David Buckingham. Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs. Editor: Leah A Lievrouw & Sonia Livingstone. Sage Publications. 2002.
Some grand claims have been made about the impact of new media on children’s lives. Like the idea of childhood itself, new technology is often invested with our most intense fantasies and fears. It holds out the promise of a better future, while simultaneously provoking anxieties about a fundamental break with the past. In this scenario, children are perceived both as the avant-garde of media users and as the ones who are most at risk from new developments. Childhood therefore provides a revealing lens through which many broader aspects of new media can be more clearly seen.
This chapter focuses on children’s uses of new media (particularly computers) in the context of leisure time, in the home and in the peer group. The chapter begins by considering recent popular debates on these issues, drawing on material aimed at a general readership. Challenging generalized notions of ‘childhood’, it then moves on to consider the diverse social uses of new media among different groups of children. This is followed by a discussion of children’s experiences of new media, focusing primarily upon computer games and ‘online culture’; and a consideration of the ‘educational’ uses of new media by parents and children in the home. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of implications for cultural and educational policy.
Nightmares and Utopias
The advent of new cultural forms is often greeted by sharply divergent responses. This has been particularly true of digital media. On the one hand, these new media are seen to have enormous positive potential, particularly for learning; while on the other, they are frequently seen to be harmful to those perceived to be most at risk. In both cases, it is children—or more accurately, the idea of childhood—which is the vehicle for many of these aspirations and concerns.
Similar tensions were apparent in the early years of television. Amid current fears about the impact of television violence, it is interesting to recall that television was initially promoted to parents as an educational medium (Melody, 1973). Likewise, in the 1950s and 1960s, television and other new electronic technologies were widely seen to embody the future of education (Cuban, 1986). Yet even here, hopes of a utopian future were often balanced against fears of loss and cultural decline. Television was seen both as a new way of bringing the family together, and as something which would undermine natural family interaction. The medium was extolled as a way of nurturing children’s educational development, and simultaneously condemned for taking them away from more wholesome activities (Spigel, 1992).
Contemporary responses to new media are similarly polarized. On the one hand, there is a form of visionary utopianism, particularly among educationists. Seymour Papert (1993), for example, argues that computers bring about new forms of learning, which transcend the limitations of older linear methods such as print and television. It is children who are seen to be most responsive to these new approaches: the computer somehow releases their natural creativity and desire to learn, which are blocked and frustrated by old-fashioned methods. Others have argued that computers empower children to communicate with each other, to express themselves and to participate in public life in ways that were previously impossible. Jon Katz (1996), for instance, regards the Internet as a means of children’s liberation: it provides children with opportunities to escape from adult control, and to create their own cultures and communities. ‘For the first time,’ he argues, ‘children can reach past the suffocating boundaries of social convention, past their elders’ rigid notions of what is good for them’ (1996: 122). Likewise, Don Tapscott (1997) argues that the Internet is creating an ‘electronic generation’ that is more democratic, more imaginative, more socially responsible and better informed than preceding generations. Digital technology, he argues, will eventually bring about a ‘generational explosion’, a ‘social awakening’ that will overthrow traditional hierarchies of knowledge and power. This kind of generational rhetoric is also powerfully reflected in advertising for computers. Children are typically seen to possess a natural wisdom in their relationships with technology that the majority of adults are seen to lack. Ads for Apple Macs or Microsoft focus not on the scientific specifications but on the magical promise of the technology: the computer is represented here as a window onto new worlds, a way of developing children’s intuitive sense of wonder and thirst for knowledge (Nixon, 1998).
On the other hand, there is a much more negative account of the impact of these new media on children’s lives. This account focuses not so much on their educational potential, but on their role as a means of entertainment—and it depends upon making an absolute distinction between the two. Some of the anxieties that are regularly rehearsed in relation to television have now been carried over to these new media. Thus, digital media are frequently seen to be a bad influence on children’s behaviour—and particularly to cause imitative violence. Events like the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, USA in 1999 are frequently blamed on violent computer games or on children’s access to ‘hate sites’ on the World Wide Web. The more ‘realistic’ graphic effects become, it is argued, the more likely they are to encourage ‘copycat’ behaviour (Provenzo, 1991). These new media are also seen to be bad for the brain—and indeed for the body. Thus, there have been numerous clinical studies of phenomena such as ‘Nintendo elbow’ and epileptic fits allegedly caused by computer games, through to research on computer ‘addiction’ and its negative effects on children’s imagination and academic achievement (Griffiths, 1996). Meanwhile, new media are accused of making children antisocial, and of destroying normal human interaction and family life. The phenomenon of the ‘Otaku-Zoku’ or ‘stay-at-home tribe’ in Japan is seen as emblematic of the ways in which young people are coming to prefer the distance and anonymity of virtual communication to the reality of face-to-face interaction (Tobin, 1998). These media are also seen to have negative moral and ideological effects on children. Thus, games playing is seen to be a highly gendered activity, which reinforces traditional stereotypes and negative role models, and encourages male violence towards women. Meanwhile, there is increasing anxiety about the accessibility of pornography on the Internet, and about the dangers of children being seduced by online paedophiles. And finally, there is growing concern about the practice of online marketing to children, both through direct selling and through the gathering of market research data (Center for Media Education, 1997).
