2010) in which the digital and physical are linked, and which thus facilitate connected play. The term can be related to the concept of the Internet of Things, which is a network of physical devices that are digitally enabled and allow the collection and manipulation of data (Kopetz, 2011). However, not all smart toys are connected to the Internet, and toys can relate to electronic devices in ways that are not determined by the devices themselves, so any analysis of connected play needs to attend for a variety of possibilities.
The article draws on posthumanist philosophy to inform an understanding of what happens when humans and inorganic objects interact in episodes of play. Traditional theories of play (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978) are of value in examining the cognitive, linguistic, and social aspects of playful behavior, but they privilege human experience in the analysis of play episodes. In contexts in which toys are smart, howeverthat is, connected to nonphysical, digital entitiesthere is a need to utilize theory that moves beyond a sole analytical focus on the human. For that purpose, recent work in posthumanism is drawn upon.
THEORIZING CONNECTED PLAY: POSTHUMANIST PERSPECTIVES
It is not possible to provide a singular definition of posthumanism, given the various ways in which it is conceptualized by different scholars. To address the complexities inherent in any exploration of the concept, Herbrechter (2013) argued that it should be seen as a discourse, with a combination of material, symbolic and political changes which are constructed within knowledge production and information politics (p. viii). In essence, posthumanism challenges the human/ nonhuman binary and emphasizes the interactions between both. Barad (2007) suggested that our interests should not lie in either the human or the nonhuman, but the ontological entanglements (p. 332) between the two. As she noted,
The relationship between the material and the discursive is one of mutual entailment. Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior. Neither can be explained in terms of the other. Neither is reducible to the other. Neither has privileged status in determining the other. Neither is articulated or articulable in the absence of the other; matter and meaning are mutually articulated. (p. 152)
Given that the ontological entanglements of entities inevitably generate new entities, there is a process of constant becomings (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). In these becomings, there is what Barad (2007) termed an intra-action between matter, both human and nonhuman.
In parallel with developments in posthuman philosophy, scholars also began to critique phenomenology, which privileges human consciousness and experience, and proposed a move to a postphenomenological stance that challenges the transcendence of the subject (Ihde, 1990). In a postphenomenological analysis, the concept of the plane of immanence, a state of being within and not outside of itself, as developed by Deleuze (2001, p. 26), becomes key. In contrast to transcendence, immanence dissolves the boundaries between distinctions such as mind/body and subject/object; it stands as a challenge to researchers to move beyond a phenomenological, subject-centered version of the world, according to posthuman and/or postphenomenological theories that have become prevalent in recent years, such as object-oriented ontology (Bogost, 2012), speculative realism (Gratton, 2014; Harman, 2013), new materialism (Bennett, 2009), and agent materialism (Barad, 2007). Although it is not possible to examine the similarities and differences between these various traditions here, they each prompt new kinds of reflections in relation to questions of ontology and epistemology, and, as Ash (2015) noted, offer a challenge to phenomenology to think about how sensory experience is shaped by the world in ways that arent reducible to or necessarily experienced by consciousness (p. 14). There have been critiques of some forms of posthumanism, with some arguing that, by not acknowledging the differences in agency created by the fact that what distinguishes human agents from objects are language and self-consciousness, an anthropomorphic fallacy (Kipnis, 2015, p. 49) is produced. Kipnis (2015) contended that we need to acknowledge that everythingboth humans and nonhuman objects/materialshas agency, but the types of agency can be differentiated, given the implications of the impact of human language and self-consciousness on issues such as choice and ethics. However, this argument also needs to attend to the question of context. In some contexts, nonhuman objects may have greater agency than humans, if agency is defined as an action that creates an effect. Such an effect takes place as part of an assemblage, a togetherness in an entangled moment (Kuby & Rucker, 2016, p. 17), rather than as a result of choice/intention, and in that entangled moment, the actions of the nonhuman object may have a more significant impact on the movement into the next moment, the becoming. This definition still leaves open the opportunity to acknowledge that the worlds of significance that are transformed through assemblages are also worlds of valuethese are ethical worlds (Diprose, 2009, p. 9), which is a human matter. These questions of agency and ontology are central to an analysis of contemporary play.
