Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mizuko Ito, "Education vs. entertainment: A cultural history of children's software

Mizuko "Mimi" Ito is a scholar and researcher at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Her article, "Education vs. Entertainment: A Cultural History Children's Software," makes up a chapter of the recent MIT Press edited volume The Ecology of Games.

Ito's contribution stems in great part from work she did on her dissertation and is largely ethnographic in nature, just the type of research that Goldstein and Williams called for in yesterday's readings. In this piece, Ito endeavors to map the landscape of software developed for and marketed toward children over the last 30 years, making some interesting observations and delineating certain features in so doing. She is careful to point out that the commercial nature of much of this software places it and a "boundary zone" between education and entertainment - an issue for many types of materials consumed by young people, but perhaps particularly acute in the digital realm. For purposes of this article, there seems to be no great differentiation made between computer games and more traditional video/arcade-style games; in fact, most of the titles Ito invokes have been traditionally played on a home computer.

Ito begins by identifying three "genres" of children's software: academic, entertainment and construction, and goes on to state that she plans to examine the genres from the points of view of their "production and at sites of play." This is approach seems as though it will cover issues pertaining to children's software in a comprehensive way.

In this dense and complex academic article, Ito makes several excellent points. First, she notes that new technologies (children's software included) do not emerge in a vacuum; rather, they are cultural byproducts and artifacts like any other, subject to a variety of stages of acceptance - a period known as "interpretive flexibility." She cites the bicycle as another innovation that went through this same period; for anyone interested in learning more about that, check out a book entitled The Adman in the Parlor for hilarious turn of the 20th century ad copy about bicycles - it is quite instructive.

Ito also cites the importance of how other media interrelate with new technologies. She pays special attention, for example, to examining ad copy, thinking about distribution and in what contexts the game is adopted (introducing these notions as a concept called the "circuit of culture").

After providing this framework for her discussion, Ito then gives a detailed historical account of how educational and children's games came into being, through a variety of pathways (via educators, via commercial means, etc.) Ito also discusses how these games were then targeted not only to children, but also to educators, parents and other children's culture gatekeepers. Here, again, she denotes three types ("genres") of games: academic, entertainment and construction. Each one of these genres has played out slightly differently as children's electronic/computer gaming has developed, and Ito gives a history and example for them all. Briefly, games she denotes as "educational" include early titles such as Rocky's Boots and Oregon Trail; many of these games and their companies can trace their roots directly back to academe or to K-12 institutions. Games deemed "entertainment" include the types of things produced by traditional toymakers (e.g. Mattel) using branded properties (e.g. Barbie). Construction games are a wide gamut that range from Will Wright's Sim City titles to, interestingly, the programming language known as LOGO. LOGO is a particularly interesting case, because one of, if not the primary, learning outcomes of that software is to teach kids computer literacy. It may be one of the first examples of software created with that sort of intentionality and with those goals in mind.

The last portion of Ito's article is consecrated to sharing and discussing the results of on-site interactions and observations of youth playing a variety of computer games in an afterschool club setting. These 5th Dimension computer clubs, interestingly, also exist at an intersection between leisure and instruction/education.

The anecdotes from the play recorded at the club suggest that even in ostensibly linear educational games, kids will find ways to develop their own play methods and mechanisms for problem-solving and will "freestyle" within the game, if given the chance. Often times, achieving an outcome is prized over the methods.

Also interesting about the sequences is the fact that the kids' play seems to always include adults interacting and mediating the game experience. Ito also cites the importance of "the element of spectacle," which often runs in contrast to what authority figures (e.g. supervising adults, game designers) think the outcomes should be.

Ito has the highest hopes for the construction genre of gaming in an educational context, citing their tool-mastery aspect and the creativity and individuation they inspire.


Adrian said...

Sadly, I really struggled with this article. I think a part of it was that I wasn't enjoying discussion of many of the edutainment that frankly looked poor or outright terrible.

In the content-portion, though, I find her program 'types' to be wholly artificial and almost arbitrary. In addition, it seems to be poor rhetoric: by calling certain things "educational" it seems to be a way to marginalize it - think of the Japanese surprise at learning that "family entertainment" was a death sentence...

Anywho, my two cents.

Eric M said...

This article was not very readable to me and I lost interest with the discussion on the types of games. However, I did enjoy the examples of the advertisements for the educational games. They were interesting to me because the designs seem to appeal to the kids, but the text seemed to appeal to the buyer, the parent. For example, the Jumpstart game. It's very cartoonish, but the text at the bottom "There's no stopping a kid with Jumpstart" clearly is trying to grasp the attention of the parent looking at the ad.

Anonymous said...

I'm also going to take the negative approach to this one. It did not seem to speak to a general audience. After experimenting with the kid games in class the other day I have a hard time believing that these programs will really help a child. Playing with legos or building blocks seems to be a better way of learning spatial skills than with video games. Also, games that explore the world seem extremely idle to me. We should experience cause and effect in the real world and not through the virtual domain. Perhaps the only forms of gaming benefits may be flashcards and the like for the more essentialist education

Sarah. R. said...

Hmm, I don't get the feeling that Ito would have been impressed with any of the game experiences we had...

Nick S said...

more history!?

I loved the excerpts from the studies they conducted. especially the elevator one with "roger" and "herbert" and the magic school bus one. I found it really interesting how the kids communicated with the undergrads or advisors. If I was playing a game like that in front of someone I would prolly act bored so they would leave. On the other hand I thought they over analyzed the excerpts a bit.

Jasun said...

I don't think Ito would have been impressed with the games we played either, and wonder about the use of computer software for this purpose ingeneral. It seems almost like it's technology for technologies sake, a digital babysitter/parent/teacher to take the labor of instruction off them. I do agree that children are likely better served through physical interactions with objects and others during their formative years, but at the same time they need to develop a familiarity with digital technologies. So perhaps it is just a matter of reliance and the balance between digital and (for lack of a better word) analog teaching and interaction styles.

Marlon Heimerl said...

What is interesting to me about this article is its relation to the Shaffer/Gee article in terms of Ito's view of contruction educational games. The key here, according to Ito (and in agreement with S&G) is that creativity and innovation are becoming increasingly important in todays global economy. Again, it is interesting to think about these abstract goals and to compare it to their economic impact. Without innovative thinkers, America is most certainly in for a tough ride, as again, there are more skill workers in China then there are citiZens in the US (S&G).

Jon72585 said...

I was really surprised that she didn't bring up one of my all time favorite games, "Number Munchers." I loved number munchers, and if anybody could direct me to a place where I can download the game online, I would give you a treat. Wait...a treat AND a soda.

But I digress.

I agree with Adrian that I don't think this was a very well written or engaging article. It almost made me feel as though she'd played too many kids games, and began writing with the same amount of excitement. Maybe that is why she left out the Muncher. For me, the best part was the kids responses to the games. Those were pretty hilarious. I could almost feel the frustration of the undegrads trying to get the kids to talk about the games.