These arguments, like those about the effects of television, often involve a form of scapegoating. Like television, the computer becomes a convenient bad object, onto which we can displace a whole range of worries and frustrations. This often leads to calls for children’s access to the medium to be restricted—whether through tighter regulation (such as ratings systems for computer games) or by means of a ‘technological fix’ (such as blocking software for the Internet). The effectiveness of such moves is debatable, but they undoubtedly enable legislators to show that they are ‘doing something’ about seemingly intractable social problems (Shuker, 1996). Meanwhile, there are renewed calls for educational intervention by parents and teachers—although such intervention often appears to be seen as a surrogate form of censorship, and hence may be something that children are inclined to resist (Buckingham and Sefton-Green, 1997).
As with debates around television, both the positive and the negative arguments here draw upon more general beliefs about childhood. On the one hand, children are seen to possess a natural, spontaneous creativity, which is somehow (perhaps paradoxically) released by the machine; while on the other, children are seen as vulnerable, innocent and in need of protection. These mythological constructions of childhood are in turn aligned with parallel mythologies about technology. Both positions are characterized by a powerful technological determinism—that is, a belief that technology will bring about social changes in and of itself (see Williams, 1974). Whether we see these changes as good or bad, they are seen to follow inexorably from the implementation or availability of the technology. Thus, computers are believed to produce ‘fundamental shifts in the way we create and experience human identity’ (Turkle, 1995). Through their encounters with new media, it is argued, contemporary children have become ‘aliens’: they represent a ‘postmodern generation’ whose subjectivity has been formed through the all-encompassing electronic habitat in which they live (Green and Bigum, 1993).
However overstated they may appear, these contrasting perspectives pose complex dilemmas for parents and others concerned with children’s welfare. On the one hand, many parents feel that they should be exercising greater control, in order to protect their children from harm; although, on the other hand, they are keen to exploit the educational potential of the technology. So to what extent can children be seen as technologically literate ‘cyberkids’—or merely as victims seduced by the deceptions of the electronic screen? Can the broadly ‘educational’ benefits of these media be distinguished from their role as ‘entertainment’, and on what basis? And what should be the role of parents or teachers—or indeed the state—in regulating children’s access to these new media?
Beyond Mythology and Determinism
As yet, we know very little about how children perceive, interpret and use new media. As in the case of television, much of the research has been preoccupied with the search for evidence of negative effects; and much of it has been based on implicitly behaviourist assumptions (Barker and Petley, 2001). There has been very little attention to the social contexts in which the technology is used, or to the social relationships of which it forms a part.
Children are one of the most significant target markets for new media. Even taking account of other social differences, households with children are much more likely to possess a multimedia computer or computer games console than those without children (Office for National Statistics, 1999). Likewise, many of the new cultural forms made possible by these technologies are primarily identified with the young; and while this is most obviously the case with computer games, it is increasingly true of the Internet as well. Children’s use of the WWW is increasing dramatically: according to a 1999 NOP survey in Britain, over 50 per cent of children now surf the web at home or at school (www.nop.co.uk); while in the US, 45 per cent have Internet access in the home (Rideout et al., 1999).
Nevertheless, we need to be aware of differences within the apparently homogeneous category of ‘children’. There are significant inequalities in access between different social groups; and as other contributors to this volume indicate, these are particularly apparent in terms of social class and gender. In the UK, for example, research conducted in the late 1990s found that fewer than half as many working-class children had access to a PC at home, compared with middle-class children; while the percentage with Internet links was one-tenth of the figure for middle-class children (Van der Voort et al., 1998). As with many other new technologies (not least television in the 1950s), those with greater disposable income are almost always the ‘early adopters’: they have newer and more powerful equipment, and more opportunities to develop the skills that are needed to use it.
Likewise, researchers have consistently found that girls have less access to computers, are less interested in them and spend less time using them than boys (Cupitt and Stockbridge, 1996; Funk and Buchman, 1996; Kubey and Larson, 1990; Livingstone and Bovill, 1999). Both boys and girls are inclined to agree that computers are primarily ‘for boys’ (Bannert and Arbinger, 1996; Durndell et al., 1995). Even within comparatively ‘media-rich’ homes, girls are less likely than boys to own PCs or games consoles or have access to them in their bedrooms (Livingstone and Bovill, 1999). These differences are not only to do with access, but also to do with purpose and content: girls are more inclined than boys to use new media for the purpose of communication (Livingstone and Bovill, 1999), and their tastes in software are also quite different from those of boys (see below).
