"Daddy, can I tickle the blue foot?"
For the past week or so, Charlotte, my two-year-old daughter, has woken up making strange requests. One morning she wanted to feed an egg to an elephant, the next she asked to use a tongue to knock over a table. Once she inquired if she could pull open a zipper so she could poke a zebra in the eye. It's all because of Metamorphabet, a new iPad app that helps young kids learn the alphabet and build up their vocabulary. But unlike most educational games, it's more playful than instructive, more of a toy than a textbook. And it’s the first game I’ll actually let her play.
The concept of Metamorphabet is exceedingly simple. You go through the alphabet one letter at a time, tapping on a letter will cause it to animate in different ways. Tap the big green A once and it grows antlers, tap it again and it morphs into an arch. Once more and that arch starts to amble along, before moving you on to the letter B. The interactions and animations are charming and intuitive: it's fun just to watch things happen. A soothing voice says the new words and letters as they appear on screen. Charlotte can't recognize every letter of the alphabet just yet, but she has been saying jiggle and ostrich a lot more than usual.
"I don't like instructions, and I don't like confusing interfaces."
Despite my best intentions, I've found it nearly impossible to keep her away from gadgets and screens: they're everywhere, and it doesn't help that her dad works from home and works for The Verge. Grandparents let her play with their iPhones when I'm not around, and someone got her a Vtech tablet — one of those kid-friendly devices you see at Wal-mart — for Christmas. But as much as she wants to play with these devices, she can't really do much. Mobile games tend to have hard-and-fast rules that can be difficult for a two-year-old to comprehend. In-game tutorials go right over her head. But she took to Metamorphabet right away. The game features no instructions; instead, it simply presents you with a big colorful letter, and invites you to touch it. You can't do anything wrong, so you can't really get frustrated.
"I always try to keep interactions as intuitive as possible — I don't like instructions, and I don't like confusing interfaces," says developer Patrick Smith. "So the goal to keep things feeling as natural as possible was baked in from the start. And that's generally not an age-dependent issue. But there were a few sharp edges I smoothed down to make sure very young children could navigate it more easily."
For the most part, Smith says, kids take to the game straight away, and aside from some alterations to the audio — an elephant's roar proved a bit too startling for young ears — few changes were necessary to accommodate the younger audience.
An interactive alphabet book may be a simple concept, but it's also one that took some time to get right; Metamorphabet has been in development for around three years. "The idea of making something based around the alphabet actually came first," says Smith. "It's an idea I've been kicking around for years, but it didn't really click into place until I came up with the concept of the letters themselves transforming into different words."
I feel like she's actually getting something out of it
The game isn't educational in the traditional sense: you don't have to learn the new words or letters to proceed. But I've found that the more my kid plays, the more things stick with her. She can navigate the minimalist menu by herself, and she often says the words before the robotic voice does. Even if it isn't really teaching about her words, Metamorphabet is an amazing tool that is showing her how to interact with these screens that will surround her for the rest of her life. Of course, it's also instilling a few bad habits — every night she asks to play the "ABC game" before bed, instead of reading a book like we normally do. Dr. Seuss doesn’t have quite the same level of appeal anymore.
Like everything, moderation is important, but Metamorphabet is the first time I’m really comfortable with my kid poking and prodding a touchscreen. I feel like she's actually getting something out of it, instead of just turning into a zombie in front of a screen. It’s an experience that feels like it’s meant for kids just like her. "Metamorphabet was the first game where it felt like it was geared to the way her brain's working after 48 months of existence on planet Earth," Kotaku's Evan Narcisse says of his experience playing with his four-year-old. It's also easy to see how the concept can be expanded upon, encompassing more than just letters and words, covering a whole range of numbers, symbols, and more.
"Who says the alphabet ends with Z?" says Smith.
Metamorphabet is available today on iPhone and iPad.