Play that crosses virtual/physical world, online/offline and, digital/nondigital boundaries raises a range of ontological questions that are not straightforward in nature. This is particularly the case because of the role of technology in the ensuing ontological entanglements. It is not the case that the physical world constitutes the material, and the virtual world the immaterial. To this end, Kinsley has argued that researchers need to move beyond the frictionless immateriality of virtual geographies towards a greater attention to the material conditions of contemporary digitally inflected spatial formations (Kinsley, 2014, p. 365). Kinsey made the point that much work on the virtual has posited it as other and immaterial in nature, while in fact the material nature of the virtual experience needs to be taken into account. In this endeavor, the agency of technology needs to be acknowledged, and the concept of technicity enables this to take place. Kinsley (2014) suggested that technicity is the power that technologies have, both on their own and in combination with the human body, to make things happen in the world (p. 372). In this respect, technology and humans are co-constitutive.
A number of concepts developed by the postphenomenological geographer James Ash inform the analysis undertaken in this article. Building on the work of Steigler (1998, p. 18), Ash suggested that we need to take account of the role of inorganically organized objects in the humantechnology encounter. These are objects that populate interfaces, the latter being a point of contact between separate types and categories of beings (Ash, 2015, p. 23). In this sense, a tablet screen can be considered an interface. This means that virtual objectsfor example, objects that are embedded in apps and videogamescannot be considered as less real than objects in the physical world, in that they do have properties that can influence action. Ash offered the concept of telepasty to further understand the way in which technologies preshape the possibilities for human activities and sensory experiences. In particular, Ash argued that while all technology is teleplastic to some extent, technologies that involve a close relationship between gesture and interface are more intensely teleplastic. Describing cardinal orientation as the spatial orientation given by the structure of human bodies, rather than in relation to external points in space (2010, p. 416), Ash analyzed cardinal orientation in relation to videogame play, suggesting that a gameplayers body is physically present in from of a screen, but his or her sense of presence moves beyond the corporeal to encompass the virtual environment. Thus, through the creation of a disinhibiting ring (the limits and potentials for movement and action in the game), videogame environments operate teleplastically to reorganize users cardinal orientation (p. 427). The concept of teleplasty, therefore, may be of value when considering young childrens engagement with the Internet of Toys, which may involve engagement with a touchscreen interface and a resulting reorganization of a childs cardinal orientation.
Ash further contended that human interactions with interfaces can potentially produce what he termed interface envelopes, that is, localized foldings of space-time that work to shape human capacities to sense space and time (2010, p. 10), and he argued that interface envelopes are created purposively in order for the designers of interfaces to accrue commercial value from their product. The economic power exerted by the producers he understood as envelope power (2010, p. 10), which seeks to situate users as economic subjects in their play, subject to the commercial intentions of game producers. In this article, the concept of interface envelopes is drawn upon to interrogate the way in which a young app user might be compliant with, and resistant to, such envelope power.
This study, therefore, draws on key aspects of posthumanist philosophy and new materialism to understand the digital play of a young child. There are other accounts of young childrens everyday practices that are informed by posthumanism. For example, Lenz Taguchi drew on the work of Barad (2007) in particular to develop an intra-active pedagogy that enables early years practitioners to focus on how young children intra-act with the material environment they inhabit and consider what the adults role could be in facilitating these entanglements. Kuby, Gutshall, and Kirchhofer (2015) examined the multimodal meaning making of young children as they draw on a range of materials and argued that expanded definitions of literacy that include a focus on intra-actions with matter deepen educators understanding of the writing process. There are as yet, however, few accounts of intra-actions between children and digital objects in play. Given the extent to which the digital is an integral element of young childrens play, as argued previously, there is a need to develop accounts that enhance an understanding of the ontological entanglements (Barad, 2007, p. 332) of children and technology.
The data analyzed in this article are drawn from a study that was co-constructed between academics, childrens media industry representatives, and teachers (see Marsh et al., 2015). The aims of the study were to examine preschool childrens use of apps on tablets and identify how far apps for preschool children (aged 05 years), including apps that incorporate augmented reality, promote play and creativity.