However, as Livingstone and Bovill (1999) point out, physical access to technology should not necessarily be equated with levels of use. Children who live in ‘media-rich’ homes do not necessarily have greater individualized access to media in their own bedrooms. These authors prefer to distinguish between different ‘media use styles’—such as ‘traditionalists’, ‘screen entertainment fans’ and ‘PC fans’—defined by clusters of age, class and gender variables. These different use styles reflect and in turn reproduce particular sets of tastes and values, and particular philosophies of child-rearing. Children from different social groups possess not only different levels of access to technology, but also different attitudes and orientations towards it—or, in effect, different forms of ‘cultural capital’ (cf. Bourdieu, 1984). Research in the US suggests that this may also be related to ethnicity, as minority children may perceive computing to be a ‘white’ activity and hence avoid it (Straubhaar, 2000). Some commentators argue that these gaps between the ‘technology rich’ and the ‘technology poor’ will eventually disappear as an inevitable consequence of the diffusion of new media; while others fear a growing polarization, and the emergence of a ‘media underclass’ in which children will be disproportionately represented (Buckingham, 2000).
While this kind of research draws attention to social differences in the uses of technology, it tends to essentialize the differences between media. ‘Computer games’ or ‘the Internet’ are implicitly assumed to represent the same thing to all who use them. In this respect, broad demographic analyses need to be complemented by an understanding of how media and technologies are mediated through existing social relationships (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992). Thus, we need to know more about how technology enters into the peer group and the family, how children gain access to it, how they learn about it, and how its use is regulated and controlled (for instance by parents). It is through such processes that technology comes to be defined as (for example) ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, ‘educational’ or ‘entertaining’, in ways which systematically favour access among particular social groups.
For example, research strongly refutes the popular idea that computer games playing is an antisocial activity (Buckingham, 1993; Jenkins, 1993; Jessen, 1999; Livingstone and Bovill, 1999). While the actual playing of games is sometimes an individual, isolated pursuit, it is also often collaborative, and the focus of a great deal of talk and interaction. Furthermore, the culture surrounding games is an important means of establishing and sustaining interpersonal relationships—from the swapping of games, advice and ‘cheats’, through to participation in the more public culture of games shops, arcades, magazines and TV shows. The culture of games playing involves an ongoing construction of an ‘interpretive community’ (cf. Radway, 1984)—and in this respect, as Jessen (1999) argues, it may be better suited to the pattern of children’s play than older media such as books, which one is alone in consuming. However, this social process is mediated by the operations of the market. Much of the discussion is about what you can buy, what you have bought, or what you are going to buy—and this is a discussion in which children are not equal. Furthermore, this surrounding culture is an arena for the ‘border-work’ that characterizes children’s gender relationships (Thorne, 1993): it frequently serves to mark the boundaries between boys and girls, and thereby to prevent girls gaining access to technology or to the knowledge that is required to use it (Orr Vered, 1998). Through such processes, children are actively constructing and defining themselves, both as consumers and as gendered subjects. This kind of analysis potentially moves beyond the either/or dichotomy sketched above—the view of children either as passive recipients of adults’ attempts at socialization, or alternatively as a sophisticated, ‘media-literate’ audience.
However, research about children’s access to media says very little about the nature of their experiences of these media. In moving on to address this issue, the following sections focus on two contrasting aspects of children’s relationships with new media: computer games and ‘online culture’.
All in the Game?
Computer games now represent the fastest-growing sector of the global media and entertainment industries (see Herz, 1997; Sheff, 1993). Games based in public arcades date back to the early 1970s, but it was the advent of home computer games in the late 1970s that resulted in a period of rapid expansion, led by manufacturers such as Atari. Following a collapse in the market around 1984, a ‘second wave’ of computer gaming, dominated by the Japanese companies Nintendo, Sega and Sony, followed in the second half of the 1980s (Haddon, 1988). Growth in the market has been fairly inexorable since that time. The revenues from computer games now outstrip those of the Hollywood film industry; and Nintendo is currently Japan’s most profitable company.
Children are by no means the only market for computer games—adults (over 18) account for between one-third and two-fifths of sales—although they are undeniably the most significant one (Shuker, 1996). The market penetration of games consoles is approaching saturation, at least among boys; although the regular succession of more powerful ‘new generation’ machines—combined with the rapid turnover of the younger market—means that hardware rapidly becomes obsolescent. Game software is comparatively highly priced, and since software platforms are incompatible (both between different systems and between successive ‘generations’ of machines), the profitability of the more popular games is extremely high.
Games have increasingly been integrated within what Marsha Kinder (1991) calls the ‘transmedia intertextuality’ of contemporary children’s culture. Many of the most popular games use characters and scenarios from movies, while others have subsequently generated feature films and television shows in their own right. The success of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon’ illustrates how such integrated marketing has become a key strategy for the ‘digital empires’ that increasingly dominate children’s culture: simultaneously a computer game, a television series, a feature film and a card game, ‘Pokémon’ has also generated an extensive range of books, comics, toys and other merchandise. As Kinder suggests, media-based commodities of this kind have become a crucial factor in the social construction of children’s peer group cultures. Meanwhile, educationalists such as Papert (1993) point out that games are now children’s primary means of access to the world of computers; and that, rather than reinforcing distinctions between ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’, software designers need to capitalize on the educational potential of game play (Johnson-Eilola, 1998).
