This interview with Toca Boca’s CEO Björn Jeffrey was conducted for a feature for BT.com.
What’s your ethos regarding responsible game development, for adults and for children?
At Toca Boca, we believe that gaining customer trust is a vital part of ensuring responsible app development. We try to exceed our customers’ expectations by paying attention to their needs and concerns. Toca Boca takes a two-pronged approach, aiming to please both parents and children. We understand that parents have concerns regarding the safety of their children therefore we strongly believe that children should not be exposed to third-party advertisements or in-app purchases. At the same time, we aim to keep children at the centre of product development by involving them in the design process and it is a very intentional design decision not to create toys for girls, or toys for boys – we make toys for kids, and let them choose how they would like to play.
Given the variety of approaches to parenting, are there any hard and fast rules for game development for children?
Like parenting, there are a variety of approaches to game development for children and not all companies share the same values as Toca Boca. We create well-designed apps based on universal themes that most people can recognise irrespective of their parenting style.
Accurate communication should be a rule of thumb when it comes to app development for children. Toca Boca clearly communicates what we stand for and what our apps are about, making it easier for parents to determine if our apps are appropriate for their kids.
Without an age-rating system for apps and given the size of the app market, how can parents know which apps are safe to play and which aren’t? Do you think the market-keepers like Apple and Google should institute a ratings system, even a voluntary one?
We would definitely welcome a serious and acknowledged rating system that can help parents and kids find suitable apps. It is important, however, that a rating system is custom made for children’s apps. The system should not necessarily be rated according to age but according to a number of factors, for example, the extent to which the app is safe or aids children’s development.
In the meantime, there are some really helpful websites and blogs that are dedicated to finding safe and enjoyable apps for children, such as Pappas Appar, Apps Playground, iMums, and Common Sense Media. Until a rating system is in place, I would advise parents to check out the reviews on these websites.
If playing games and devices was shown to be addictive, or at least as psychologically-compelling as other dopamine-promoters, do you think children should be allowed near games at all?
Toca Boca’s apps share the same attributes as traditional, non-digital, toys hence why we call them ‘digital toys’ rather than ‘digital games.’ The apps are non competitive, open ended, inspire creativity and allow parents and children to interact with each other. These are all qualities parents look for in traditional children’s toys, many of which we would never label ‘addictive.’ Toca Boca apps are designed to compliment, not replace, regular play; parents should decide what mix is best for their kids.’’
Given that rewards are extremely hard to come by in everyday life, what do you think the effect of the easy-reward structures we see in games are on children’s experience of everyday life, outside of games?
At Toca Boca we made a conscious decision to make fun and creativity our main focus rather than a competitive reward structure. We are concerned with building a safe digital space where children can explore and create with no limits. When it comes to our digital toys, exploring the world within an app is just one of the many ways children can learn and develop. One way isn’t better or worse than the other, they are not mutually exclusive.’’
Do you see any difference in the effect of the sort of games you make and Lego? Is this portrayal of Lego as worthy rather than, say, Toca Lab fair?
Although the physical differences are vast, Toca Boca shares the similar fundamental values and goals as Lego – we both design toys that encourage free play, exploration and foster creativity in young children. One is not better than the other, rather, via different platforms, we both provide kids with fun and safe toys that engender curiosity and development. Lego are a great company and it is an honour to be compared to them however we do differ slightly in our approach to gender marketing.