This article draws on data from the first two stages of the study. In Stage 1 of the study, 2,000 parents of children aged 05 years who had access to tablets completed an online survey. Stage 2 consisted of case studies conducted with six families with children from birth to age 5. Four volunteer families from those who had completed the survey, along with two other volunteer families who completed the survey following recruitment through local contacts, were selected to ensure that the case study children offered a balance in terms of age, ethnicity, social class, and whether they had older brothers or siblings. Table 1 provides a profile of the children and families who took part in Stage 2.
Table 1. Demographic Profiles of the Case Study Children
For all case study families, five visits were made to the home over a period ranging from 2 weeks (in the case of family 6) and 3 months. Semistructured interviews with parents on childrens use of tablets and apps were undertaken and field notes of visits recorded where appropriate. As children used tablets in the home, a researcher filmed them and used the opportunity to talk to children and parents about what they were doing. Because Bobby was 6 months old, only parent and sibling interviews were undertaken in that household. Maps of the house were developed, and children and parents were encouraged to talk about where childrens play and creativity took place across the home spaces, with tours of the house being undertaken in some instances, which enabled these practices to be discussed in situ. In addition to these methods, parents were also encouraged to collect data of children using tablets in between visits using their smartphone or tablets. Further, parents of children aged 3 and older were asked if they wished their child to use a GoPro chestcam in case children wanted to collect their own data of their use of tablets. GoPro chestcams are cameras that enable the capture of actions from the participants viewpoints: The cameras are placed in a chest harness and strapped onto the body. They are recommended only for children aged 3 and older, so the youngest children could not use them.
This article focuses on the data developed in one of the six case studies. This case study was chosen because Amy, the child who was the focus for the case, played extensively with apps in ways that demonstrated features of connected play, given that they were embedded in the Internet of Toys. Amy was 2 years and 11 months old at the beginning of the study. She is White British and lives with her mum and dad. Dad is a manager of a betting shop. Mum is an early years practitioner who currently works from home in order to look after Amy. Amy has her own Samsung Tab, which she received as a present for her second birthday. Her mum and dad have an iPad, which Amy used from a young age.
The project adhered to the ethical guidelines of the British Educational Research Association. Informed consent was gained from parents and from the older children, who were given leaflets about the study and were informed about it by researchers using age-appropriate language. The concept of assent (Dockett & Perry, 2011) was used to judge whether children were willing participants in the study. If they appeared to be tired or disengaged in any way, the researchers would refrain from observing or questioning them. Consent forms signed by parents enabled them to state whether they consented to video data being collected, analyzed, and stored.
The article addresses the research question, What kinds of connections are made in episodes of play that involve the Internet of Toys and the use of both digital and nondigital playthings?
The survey data were analyzed using statistical tests made possible by the software package SPSS. Data were analyzed in relation to the following variables: age of child, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, and gender. This process enabled descriptive statistics to be developed of under 5s use of tablets and apps. Only the data relating to AR apps are reported in this article. The interview data with parents were analyzed using thematic coding (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Codes were inductively applied and then grouped into thematic categories. The theme drawn upon in this article is online/offline connections.
Two different strategies were undertaken with regard to analysis of the video data. The data analyzed to inform this study were two videos created by Amy and her mother. In the first example, Amy created a video using the GoPro chestcam. Her mother is present in the background. The video is 11 minutes and 5 seconds in length. In the second video, Amy was videoed by her mother playing with a PAW Patrol app and related toys. PAW Patrol is a Canadian animated television series aired on Nickelodeon. It features seven puppies that undertake rescue missions in the city of Adventure Bay. The video of PAW Patrol play was taken in the living room of the family home. It is 5 minutes and 21 seconds in length.