However, academic research in this field has been extremely limited. This is partly a result of the difficulty of keeping pace with change. Yet it may also reflect the fact that, unlike television, games do not immediately reveal themselves to the outside observer. The experience of game playing requires a great investment of time, and no small amount of expertise. As a result, many academics who have written about computer games have done so from a considerable distance. They have been inclined to generalize, without making fundamental distinctions between different genres or discussing particular games in any detail; they have concentrated on relatively superficial visual characteristics of games, without discussing the experience of game play; and they have imported conceptual and methodological approaches from studies of older media such as film and television without paying sufficient attention to the unique characteristics of the new medium.
The Limits of Effects
Interestingly, much of the early research in this field—roughly coinciding with the ‘first wave’ of domestic computer games—focused on their positive effects. (A useful ‘state-of-the-art’ survey of this early work can be found in Video Games and Human Behavior: a Research Agenda for the 80s, 1983.) Patricia Greenfield (1984), for example, argues that game playing involves a whole range of cognitive skills—not merely hand–eye coordination, but also problem-solving, memory, inductive thinking, parallel processing, spatial awareness and so on. The notion that game playing is simply a ‘mindless’ activity is effectively refuted here; although the evidence on whether it actually develops these skills is rather more questionable.
However, research in this field has been increasingly dominated by anxieties about the negative psychological, moral and behavioural effects of computer games. Thus, research studies have attempted to assess the impact of playing computer games on aggressive behaviour; on psychological variables such as self-esteem; on educational achievement; and on the development of stereotyped attitudes. Researchers have typically used survey methods, although there have been some more experimental studies of short-term effects. As some recent reviews have suggested (Durkin, 1995; Gunter, 1998), the findings of these studies have been uneven and inconsistent; and even less critical reviews (Funk et al., 1997; Griffiths, 1996) have been fairly equivocal in their conclusions.
In many respects, the limitations of the research reflect those of parallel research on the effects of television. These would include:
- A crude approach to categorizing games ‘texts’ Research studies rarely go further than superficial distinctions based on content. For example, distinctions are frequently made between ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ games, between ‘educational’ and ‘non-educational’ games, or between games that are judged to be more or less ‘realistic’; but these distinctions are not based on subjects’ own judgements, and are often inadequately defined.
- Inconsistent and/or unexplained findings Experimental studies of the effects of ‘violent’ games conducted in the late 1980s, for example, failed to generate consistent findings (e.g. Graybill et al., 1985; 1987); some only found effects among girls (Cooper and Mackie, 1986); while others simply failed to establish causal relationships at all (Winkel et al., 1987). Survey-based studies frequently establish correlations between game playing and ‘negative’ qualities such as poor self-esteem, although reliable evidence about the direction and significance of any causal relationship is rarely provided (e.g. Funk and Buchman, 1996).
- Untested and inadequately theorized notions of the mechanisms by which effects are assumed to be caused As in television research, key terms such as ‘addiction’ (Griffiths, 1994), ‘arousal’ (Kubey and Larson, 1990), ‘identification’ (Funk et al., 1997) and ‘modelling’ (Funk and Buchman, 1996) are often loosely defined and measured. They are frequently offered as post hoc explanations, rather than hypotheses that are empirically tested by the research.
- A neglect of the social context of games playing, and of research itself Few effects studies pay attention to the social interaction that characterizes most game playing: they are solely concerned with the interaction between mind and screen. As in much media effects research, college students are frequently used as research subjects; yet the ability of students to recognize and respond to the ‘demand characteristics’ of research significantly limits the capacity for generalization.
Close attention to particular studies reveals more specific weaknesses. A recent paper by Funk and Buchman (1996) illustrates some of these. The study is concerned with the relationships between ‘violent’ games and adolescents’ ‘self-concept’. Apart from the many questions that one might raise about the methods used to measure these two variables, the authors themselves are bound to admit several crucial limitations to their analysis. Some of these, such as the unreliability of self-reports of media use and the fact that correlation does not establish proof of causality, are widely recognized in the field. In this instance, the analysis also throws up some apparently incongruous findings that the authors struggle to explain; and in fact only a small amount of the variance is accounted for by the key independent variables, and then only among girls. In effect, the authors fail to find what they are looking for—which is confirmation of the negative effects of violence in games, a finding which they regard as having been incontrovertibly established by research on television. And so, in their conclusion, they fall back on an entirely hypothetical construct, that of the ‘high-risk player’ (who is, interestingly, male), even while admitting that their methods have been insufficiently sensitive to prove that he exists.
