I wanted to be a fairy princess when I was little. Like most girls, my earlier birthday parties included themes such as Snow White, Little Mermaid, and Lion King (in which I insisted I was the "lion princess," Nala). For four consecutive years, I wore variations of princess costumes for Halloween, everything from a Snow Princess to whatever the hell I thought a Bubblegum Princess was (pre-Princess Bubblegum, obviously).
Then one day, my older sister's boyfriend lent me his N64 and a copy of Ocarina of Time. And I never wanted to be a princess again. Because while playing Ocarina, I realized being a princess would actually be pretty boring. I mean, the only thing Zelda got to do in that game as a princess was spy on Ganondorf when she was little and then run away from Ganondorf's crumbling tower too slowly when she was older. Everything else she achieved as Sheik was strictly not on princess duty. So, from that day on, I only ever wanted to be whoever was saving the princess—or better yet, just people in general.
Transference from media characters happens. Especially for kids. I wanted to be a princess because all the protagonists in the movies I watched were princesses. But Ocarina had an affect on me that just watching hundreds of princess movies couldn't. I spent hours upon hours upon hours (hey, it was a hard game for a kid) playing as Link, aligning my goals with his to progress in the game. In fact, Link's lack of personality is a well-known design choice intended to act as a placeholder for kids to feel like the hero of time themselves.
Allowing kids to become the hero of their own stories is at the heart of ImagineMe, an interactive children’s storytelling platform project lead by Ricardo Turcios. Choosing from a variety of different looks, kids and parents can create a 3D model resembling their child that then becomes the protagonist of each interactive story.
Turcios was inspired to create the project after watching the effect movies and make-believe had on his little girl, Zoe. “She started reenacting scenes from different DVDs. She’d be watching Cinderella and she’d actually pause the DVD, run to her room, put on the rattiest dress she could find, run back out and start scrubbing the floors in sync with Cinderella. And when the fairy godmother comes and transforms her, again she’d pause the DVD, run back up to her room, and put on her Cinderella dress (she actually owns one) and come back out and just live the movie. And I was really impressed by that.” The power of his daughter's imagination amazed Turcios, who realized his little girl was doing a lot more than just watching a movie. She was becoming the character on screen. “And I think that was one of the moments that was pretty profound for me. I thought, is that good or is that a little spooky?”
Turcios is careful to say that he doesn't think all of Disney and Pixar are bad. "It wasn’t that I thought she was being brain washed in such a terrible way. I just also thought it was time to balance it out." He dreams of his daughter looking up to role models other than Barbie or a disney princess, that are more like “the Sheryl Sandbergs or the Oprah Winfreys—all these strong characters. It’s definitely time to be a woman and to grow up strong and to make a mark.”
He wishes to wield the power of interactivity and self-identification to generate ownership over ImagineMe's positive messages. "Whenever a child is able to have some sort of authorship there’s a sense of pride that’s unbelievable." Ricardio watched how creativity affected his daughter, as she gained self-confidence from drawing and creating. It gave him an idea. "I started experimenting with her. I would ask Zoe, 'If you could have a pet dragon what color would you make it?' And of course her answers were always more interesting than anything I would have done. She’s like, 'I would have a rainbow pet dragon.' So of course I’d go back to my partners and say we have to make a rainbow dragon. And we’d design the rainbow dragon and show it to her and she would just lose her mind. She’d say, 'That’s my dragon! That’s the dragon I told you to make.' Immediately, it became her dragon. She named it. And so I think there’s something really amazing when a child sees themselves and it’s no longer can I be that person [on screen], or this imaginary character. That’s me. Look at me doing this or that."
One of the most important messages Ricardo hopes ImagineMe can get across is both possibility and originality. The idea is that by adding choices and as much interactivity as possible, the story will show kids that "you can be anything you choose to be. It’s not like these are the girl-acceptable roles and these are the male-acceptable roles." In fact the first story planned for launch is entitled He-ro, Her-o, and explores a variety of different role models for both genders.
"Kids can be quite cruel. They face so much judgment."
Another important aspect for Turcios is limitless exploration for everyone. The ImagineMe group has already been contacted by nurses and other hospital employees requesting stories of children with disabilities "where they can’t go out to play. That’s another big one for me: allowing kids to experience things that they can’t in the physical world." Representation also remains both their biggest challenge and concern. Coming from a background in marketing, Turcios knows "we have to get every look, every hairstyle correct, down to all the details" so that "every different look and every different region is represented." The stories in ImagineMe hope to tackle the serious and everyday challenges children come up against based on appearances. "Kids can be quite cruel. They face so much judgment," Ricardo admits. "So we’ve already started developing stories about aging, about beauty, about physical looks. We want to teach kids that it doesn’t matter how you look. You may go through judgment, people may look at you different depending on your color. But that’s not what’s important."
You can find out more and support ImagineMe over at their kickstarter.