Children's computer culture

Carsten Jessen

Printed in Dansk Paedagogisk Tidsskrift No. 5, 1995

The computer has in recent times become an important element in educationalists' discussions of the development of the state schools. However, that is only an indirect concern of this article, which instead describes what children do with the computer in their leisure time, when they decide for themselves. All the same, I will start with an account of an event from a maths period I observed recently.

That day thirteen-year-old Soeren had to admit shamefacedly to the teacher that for the umpteenth time he had not done his maths homework. He was thoroughly ticked off for this, and after an extended monologue by the temperamental maths teacher about the scourge of idleness and how Soeren himself was also responsible for his own future (...which isn't handed to you on a plate, is it? And you'd like to have an interesting job when you grow up, wouldn't you?), came the question:
"What on earth were you doing all that time?"
Soeren was clearly not happy about answering, but in a faint voice came the answer:
"I was playing a computer game...."

The reader will have to imagine what the reaction to that answer was, but the indignation over the fact that Soeren wasted his tine in front of the computer screen was certainly obvious from the teacher, who after the period said to me accusingly:
"- And you say that computer games don't make children stupider! So what happens to them when they spend time on that kind of thing instead of something sensible?"
You cannot answer a question like that briefly and definitively. Of course you could talk about when you were that age yourself and wasted your time reading thrillers instead of doing homework; and claim that it had been important to your development, - and that it certainly hadn't done you any harm! The result would probably be an icy, contemptuous look. Or the reply:
"If only Soeren did read books...."
It never occurred to the teacher to ask Soeren what sort of game it was that kept him from his pencil, ruler, maths exercise book and squared paper. That question is almost inconceivable in such a situation, where the point is to get Soeren to grasp some tiny notion of the necessity of work. Nor is it likely that Soeren's answer would have meant anything at all to the teacher. For him computer games are undifferentiated "computer games" and synonymous with wasting time - in fact simply a sign of idleness.

So Soeren's teacher never finds out that Soeren is currently deeply fascinated with "Transport Tycoon", and that many of the boys in the class share this fascination and meet at Soeren's place in the afternoon to play it. This creates a pretty absurd situation in this specific case, because in school the teacher is doing his level best to teach the children about buying and selling, profit and loss as vividly as he can with words, blackboard and chalk. Back home Soeren and his friends are running a worldwide transport conglomerate. They buy buses, trains, ships and aircraft, set up new transport routes and sign freight contracts on which they make profits or losses - depending on whether they do things right or wrong. They have had to learn it the hard way by trial and error, deciphering the English instructions and going bankrupt the first 25 times. But they persist and gradually make a success of it; so the last thing you can call them is idle.

Computer culture
I have not told this story to try to persuade anyone that as long as children play computer games they will probably learn what they need to know about information technology - or about arithmetic. Of course the story does have a point, which I will return to below. At this point it is just an example of the way reality looks today. While we have been discussing for years how we should be teaching children to use computers, many of them have long since taken them up themselves and created their own "computer culture". This mainly involves playing computer games, which have become very widespread in recent years. Computer games have one of the steepest-rising sales curves in the entertainment market today, and the games are taking over an ever-increasing share of this market at the expense of books, films and TV. According to the latest Danish survey, based on figures from 1993, over half of Danish boys between 10 and 15 have a computer or a games machine in their rooms. The computer games are today a part of children's and youth culture in line with other media like records, books and video.

Computer games in children's culture
Computer games are generally regarded with great suspicion. Among other things, it is thought that they are violent and make children stupider, and although it has to be conceded that there are quite a few terrible games on the market, this is far from the whole truth about the medium. Today there is a wide range of different genres and qualities, just like the range we know from books and films. Children and the young play violent games, just as they watch violent films, but they are just as likely to prefer other genres, for example games of the same type as "Transport Tycoon", which has no violent elements.

The suspicion about the content is however only one side of the widespread scepticism about computer games. Another, far more serious criticism is levelled at the influence of the medium on children's social relations. It is a common assumption that computer games lead to children becoming socially isolated, all in their separate rooms where they engage in a lone struggle in the artificial universes of the games. In other words, the computer destroys social relations and playing.

Fortunately that is not so. In fact children rarely play alone, and computer games are about more than the actual game. Contrary to appearances, the computer and the games are absorbed into the existing children's culture. This happens very much on that culture's own terms - and often in ways that are quite contrary to the interests of the toy market. For a good game can easily cost Kr 400-500. Few children can afford this, yet almost every child with a computer has a wealth of games. For computer games have the indisputable advantage than they can be copied and given away at almost no expense. Although this is not always legal, it still happens to a great extent. Swapping games (and other programs) is such an essential part of the computer culture of the young that in my view one is barking up the wrong tree if one sees the use of the computer solely as a matter between the game and the player. Children and teenagers (and not a few adults) are willing to make long trips to get new, interesting games, and social networks arise around the exchanges.

