Does Minecraft cure helicopter parenting?

This post is for parents, who are worried about Minecraft. More than that, it’s about the worry intentionally created by media reports which use Minecraft as a vehicle to their own ends. In short, this piece is why you should be highly suspicious of popular news media reports about Minecraft.

To illustrate this, I’ll use this recent report and discuss it in some detail to illustrate my point. The article poses the complex problem question “Are parents to blame for the popularity of Minecraft?”.

This is a nonsense question, suggesting parents are once again failing children and childhood. Its the same rhetoric which has been hurled at film, music and television — and roundly de-bunked as junk by numerous studies and scholars in several disciplines for decades. In short, media does not cause parents to fail at anything, let alone being a parent. Next we are introduced to a philosophical complex problem in an effort reinforce the media-panic. A better question would be “What makes media popular among children?” because Mincraft is a media text situated among digital-games which are a substantial part of cultural literacy. This is nothing unique about literature being popular in our society.

While a lot of research has been done towards film, TV and music, there is very little which looks at digital games, and none which looks specifically at Minecraft and therefore why Minecraft might be extra-ordinarily popular in comparison to the other media. One thing emerging from most current research is that children multi-layer they media interests. For example, playing Minecraft, making videos about it, drawing pictures, writing, role-playing as well as reading books (Minecraft was the number one purchase in school-book buying schemes in 2013 in Australia). Is Minecraft therefore a ‘cure’ for a complete failure of parents to mediate in the face of media panics and volaorization of technological commodities such as games, mobile phones and tablets as the headline suggests?

It seems highly unlikely, but on the surface, it appeals to the natural fears of parents about the role of technology in the lives of their loved ones. No parents in their right mind would use technology or media in a way which hurts children — unless they are stupid, which is what is being implied by ‘helicopter’ parents.

At the end of this post, I’ve linked to a good discussion of Minecraft’s potential impact on media in the future, for a generation building rather than responding to action games. Again, while really interesting, there are no studies I’m aware of attempting to track or understand this potential. The field of study that is games, media and society is in fact relatively small. The only agreement is that like film and TV, games reflect society. One question we know little about is about how children’s play is altered by an audience. This matters because parents are being positioned here an audience, either supportive or in opposition to conceptions of both video games and parenting. Evidence from sociologists and educators suggests that children who use media with a supportive audience do better in academics and social situations. There’s no reason to think that supportive parenting towards gaming is now a sign of a poor parenting or a cure to bad parenting.

We’re also not sure which parents the writer is talking about, what type of family context is this — and what age are the children. The reason Minecraft is popular, is because of many things, parenting I’d argue plays a very small cultural role, but probably an economic one, given Minecraft is commercially purchased. The title of the piece is therefore misleading in order to be ‘seen’ by meta-search and sensational enough to be amplified by parents and friends of parents whom have previously encountered a deficit debate about parenting and digital games — and have purchased Minecraft. It’s a headline which explores the un-answerable topic of the “death of childhood” which has also been shown to be a myth and de-bunked in the literature.

As if the headline isn’t loaded enough, the article goes on to attempt to connect adult choices towards media (regulation, mediation) to consequential choices they made for their children. From the outset the parent is assumed to be dumb and over-obsessed with supervision, and for a child ‘growing up digital’ this in invasive and harmful. “Growing up digital” (Tapscott) is an argument that has been criticised. Among media scholars, there are counter arguments for this type of technological deterministic view of childhood.  In particular, it assumes there a pre-existing demand by children for Minecraft, and therefore parents are generationally in-capable of being effective parents. The term ‘helicopter‘ parenting is another contested concept, yet laid on here in order to further claim that modern parents are unable to mediate personally or on behalf of their children (saving children from the media is a recurring theme in parental criticism). Clearly many parents grew up with video games and the Internet, the old verse new user lens is seen increasingly as simplistic among scholars, but remains popular in news media such as this.

The claim “more than a quarter of players are under the age of 15″ is meaningless. Where does this figure come from? What platforms? Is this active players or licence sales? Let me give you are more interesting figure — 98% of all humans in America, Australia and the UK play digital games. In 2012, In America, 21% of people were under the age of 15, which would make Minecraft’s player base nothing extraordinary at all. In addition, this figure is used to bolster the claim that Minecraft’s “endless nature” is key to this astonishing unremarkable player-base.

