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When are video games mimetic?

January 16, 2012 2 comments

My son plays on Massively Minecraft, a wonderful Minecraft server for kids. And recently they banned TNT. I’m relieved. Minecraft is a great constructionist learning environment, and I’m happy to let him play it.  But his fascination with blowing stuff up was getting a bit too intense. They disabled TNT on the server because someone (not my son) blew up someone else’s creation.  My son would never do anything like that.  But I still would rather see him building a castle than piling up explosives to see how big a hole he can make.

People often ask the question “Are video games mimetic?” I was at a conference on games at Georgia Tech a few years ago, and one of the speakers at one moment was waxing poetic about what kids can learn from games.  They’re having fun, and look at all the things they can learn! And then moments later, the same speaker dismissed claims that violent games can make kids violent, because kids don’t transfer things from games to the real world–they know it’s just a game!  My friend Liz Losh and I had to hold our breath to avoid laughing out loud, the speaker’s self contradiction was so comic.  She whispered in my ear, “Either video games are mimetic, or they’re not. He can’t have it both ways!”

I’ve read a bunch of studies on this topic that have contradictory findings. I’d love to see a good literature review or definitive large-scale study. But I would rephrase the question somewhat. We shouldn’t ask whether games are mimetic, but under what conditions.  Can kids learn things from games? Of course! Do they magically absorb all that great content? Nah, not most of it.  Do kids become serial killers after playing violent video games? Of course not! But could they sometimes internalize some degree of insensitivity to violence through playing violent games? I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t true.  So the question for the research community is: What specific design features of a game or aspects of the context in which it is played lead to more or less transfer to the real beliefs and behaviors? How can we deliberately engineer games to support more transfer of learning content, and less of things like violence and obsessive consumerism that pervade many games?

There’s a lot of important research to do in this area. But in the meantime, I’m glad my son plays Minecraft. And I’m glad the kids’ server disabled TNT.

Categories: games, kids Tags: , ,

Social Translucence and Internet Parenting

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Part of what makes putting the computer in the family room work well is that it has a degree of “social translucence.”  Tom Erickson and Wendy Kellogg write:

We begin by asking what properties of the physical world support graceful human-human communication in face-to-face situations, and argue that it is possible to design digital systems that support coherent behavior by making participants and their activities visible to one another. We call such systems “socially translucent systems” and suggest that they have three characteristics—visibility, awareness, and accountability—which enable people to draw upon their experience and expertise to structure their interactions with one another.

When I walk through the dining room where our computer is located, I can’t see what my son is typing unless I come uncomfortably close. And that would feel rude, so I generally don’t. But if he’s looking at images or videos, I can see them at a distance. The physical properties of the space afford greater privacy for text than for other media.  No one planned it that way, but it’s a pretty strategic setup when you think about it. I can quickly get a sense of the general sort of thing he’s doing but the details typically remain more private.

It works the other way around too–I use the same computer, and my kids are aware of what I’m doing on it too. If the one who is old enough to read is watching, I intuitively know when he’s close enough to actually read the words on my screen and when he’s not.  It’s quite striking how detailed these affordances are–what they allow and what they don’t allow is complicated.  The use of the physical properties of the space to maintain a mixture of privacy and mutual awareness is social translucence.

I got some interesting responses to my last post. People definitely are comfortable at different positions on the spectrum from trusting kids to monitoring them.  Kids and teens are continually facing new challenges, and at any given time there are some they are ready for and some they are not.  Parents need to let them experiment and make mistakes–but not mistakes with tragic or irreversible consequences.  It’s a delicate balance. But wherever you are on the spectrum from “protect them” to “let them learn from their mistakes,” I think there’s one thing we all can agree on: we need more socially translucent solutions to Internet parenting.

For me, I want to know if my kid is online at 4 am. I want to know if he’s being bullied, or bullying others.  I want to know that he’s using good judgement in the kind of content he accesses.  I want to know if there’s something else I should be worried about–is there something parents should watch out for that I don’t even know about?  But beyond all that, I don’t need to see the details of exactly what he’s saying to his friends or doing online.  The interesting question is: could a tool be designed to help?  What would a socially translucent tool for parenting your kids’ Internet use look like?  It’s a tremendously hard design problem–particularly if you hope to create mutual awareness among people rather than an algorithm that tries to operationalize values (a task which Internet filters attempt, and largely fail). But if such a design was successful, it would be a win for both kids’ privacy and effective parenting.