A rather different—though equally familiar—problem is raised by Eugene Provenzo’s (1991) study. Provenzo’s chosen method is content analysis; although in fact he analyses only the covers of the games rather than the actual games themselves—an approach which, as Jenkins (1993) points out, can be highly misleading. Here again, the categories used in the content analysis (such as ‘violence’) are inadequately defined and inconsistently applied; and the descriptions of particular games are very superficial. In comparing games with ‘great literature’, Provenzo persistently invokes received judgements of taste that he fails to justify. However, the most telling limitation of this study is its use of data about texts to support very powerful assertions about their effects. Provenzo asserts that games are ‘powerful teaching machines and instruments of cultural transmission’; they ‘socialize women to be dependent [and] men to assume dominant gender roles’; they are ‘instruments of a larger social, political and cultural hegemony’; and they are ultimately ‘dehumanizing’. These are all explicit claims about the effectiveness of texts; yet no evidence whatsoever is provided to support them.
Game Boys, Game Girls
Much of the emphasis here has been on the role of games in gender socialization. Computer games are frequently defined, both by researchers and by children themselves, as ‘boys’ toys’ (Jessen, 1999). Surveys consistently suggest that girls have less access to computer games, and play less often. Critics argue that this situation may be disadvantaging girls in their educational encounters with computers, and in their subsequent employment prospects, as high-status jobs increasingly require computing skills (Cassell and Jenkins, 1998a).
The causes and consequences of this situation have been interpreted in various ways, however. While the games industry is seeking to broaden its market, the majority of games still appear to be designed primarily with boys in mind. Provenzo’s (1991) findings here largely remain true: there are few ‘positive images’ of women, and females often feature only as ‘damsels in distress’, awaiting rescue by the male adventurer. More recent research (Subrahmanyam and Greenfield, 1998) suggests that girls generally do not favour the qualities that are characteristic of many computer games, such as an emphasis on ‘action’, contests between good and evil, fantasy settings and teams of characters (see also Cupitt and Stockbridge, 1996; Funk and Buchman, 1996; Kafai, 1998). Some studies find that boys are more ‘aroused’ than girls by the experience of new media, particularly when in the company of other boys (Kubey and Larson, 1990); although others have found the opposite (Cooper and Mackie, 1986).
However, such arguments can reinforce the essentialist notions of gender that they are outwardly concerned to challenge. Such research is often based on a fairly crude form of socialization theory, accompanied by a tendency to pathologize masculinity. Turkle (1984), for example, implicitly stigmatizes the rule-bound, ‘hard’ approach to computing which she defines as characteristic of boys, particularly during puberty. Alloway and Gilbert (1998) condemn computer game culture as a whole as ‘masculinist, aggressive and violent’, arguing that it simply reproduces oppressive forms of male subjectivity. Such arguments are reinforced by several of the researchers mentioned above (e.g. Funk and Buchman, 1996; Kubey and Larson, 1990; Provenzo, 1991). Here again, however, it is implicitly assumed that the ‘messages’ contained within the games are swallowed whole by their users. As Gailey (1993) suggests, this approach regards children as empty receptacles, and neglects the diverse ways in which the games are interpreted and used.
Both theoretically and empirically, some of these concerns are also beginning to appear rather outdated. The market in games is certainly skewed towards boys, but it is by no means exclusively confined to them: estimates in the late 1990s suggest that girls account for around 25 per cent of the market, and that this figure is steadily growing. Indeed, the move of games culture from the maledominated public space of the arcades (Braun and Giroux, 1989; Panelas, 1983) to the domestic space of the living room or the child’s bedroom has increased the potential access for girls (Cunningham, 1995). As the games industry has increasingly reached out to girls, female characters have featured more strongly; although whether a character like Lara Croft (in ‘Tomb Raider’) would qualify as a ‘positive image’ is certainly open to debate. Games are also becoming more diverse, and some of the newer role-playing games are less obviously targeted at boys, at least in terms of the characteristics identified above. Meanwhile, computers themselves have become easier to operate, which may mean that they are less likely to be perceived as intimidatingly ‘technological’ and hence as ‘masculine’.
Cassell and Jenkins (1998b) offer an intriguing analysis of one attempt to change this situation, in the form of the ‘girl games movement’ of the late 1990s. This movement resulted from a particular combination of feminist academics, young women players and those within the industry who were attempting to reach out to a female audience. This new form of ‘entrepreneurial feminism’ had to walk a difficult line between the attempt to satisfy the existing girls’ market and the attempt to change gender relations. On the one hand, there was an effort to create and sustain a positive space for girls, albeit in a way which may appear to sustain gender stereotypes; while on the other, there was an attempt to make that space more ‘empowering’ for girls, thereby running the risk of alienating them. As Cassell and Jenkins explain, these dilemmas were manifested in many areas of games design, from the construction of narratives to the colour coding of the packaging.
The obvious ‘absent presence’ in Cassell and Jenkins’ book, however, is that of boys (Sefton-Green, 1999a). Jenkins’ (1998) own contribution is alone in attempting to address the pleasures of masculinity, and to consider how these might be addressed by the games. He argues that games should be seen as virtual ‘play spaces’ that compensate for the growing lack of such spaces in the real world, as children (and especially boys) have been increasingly confined to the home. According to Jenkins, the games (and the peer group culture that surrounds them) offer the same pleasures that used to be afforded to earlier generations of boys in outdoor play: the exploration and mastery of space, goal-driven activity, self-control rather than parental control, and male bonding. Rather than seeing these qualities as a kind of early training in ‘masculinist violence’, Jenkins attempts to understand them in their own terms.