But the social relations do not end with the swapping of the games. In institutions, libraries and schools which have computers you will often see children flocking around the computer when games are being played. Those who know the game hand on good or less good advice. Those who don't absorb knowledge over the shoulders of the players. This too is typical. There is widespread swapping of knowledge, tips and tricks around the computer, and the computer games form part of children's social relations just like stamps, cards, stickers, jokes, games etc.

In this sense computer games are a social medium that children can share, and it is tempting to imagine that this is the reason for the success of the medium among children and the young. The games fir better into children's play patterns than books - which one is alone in consuming.

Exchanges of tips and tricks are of course most important for games that are not quite straightforward, but require you to use your head. At first glance there are many games that look quite simple - the so-called "action games" where you either shoot at will or fight with fists or swords. You only have to press the right buttons fast enough. It can be hard to understand that the children play this kind of game over and over again - after all, there is no "development" in it (and as a rule, too, it's the boys who play them....). The competition element plays an important role here. The one who can get most points acquires status, just as in other games.

But the games are not always as simple as they look. You discover that when you get you own fingers on the keyboard or joystick. The games require not only fast reactions, but also thinking. Very often the player has to have an overview of four or five figures at once, each with its own behavioural pattern. It can be compared to the kind of overview you need for example in traffic.

The action game is today far from monopolizing the market. Strategy games like "Transport Tycoon", or adventure games, are at least as popular among older children. In these games it is other competences than fast reactions that are important. Each game has its own set of rules that has to be learned, and unlike board games these rules are not revealed before the game begins. They have to be worked out along the way. That is the basis of the fascination. Once the rules have been worked out and "overcome" the game becomes boring, and the player seeks new challenges in new games, preferably more complex ones - just like detective stories.

At the start of the game the player is faced with a problem that has to be solved (and here one often needs ideas from others). It all happens in a special universe that you have to explore - a universe that is like blank spots on a map of a new country. You discover things and connections while, display by display, you move around in this special universe which only exists in the computer, or rather in your own imagination. You might for example have to move some books on a shelf to find a lever that can open a secret trapdoor in the floor, or you might discover that things have to be given away to achieve something - it is in other word all in the best traditional fairytale tradition. The difference from the book is that the game requires active participation, independent actions. Some of the universes are so complex that the players have to draw maps before they can get a general idea of them.

New "reading skills"
Strategy and adventure games are all about exploration, which clearly attracts many children (and quite a few grown-ups). The quality aspect of this type of computer game is in the social relations created around the game. Here the children are on a journey of discovery together - in a shared exploration project where they get ideas together, exchange them and discuss them. This is a quality in itself, one that can of course be found in many other areas than computer games. But it is certainly here too..

Exploration can be seen as good training in familiarizing oneself with new, unmanageable contexts and systems, and this is a skill that is becoming more and more necessary in our society. It is in this light that the story of Soeren, told in the introduction, should be seen, for perhaps Soeren and his friends are in full progress developing a new "reading skill" which will become very important to their future. Perhaps in fact it is better that Soeren spends his time playing computer games with his friends than concentrating on his maths exercise book and the squared paper?

I don't know the answer, but I do think that it is important that we ask the question, which at bottom is a question of which competences children need to develop to make their way in the future. By this I do not mean that computer games can replace maths teaching - or for that matter that children play computer games because they unconsciously feel that they are learning something important. They play because it is fun and it is a challenge, and in so doing they exploit some very central human competences that surface when people deal with something they consider exciting (cf. also Seymour Papert's articles and books). The children are driven by curiosity, they use their imagination and creativity, they experiment and try out ideas - together - and this enables them to grasp and order the unmanageable, chaotic universes that computer games are when they start on them.

It must be emphasized that the point is not that these competences appear because of the computer. Imagination and creativity are not faculties that arise out of a PC or information technology; they grow out of playing and other creative activities. The point is that these faculties are crucial when one is dealing with information technology, and perhaps we should look a little less at the computer itself and much more at the play element when it comes to preparing the children for the future.

