Monday, 17 October 2011

Pit Droids

Over the summer I had a bit of a clear-out of of some of our stuff, a project which is ongoing. At times this feels like trying to empty a swimming pool with a teaspoon, but the journey of a 1000 miles starts with a carrier-bag full of old bits of bubble wrap. Is bubble wrap the new string, I wonder? Just as the previous generation had a thing for string, saving it obsessively in drawers and boxes, so we seem to be incapable of throwing away protective packaging. It looks so useful.

A major delaying factor in this domestic archaeology is the discovery of buried treasure, or at least buried treasure maps. You can be merrily tossing old paperwork into a rubbish bag, when you encounter something -- a child's drawing, a letter, a scribbled note, a bill, even -- that stops you in your tracks, and causes you to make a coffee and sit for a while, lost in the past.

I was surprised to discover, for example, quite how many rejection letters I had accumulated in the period 1995-2005. I had forgotten about all those rounds of developing a project, putting together a proposal, applying for funding or an exhibition or publication, waiting for a response, and the inevitable disappointment of a rejection letter. Back to square one. In those days, in my 40s, I had the fantasy of finally escaping from my "day job", and launching a late-start career as an artist -- all it would take was hard work, a few exhibitions to establish a reputation, maybe a book or two, and I'd be part of the international art circus. Yeah, right.

A more positive moment came when, rattling through a stack of old CD-ROMs containing software that used to entertain our kids when they were small, I found our copy of Star Wars Pit Droids. My son was just the right age to be caught up in that second round of Star Wars fever that accompanied the release of the "prequel trilogy", starting with The Phantom Menace in 1999. If you didn't raise your children in the 1990s or after, you probably don't really understand the impact of brand marketing on family life. The confluence of branded products aimed at children (generally based on a film or TV series), the advent of home computing and video, and the realisation that children were an untapped market was remarkable to witness, and impossible to resist. Think Jurassic Park, Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, above all, Star Wars. I expect PhDs are being written right now about all this.

Most of this flood of merchandizing was bubble-packed ephemeral junk -- action figures, weapons, bits of costume and insignia, and the like -- but some was a brave attempt to slip a little developmental or even educational content into the mix. Lego got on board the Star Wars branding gravy-train very successfully, for example, and not a few ten-year-old brains will have benefitted from constructing a Lego Death Star or Millennium Falcon. Certainly, the business of shopping for Christmas and birthdays is vastly simplified when your offspring can cite exact product codes downloaded off the Web for the precise items they want, or when you can wander through the aisles of Toys'R'Us and spot when the bubble packs and boxes change to the particular branded colourway you're looking for.

But a few products launched on the back of these enthusiasms were outstanding, and Star Wars Pit Droids was one of them. If you're not familiar with the Star Wars universe (lucky you) then you need to know that a "pit droid" is a tireless, multi-tasking robotic grease-monkey, fixing up dented starships and hunting out spare parts in the breakers yards of dusty, faraway planets. The pit droids "game" is well described by Children's Software Revue:
An amazingly strong exercise in logical thinking, the program presents a series of successively more difficult puzzles all housed within graphically rich Star Wars settings. The overall goal of the game is to lead a group of robots called Pit Droids through various obstacle courses until they reach their final destination, The Podrace Arena. Kids have to figure out how to program the Droids so they'll move the right way through each puzzle. They do so by manipulating tiles that have varying functions. For instance, a red arrow makes red Droids turn a certain direction, while a 1:2 ratio tile divides a column of Droids in two directions at the ratio of- you guessed it- one to two. As players correctly navigate each puzzle, they rack up points and can open up deeper levels of the game. Why is this so engaging and educationally robust? First of all, the Droids are downright cute and pretty funny as well. Kids and adults naturally take to these creatures and want to help them reach their goal. Second, the challenge levels are designed so that each hurdle is just a little bit tougher than the last- doable, but tricky.
In a word, it is a brilliant and totally praiseworthy use of a child's brand-stimulated attention. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that playing Pit Droids on the PC raised and reinforced my son's (admittedly already high) intelligence. Frankly, schools should be using Pit Droids to teach logic and creative lateral thinking. It's fun, too. Needless to say, I have kept our copy.


Martin said...

How reassuring it is to discover that others find it hard to throw away bubble wrap, too. I've also got a drawer full of jiffy bags.

Mike C. said...

Well, jiffy bags are bubble wrap in another guise (apart from those ones that appear to be padded with dust bunnies).

Packaging, in general, is a modern curse, and deserving of a freshly shrink-wrapped post in its own right.