A Critique of the Zoo App Shutterbugs, or “On Second Thought, Maybe This App Doesn’t Suck”…

I write this post in part as an apology, in part to remind me not to repeat the error, and in part (and this is why it is public) to explore with you some fascinating lessons that can be learned along the way.

In short, on Friday I experienced a new app and judged it wanting. I was too quick to judge and learned a lot from my children about how I might frame a deeper understanding of educational mobile apps.

On Friday someone passed an email around from the Smithsonian excitedly touting what they labelled their “first game app,” called Shutterbugs. This I had to check out. The email described it as follows:

    The Smithsonian Science Education Center has created a free learning game that can be played online or downloaded to a tablet device. Shutterbugs: Wiggle and Stomp is aligned with national standards for science education. Children ages 3–5 can play the game to learn how to describe movement and motion while visiting exotic animals from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.

I was quite dismissive of its potential when I downloaded it and tried it in my office. It looked nice – anyone would be proud to show this to a supervisor or funder and say “Here’s what we got for our money” – but did it actually teach anything? And was it fun?

I am very critical of anything using game language to dress up something that is really just traditional education. Isn’t Shutterbugs really little more than a quiz, repeating the same question over and over: from the selection of the following three animals which one is displaying the following action? Of course it doesn’t look like a quiz. It looks like three cute animated animals jumping, kicking, running, and more. Adorable, but that’s a quiz, not a game.

So I dismissed it. I wrote back to my colleagues the following:

 I found it really disappointing. All it is is an animated quiz with nice graphic design but weak user interface and educational design. But I am glad they made it.

Then I went home to my family and everything changed. I could write volumes about what happened and my attempt to draw lessons from it, so I will try to keep this brief.

My daughter Miri is 4 and my son Akiva is 7. Saturday morning, before her ice skating lessons and his bowling league, I told Miri I had a new app for her. I wanted to see how she’d respond to it. Over the next two hours:

  • Both she and her brother, using their own accounts, completed every animal and action in the app, collecting stars for each.
  • Completing an animal rewards you with a coloring page you can print out, with your name, the name of the animal and its associated action. This motivated her to learn for the first time how to wirelessly print to our home printer, which she soon mastered and was able to do on her own.

  • My daughter colored more than a half dozen of the animals, using the animal in the app as her color guide:


  • She then cut string and hung them all above her bed (in the bottom of a bunk bed) to make her own zoo.


  • My son, meanwhile, completed the app but cared little about printing and coloring. Instead he printed out and nicely cut out his certificate and helped his sister do the same.

  • On Sunday she cut down her zoo and collected them all together. My son powered his iPod. We just HAPPENED to have plans to go to the Bronx Zoo! Miri printed out additional animals I knew would be at the zoo that she had yet to color (which she did on the car) and off went!
  • Miri explained that she was bringing her drawings along to use as a checklist. She wanted to mark them off when we found each animal. (I don’t think she understood we were going to a different zoo than the one in the app, or perhaps that different zoos have different animals).
  • My son had a different plan. He wanted to create his own collection by photographing the day’s zoo animals, noting their actions, and planning to later print them out as a project. The narrative within Shutterbugs is that you are taking photos of the animals. It is thin enough to have been missed by my daughter but it became the primary point of identification for my son.
  • Once at the zoo, my daughter marked off the first animal she saw, a sea lion, but, when she learned I did not have a mobile printer (!) and we could not print out new animals, she set it aside for the day and instead used her drawing pad animals she saw.
  • My son however took photos all day. I haven’t seen him take photos like this for over a year, when we went hiking and he broke the screen when it fell and hit a rock. He choose his subjects carefully, reviewing then afterwards deleting the bad ones, and proudly narrating the collection to the family later at dinner. (below: stork eating, penguin swimming)



  • Meanwhile (yes, there is more) we picked up a child-sized pamphlet while walking the zoo entitled Animal Activity Trail. It presented the same type of  information as the app – animals and their actions – but rather than present it as “quiz” game it was a simplified scavenger hunt, sending us to the various locations around the park where you might see the animal and its activity. It also required parent-child interactions as the pamphlet, unlike the app, did not scaffold the experience with audio guidance. We never actually saw a designated animal at their location – for example, a running ostrich – but the pamphlet suggested ways children could mimic the action. The suggested running game – Sprint as fast as you can in 5 seconds – and the variations we came up with became Miri’s preferred activity until we left the park.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 10.37.58 AM

There is so much here to unpack! An app versus a pamphlet. A quiz versus a scavenger hunt. Self-directed learning versus parent-supported. I could go on and on. But the main lesson I am choosing to take from this is to avoid judging an app on its own. It needs to be evaluated within the ecology of activities and relationships it will insert itself, and only then through user testing and iterative design. How did the design of Shutterbugs support (or discourage) my children’s creative exploration of the content, both within and outside its digital confines? How did its design support (or discourage) interactions with her brother or parents?

