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 advertising...design...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.