This leads into a complex arrangement of types-of-play. Minecraft does have limits, there are technological rules and processes which dictate what play can be. The biggest reason ‘endless play’ should be considered false, is that just about all animals (inc humans) go it, and they do it their entire lives. Play is, by it’s nature an endless human quality, unless some medical issue prevents it.

Perhaps the most spurious element is that this ‘endless play’ is seen as opposite to the current arrangement parents have to allow play to go on, which he calls “one more level”. Minecraft does actually have levels in the game, there are numerous subtle ways to measure advancement. There are many other games which allow auto-didactic exploration of ‘open worlds’. Mincraft’s is a sandbox game, and by it’s nature, allows players to create and manipulate it. To be even more simplistic, Lego is a sandbox game, but the resources are far more limited to the player. As Lego is a toy parents provide children in greater quantity to Minecraft licences, then the so-called arrangement (in terms of play-management) doesn’t break any arrangement. Furthermore, it may be that Minecraft is the only game a parent provides, and this ‘nul’ argument is worth exploring before making such a claim. The arrangements (to use the term) parents make with children over the use of media are very complicated and so far, little research has been done towards this. Even less has looked at children under the age of 15. In fact most game-research has focused on adolescents using lab experiments. Birmingham did some work in the UK with children and families several years ago, but this was limited and focuses on ‘educational games’. It did show something relevant here — the conceptions parents and children have about what constitutes ‘constructive play’ vary between families. It’s hard therefore to ask “Do parents …”  without much further clarification of who is being talked about.

Finally there is a visual aesthetic to the piece, the introductory text is high on claims and low on facts. The invitation made (using the grinning face) is to watch the video-discussion. This video is not made for parents, it’s made for game-audiences and to build further audiences. This tactic is well used by news media to increase circulation and not worry about evidence at all. Children are concerned (the research shows) what their parents think about media in general. Depending on the age of the child, those concerns vary. Given the mode of the presentation, this isn’t aimed at young children. The language is complex and hard to process for young children. Rather than present much in the way of facts, the video resorts to pop-camera work, fast cut-away moments of random footage and of course, slap-stick comedy. By the second minute, it’s pretty obvious this is simply ‘entertainment’.

I don’t have any-problem with pop-culture, but as this appeared on my timeline, it probably has been picked up by one if not more teacher-parents whom I’m connected to in someway. It’s indicative of the kind of cultural-media-leaks which occur when game culture attempts to expand it’s audience, and is interesting to me because of that. As a parent, the video is a roller coaster of unproven claims about parenting and society which should not be taken too seriously, despite the headline. There are many great video’s which talk broadly about digital games (even Minecraft) which talk about the benefits (and problems) of games in our society. As a rule, those which attempt to connect parenting failure to games are hardly worth your time, because there is so little we actually know about relationships between children and adults are being shaped by digital games. One thing we do know, is that up to now, attempts to connect ‘bad parenting’ with other media has been proven to be almost always rubbish.

I recommend you watch Extra Credits for a bit of debate and entertainment on the topic.

Event: Epic Learning! Games in Edu Day, 26th August, Sydney.

Having left the UNSW and what was the management of my third LMS migration, there are a number of things I’m finally getting to do, and most importantly with people I respect, admire and love to work with. I don’t generally talk about that — but I will talk about “Teachers In Front” which is a venture I’ve started with Dr Bron Stuckey. It’s something both of have wanted to do for a few years, but circumstances never really allowed. Now it does.

In somewhat of a rescue mission, we’re pleased to announce a first public games and media event on the 26th August in Sydney. Held at the MAC ICT Center (to whom we’re really grateful), it will be a great day SHOWING how games have been implemented and sharing concrete ways to do it yourself. The aim of “Teachers In Front” is not talk about what people could do, but to build on existing success and scholarship. While it would be simple to add to the rhetoric, we’re only interested in helping people grow their own agendas and finding ways to demonstrate and own that success in their own right. So this event is what that looks like … where all the talks, demos and discussion are orientated to the attendees questions and ideas. Thinking on your feet kind of thing.

I hope you’ll come along if games, gameification and media interest you. Download the Flyer if you want, or you can just head over to the website, read the blurb and sign-up. If you have questions … just ask!

 

The importance of TRADE in playing games.

One aspect of children’s media use can been seem most dramatically in their game play. I’m tired of writing about how games are a literacy and rudely omitted from school thinking, so let me focus on something really important that is happening in their game play out of school.

