Biba and Convergence of Play

Nathan Sawatzky
Oct 24, 2018 · 7 min read

Biba is a kidSAFE member whose mission is to get today’s screen-savvy kids back outdoors and active. This is the first in a series of posts where we’ll be sharing some of the brilliance of our members in the way they’re thinking about making the internet and digital ecosystem better for children and families around the world. Recently, we reached out to Nis Bojin, who is the Design Director at Biba.

The Biba team from their headquarters in Vancouver, Canada

Q. Tell us about Biba.

As is probably fairly evident by now, today’s generation of kids have been awash in mobile and connected touch-based screen technologies since their very youngest years. This has dramatically shifted paradigms around how kids interact with the world around them, it has also triggered a shift in how parents negotiate this new interactive terrain both for and with their children.

We’re now seeing screen time at an all-time high, with some studies even reporting children of getting over 7 hours of it during a day. Naturally, with the increase in screens we also see a staggering decrease in outdoor physical activity. In fact, only around 15 percent of school-aged children are getting the recommended amount of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day — a pretty devastating statistic.

This is where Biba comes in: we’re a solution to help parents combat screen time, and in doing so, re-orienting children’s screen habits towards the outdoors with an emphasis on getting them more physically active. In short, we’re trying to use the mobile screen-based technology in every parent’s pocket as a means of helping them convert sedentary screen-time into healthy and positive outdoor outcomes for their kids.

The key part of this, of course, is that this is a solution for parents to leverage and use. Our games are for parents to mediate and the mobile devices our games are played on never leave a parent’s hands during play. For our product, this lets us achieve three really important things.

Firstly, it allows kids to remain safe at all times. With the parent holding the phone, kids can focus attention on their physical movement, not on maintaining a grip on a device. No parent wants a hospital visit!

Secondly, we have seen enough studies emerge over the last few years, emphasizing that parental attention can have positive benefits on children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity. By involving the parents at a fundamental level as a ‘referee’ of every Biba game experience, we ensure that parental attention is directed towards the child and their game experience, rather than fading to the sidelines with their social media feeds.

Finally, positioning the parent as the primary user, and the locus of gameplay, we can ensure that we’re working towards a screen-to-activity ratio that favours the playground. All of our games employ an 80/20 activity-to-screen ratio that is made possible purely by the fact that in our games, screens function more like ‘pit stops’ during the Biba experience rather than a long-term destination. Kids stop in at the screen to perform a key function and then they’re back out to use the equipment!

Q. In a world that’s quickly moving to digitize things, what made you want to focus more on the physical world?

We realize that digital is not going away. That genie is not going back in the bottle.

But what I think we can do is re-position how it is that we orient ourselves — and our children — to this technology. There are healthy ways of leveraging this type of technology such that we integrate and parley it into positive habits — and this includes embracing the outdoors and the crucial physical activity and fun that happens out there.

After all, mobile devices are exactly that — mobile! Biba looks at that mobility as a feature and our products seek to embrace this powerful, often overlooked feature in allowing for spontaneity and a focus on children’s movement. Kids shouldn’t grow up only knowing screens as sit-down experiences that glue them to a desk or couch. Kids should grow up realizing the potential of screens to motivate movement, stimulate imagination, and challenge one’s own physical capacities.

Q. It strikes me that Biba isn’t anti-tech, but rather it’s hopeful-tech. Is that a fair characterization?

We would definitely agree with that sentiment. We make our product with the hope of getting families whose children have defected from the playground or are unmotivated to go outdoors to play, back out into the fresh air with a brand new motivation and form of interaction.

After all, we understand that there are families who are anti-tech or who take one look at our product and think, ‘Why do I need that? My kid already plays on the playground just fine!’ And to those families, we say, ‘Great!’ Our objective isn’t to force Biba onto families who don’t need it. We celebrate active families. But we do make our product for those parents who are in need of an intervention as a means to either motivate their children’s outdoor play or even prolong it. And we do this in the hopes of ultimately re-orienting children towards positive behaviours with mobile technology.

Q. What is Biba’s design process?

Well, we committed to some significant R&D leading up to what has now become our typical design process. That R&D has included parental focus groups, ethnographies, user studies performed in conjunction with our local science centre, surveys, and field research performed in partnership with a local university. This has resulted in a design process that now ensures we maintain some basic tenets.