Despite its fairly narrow focus, Cassell and Jenkins’ book points towards the kind of multifaceted analysis of the games phenomenon that needs to be developed in future research. What remains lacking from their account, however, is an indication of how effective the ‘girl games movement’ actually was in reaching and engaging girl players. As this implies, investigations of industry strategies need to be combined with accounts of the experiences of games playing, and with much more detailed analyses of games ‘texts’ themselves.
Games as Texts
As I have noted, analyses of children’s relationships with computer games tend to rely on generalized assertions about games, or reductive categorizations of content. Analyses of games themselves have been few and far between. Some academics have used forms of literary and cultural theory to account for the nature of games, although in many cases at a high level of generality. Klein (1984), for example, argues that early games like ‘Pac-Man’ reflect oral sadomasochistic fantasies of engulfment; Kestenbaum and Weinstein (1984) see them as ‘transitional objects’; while Skirrow (1986) regards them as a form of fantasy resolution for male performance anxiety. In more overtly political terms, Stallybrass (1992) uses the work of Adorno and Benjamin to develop a theory of game playing as a form of infantile regression promoted by capitalist consumer culture; while Fiske (1989) attempts to explain the appeal of games using an equally generalized account of popular culture as a form of ‘ideological resistance’. Such arguments rarely make basic distinctions between different types of games, let alone refer to particular games in any detail.
By contrast, a series of studies by David Myers (1990; 1991; 1992b) points to the level of analysis that is urgently required here. Myers uses poststructuralist, ‘reader-oriented’ literary theory to account for the organization of game worlds and narratives. Significantly, he accounts for the texts precisely as games, setting his analyses in the context of debates from play theory, for example about the nature of rules, the tensions between order and disorder, the experience of time and the recursive nature of play. This leads Myers to categorize the games in very different ways: rather than focusing on immediately observable content (such as the presence or absence of ‘violence’), his emphasis is on the different styles of interactivity (or what players call ‘game play’) offered by different games.
As Jenkins (1993) has argued, simply importing concepts and methodologies from studies of ‘older’ media to the analysis of new media such as computer games can be positively misleading. Notions of ‘identification’ (e.g. Turkle, 1984) and ‘representation’ taken from film studies may be inappropriate when it comes to characters who are simply devices to insert the player into the game. An emphasis on goal-driven narratives, and on the significance of narrative closure, may lead to a neglect of the pleasures of spectacle; and focusing on the experience of time in games may lead one to neglect the significance of space, and the metaphors of exploration and conquest around which they are organized (Fuller and Jenkins, 1995). The ideological effectivity of games may lie not so much in their provision of ‘role models’ as in the exploratory processes they establish. Myers’ (1990) analysis, for example, seriously challenges the assertion made by authors such as Provenzo (1991) that game playing is simply a matter of following rules, and that it therefore encourages a kind of ideological conformity.
While it is important to learn from research on ‘older’ media (cf. Chen, 1984; Reeves and Wartella, 1985), it is also necessary to develop new methods of analysis that account for the specificities of new media and the social contexts in which they are used. This kind of analysis is all the more significant as the games (and the cultures that surround them) continue to develop. As Provenzo (1991) and other critics have feared, the games are indeed becoming more ‘realistic’ and ‘graphic’; but they are also becoming significantly more complex and multilayered. To compare early games like ‘Pong’ or ‘Space Invaders’ with current successes like ‘Pokémon’ or ‘Final Fantasy 8’ is to recognize the extraordinarily rapid evolution of the form. Technological developments will also offer new challenges here: the growing importance of multiplayer games and gaming over the Internet reinforces the need for studies that pay much closer attention to the social context of games playing, and the culture that surrounds it.
Children’s Online Culture
By contrast with the moral panics that have characterized discussion of computer games, debates about the potential of the Internet for young people have been significantly more positive. Rather than considering the Internet merely as a distribution medium, researchers have focused on the potential uses of chat groups, electronic mail and web pages as forms of autonomous creative expression. These are arenas in which, it is argued, children and young people are no longer constrained by the limitations of their parents’ cultures (Tapscott, 1997).
