Diversity calls for change in app-titudes

A growing number of children’s app-makers are trying to ensure their products reflect the diversity of their young audiences, it emerged at the Developing Apps for Kids conference in San Francisco.

Moderator Raul Gutierrez of the developer Tinybop admitted that his industry has more work to do on diversity.

“Gender depictions tend to be very stereotyped and depictions of race and socioeconomic difference are very rare in many apps,” he said.

One of the leading children’s apps firms is Toca Boca, whose chief executive Bjorn Jeffery talked candidly about the company’s failings as well as its efforts to do better.

“We have been taking a particular stand on gender neutrality; all our apps have intentionally been designed to be unisex,” he said. “I don’t think we do terribly, but I think we could do a lot better. We are getting gradually to that point as well.”

Jeffery said that Toca Boca had taken the step of hiring a third-party expert to audit its apps for diversity and to produce a checklist for new products. “We had diversity as a very live issue and something we took pride in and discussed internally. But we gradually realised that bias turns up anyway, whether you want it to or not, and with the best intentions you can fall into a lot of pitfalls,” he said.

An example was Toca Robot Lab, a robot-building app released in 2011: a “classically boy-skewing theme of building robots” that the auditor suggested played to those stereotypes with its look of “rusty old things that you might find in a garage, as opposed to everyday things you might find at home”.

Toca Boca redesigned the game’s visuals and added more of the home kind of objects. “It opened it up and made it much more inclusive,” said Jeffery, who cited his company’s Toca Hair Salon apps as successfully bucking gender stereotypes.

The apps get children to play virtual hairdresser to a collection of characters. “Something that would traditionally skew very much towards girls, but we intentionally did not go for princesses and pink, which was the obvious fit that would sell,” said Jeffery.

“I would guess that Toca Hair Salon 2 outsells Disney Princesses by 10 times at least. I would argue that it’s probably one of the most successful kid apps ever, and it looks really weird! It looks super-strange, and we have loads of boys having fun with this, as well as girls.”

Also on the panel was Debbie Sterling, the chief executive of GoldieBlox, which makes STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) focused toys and apps for girls.

“Research can bite you in the ass a little bit because of what’s been popular so far. You can fall into the trap of [thinking]: ‘If I want to create something that girls are going to like, it’s gotta have pink, it’s gotta have baking, it’s gotta have princesses.'” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Stuart Dredge
Stuart Dredge works from Bishop's Stortford, UK. Daily email news bulletin for anyone involved in the iPhone games sector. Stuart Dredge has over 915 followers on Twitter.

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