Folk Devils or Angels?

I like this phrase (today) – Are games (such as Minecraft) Folk Devils or Angels?

Play is rapidly disappearing from our homes, our schools, and our communities. Over the last two decades alone, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week.

From 1997 to 2003, children’s time spent outdoors fell 50 percent, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland. In the same period – organised play (adult generated and policed) increased by 50% and TV watching went from 30 minutes to 3 hours. A decade later, research suggests that computer and video games are now a significant part of time children spend playing.

The era of modern video games began in the 1970s when Atari sold a home console which allowed consumers to buy games in the same way they bought books and music. Debates emerged immediately as to the potential good and bad that would come from these digital folk devils. Since then, computer and video games have been immersed in on-going debate which is connected to societal interest and concern in education, culture, media, economics, technology and so on – today that debate is carried willingly in the 24/7 fear-attention media economy, so it feels more intense – because if we are concerned – the filter-bubble which is adept at reflecting our emotions and interests, tells us so.

Is this form of play preventing them ‘going outside’? or is it perhaps a reaction to the lack of time they have to explore their creativity and imagination or simply something to stave off boredom and avoid reality?

Figures show that those growing up in the during the 1970s and 1980s enjoyed more than two hours of outside play each weekday, and a further nine hours at weekends – whatever the weather. But, this too is a folk tale. Studies continue to report that parents don’t make going outside possible (despite their affinity with the sentiment). Play is a mysterious activity children engage in when not compelled to spend every hour under adult supervision.

According to Rosa Brooks, children are in a lose-lose situation.

They’re forced, prematurely, to do all the un-fun kinds of things adults do (Be over-scheduled! Have no downtime! Study! Work!). But they don’t get any of the privileges of adult life: autonomy, the ability to make their own choices, use their own judgment, maybe even get interestingly lost now and then.


Somehow, we’ve managed to turn childhood into a long, hard slog. Is it any wonder our kids take their pleasures where they can find them, by escaping to “Grand Theft Auto IV” or the alluring, parent-free world.

In particular, Minecraft seems to have polarized parent opinion in new ways. We’re used to hearing about parent worries about GTA, COD and so on, but Minecraft? It’s not overly violent, no language issues and certainly not sexual. No, it’s addictive – but for reasons that seem hard to pinpoint – as it’s not chemical and entirely voluntary … but why suggest “habitual use of digital media” when we can point at a game and assert “This is addictive”.

Even worse, schools have spent the last decade reinforcing another lose-lose proposition for kids. Firstly, computers are essential for their future (we fear not providing more than proving this as a true). Secondly, kids can’t be let near a computer without supervision, because (like outdoors), unstructured, randomness of the environment and people means we can’t trust anyone online. The sad fact is that in all the demonising of ‘online spaces’ kids are highlighted as both the worst protagonists and the most likely victims.

Cyber safety and online bullying receives billions in annual funding to ensure this fallacy will continue. While schools gladly pay (and force kids to play) Maths games – for the creative, imaginative kid, Minecraft isn’t even considered. Minecraft is about survival and progression after all. No wonder kids hate educational games … they are not games, just more erosion of play.

So why is it parents love and loath games such as Minecraft?

The reality is, there’s no depth of research to point anyone in one direction or the other – but what is interesting is that Minecraft is often exemplified as a symbol of parents broader worries about the impact on digital media in all forms, and their lack of experience or publicly accessible information as to what to do. Despite being habitual users of technology, parents see games as negative – which is not at all amazing, as this is what exactly the message set forward in fear-attention media cycles.

Whether the digital era improves society is up to its users – that’s us.

The fact many parents can’t find the middle ground between what they want and what their kids want also predicated by two things – we live in  (and are contantly exposed to) a culture of fear. The media finds it useful, so do politicians to point of the monster under the bed and the slippery slope fallacy at every opportunity.

The Internet has become about outing ‘the thing’ that we fear the most, using the method that get’s most attention. In the cycle of ‘things’ that most people react to, video games are an easy target for a willing audience, who respond with predictable compliance.

I argue that teachers are more interested in finding similarity and avoiding people who aren’t like them, which I’d argue is a valid description of a ‘personal learning network’.

Secondly, the Internet (especially social media) magnifies and amplifies these fears. We are rightly fearful of the digital-attention-economy that our kids are being drawn into. Whether it’s your boss ’embellishing’ their job title on Linked In and at the same time critical of people using social media or a teen publishing fifty selfies a day on Instagram – we’re not sure what it means … but we are sure that it get’s attention.

We’re fearful, yet buy into it, as we are emotional creatures who react fearfully to uncertainty. Towards Minecraft (or other game) – parents increasingly fear it’s influence and the kids reaction to losing access to it. But to isolate one game from the broad fear-attention culture being perpetuated sees more difficult to me. I am not saying that a screaming match about turning off the Xbox isn’t a real pain in the ass – it is, but I ask you this – what in the course of the child’s development, during school, are they doing to learn about this …

I argue almost nothing. Cybersafety (fear), teachers listening to social media edu-gurus (attention). What I fear (as a parent and educator) is the amount of attention these two things have consumed in the last five years (along with billions of dollars). In part, this has exasperated and expanded the dilemma facing classrooms – to be relevant, they need to by in sync with social-issues and trends, but to be effective, they need to function around the theories and methods of their founding fathers (and teacher-belief).

On things for certain, the amount of information isn’t going to decline anytime soon. The amount of fear and attention-seeking media being consumed is based on our emotional (and often irrational) response to attention economy.

If it wasn’t Minecraft, it would be Facebook, Instagram or instant messaging. In a world where it’s difficult to un-plug kids from culture – Minecraft or Xbox is far less harmful than being addicted to fear-attention economics – something young people are particularly attracted to.

There is the total-unplugged option, but that seems to be harder to do, especially when schools are now encouraging the use of massive online networked technologies.

I’m still leading to games as being more likely to be Angels than Folk Devils. We can subscribe to the ‘mean world’ culture that is being transmitted constantly in our online micro-worlds, or we can think of games as working towards the kind of goals that have produced art throughout the ages. Games lampoon ideas, question the norms, assumptions and alternatives. They are not interested in avoiding controversy or in getting a rational response. They simply want to be played – and like an art’s plays with the viewer, a good game is something which reveals itself.

  • What the artist meant to portray,
  • what the artist actually did portray and
  • how we react, as individuals, to both the intended and actual messages.

If you want to gamify the classroom – just let kids make super-hero bracelets and wear them whenever they like. Let them organise the next step, an quit supervising the crap out of everything. Open the door, they might just wander outside and play.



2 thoughts on “Folk Devils or Angels?

  1. once again you stun me with writing style … I applaud you … You’ve given us much to think about. thank you.

  2. Well written. Very thought-provoking. I just love seeing six and seven year olds playing minecraft in the playground at lunch time. Go creepers!!!!

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