Analyses of WWW home pages produced by children have seen them as instances of ‘identity construction’ analogous to the decoration of bedroom walls (Chandler and Roberts-Young, 1998). The home page is seen here as a hybrid form that combines aspects of public communication (such as broadcasting or publishing) with those of private communication (such as the personal diary or the letter). This hybridity is particularly reflected in the combination of written and spoken forms that characterizes these new media (Abbott, 1998). For some, the constant changes that characterize children’s home pages are symptomatic of a ‘post-modern’ fluidity of identity (cf. Turkle, 1995); although others argue that the net is a place where young people feel they can be ‘truly themselves’ (Tobin, 1998). Susannah Stern (1999) provides an account of three different types of home pages produced by teenage girls that begins to indicate the diverse styles and purposes of children’s online culture. In Stern’s categorization, ‘spirited’ sites convey buoyancy and cheerfulness, and are used as a form of ‘self-glorification’; ‘sombre’ sites are disillusioned, angry and introspective, serving as ‘an asylum from a difficult and hostile world’; while ‘self-conscious’ sites oscillate between the two, reflecting the authors’ lack of confidence about sharing too much online. Like other researchers in this field, however, Stern appears uncertain about whether to view the sites as vehicles for ‘self-construction’ or (more straightforwardly) as ‘self-expression’—and hence as a safe space in which girls can ‘speak their experience’.
Similar issues arise in the analysis of Internet relay chat (IRC), although the possibility that children may ‘pass’ as adults, or adults as children, makes it very difficult to assess the reliability of data. Just as some have claimed that the anonymity of chat rooms can provide opportunities for play with gender identities, so the same may be true in relation to age (Smith and Curtin, 1998; Turkle, 1995). Serious ethical dilemmas inevitably arise in this kind of research, particularly given the ease with which one can eavesdrop on apparently ‘private’ communications (see Baym, 1998); and these may be particularly acute in relation to children. Nevertheless, some researchers have argued that children and young people may be particularly empowered by these online communities. Tobin (1998), for example, argues that online communication may provide a means for boys to share ‘personal’ concerns and problems that is denied to them in other social encounters; while Abbott (1998) suggests that the use of oral linguistic forms in this context displays ‘a striving for immediacy, response and dialogue, a sense of communion’ which is only partially satisfied elsewhere.
A related theme here is that of pedagogy. Tobin (1998) argues that online communication produces ‘learning communities’ that cross boundaries of age and geography, and that are more democratic and collaborative than traditional educational institutions. As in more general assertions about online communities (e.g. Rheingold, 1993), such arguments tend to neglect the occasionally undemocratic and exclusionary nature of online communication; although the opportunities these media present for group interaction, when compared with equivalent older technologies such as the telephone, cannot be denied. Combined with assertions about the more self-managed, participatory learning styles developed by computers—by games as much as by ‘educational’ software—these arguments lead towards a notion of a ‘deschooled’ society that comes close to that proposed by Ivan Illich 30 years ago (Illich, 1971; Snyder, 1998).
If research about computer games has been somewhat constrained by the ‘carryover’ of ideas from older media, work on children’s online culture has only just begun to develop appropriate hypotheses and methods. Much of the research, for example on electronic fanzines (Leonard, 1998) or ‘multi-user domains’ (Turkle, 1995), is in fact concerned with young people aged over 18. Such studies are almost bound to focus on unrepresentative cases, although some appear unduly preoccupied with the more avant-garde manifestations of ‘cyberculture’ (e.g. Turkle, 1995). As with games, researchers are dealing with forms of children’s culture to which it is very difficult to gain access—and which, in many respects, seem almost deliberately designed to exclude them. Most of the studies mentioned here are highly descriptive, and some carry an almost colonialist air, as though they were reports from strange and distant lands. Future research will need to be much more detailed and sustained. Researchers will need to triangulate between the analysis of texts (such as home pages and IRC sessions) and interviews with their producers and users; analyse the evolution of particular pages and sites over time; consider the place of such activities in the context of ‘real-life’ relationships in the family and the peer group; and consider how participants in online culture may be representative of broader social categories.
Education and Entertainment
As I have noted, much of the positive potential of new media for children has been seen to rest in their educational role. Longer-term fantasies of a deschooled, ‘wired’ society are perhaps the most utopian aspect of this; although claims about the educational value of home computing have long been a central aspect of the industry’s marketing strategies (Buckingham et al., 2001; Nixon, 1998). Advertising for these media often represents them as a way of investing in children’s future; and indeed as a means of compensating for what are seen to be the inadequacies of contemporary schooling. Thus, it is claimed that computer software will ‘make learning fun’ by using imagery and modes of address drawn from children’s popular culture, and by employing what purport to be ‘interactive’ approaches. These new forms of ‘edutainment’ are offered both as an acceptable leisure-time pursuit, and as a glamorous alternative to the apparent tedium of much school work.
There have been some contrasting assessments of the educational value of these new media, however. Seymour Papert (1996), for example, waxes lyrical about children’s ‘love affair’ with computers, arguing that they provide a more creative and spontaneous form of learning that can dramatically improve family relationships. By contrast, sceptics such as Jane Healy (1998) argue that much of the learning that computers provide is superficial and trivial, and that claims about their educational potential are highly overstated. Despite these differences between them, however, such authors agree on the importance of high-quality software, support from parents and strong connections between home and school if this potential is to be realized.
