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Don't criticise the effects of video games on kids, exploit them!

By Jeff Brand - posted Monday, 26 May 2003


Video games are the new "bad boys" of communication technology. We blame them for violence in society, vulgar tastes and a host of other ills. Meanwhile, we decry the decline of formal education, literacy, and numeracy. Could it be that video games are related to educational decay?

Research on boys' literacy by Heather Blair and Kathy Sanford reinforces the view that formal education suffers from perceived irrelevance by the very people it seeks to inspire. Put another way, it appears that formal education fails to consider the learners.

We can understand young learners by projecting who they will be in the future. Take, for example, the projection made last year by Douglas Lowenstein, president of the American computer games industry group, Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), when he addressed its annual trade forum: "…within the next decade, IDSA will routinely meet with Members of Congress and top government officials who actually play video games and, within 20 years, the person sitting in the White House will be a once and future video gamer."

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For those who are surprised by Lowenstein's projection that leaders in 2022 will be video-game players, consider (or reconsider) education in the context of dynamic culture and society. Students in 2003 inhabit a physical, social, economic, political and technological world different in important ways from that experienced by their parents and teachers. Their media world in particular is fundamentally different: it is interactive and technologically, if not thematically, diverse. This diversity of media products and services creates a ubiquitous socialising agent.

Now, the media as a dominant source of culture may be unsavory. South Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and anything played on the PlayStation2 or Xbox is of questionable worth. Popular media express trivial, ephemeral and material tastes. By comparison, the value of formal education is that it provides meaningful knowledge and attitudes in service of citizenship. History, mathematics, literature and civics are defensible as tools of the productive work force.

Perhaps, however, we err when we dichotomise popular and formal culture, when we see them as mutually exclusive, when we speak of them in phrases like "entertainment versus education".

In 1938 German philosopher Johan Huizinga completed his book, Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Huizinga's thesis was simple: play is the precursor to culture. Huizinga claimed that play underpins language, civilisation, law, war, knowledge, literature philosophy and art. He wrote: "The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start. Take language for instance … behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words."

Huizinga also argued that the opposite of play is seriousness. He might have dichotomised work and play, formal culture and popular culture, education and entertainment, but he was more careful in his expression than we are in our popular discourse on these matters:

Any game can at any time wholly run away with the players. The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath.

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So, we read about things that entertain us, that allow us to experience play, but that are also functional. If we are fortunate, we work in professions that are fun and enjoyable as well as productive. We consume popular cultural products for the same reasons: because they are entertaining and functionally useful beyond their entertainment value.

It is therefore perplexing that parents, teachers and politicians bemoan popular culture … and that they express surprise upon learning that technologies of popular culture contribute to something beyond their own manifestation of entertainment and play. For example, when video games foster learning within the context of formal education. The notion of "moral panics" helps explain their negativity to technologies of popular culture.

Moral panics are processes by which individuals or groups, often aided by the fuel of mainstream media attention, identify a threat to society. Video games are the latest in a series of media technologies to suffer from the singularity of derision that a moral panic brings. Other media technologies that have been the subject of moral panics include the popular newspaper in the mid-19th century, the so-called "dime novel" at the end of the 19th century, movies at the beginning of the 20th century, television in the mid-20th century and the Internet in the 1990s. Moral panics follow a pattern. What has happened recently with video games demonstrates the model:

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Article edited by Sue Cartledge.
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About the Author

Dr Jeff Brand is Associate Professor of Communication and Media, and Co-director of the Centre for New Media Research, at Bond University. His research has explored electronic media, news and entertainment content and the social-psychological effects of electronic media on young audiences. More recently, he has undertaken a program of research centred on video games as a dominant form of communication.

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