This week, a brand new interactive experience Try Being Me launches online for the CBBC viewers. The website accompanies the latest Newsround special My Dyslexic Mind. Here, CBBC Executive Producer, Japhet Asher, explains the inspiration behind it and how the interactive content was made.
It’s only the start of January, but I honestly believe that Try Being Me will be one of the most important pieces of interactive content we will launch on CBBC in 2013. It’s not a large investment of license fee payers’ money, nor is it a particularly significant or complex technological leap. Instead, Try Being Me uses video, quirky animations, and thoughtfully produced game mechanics to give the CBBC audience a deeper understanding of the frustrations and difficulties that dyslexia can sometimes bring, in an engaging, visceral and simple way. It’s an interactive approach to factual content we’ve never tried before. Our aim is to add a physical understanding of the subject to the mental and emotional impact of traditional Newsround journalism. It’s the kind of experimental content that only Newsround and CBBC would make for British children.
Most people know that CBBC is the number one online destination for 6 to 12 year olds in the UK. Every week, a million children come to CBBC for our mix of games, clips, music and other online activities. In particular, they come for games around hugely popular brands like Tracy Beaker, Wizards vs Aliens and Wolfblood. Again, it’s no surprise that these programme brands drive the majority of our traffic. But the single brand that can compete, week in and week out with our strongest games, for a position on the top of the CBBC popularity charts is a surprise: It’s Newsround.
To me, Newsround is central to everything we stand for at CBBC. Our commitment to provide the same range of content and genres for children that we provide for grown ups is most apparent in the quality and commitment of the journalists working across platforms on Newsround. And the Newsround specials, with their visual inventiveness, emotional resonance and in-depth single issue reporting, represent the best of the team’s work.
When we decided to look at how we could expand the interactive experience of Newsround for our audience, we gravitated toward the award-winning specials, with their spirit of innovation. How could we enhance the broadcast experience with the strengths of interactive content? We chose to focus in on one of the defining characteristics of both the NR specials and online games. The specials use individual children’s stories to illustrate a much wider issue. Games allow each individual child to have an experience of the wider whole. In combination, we can let each child have his or her own personal experience of the subject. You reach millions, one child at a time.
We have made games for factual content regularly at CBBC. Deadly 60’s Deadly Dash and Deadly Planet games are among the most popular. A recent game in support of Hero Squad, a series about lifesavers including the Coast Guard and Fire Brigade, has also been a great success. But these games are about immersive adventures in our own world instead of within a fictional narrative. With Newsround specials, we would be trying to use game mechanics to help users get inside the minds of real kids, not for an adventure but for an insight into how they think and feel. It’s a daunting challenge.
Our in-house development team had been inspired by some of the interactive work produced by the National Film Board of Canada, in particular the Pinepoint project – a visit to a vanished mining community - and a curiously affecting piece called Bla Bla, which the NFB describes as a film you can play. Could we create that same kind of visceral experience to sit alongside the emotional and intellectual understanding of personal dilemmas portrayed by Newsround specials when dealing with tough topics like bullying and autism?
A screengrab from CBBC Online's Try Being Me interactive experience.
Try Being Me is the result of that challenge. We are not attempting to provide a literal portrayal of how the dyslexic mind functions nor are we trying to create a comprehensive website on the subject. As a companion to the broadcast special, the role of the interactive experience is to enhance our audience’s understanding of the dilemmas and coping mechanisms described by the children featured in the special, living day to day with dyslexia. We meet Ben, Khalaya, Zach and, uniquely online, Rebekah.
Online producer Nikki Stearman worked with the Newsround production team to select moments from interviews with each child where they described how they visualized their daily challenges. For example, Zach sees his brain as being differently wired, and that makes it hard for him to picture letters in sequence. Rebekah invents mnemonic images that remind her how to spell tricky words. She uses the example “Hairy Astronaut Likes Fish” to remember the word “half”.
Nikki and project manager Vicki Neal worked with Sheffield based agency The Workshop to develop individual games and animations to illustrate each child’s thoughts. As the user plays the games, the challenges get harder, more pressured and increasingly frustrating. In-game messages encourage the user to connect what they are feeling as they play, to the simple everyday acts of spelling a word or remembering a list of things to do. If a player chooses to quit a challenge, they can, but they’ll be reminded that, “if you have dyslexia, you can’t give up”. For us, Try Being Me for My Dyslexic Mind is just the start. If it works, we plan to apply this approach to new subjects in the year ahead, always looking for new ways to inspire our audience.
It’s inspiring to me that so much of our audience comes to Newsround week in and week out, whether to feed their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, or just to get their homework done. We all need a little help sometimes. And help begins with understanding. If Try Being Me succeeds in helping even one of our audience better understand how it feels to be living with dyslexia, and better understand a friend or classmate as a result, then that’s a great start. As I said, you reach millions, one child at a time.
The Newsround special My Dyslexic Mind Newsround Special broadcasts on the CBBC Channel on January 7th at 5pm.