What about the girls?
The attentive reader has probably long since worked out that what I have called "computer culture" is very much a boys' culture. Boys have their own computer culture, in which computer games play a leading role, and very few girls are involved in these. One also finds the difference among adults, where men have their own computer circles, in which only a minority of women are involved. In other words, girls and women do not quite fit into today's computer culture.

This is not only a matter of the computer or the computer games per se. If computer games are played by far more boys than girls, then one of the reasons is of course that most of the games on the market today appeal to boys. But that is not the whole explanation. The computer culture is not exclusively dominated by the computer games, the pirate copies and the exchanges of tips and tricks. When boys take an interest in the computer it is often as much the hardware and the technology themselves that are the main thing.

Boys of all ages can spend lots of time discussing computer technology for the sake of the discussion and the talking. What is inside the box, what the latest computer on the market can do, and whose computer is biggest and fastest, are quite simply good topics of conversation. By contrast the technology very rarely interests the girls. They are more interested in what the computer can be used for in purely practical terms. Although computers have become more user-friendly in recent years, so that the technology is taking more of a back seat, this does not alter the fact that the interest in technology is an important part of present-day computer culture, so the computer is still the domain of the boys - and the men.

This isn't because the girls can't be bothered using the computers for things like games, drawing etc. If they are given the time and space for it, they are in fact just as enthusiastic as the boys, but as long as computers remain a scarce resource in Danish schools and institutions it is hard for the girls to find a place on their own terms. In libraries, schools and day-care centres the girls often give the computers a wide berth, not because they are technology, but because the hardware is monopolized by the boys, so the social relations around them are dominated by the boys' conventions.

Girls and boys have two very different ways of interrelating, and from at least the beginning of school age we can talk about a girls' and a boys' culture, each with its own "language". The girls prefer groups of two or three friends, while the boys are often together in flocks - for example around the computer; and their way of talking is cruder and less polished than that of the girls. If a girl sits down in front of the computer she often has to listen to derogatory comments on her performance from the boys. Among boys this is in fact an ordinary way of talking and relating to one another which normally does not cut very deep. But a girl will often take these kinds of comments very personally and will be hurt. Experiences like this of course confirm the prejudices that girls already have about themselves. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that girls notoriously assess their own abilities with the computer more poorly than the boys', irrespective of the fact that they are demonstrably just as good. The boys, for their part, are in no doubt about being the best.

This sort of thing can be changed by a determined effort. A few years ago I was involved in a project whose aim was to make the girls at a children's recreational centre the computer experts there. This was tackled seriously by sending a group of nine-year-old girls on an extended computer course, and it was a huge success. The girls were both interested and became better than the boys at the centre - and they knew it. They radiated self-assurance when they sat in front of the monitor, while the rest of the children looked on; and put-downs from the boys were met with a silent, supercilious stare. As a rule, that was enough.

But of course computer expertise in itself does nothing to change the actual gender roles and prejudices. It was for example impossible to get the bigger twelve-year-old boys to admit that a nine-year-old girl could teach them anything, and certainly not about computers! Nor did it change the girls' lack of interest in the technology, and thus in computer culture in the form it takes today. If we think it is important that the girls work with computers, then positive discrimination is necessary. This should not mean that we try forcibly to change the boys' way of acting at the computer to make it more like the girls'. Neither of the parties would benefit from that, and the result would probably simply be that the boys would disappear. Instead we have to accept and make room for the differences, and the first task is to make space for the girls at the few computers there are - for example by introducing special "girls' days", or one computer for "boys activities" and one for "girls' activities", something we already see in many day-care institutions.

This may seem to consolidate the gender divisions, but in practice the result will often be the opposite. Once the girls are given the opportunity to work with the computer on their own premises and learn about its potential, then there will still be many areas where the girls and boys turn out to have common interests and something to talk about in front of the computer.

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Jensen, Jens F.: 'Computerkultur'. Kultur og Klasse no. 63, 1988.
Jessen, Carsten: 'Ingen laering uden leg. Om legens noedvendighed'. BUKS no. 6. 1986 Jessen, Carsten: 'Barnet og kreativiteten'. BUKS no. 10. 1988.
Kinder, M: Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games. Berkeley 1991
Loftus, E. and G.: Mind at play. New York 1983
Nissen, Joergen: Pojkarna vid datorn. Stockholm 1993.
Papert, Seymour: The Children's Machine. New York 1993.
Turkel, Sherry: Dit andet jeg. Copenhagen 1987.

Carsten Jessen
Associate professor, Ph.d.
The Danish University of Education
Department of Educational Anthropology
Emdrupvej 101
DK-2400 Copenhagen
Tlf: 3969 6633
Fax: 3969 0081