Parents want kids to do two things simultaneously — stay safe and be successful. Depending on parenting style and belief,  those things will mean something different to everyone. Childhood is supposed to be happy time, but I recognize that there are people and groups who seek to make it a terrible one. I won’t dwell on that, but acknowledge that conceptions of childhood — happy or not, are shaped by many forces external and also internal to the child.

Kids therefore live in a regime which tries to achieve these things consistently, but as we all know few people could ever manage it. We have good days, and not so good days. We favour things we feel are familiar and predictable, and avoid things which are not. Children, as we know, have a very different conception of parenting — and how to react to parents who are though numerous ways trying to raise their children the best way they can. Parents don’t ‘trade’ the way their generation does, and they don’t offer much in the way of fair-trade. No wonder kids protest.

Games and fair-trade

One aspect most parents value is developing a sense of fair-exchange in children. By this I mean that children should need to be mindful of ‘give and take’ when it comes to many things in life. No one hopes their child will be a bully, nor do they want them to be bullied for example. In modern families, where schedules are tight, work hours long and so on, it is actually quite hard for children to develop a sense of how fair-exchange works in the world. In all reality, kids are not free to wander around their suburbs and see how other adults negotiate with a fishmonger, or engage in chit-chat at the grocery store. From a child’s perspective, the world in accessed via two things — a ride in a car and the Internet. In Australia only one third of kids go to school on foot and even less use their feet in non-school time. My argument is that kids receive a value system of fair-exchange in two ways — their parents impost and their in-game experiences of trade.

In-game, kids trade all sorts of things: time; advice; support; information; items; currency and more. To be a good networked game player means learning how to TRADE. Today’s generation see the world of trade in media-terms, not simply economic ones. My kids (who are under 13) seem to have no idea of the ‘real economic’ world they live in, yet seem deeply skilled at the ones they inhabit during gaming sessions.

Information, Assets, Time and Audiences (IATA)

Aside from trading ‘items’ in games and exchanging time to help and be helped, they also combine four important elements. The most important of which are AUDIENCES. Having an audience is perhaps the ‘gold’ of game (or any social media) trade. By combining audiences, smaller fish get to access (and even become) bigger ones. This is exactly how to become a successful YouTuber — learn how to trade information, assets, time and audiences.

I argue that given the time children spend in games, and that game mechanics provide this trade-engine, that kids use that to their advantage elsewhere. They don’t learn it more elsewhere, because we know from research the time kids spend online. It they are using time, then I argue they are also using information, assets and audiences.

These four things are meta-currencies of the post-web2.0-era. They are things that very few teachers poses in abundance, and even those with lots of information or massive audiences fail to trade their time in anything more than MONEY. You know how much the super-start get paid to powerpoint an audience with information — based on time. It just doesn’t work for kids who know that this is rubbish way to trade and get where you want to be.

So outside of games and other media being allowed by parents, it begs the question — how do my children put their considerable TRADE skills to work at school? I’d guess the answer is — they don’t because there is no structure or rewarding frame to do it within — especially when the media they are allowed to use is limited to text and print adaptations of essentially desktop word-processing and flash drive sharing.

 

9th Birthday

It’s so easy to get caught up in our own dramas, and those created by people who are, as Ingrid described in a blog post as jerks and assholes in their own domain — and forget what is really happening in the world which contains and is also shaped by all domains colliding.

As my kid hit nine today, I’m acutely aware that they world he will have to live in and with contains people who at some point take it on themselves to be jerks and assholes. To me there are no right and wrong sides of asshole-ness and never any justification to set out to be unkind out of an inner belief that “I am more important” and therefore get to behave badly. Today the world seems to have taken this to a level I can’t remember before — both internationally and locally.

This plea is very powerful and a timely reminder of the importance of kindness everywhere and what happens when we forget that anger and being an asshole is never acceptable.

Thumping trees with teach you math.

New media is usually considered to mean non-print media in modern society. Then we have the broad notion of literacy, which people have attempted to broaden beyond its application to the written form. In educational cultures, literacy is now a broad and vague synonym for competence and skill — in the things that schools preference. The upshot of that is that for many students, the use of technology simply doesn’t resonate with them because it doesn’t characterise the kinds of multi-modal texts they use as a result of convergence.

So why bother with games and not just stick to making Google Docs? – The answer lies in the fact that games should not be seen as a resource. What makes a game different to Google’s apps? Well besides, writing, games function in two ways that Google’s tools don’t from a linguistic stance.