(For more on this topic, see Social and Technical Challenges in Parenting Teens’ Social Media Use by Sarita Yardi.)

It’s All About the Money, Stupid (Economically Less Advantaged Youth Want a Credible Path to Economic Empowerment)

December 8, 2011 2 comments

NB: This post is about my education research.

I feel so stupid–I should’ve seen it all along. It’s all about the money.  About searching for a better life. In a way that is believable. In the context of a system where adults and institutions are regarded with suspicion.

When my PhD student Betsy Disalvo started Glitch Game Testers, she first tried the activity with kids of different ages.  In Glitch, economically less advantaged African American youth work testing  pre-release games from real game companies. Their work game testing is integrated with intro CS education. Almost all of our students have chosen to go to college and study CS or related disciplines as their major.  When Betsy did preliminary workshops with 14 and 15 year-olds, they seemed not quite mature enough for the activity. For that reason, we decided to focus on 16 and 17 year-olds. And then it occurred to us that those teenagers are old enough to hold part-time and summer jobs. Kids from poor backgrounds needs to earn money if they can. How could they have time for school, a job, and Glitch? It didn’t all add up. So we decided to make Glitch a paying job.  Our original grant from the National Science Foundation didn’t plan for that–we just had budgeted for a small honorarium for our participants. So we took some of the money meant for my summer salary and got permission to give it to our teens. We raised more money for their salaries from the Arthur M. Blank Foundation. We made it work.

Our initial reasons were  practical–a detail.  But as we’ve worked with our teens for the last couple years, it became clear that this was a central factor in why the program was such a success.  What we’ve learned is so astoundingly obvious and simple. It was there all the time and we never saw it. Kids from less advantaged backgrounds want a secure future. Adults and school officials know that education is the path to that better future. But kids don’t believe them.  And why should they? They often don’t have role models who have gone to college and found success.  It doesn’t seem real as a possibility.  The role models for success they have are prominent African Americans in the sports and entertainment industries.  The documentary film Hoop Dreams does a great job of documenting these young men’s dreams. The kids in Hoop Dreams want a better life, and basketball is the path they can imagine.

They imagine themselves as basketball or football stars, but those dreams are unlikely to come true. How do we help them to imagine themselves as high-tech workers?  The role models exist, but are rare compared to those from the entertainment and sports industries. What we discovered in Glitch is that one way to encourage them to dream of being high tech workers is to make them legitimate high tech workers. Our Glitch students work for real game companies. They realize they can work in the game industry because they already are doing so.  And that higher education is the path to making this real.

And now that I realize this was key, I see it everywhere. For example, the Computer Clubhouse Network creates drop-in computer centers in economically less advantaged neighborhoods to encourage these youth to get interested in computer science. My students and I have volunteered at clubhouses in Atlanta from time to time over the years, and we consistently observe one thing: each clubhouse has a computer music suite, and making your own electronic music/rap is by far the most successful clubhouse activity.  The clubhouse kids will tell you that they are hoping to become rap stars.  They work hard on their music–incredibly hard.  Because there’s a dream behind it. The creators of the clubhouse network were hoping the kids would work hard on learning real computing skills, and dream of being part of the computer industry. And that does happen–but much more rarely.

The research questions then becomes, how do we help kids from less advantaged backgrounds to embrace dreams with a higher chance of success? The Glitch model embodies a core concept from educational theory: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).  People can learn to be part of a community of practice by starting to do simpler tasks that meaningfully contribute to real work. It’s important that as they do their work, they have a chance to observe the work of more senior members of the community on a day-to-day basis.Over time, they can take on more and more important roles in the community. So here’s my pitch: we should create more opportunities for teenagers to do paid internships with real businesses.