The videos were multimodally analyzed using Norriss (2011) multimodal (inter)action analysis (MIA) framework. This enables finely grained analysis of moment-to-moment engagement with modes. Norris (2011) argued that there is a need to pay attention to modal intensity and density. In any communicative act, a given mode might be more intense and significant in that act than others. The videos were transcribed using the framework developed by Taylor (2014), which enables the notation of vocalization/speech, gaze, facial expression, haptics, and proximity in any communicative turn. When inanimate objects vocalized or moved, these turns were transcribed using the framework. In addition to this, a further column was added to the framework, inorganically organised objects (Ash, 2015), to enable the documentation of the way in which objects contributed to the communication. This enabled the analysis to take account of both human and nonhuman agents in the play episodes. The video transcripts were deductively coded in relation to the concepts developed by Ash, explained earlier(a) teleplasty, (b) inorganic objects, (c) interaction envelopes, and (d) envelope powerin order to focus on the intra-actions between Amy and the technological artifacts she used. Salient excerpts from these data were used to inform the discussion in this article. These are excerpts that illustrate these theoretical concepts, and because they are closely situated in specific contexts of use, they cannot be seen to illustrate general use of tablets.
In the following discussion of the main findings, a general overview of the use of AR apps from the survey is presented before the article moves on to look in fine detail at the connected play of Amy.
CONNECTED PLAY IN PRACTICE
A sizeable minority of parents reported in the survey that their children used AR apps (24% in total18.5% on tablets and 5.9% on smartphones). There was a statistically significant difference (at the 0.1% level) between the use of these apps by boys and girls (28% vs. 21%). There was no social class difference in use, but there was a difference in relation to ethnicity, in that Black and Minority Ethnic parents were more likely than White parents to report that their child used AR apps (37% vs. 22%). The reasons for these differences are not clear, but the data raise interesting questions about the value placed on AR apps by different families. None of the AR apps reached the top 10 of favorite apps reported overall, but some of the most well-known AR apps for children in this age group include Mattel Apptivity apps and apps that relate to the Internet of Toysthat is, used with dolls and plastic characters, soft toys, and robots.
Amy had a range of apps and toys that drew on AR technology and were embedded in the Internet of Toys. While Amy owned a robot toy named Party Furby, she found that the app related to it did not allow her to do very much, and so, having seen Furby Boom advertised on television, her parents investigated it to see if it would be worthwhile to purchase. They decided to buy it for her third birthday. Furby is an American-produced electronic robot toy that was first released in 1998 and sold more than 40 million units in the first three years of production (Grossberg, 2012). It was reintroduced in 2005 and then again in 2012. In 2014, a new generation of Furbies was released, which contained a new operating system. Controlled by an app, the Furby Boom dances to music, talks Furbish to other Furbies, and can be taught words by a user talking to it and interacting with it. The player collects eggs that hatch into Furblings, and he or she can go online to collect eggs from friends who also have a Furby. Amy was very keen on her new Furby Boom and videoed herself using it while she wore the GoPro chestcam.
The video opens with Amy placing the tablet on the floor in between her legs, with the Furby toy placed at the top of the tablet. She interacts with the Furby by tapping and swiping on the surface of the tablet. Amy finds the screen that contains food and begins to feed the Furby (see Table 2).
Table 2. Play Episode With Furby and Furby App 1
In this instance, we can see the app working teleplastically (Ash, 2010) in tandem with Furby to construct Amys perception of herself as Furbys feeder. Through the embodied gesture of the swipe, the food item is swept up toward the toy (to the top of the tablet screen), and Furby responds by indicating that it has enjoyed the food through movement, light, and sound. In effect, a turn-taking conversation is constructed. The cause-and-effect linkage of these modes serves to reinforce Amys sense of herself as nurturer, who checks with the recipient of her care that it has appreciated it.
In this instance, the human interacts with an inorganic organized object in ways that create specific outcomes, which could not take place if the encounter had been different (if Amy did not swipe the food item to the Furby, it could not respond). The humantechnology interface is thus interdependent. The transduction (Kress, 2010) that takes place is the transposition of the semiotic material of the visual image into the lights and sounds of the Furby. As Ash argued, an object-centered analysis of an interface between objects does not focus on types of materiality, with the digital as a single object positioned on the one side and the world as a differentiated set of objects on the other (Ash, 2015, p. 37). Instead, he suggested that we consider how the various objects within an interface selectively relate to one another to produce particular qualities and environments (Ash, 2015, p. 37).
