Connecting the Dots for Fun and ProfitThe Games People Don't PlayConnecting the Dots for Fun and Profit - RSS 2.0
The story might involve Dora traveling through the jungle and choosing between two branches of a river, one of which will be infested with crocodiles and the other will not. Dora asks the viewer to choose which path to take while a mouse cursor floats up onto the screen and clicks on the safe branch. Children who watch begin to understand this kind of interaction long before they take any active part in it. When they later sit down at a computer and need to select something, they know immediately that they need to move the mouse cursor and click on it. It's become intuitive before they even get any hands-on time.
As a gamer and a dad, it's gratifying to see kids exposed to the concepts and techniques from videogames in this other, more accessible format. Long before they encounter games, Dora and shows like it familiarize them with the forms and function of key gameplay concepts. It's of clear benefit to kids to develop this sort of game literacy early, if only because games are starting to become a greater part of mainstream entertainment. Dora may not be teaching kids some of the more direct life lessons taught in other shows, but the format and iconography of videogames is becoming more and more a part of our general cultural literacy.
This goes far beyond simply recognizing what a mouse cursor is and what it's for. Like any good videogame character, Dora even has her own inventory and map, which she uses throughout each episode to complete specific challenges and discover where to go next. The map - which talks, by the way - outlines each of the three or four locations Dora must travel through to get to her destination and occasionally points out any specific items needing to be collected along the way. Much the same as most videogames, Dora the Explorer progresses linearly from location to location.
At several points in each episode, Dora takes a page from classic adventure games like Monkey Island by reaching into her backpack for whatever particular item she needs to overcome the current challenge. The various pogo sticks, ropes, tomatoes, and whatnots found in her dimension-defying backpack are all trotted out in what is essentially a radial menu and the viewer is prompted to find the right item for the given situation. One mouse move and highlight later and we're back in business. Consistent with the adventure game analogy, each item is only useful once and is replaced with new items for each episode. There's a nice balance here between promoting both game literacy and general problem solving. Kids can learn, for instance, to cross a river by picking a raft out of a collection of items, which requires not just reasoning out the problem, but also reading the show's "interface" to find an appropriate solution.
Still, not every attempt to incorporate the symbols of games in the show works well. Newer episodes include collectable stars and power-ups, which abandons the educational or developmental agenda to simply fill out the show with yet another videogame trope. It's not about avoiding alligators or learning that the park is on the other side of the bridge- this is straight up collecting. Dora finds the sparkling stars scattered throughout the episode and must gather them in her backpack. Every once in a while, a special Explorer star will even come along to grant her special powers she needs to overcome an obstacle in her way. She might, for instance, get a Super Jumping Star, which allows her to - you guessed it - gather even more stars. They're even anticipated by a regular music cue that lets viewers know to start looking for them.