Technology is changing the way people read, and nowhere is that more evident than in the explosive growth in the development of enhanced e-books for children. But what can these new kinds of books bring to the table – and how challenging are they to execute? A lively Digital Book World panel on the “gamification” of children’s e-books explored these issues, and suggested that the blending of game features into books, while requiring new skills for publishers, is yielding great rewards – when done right.

Moderated by DBW editorial director Jeremy Greenfield, the panel included Lyle Underkoffler, v-p for digital media at Disney Publishing Worldwide; Brian Burke, president of Bertelsmann-owned app developer Smashing Ideas; Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow in the U.K.; and Eric Huang, publishing director for Penguin U.K.

Greenfield kicked off the discussion by talking about three kinds of “gamification” commonly seen in today’s children’s e-book apps. The first is embedding a simple game like tic-tac-toe into one’s content; the second is building in game mechanics that pull readers through the book, like a level-up aspect, where readers can earn badges or graduate levels as they progress; and the third is a hybrid of the two, where the reader must engage with a game to move on in the book. He then asked the panelists, “What’s the benefit of building game mechanics into kids’ books?”

In a word, Burke said, “engagement.” Having built more than 500 games for companies like Disney, Nickelodeon, and Hasbro, as well as for its Bertelsmann sister company Random House, Burke said the benefit of gaming was offering “connective experiences” and the ability to “engage and interact” with content in new and interesting ways.

The other panelists amplified and expanded on those thoughts. Wilson said that an app shouldn’t be “a book squashed onto” a phone or a tablet. “We want to use the features of the touch-screen device fully to make the reading experience multimedia, interactive and playful.” She observed that reading is now “directly competing with media and other games” in the spaces children regularly encounter, making good “gamification” increasingly vital to the reading experience. “We do not want reading to be the most boring thing a child can do on a phone or a tablet,” she said.

As an example of gaming’s power, she referenced the popular YouTube video clip “Piano Stairs.” The video explains shows how artists turned a staircase adjacent to an escalator into a keyboard that made piano sounds as people stepped on them – and, in so doing, 60% more people took the stairs. The takeaway, Wilson said: “Gaming is a really impactful thing.”

Indeed, digital has already changed the world of storytelling for kids, said Underkoffler. “The way we look at it is through the child’s lens and what we’ve found is that there is more choice today than there ever has been,” he said. The “power of the button on a device,” he added, allows children to move seamlessly among content sources – and, as Disney has learned, combining media leads to more engagement. “For example, an e-book from a stickiness standpoint is consumed in three or four minutes,” Underkoffler said, but that same e-book with some gamification elements “double or triples” the “stickiness,” creating a more enriching experience that kids will return to.

Greenfield then asked how to add those elements effectively and judiciously – comparing the addition of media to giving kids candy at the expense of their vegetables.

“It really has to be all about the story,” Huang stated. “It’s not about throwing in the thing just for the sake of having a game to make it sticky.” Certain stories lend themselves naturally to gamification, he said. “But not every story should be a game. There needs to be a reason; you can’t just stop and have a puzzle here. It needs to further the narrative.” That’s slightly easier, Huang added, for projects starting from scratch than for adaptations. “If you’re building something digital, you’re not thinking about it like a static book.”

Wilson noted that the concept of play is not unfamiliar to traditional children’s publishers in print, – citing pop-up and tab books as examples. “I suppose what I’m finding is that we have a very clear idea of whether a story in our heads fits print predominantly or whether it fits a gamified environment,” she said. Different stories demand different kinds of play, she added, but publishers are learning how to use interactivity to make narrative more meaningful rather than just sticking a game onto a story.

“Having a reason for gamification is critical,” Burke emphasized, “because it can go very wrong.” Before undertaking an app or a story adaptation, publishers must ask themselves, What is the goal? There are many ways to make it happen – from expensive development to using cheaper off-the- shelf tools. “But whatever it is, it has to be tastefully done. There are a lot of critics out there and you can get it wrong.”

One of the key challenges with adaptations, Burke added, can be parents – who hold the credit cards and make the purchases. “How do you take a beloved children’s book and add new elements? That can be disruptive to parents who love the book and wonder, How can you do this?”

While the tools and the media are changing, Underkoffler says that for him, the goals remain clear – storytelling and learning. “We’ve published more than 50 apps over a variety of platforms, and what we found is that engagement is key,” he said. “And engagement is best achieved by great stories matched with great activities.”