In considering this episode in relation to MIA (Norris, 2011), it can be seen that the modal intensity shifts from image (as Amy flicks through the food items) to noise, light, and animation (as Furby responds to being fed). This has the effect of bringing Furby to life and providing it with a high modality (in terms of its realness). This modal shift contributes to the construction of Furby as the recipient of Amys care. Connections between human and nonhuman entities and the physical/ material and the virtual feature in this ontological entanglement (Barad, 2007), and an emotional connection is made between the self and otherin this case, a toy.
In this episode, Amy, the app, and Furby co-constitute the play. Amy moves from object play to imaginative play with ease because of this co-constitution. For example, she plays a number of times with the toilet feature of the app, in which Furby is encouraged to use the toilet, and then she flushes it by pressing the button on the app and creating clouds of air freshener around the toilet. At one point, Amy then pretends that she has Furbys feces on her hands (see Table 3).
Table 3. Play Episode With Furby and Furby App 2
In this instance, it can be seen that the AR technology of the app has promoted imaginative play that moves beyond the inorganic organized objects contained within the play. This shifts the imaginative play experience on to a different plane. Giddings (2014), observing his sons playing Lego across virtual and material planes, notes that they move seamlessly across these domains, and the material and immaterial are interwoven in their imaginatively conceived gameworlds. Dunn and OToole (2009), in considering the difference between immersion and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) in play in videogames and drama, suggested that for players within virtual worlds, the environment is already created to a certain extent for individuals, and the player imagines the environment as real. However, in drama (and imaginative play), individuals have to create in their minds an illusion of realness (Giffin 1984, p. 88) and then, throughout the action, conserve that illusion (Dunn & OToole, 2009, pp. 2627). The inorganic organized objects of the Furby and the Furby appthe toilet and its related affordancespromoted this flight of fantasy. A connection is made, therefore, between the material objects of the playboth the app and the Furbyand the immaterial nature of Amys imagination.
In Amys play, a connection can also be made between the localized meanings she attributes to the toys, and the globalized media franchise of Hasbro, the makers of Furby. The concept of stickiness, a strategy used by media producers to ensure that users return to the product (see Marsh, 2014), could be seen to be operating at a later point in this episode, as Amy purchases an egg following her feeding and toileting of Furby. If the Furby keeper looks after Furby well, she/he is rewarded with the capacity to buy a virtual egg, which Amy did by spending 750 of her Furbucks. There are, in total, 48 eggs to collect. Virtual eggs can also be collected by scanning QR codes from Furby Boom! Surprise eggs, which can be purchased in shops. Ash (2015) suggested that envelope power is concerned with actively opening up and creating new capacities for attention and affect that can be mined in order to realize new forms of embodied and habitual value (p. 15), and he used the examples of continual refinements in videogames such as Final Fantasy and Resident Evil, which are designed to encourage players to continue to consume the game product through each of its releases. Envelope power is a concept that can also be used alongside stickiness to account for those games that aim to draw children back to them repeatedly, because it can explain the way in which producers of apps such as Furby Boom manipulate the interface envelope to realize economic value. Each egg is different in color and pattern and thus creates new capacities for attention and affect (Ash, 2015, p. 15), encouraging the player to complete her/ his set.
This analysis is not to suggest that a deterministic reading of childrens encounters with apps is always appropriate. Users can, of course, resist producers design features. To illustrate the way in which children may choose not to engage with particular interface envelopes, a second video featuring Amys play is drawn upon. This video was recorded by Amys mother and focuses on her daughter as she plays with a PAW Patrol app and related toys in their living room.
Because of the length of the episode, only the initial play moves are presented in Table 4, before the rest of the episode is summarized.