I do work on encouraging kids to get interested in computing, because I’m a computer science professor. And because we have a shortage of computing professionals and a lack of  diversity in the computing industry which both hurt the industry. But honestly I don’t care whether  teens go into computing or engineering or teaching or finance…. What I hope for the kids and for our society is economic mobility. That whoever you are, if you work hard and stay in school you can build a better life for yourself and your family.  It seems to me that LPP is the way to make this happen. Every 16-year-old should have the opportunity to do an internship with a real company.  To try out real work, contributing to a real business in a meaningful way. To develop friendships with adult workers who can guide them on realistic career paths. To realize that they can be part of the industry of their choice and contribute meaningfully–because they already are.

NB2: Glitch Game Testers is the creation of Betsy Disalvo. Who you should hire for a faculty position, because she’s brilliant and all this is her work.

Categories: education, kids

Saturday Morning Cartoons and Other Choices About Technology Use–Thoughts on Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”

January 23, 2011 Leave a comment

When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly ritual. I watched several, and carefully planned which channel to watch at 8, 8:30, 9…. It was important to me. I sat there for hours, and loved it. I looked forward to it every week. My husband Pete had the same experience. We share an encyclopedic knowledge of Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo.

Did that harm us? I don’t know. I feel kinda like we turned out OK. But we would never let our kids vegetate all Saturday morning that way. Saturday mornings they usually have a soccer game (spring and fall), basketball game (winter), or swimming lesson (summer). They get half an hour of TV a day, and we don’t ever just give them the channel changer and let them watch whatever’s on–they have my old TiVO, and they pick among shows we have recorded for them.  (Their current obsession: Myth Busters. Hooray for good TV! But we don’t mind when they get on a run of lighter fare like Phineas and Ferb.)

So what happened in the intervening generation? We are both the product of what I would call typical middle class families of the time.  But in the years since then, our cultural sensibility about appropriate TV use for kids has shifted. In a great paper to be presented at CSCW 2011 this March, Morgan Ames, Janet Go, Jofish Kaye and Mirjana Spasojevic show how currently practices about kids’ “screen time”  today in America vary by social class.  Middle class parents worry about limiting their kids’ use of all kinds of screens (TV, computer, video game, and cell phone) much more than working class parents. What impact will this have in the long run? It’s an intriguing question.

Television is seductive. The easy thing is to just let kids watch what they want. Today, we have come to a point where parents (at least educated parents) are making choices to not do the easy thing and let kids have all they want. But it took a generation for those cultural norms to begin to evolve, and that process is still happening.

My reflections on the indulgent TV habits of my youth were prompted by Sherry Turkle’s insightful new book Alone Together (which I am currently half done reading). In it, Turkle draws attention to many of the “three hours of Saturday morning TV” issues of the present. Teens texting over 100 times a day on average? Parents using smart phones at the dinner table? Professionals flying all the way to Tokyo to attend a meeting but then opening their laptops and ignoring the discussion? This can’t be healthy.

Turkle is a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalysis is an inherently normative undertaking. Psychoanalysts help people identify what “the good life” is for them personally, and learn how to make choices that help them achieve their full human potential. This often involves some compromise between individuality and cultural norms. What is “healthy” and what are the limits of the acceptable range of “normal”? These are profound questions for any individual. But what happens when our new cultural “normal” gets out of whack? That’s the fundamental question posed by Turkle’s book.

If all the other kids get to watch three hours of Saturday morning TV, it becomes harder for me to tell my child he can’t. If all the other kids are texting continually, it becomes harder for any one teen to refuse to join in. A generation later, there is some structural resemblance to the challenges. But the difference is, the intensity has increased. We have upped the ante. As pervasive as television once was for my generation, the media issue of today concerns every waking moment of kids’ lives–their phones are always there.  A key issue raised by Alone Together is that our cultural “normal” is drifting away from “the good life” for all of us.

Of course there are wonderful aspects to mobile and social computing technology too. I was Turkle’s student over 20 years ago, but through Facebook and Twitter I learned that she was going to be a guest on The Colbert Report. Before she went on, I wished her luck, as did many other friends and colleagues. I feel privileged to have been able to wish her well in advance, rather than hearing about the event third hand a week later. I will never be on Colbert, but I feel like I shared a bit of the moment. I can tell you countless stories about staying in meaningful contact with old friends, looking up an interesting fact for my kids on my phone that led to a deep discussion at just the right moment, and more. There are entirely good reasons why this technology is so popular and so pervasive. But we still need to put the technology back in its place–both in terms of how and how much we use it. And that may take another generation.