I am also left with a question worth pondering: How did a zoo app played at home provide better motivation and scaffolding to learn about animal behavior than a location-specific pamphlet that included the live animals? And are there ways either could be improved by being integrated with the other?


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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6 Responses to A Critique of the Zoo App Shutterbugs, or “On Second Thought, Maybe This App Doesn’t Suck”…

  1. What a powerful story and I love the pictures!

    It’s fascinating how something seemingly simple, like a coloring page, can prompt children’s imagination and interest.

    It strikes me that one potential take away here is that with a lot of educational games less really is more. Making the game a simple, elegant, discrete and cute activity left the fun complex stuff to happen out there in the world. Where some massive game intended to try and suck them in for a long time could well have fallen flat, the more bite sized piece served to kick off some amazing engagement IRL.

    • Barry says:

      I think part of what was so powerful about the coloring page is that you could NOT color it within the app but had to print it out first. That could be seen as an obstacle but, in fact, became the opportunity to connect the digital activity with my children’s offline activities. The need to print the coloring became the crucial bridge between my daugher’s two playspaces.

      • Counter-intuitively, I’ve learned that leaving features out of a game can sometimes actually add fun. If you’re creating a productivity app, you want to let the user do what they want with as little friction as possible. In a game, though, the friction is the fun part. What is a game, if not a series of entertaining obstacles? You need to save the princess, but first you must defeat Bowser, but before you can do that, you have to run to the end of the level, but before you can do that, you have to squash these goombas, etc.

        I love games and I believe in the power of learning games. What I think is most powerful about them is not just their ability to teach, but also their ability to inspire people to get interested in something and go out and learn more. As the old quote goes, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

  2. In my experience with developing many (whatever you want to call them, I’ll go ahead and call them…) digital learning games, it is HARD (read: impossible) to get the funding to everything that we want to in a game. For people who have not had to deal with tight budgets, small staffs, tight timelines, etc., it can be easy to dismiss something as “just” a quiz, or not immersive enough, or whatever.

    I don’t have the luxury of an infinite budget so I try to think of how to use games as an elegant, age- appropriate entry point for transmedia learning. And kids do learn. And they do have fun. During our extensive user-testing of Shutterbugs, we found the same type of enthusiasm and curiosity among our players that Mr. Joseph found with his children.

    Parents, teachers, and learning ecosystems are an important part of getting a lot of “bang for our bucks,” limited as they sometimes are, in the world free learning games. Ultimately, good design takes this landscape and ecosystem into account. I hope to see critique of learning games move toward a greater understanding of how we can turn limitations into opportunities so that this field can continue to grow and in time, be funded at a level where someday, someone, will make That Perfect Game.

    • Barry says:

      Marjee, I can’t agree more. It is challenging to get funding for a game and we have little choice but to make the most with what little we have. But I hope my post didn’t come across as being critical of Shutterbug as being too simple a game, as if the only worthy game was an expensive or complex game. I don’t agree with that sentiment.

      Rather, the paragraph from which you quote is concerned about calling something a game if it is not. It can still be fun, engaging, educational and more without being a game. But we’ve seen way too much of traditional academic assessments prettied-up with game elements, the old “chocolate covered carrot” approach, which at its core believes learning and fun are in conflict and, as a result, fails to deliver either. I don’t for a moment believe you or the good folks at Filament games believe that. But a certain part of me experienced all this effort going into a game whose core mechanic of gameplay was a quiz and I had to say, “Oh, not. Not again.”

      I am open to be challenged with the idea that Shutterbugs is actually a game, and I am not sure what else one might call it if not that, but at the end of the day the most important thing is that it is engaging and educational. I would love to hear more about how extensive user-testing helped to teach you all about both (and if that doesn’t belong in a comment response but in an interview with you in a new post, please let me know!).

      I look forward to continuing to think with you and your colleagues as we raise expectations of what’s possible for digital play within cultural institutions and start comparing ourselves not against the limitations of the past but the possibilities for the future.

  3. S. Ramsay says:

    You know something that I really love? Games that connect the digital and physical world. And also when games are not necessarily explicit about everything that a player could do with and in them. Granted, the latter might have not necessarily been designed for (though it might have) in this particular app. Your descriptions of how the content and the ultimate player activity interact in this game are fascinating, and leave me with a few questions, like if this sort of structure (e.g. a game in which most of the play and most of the learning organically seeps into the real world) would work as effectively with different learner groups? I would love to see learning environments that effectively use these sorts of ideas (e.g. using the digital platform as a jumping off point and integrating the *real* play and learning into the context surrounding the app or game or whatever) elsewhere, but I feel like a lot of that is contingent on the particular learner (it puts the onus squarely on their curiosity and creativity to learn, which I suppose is for the best–its those kinds of principles that constructivism was founded on, right?) Things like this always make me wish that I could more creatively use technology in the classroom.

    And I also hate to bring up that obnoxious spectre of Game Design 101, but is this a game? Even with the emergent play aspect?

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