Table 4. Play Episode With PAW Patrol App and Toys
In these initial moves, Amy is prompted by the app to engage in the game, but she chooses to develop a parallel (and at times interlocking) narrative by playing with the PAW Patrol toys. Over the next few minutes, following the sequence outlined in Table 4, Amy continues to play with the PAW Patrol toy, placing it in a truck and then retrieving other PAW Patrol characters. Throughout this time, the music continues to play on the app. Occasionally, the narrator says To jump, just tap the screen. She ignores the tablet for much of the time, but occasionally looks at the tablet as the narrator repeats the command, and at one point, she dances around it as she reaches for Ryder, another PAW Patrol toy. Eventually, the screen of the app goes blank, and Amy drives the truck containing the characters to the tablet. She slides the On switch to reactivate the app, then returns to her imaginative play with the figures, the trucks, and the Pet Patrol HQ as the app plays music.
Unlike the play episode with Furby, in this instance, the app does not interface in a closely linked way with the associated toys, but the play and the app are still connected and are co-constitutive. Amy pauses the action, refusing to move the app on so that she can create a play scenario. This is episodic play. She knows that if she taps the screen, she would be moved on to another scenario, and she wishes to complete this episode. However, she cannot afford to lose the app completely because it adds narrative tension by means of the music track and by providing the sense that more is to happen in due course. The app did not contain her within its interface envelope (Ash, 2015) in the same closely linked way as the Furby app did, but it offered an initial stimulus and scenario for the play, and the music track added tension to her story. The envelope power (Ash, 2015) was also weakened in this scenario, as Amy appeared to be indifferent to the in-game awards that could be accrued. In this play episode, Amy demonstrates agency in relation to the app in that she chooses not to follow the narrators instructions, but instead creates a parallel storyworld that occasionally interacts with the app. The plastic PAW Patrol toys carried more potency for Amy than the pixel PAW Patrol characters on the screen, and there are looser connections made between physical and digital objects than was the case with the Furby play episode, but nevertheless, other kinds of connections are still at play, such as the relationship between Amy as a consumer in a local context and PAW Patrol as a globalized consumptive space.
These analyses of the data have drawn upon a posthumanist discourse (Herbrechter, 2013) in order to understand the nature of connected play. There are various types of connections that can be identified in these play episodes. The first is the connection between the physical and virtual domains.
The description of the intra-actions between Amy, the apps, and related plastic toys has indicated how digital play using AR toys is predicated on ontological entanglements (Barad, 2007) that occur among the player, the digital hardware and software, and the toys themselves. Using such a framework enables an understanding to be developed of how the meshing of domains across the RV continuum (Milgram et al., 1994) is a complex matter. Connected play cannot be reduced to a conceptualization of play that connects the physical and the virtual. Rather, it is a constant flow between domains including, as Rogers, Scaife, Gabrielli, Smith and Harris (2002) noted in relation to MR game play, actions in the physical world that have effects in the physical world, actions in the physical world that have digital effects, digital actions that have digital effects, and digital actions that have physical effects. The feeling of presence of the player will inevitably differ across these various dimensions (Martin et al., 2012).
There are also other kinds of connections that can be identified in these play episodes. First, Amy makes use of a wide range of media and artifacts, including both nondigital/analog and digital, which can be connected in play. Herr-Stephenson, Alper, Reilly and Jenkins (2013) suggested that transmedia play enables children to transfer narrative content across media. Second, connected play also enables play across multiple modes. As the analysis of Amys play indicates, children move across diverse and rich semiotic spaces in which whatever modes are to hand become incorporated into their play (Wohlwend, 2013). The connections across and between these modes and media create new kind of texts in which the process of transduction, in which semiotic material is transferred from one mode into another (Kress, 2010), is key. Third, contemporary play connects different domains/dimensions in addition to online/offline spaces, such as material/immaterial (Burnett, Merchant, Pahl, & Rowsell, 2014), global/local, and private/public spaces (Marsh, 2006). For example Amy, in the instances outlined in this article, made localized meanings from the global Furby and PAW Patrol franchises. Indeed, the play does not just connect these dichotomized spaces/concepts but challenges their very construction and suggests that these domains are continua, or fractal dimensions (Law, 2002; Woodyer, 2010). Fourth, in their play, children make connections with other players who are both known and unknown to them, the latter made possible through play in online spaces. In these connections, physical-world characteristics, such as identity and various forms of capital, can shape virtual world connections and practices (Kafai & Fields, 2013). In the play episodes analyzed in this article, Amy did not connect with other humans, but there was the potential to do so through the use of the Furby app, which enables users to collect eggs from friends who also play with Furby. She did, however, make an emotional connection from the self to other, that is, to the Furby, through the digital actions she undertook. Figure 1 indicates the various types of connections that may occur in connected play.