One of those tenets is the aforementioned concept of ‘refereed’ play, but another best practice that is also brought to bear on Biba product design is ‘embodied play’. Embodied play means that a child must be using their body during gameplay — something we invite through incidental activity. Put plainly, this means that a game’s premise naturally must ask a child for something that would require physical movement, and thus, the physical engagement is entirely natural and intuitive for a child.

So if the game is ‘Biba Drive’, children are cars asked to complete a lap consisting of pieces of playground equipment, returning to the parent/phone between laps to complete a pit-stop challenge in fixing their car. If the game is ‘Biba Dino Dig’, the child is an archeologist who chooses a site on the device map to visit, uses equipment to travel there and then unearths dinosaur bones through mini-games on the device. In each of these cases, the game poses imaginative premises which naturally asks for physical activity from players, rather than dissociating the gameplay objectives from the physical activity. For Biba games, our intention isn’t to foster a separation between a player from an avatar with a progression of that avatar as an extrinsic reward. We want Biba games to be intrinsically engaging where the child themselves are the actual avatar of their gameplay.

With those basic tenets in-tow, we work from the context of a given premise outwards. For example, if we’re making a game about wizards and spell casting, we would work from the premise of ‘what would a wizard be doing’ and ‘how would they cast spells’ and so forth. We then seek to embody this in a design that incorporates movement, while leveraging the device as a means to uphold that premise i.e. what can the device afford or ‘become’ as it regards gesture-based spell casting, wand-waving mechanics and so forth.

Given that we internalize a lot of our design language around this, we tend to communicate designs through a series of storyboards with user flows that are iterated on over time, with a very close relationship maintained between designer and developer. We then test these games with kids the moment we reach our first playable build. This is an incredibly important juncture for us because it’s the real fork in the road where children who play the games will be brutally honest about how something is working for them, what feels good and what’s missing. For our testers, we can also start making some course corrections around age appropriateness and difficulty of use. We then move back into development, repeat the process for subsequent versions and continue to iterate for the life of the product.

Since so much of our games’ critical gameplay is really happening off-screen on the playground itself, our development process is actually fairly short and can be anywhere from six weeks to three months — depending on the size of a game’s scope. This lets us actually iterate really quickly, see what’s working for families and sunset what’s not.

Q. What does success look like for you?

For us, success is as many parents happily using Biba as possible — helping to beneficially re-orient their kids’ relationship to screens and the outdoors for the next generation. That’s a change we’d like to see. It would be an honour to have any role in sparking a new generation of kids who wonder why their parents sat on their butts staring at screens so much while they teach us lessons in how to leverage screens in profound, new and active ways.

Q. What’s one technological advancement you’re excited to see happen?

In terms of recent advancements, it has to be ARKit/ARCore technology. Of all the ways that this new type of augmented reality technology could possibly be applied, we think Biba represents a best-case scenario — especially as it regards bringing shared fantasies to life for families on the playground. So we’re continually excited to not only leverage this new tech in our current games but also look forward to new advances like Google’s ’cloud anchoring’ that allows us to even add permanence to AR structures in the playground for multiple families to experience together. In this regard, we really think AR and Mixed Reality is the future of compelling active experiences — especially when put up against the likes of VR. Working with partners like Google we gain access to new out-of-pocket technologies that are not only accessible but can also have transformative impacts on outdoor spaces…and this is something we think will truly bring the magic to the playground.

To learn more about Biba, check out their website.

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kidSAFE’s mission is to improve the Internet and digital ecosystem for children and families around the world. We do this by partnering with companies of all sizes to help ensure their child-focused apps and technologies are safely designed and privacy compliant.

Visit our website.

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Nathan Sawatzky

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Service, Safety, & Social Designer | Policy Nerd | World Traveller | Student of Business, Culture, and Sociology. Former Disney, Glitch, Two Hat, and Facebook.

kidSAFE Seal Program

Blog of kidSAFE Seal Program

Nathan Sawatzky

Written by

Service, Safety, & Social Designer | Policy Nerd | World Traveller | Student of Business, Culture, and Sociology. Former Disney, Glitch, Two Hat, and Facebook.

kidSAFE Seal Program

Blog of kidSAFE Seal Program

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