Dinner with a Statistic

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment

My younger son, Evan, turned five yesterday. Each year we let our boys pick a restaurant for their birthday dinner. Evan always picks Benihana. He likes to watch the chef cook our food at the table, and artfully toss a shrimp tail on top of his chef’s hat and in his shirt pocket. It’s a performance.

When you go to Benihana if you have only four people, you share your table with another group. At our table were three young women and a newborn baby in an infant car seat. The restaurant is down the street from Piedmont Hospital, and I’m guessing the Mom had just checked out of the maternity ward, and was celebrating with her friends on the way home. The baby looked only a day or two old.

The young women called over the waiter, and asked for the children’s menu. For a micro-second I thought, “they’re ordering food for a new baby??” My second thought was, “That kids’ menu is for people twelve and under! What are these young women doing trying to get away with ordering the kids’ meal?” But then I looked at them more closely, and it dawned on me. They were certainly lying about their age, but not by much. They were probably 14 or 15.

You can’t help paying attention to people at your same table at dinner. The young women (or girls) laughed and gossiped over dinner. They each pulled out their cell phones at least five or six times to get and receive texts. They hassled the waiter that Benihnana’s Americanized version of Japanese food wasn’t Americanized enough for them.  They protested, didn’t the waiter hear them when they asked for no vegetables? They acted, in short, like typical teenagers.

As we went to leave, I congratulated the Mom and told her how beautiful her baby boy is. They all wished Evan a happy 5th birthday. But all I could think about was what lays in store for their boy, and what his 5th birthday will be like. And the girls’ birthdays, when they turn 15 or 16.

My PhD student Betsy DiSalvo and I run a program called Glitch Game Testers, designed to help economically less advantaged urban youth choose to pursue higher education in computer science. I hear about our teens’ struggles directly and indirectly all the time. But I have the privilege to almost always see them at their best, in a context that makes me hopeful for their futures. I’ve always been happy that we’re trying to help. I left dinner last night despondent that we’re not doing enough. You read about the statistics, but you don’t often have dinner with them.

Categories: kids

Kids and Copyright

March 18, 2010 8 comments

[Updated with some new info & clarifications.]

A while back I asked Larry Lessig: kids can’t agree to contracts. So isn’t there a problem with sites where kids upload their intellectual property? They can’t agree to the license….

Finally got an answer back from Larry. Here’s my  attempt at a layman’s summary:

  • Kids own intellectual property (IP) they create.
  • Kids can agree to license their IP.
  • Kids can later “disaffirm” any license they enter into, until about one year after they become adults.
    • In California, a special process can be followed to prevent future disaffirmation.

I assume this means that a site could simply later remove the content at the minor’s request, and wouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that others have likely copied that material. (An old joke says, “Taking information off the Internet is like taking pee out of a pool.”)

Andres Monroy-Hernandez (lead developer of the Scratch website) asks an interesting follow-up question: What happens to derivative works in this instance? I imagine you’d have to deal with that on a case-by case basis–and it could get complicated.

I find all this reassuring. I was worried that people posting kids’ content online might somehow be liable for doing so. But if I’m understanding things correctly, it simply means “if they ask you to take it down, take it down.” (Though on the other side of the argument, Steven Hetcher at Vanderbilt argues that contracts between minors and websites that post their content may be “unconscionable” and hence invalid.)

I got interested in kids and copyright because I’m interested in peer production of content, and the learning opportunities  made possible through creating things and sharing them. But from talking with Larry, it struck me that the much bigger issue seems to be the implications that copyright law has for schools. In particular:

  • Schools can’t put student work online without students’ permission, because students own copyright to their own work.
  • A teacher who allows a student to place harmful content about herself online on a school website may be held to have acted negligently. School districts have an affirmative duty to take all reasonable steps to protect their students from foreseeable harm.

Fascinating stuff!

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