1. They show kids the world (indicative mood)

2. Taking action upon world (imperative mood).

If as a teacher you’re consciously using a multiliteracies approach to teaching (good idea), then games are a rich way of critically framing the topic under-discussion. Why does this matter? — Because it enables students to distance themselves from what they have learned — to take into account its social and cultural aspects allowing them to reflect, critique and expand on what they are learning.

If as a parent you want to know why Minecraft is so interesting to kids — it’s because kids learn very well when immersed in multiliteracies, because to them, being literate means being creative.

The key to remember is that kids combine social and symbolic approaches to how they learn. They use media to make meaning and well as consume things which (apparently) have meaning in them why are supposed to agree or comply with.

Games have social process and social processes which make them a much more powerful ‘literacy’ than Google docs, but they don’t as easily tick the ‘has learned to’ boxes that schools insist is a hallmark of learning.

So in summary, if you want to use new media, then you will also want to use a multiliteracies approach and frame the use of that in a social and cultural context that kids recognise. In other words, playing Mincraft will help kids learn maths in and out of the game, because good teaching with media (beyond writing and print) is multimodal.

Cultural Jet Lag and Phoning it in

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These are two problems I see facing me as classroom teacher. I am living among nice people who suffer cultural jet lag and attempting to teach students who are often just phoning it in.

As much as I, or anyone in education likes the idea of using media and technology is pursuit of allotted tasks driven by system orientated education, I can only subscribe to the idea that in all sectors of education, students will have virtual and actual contact which range in quality, experiences and culture. Most will have has exposure to a hit and miss experience of media and technology as a classroom resource and a few will have encountered learning about media and technology itself. I’d guess that the latter would be down to an on-the-ball library and/or librarian in the majority of those instances.

The one inescapable fact is that media and technology socialises society. Our society is made up of people who are unique, yet share cultures among other things. Inside an era of profound social change, the ‘masses’ are increasingly seeing themselves as important enough to take on (and maintain) individual identities online. A decade ago, the Internet was really only about institutions, governments and brands. Today we’re each engrossed in our devices and connections which makes the Internet so big, it carries vast amounts of information though its layers at such a pace, we no longer wait to sit at a desk or even stop in the street to ‘check in’.

Even if children have access to digital media and technology in school — and the teacher knows how has time to blend it into the allotted tasks demanded by the curriculum. The vastness of the Internet and the mediums it supports: news; video; radio; videogames; photography; art; automated-systems and so on has separated us emotionally from the natural world. Imagine delivering the same new’s to three hundred people in row – and half have heard it moments before from someone else. The more we reproduce information and predicable behaviours in response, the less invested and interested we become. I’d argue that in classrooms, plenty of kids are suffering from cultural jet lag — and often simply ‘phoning it in‘ when it comes for formal education. I’m not at all anti-technology or media, but I am against the kind of blind assumptions made by people who claim kids are simply “growing up digital” as though there is not a pre-existing demand by children to live with parents who can’t leave their phone on a table for five-minutes without tapping it.

This resource is something I’ve used to provoke group-discussion among students in an effort to provoke and gauge their critical understanding of media (as a literacy) and it’s socialising effects on them.

Serious Play Conference

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If you’re interested in serious games, serious play and so forth, there is a conference on right now using #seriousplay which is throwing up some interesting ideas, research and resources. My good friend Bron Stuckey is presenting on Gamification along with Peggy Sheehey and Knowclue Kid, I only wish I could have tagged along.

The website for the conference is here. For a mere $50 a year, you can become part of the Serious Games Association too (here).

For an example of the kind of work being done in this field, have a look at this ‘social clues‘ game for children with autism. I don’t think lacking social clues or empathy towards others is necessarily limited to autism — perhaps playing this game might help the ‘normal’ people to be more inclusive and empathetic — not least in the workplace later in life.

Another great resource is called Preloaded. This to me is where the future is — people who understand media-games-education working with libraries, museums, and broadcasters to bring great games into learning though methods other than the belief of the current local educational czar who may or may not be interested. Preloaded is well worth spending time exploring.

Stay Lucky

I have been very lucky in life. I’ve rarely ever had to work with people who are uncollaborative, elitist or small minded. I fully intend to stay lucky. Being more innovative, generative always leads to things compliance doesn’t.

