iPhone Learning: A Mother’s Cautionary Tale

Lisa GuernseyI hate to admit it, but I’m the one who brought Pocket Frogs into my daughters’ lives. We were at the airport, awaiting our flight. I was loathing the idea of breaking into all the carefully packed-up pens and activity books before boarding in 20 minutes. Why not find a new gaming app on my iPhone that would satisfy my girls, 6 and 8 at the time, while also giving me something fun to fool around with once in a while? Pocket Frogs, a game by NimbleBit, fit the bill, with a “free” pricetag and relatively innocent premise: Collect little frogs in your virtual nursery, breed them when once tamed and fully grown, and await that special moment when a rare and brightly colored one might show up on your screen.

The girls loved it immediately, especially my older daughter, who gravitates toward anything that looks and feels like a science game. It wasn’t until a few days later, however, that she pointed out what should have been obvious from the beginning. I asked her if she thought the game would be a good one to mention to her science teacher. “Not really,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a baby frog you know.” There’s not? “They should be tadpoles, Mom.”

Oh right.

Entertainment doesn’t have to be accurate. It doesn’t have to be intellectually challenging. And it certainly doesn’t have to “teach.” These are the statements made by defenders of the entertainment and gaming industry. And they’re right that games don’t have to be any of these things.

But what if at least some of them were? What if adults and children happened to learn something new that related — either conceptually or in terms of specific subject matter — to what they were grappling with at school or on the basketball court or in their science projects? Would it have been that much harder to design a game that adhered to some semblance of amphibian reality?

It took a few more weeks of playing for me to start feeling bothered about Pocket Frogs for another reason. My oldest was hooked. She had been breeding frogs, taming frogs (namely, showing them how to hop and catch flies), and getting shipments of new eggs arriving with each level she mastered. But then she got a message on the screen. If she wanted to receive her new frog eggs immediately, she would have to buy some special “stamps” that would ensure expedited delivery. The cost of the stamps? $2.99 — in real money, not virtual coins.

Pocket frogsWe talked about whether she really wanted the frogs that badly. I reminded her that these were frogs that were so “not real” that they didn’t even grow from tadpoles. No matter. She was ready to spend a few weeks of allowance money to get the new eggs — now.

It was a learning moment for me as much as for her. Evidently some apps seem free until you realize that to play at the level you’d like, as soon as you’d like, you’ll have to pony up a few more bucks, and then a few more, and a few more. It was like a virtual tollbooth had appeared on the gaming highway with no warning. The Federal Trade Commission is now looking into the propriety of offering games without some kind of alert about these “in-app” purchases, which were the subject of a great Washington Post story in February. Some have argued that children’s content, at least, should come with warning labels. (But Pocket Frogs, to be clear, was never marketed to me as a children’s game – it’s just that NimbleBit had already wowed us with Scoops — a game blessedly void of tollbooths, at least so far. Like most parents, I didn’t do any real vetting. I just pressed “Install.”)

I know what many of you are thinking. C’mon, it’s just a game. True. But it could be so much more than that too. Designers could be helping to generate sparks of insight for young and old about the way the real world works and what to explore within it. When those kinds of apps arrive – I hope they do — I’ll be a lot less resentful about putting another $2.99 on my credit card. Better yet, I won’t be faced with those surprise tollbooths in the first place.


Lisa Guernsey is the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.  In her research and writing, she works to elevate dialogue about early childhood education by analyzing new findings in developmental psychology and spotlighting best practices in homes and classrooms, from infant-and-toddler care through the early grades of elementary school. Ms. Guernsey has been writing about education, technology and social science for nearly 15 years as a former staff writer at the New York Times and at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and currently as an editor and contributor to the Early Ed Watch blog. Her most recent book is Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5.

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