Figure 1. Connections in connected play
Not all of these connections occur in the same episode of play, of course, and nondigital play would not enable some of these aspects to be materialized. The Internet of Toys, however, may promote connected play across all these domains and thus bring a range of opportunities for extending traditional play, although it should be noted that some of the practices used by companies manufacturing these toys bring with them concerns regarding data protection and security (Manches, Duncan, Plowman, & Sabeti, 2015). Nevertheless, as the play episodes analyzed within this article indicate, children may not necessarily engage with the toys as intended by the producers. In addition, complex connected play across digital and nondigital domains need not be limited to the Internet of Toys, as Amys PAW Patrol play demonstrated.
In this article, two episodes of play in the life of one 3-year-old child have been analyzed to explore the complexities of play in the digital world. Through the analysis of the excerpts from the play episodes, it can be seen that the actions of the inorganically organized objects and the modes embedded within them were orchestrated with Amys embodied moves in complex ways. The study makes a contribution to the field in two ways. First, its demonstration of the connectedness of meaning making across numerous dimensions, outlined in Figure 1, suggests that connections can be made in play that takes place in a variety of contexts, including the physical domain, in videogames, and in virtual spaces such as virtual worlds. Across this RV continuum (Milgram, 1994), social practices can take many forms, some aspects of which are shared across platforms and spaces, with the implication being that researchers need to be clear about the way in which the context for any particular study shapes the connections that can be made. There may be more similarities than differences, for example, in the way in which users engage in videogames and virtual worlds, or play with goods related to the Internet of Toys and other digitally enhanced but nonnetworked toys, and thus, such synergies should be acknowledged.
Second, the analysis points to the way in which posthuman or postphenomenological theory can enhance an understanding of play and can help to delineate the nature of playful interactions between organic and nonorganic objects. This is not to suggest a deterministic role for technology in digital play. While the inorganically organized objects embedded in various digital technologies might be produced by designers to shape play in certain ways, there is no certainty that children will respond to these in expected ways, as was the case in Amys use of the PAW Patrol app. Nevertheless, digital play is constructed through the interaction between humans and technologies, and there needs to be some account taken of the role of technology within this.
The analysis in this article has a number of implications for the future study of young childrens play. First, the analysis outlined in this article suggests that the Internet of Toys may have particular affordances for childrens play, given that toys associated with it foster a range of connections across spaces and domains. Further research needs to determine the ways in which the Internet of Toys both facilitates and constrains childrens play, particularly in relation to those instances in which data generated by the play are collected by toy companies. In addition, the article also illustrates that children may play with digital tools and toys in ways that do not align with toy/game producers intentions. Future studies could consider in greater depth the nature of such transgressive play (Marsh, Plowman, Yamada-Rice, Bishop, & Scott, 2016).
Second, the study has raised methodological issues that would benefit from further consideration. The use of the GoPro chestcam was effective in enabling Amy to collect data on her own play, and it did offer an insight into the embodied nature of her play with the Furby, but it also mitigated against developing a full understanding of the entire play episode, given that the focus of the lens was not always trained on the tablet or the Furby. Future studies could explore the combined use of data constructed by both children and adults of the same play episode.
Finally, this study has focused on childrens use of toys related to apps, but there is a growing range of technologies that are influencing contemporary childrens playscapes (Abrams, Merchant, & Rowsell, in press), including wearable technologies and virtual reality artifacts, such as Oculus Rift. Each of these areas deserves attention from researchers in the years ahead if we are to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of childrens playscapes in the digital world.
This work was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant no. ES/M006409/1).
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