In a substantial empirical study, Giacquinta et al. (1993) conclude that the educational ‘promise’ of this technology has been largely unfulfilled. While parents are likely to invest in computers and software with educational benefits in mind, and while they often have access to good quality educational programs, they are rarely used. In general, children prefer to use home computers for playing games, and resist overtly ‘educational’ activities; and this is reinforced by the dominant view of the computer as a toy or plaything. Parents also lack the time and expertise to support their children’s use of computers; furthermore the uses of computers in schools are frequently limited, and there is little dialogue between parents and teachers on the issue. Finally, males are generally the major users and decision-makers in relation to home computing, while females (particularly mothers) are often defined as incompetent; and since mothers are generally the primary care-givers, this further reduces the potential for parental support. According to these authors, the benefits of technology will only be realized if we pay attention to the ‘social envelope’—that is, to the sets of expectations, contexts and social practices—that surrounds it. Thus, for example, they suggest that schools can play a significant role as ‘linking agents’ to encourage educational computing in the home; but this will in turn require broader changes in the relationships between parents and teachers.
The Giacquinta et al. (1993) study was undertaken in the mid 1980s, before the advent of multimedia home computers and the Internet—although there is little reason to believe that their conclusions no longer apply. In a more recent study involving the present author, Sefton-Green and Buckingham (1996) are similarly sceptical about the ‘creative’ potential of home computing. While children were certainly aware of the potential of the technology, they were rarely in a position to use it. They understood in principle what their computers could do—for example in digital animation, design, sound and video editing, and ‘multimedia authoring’—but they rarely engaged in such activities themselves. Some of the reasons for this were essentially ‘technical’; and in this respect, the machines (or the advertisements for them) seemed to promise more than they were capable of delivering. However, there were also some important social reasons why the technology was not living up to its creative potential. Very few parents knew how to support their children in using the computer in this way; although children in middle-class families, whose parents or relatives were often more familiar with technology, were in a better position. For most children, however, using computers seemed to be a way of filling in time when they were bored. This sense of disconnectedness was also reflected in the lack of an audience for this material. Children described how they would show their work to their mum or stick it on their bedroom wall, but otherwise nobody ever saw or knew about it—a striking contrast with the intensely sociable culture of computer gaming.
There remains a need for further research on the pedagogy of computer use in the home—for example, how (and by whom) children are introduced to computers, and how parents encourage or regulate their use. We need to know more about how both groups perceive and balance out the ‘educational’ and ‘entertainment’ aspects of these new media. While parents are encouraged to invest in computers for broadly ‘educational’ purposes, children are much more inclined to use them for ‘entertainment’ (Cupitt and Stockbridge, 1996; Downes, 1999; Giacquinta et al., 1993). Over the past decade, these competing views have often been manifested in parents’ decisions about whether to buy a PC or a games console; yet with the advent of games consoles that allow Internet access (such as the Sega Dreamcast), these distinctions may prove more difficult to sustain. Meanwhile, the growing availability of the Internet may provide many more outlets for young people’s creative work (Sefton-Green, 1999b); but it remains to be seen how far these ‘virtual audiences’ can substitute for real audiences of family and peers.
Towards New Policies
Many of the issues discussed in this chapter have significant implications for cultural and educational policy. The dangers of a polarization between the information rich and the information poor, and the various forms of ‘social exclusion’ that it might encourage, have been recognized since the early days of new media research (e.g. Chen and Paisley, 1985) and are now widely acknowledged by policymakers. Governments have increasingly recognized that the diffusion of technology cannot be left to market forces, and that regulation and intervention are required in order to ensure that all homes and schools are ‘wired’ to electronic networks.
At the time of writing, much of the impetus here is focused on questions of physical access. However, access is not simply a matter of technology. It is also a question of the skills and competencies—the cultural and educational capital—that are required to use technology creatively and effectively. These forms of capital are also unevenly distributed: different social groups are positioned in very different ways in relation to public discourses about education, and in relation to the institution of the school. New technology is becoming a crucial part of many people’s working lives, but it is doing so in very different ways for different groups of workers; and, in the process, new gaps of knowledge and skill may be opening up. Meanwhile, cutting across these moves are more familiar concerns about children’s relationships with media. Growing anxieties about pornography on the Internet or online marketing to children have led to debates about the need for content regulation and parental control (Oswell, 1999; Price, 1998). Yet it is far from clear how we can prevent children gaining access to ‘harmful’ content, while simultaneously encouraging them to make the most of the educational and cultural potential of these new media.
As this implies, policy-makers need to take much fuller account of the social contexts in which children encounter new media, and the kinds of support which are necessary in order to use them most effectively. This may require a fairly radical rethinking of the institutional contexts (such as schools) in which technologies are made available to children; and of the relationships between schools, homes and other sites of educational and cultural activity (Schon et al., 1999). Simply providing children with ‘information’ is not enough: we have to enable them to develop the intellectual and cultural competencies that are required to select, interpret and utilize it. Despite the optimism of some advocates, children do not automatically know how to use new media technology, let alone evaluate what it provides. Technology alone will not transform them into the autonomous ‘cyberkids’ of the popular imagination. We need to pay much closer attention to what is taking place in their interactions with these new media, and to the forms of support and education they need in order to make those interactions as productive as they promise to be.