Do emerging forms of digital play require new means for analyzing data?

Dylan Yamada-Rice
Published in
4 min readJan 23, 2018


It’s fascinating and fun to observe a child at play. Even more fascinating, though, is the underlying engagement and learning that can be uncovered through emerging means of transcribing and analyzing data.

Increasingly, research with children in an industry context uses big data from online surveys or harvests data directly from the technology young people are using. Working as a Senior Research Manager at Dubit and a Senior Tutor in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art, I too collect and analyse data around children’s play, to guide the design of new digital products.

Still, I remain an advocate of the smaller-scale qualitative insights gained from visual and experimental methods. While more resource intensive, observing and talking to children about their use of digital content can provide very rich accounts of what engages them, that may be obscured in quantitative data alone.

Currently, myself and others at Dubit are studying children’s use of Virtual Reality (VR), primarily via detailed observation. Does VR affect children’s balance? How do children move in a virtual environment? We video-record their play to answer these questions, but I had to invent new means for transcribing and analyzing that data to delve deeper into the reasons behind children’s actions. Here are two examples:

Line drawings in data transcription

By transcribing video recordings of children in virtual space into line drawings of their movement at systematic intervals (Fig. 1), I was able to compare it with that used in other forms of play. The drawings revealed, as well, the extent to which some VR content forced children to strain their necks downward.

Fig 1. A child’s movement in VR. Image © Yamada-Rice, 2017

The full-bodied nature of this type of play necessitates a unique type of materiality of data analysis. The line drawing ‘and other graphica texts make something possible… [such as] the ways in which different modes of texts (i.e. the line drawing) [bring about] different ways of thinking’ (Jones & Woglom, 2016, p.3). The next section presents another example in support of this claim.

Graphic narratives as a means of relating data to theory

From watching video-recorded data of children using Google Earth VR, I became interested in children’s desire to “taste” the virtual planet: children actually walked around their physical environment with tongues out. (This was confusing for their parents to watch.) By drawing graphic narratives related to this data, I was able to relate the behavior to theoretical ideas about how children experience new materials in order to understand further why this might have been happening.

For example, in Figure 2 I cite the work of Dewey (1938) who writes that:

‘Materials come from the public world aad so have qualities in common with the materials of other experiences’ (p.208).

Further, Longhurst et al (2009) take Dewey’s notion one step further by stating that in order to make sense of new places we foreground taste and smell. In comic form I was able to take Dewey and Longhurst et al’s ideas and apply it to the video data and further explore why it might be that children wanted to lick VR planets. By thinking about the immaterial through the act of drawing I was able to link Dewey’s idea that humans make sense of new materials in relation to a catalogue of past experiences to that of the child experiencing new virtual materials. In doing so, I started to see the size and shape of the virtual planet as similar to a lollipop (depicted as a Dip Dab in Fig. 2) a material that most children are familiar with.

Being able to relate the VR data to theory and explore ideas that are essentially intangible through the form of a comic made it possible to see how children were not simply acting odd (walking around a VR studio with their tongues hanging out) but were more likely trying to make sense of virtual materials that were very new to them. In doing so the child-participants were using means similar to that which they would use to understand other kinds of physical material, by touching and tasting.

Fig. 2. Image © Yamada-Rice, 2017

Many commercial companies don’t have the luxury to explore data in such experimental ways. Once we accept, though, that using only quantitative data as part of the digital design process is obscuring the picture of children’s real-world play, these and other emerging methods can become mainstream and widespread. Especially in research with younger children, whose movements and use of digital technologies can be very different from adults, observation and other forms of small-scale data collection and in-depth analysis remain pivotal.

Later this year, my article Yamada-Rice (2018) ‘Licking Planets and Stomping on Buildings: children’s interactions with curated spaces in virtual reality’ will be published in the academic journal Children’s Geographies, with deeper insight into points raised here.


Dewey (2009/ 1938) Art as Experience. Perigee Books.

Jones, S. & Woglom, J. F. (2016) On Mutant Pedagogies: seeking justice and drawing change in teacher education. Rotterdam. Boston/Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Longhurst, R., Johnston, L., Ho, E. (2009) A visceral approach: cooking ‘at home’ with migrant women in Hamilton, New Zealand. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24, p. 333–345.

Further reading

Sousanis, N. (2018) Thinking in Comics: An Emerging Process. In: Cahnmann-Taylor, M. & Siegesmund, R. (eds) Arts-Based Research in Education. Foundations for Practice, 2nd Edition, Chapter 16. London: Palgrave.