Valiant Hearts for History Class

Valiant Hearts is rated PG (rated Teen in the US), despite taking on some of the darkest facts and scenarios from the Great War. At $20 or less its a well produced, narrative driven adventure puzzler which smacks of the kind of French cartooning style of the nineteen sixties.

The players switches around four characters which are not at all typical action heroes. It manages to describe the great war without resorting to the kind of graphic violence that would raise media-fearing eyebrows. Most of the time you’ll be solving puzzles and over coming obstacles. The hint system is pretty slick too, making you wait for the next one on a count-down. The effect is that you know a hint is going to arrive, so most of the time, my kids went back to trying to solve it rather than wait for the clock to tick down.

Watch the trailer or read the Wikipedia entry for more details. The game is well paced, with save points and plenty of puzzles to solve which could easily be mediated into a study of to the great war. My 8 year old was more than able to play it, but skipped all of the ‘historical’ fact cards which offer up information as game play progresses. In school, you could make a lot of these cards, building activities and discussion around them as students progress. The game is on PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, XBONE and PC. With a decent metacritic score of 80% on all platforms, my pick would be the XBONE edition for class and small group work on an IWB.

It represents the growing interest game developers have in remediation of historical narratives without resorting to smash and bash or puzzles which rely on visual inspection and decoding with limited effort to allow game-play to tell its own story. It also debunks the myth that gamers have limited taste in games or that they are not willing to try text types which are unfamiliar.

 

Smile and Wave

Teaching is a complex, individual craft which is learned and re-learned among other teachers. While its also a social-economic act of the state to provide formal education — it’s foolish to think that eventually the teaching act will be handled by the state though some robotic process based on media and apps. Learning is about hands, not flippers.

But teaching as a profession is under cultural attack. Teaching is not an add-on role to an entirely different job that someone does part time. One does not teach in order to be allowed to pursue some greater personal-interest. It is not a task performed to offset the economic cost of becoming something else later. The worst version for me are those who ‘teach’ in order to satisfy their own inner-weird need to feel important — and act out that importance. Teaching is important work, but it doesn’t make anyone more important than anyone else. A great teacher knows this and doesn’t waste time on self-adoration exercises.

Teaching people how to teach is an even more complex social task. It is not something one picks up easily, nor can it be reduced to a series of topics to work-through.

Teaching with technology is another layer of professional practice. The role technology plays in the classroom emerges from cultural production is response to what is essentially valorisation. It therefore takes a teacher’s skill to mediate this process on behalf of students. This is always achieved through the socialisation of technology and the individual labour of the teacher. Whether teachers are aware or not, this field of ‘educational development’ — putting technology to work in deliberate, unique learning designs is also a professional field. For decades higher education has used educational development as a form of cultural production with the goal of learning how best to blend technology and media into learning and teaching. It would be stunningly ignorant to see this is a ‘service’ to academia and not an inseparable component of it. Sadly today, the financial and cultural value placed in educational development is in serious decline. Designing meaningful learning experiences is getting more complex, yet increasingly were seeing it represented as a simple add-on on that most ‘smart’ people can pick up, and therefore the boundaries of what can be done are being laid out increasingly by people who are neither teachers, designers or technologists.

I place a great deal of worth in being a qualified teacher who teaches and a designer who values creation over copying and aggregation. What I, and those like me do, is complicated and doesn’t happen without deep connections to networks of people who do the same — who neither keep score or fear that their colleagues have insights, ideas and skills which might usurp their own.

Being a good learning designer and teacher is not about proving what you do is good or bad to administrators, enthusiasts or people whom have little interest in teaching beyond it being a temporal add-on to their next destination. Teaching with technology is about where that act takes place inside the social negotiations of cultural products. I’ve come to the view that the best learning-designers I know are moving house — away from the decline and out of so called meritocracies.They are moving to, and creating, new places to operate from which stand well outside the rhetoric relating to the ‘rise of the amatuer’ are where reading Super Ape magazine is a way to appear to know something of teaching, technology and creativity.

I would argue that increasing numbers of good teachers (with technology) are listening to the ‘community calls’ which share a real vision for education and that increasingly, they are meeting educational developers interesting in creating better cultural products. There will be those who race-to-the-bottom as there were with creatives who failed to transition from pre-digital to post-digital world of media and its distribution. I guess the test is: If you’re a teacher using technology — where to you go to learn and from whom do you need permission to learn it and re-teach it.

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