Pokemon Go re-ignites ‘addiction’ debate – and it’s wrong.

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Saying Pokemon Go is fun – is like saying jogging uses energy. Most people, including me, are pro-fun and play. In this post, I want to look at why you shouldn’t re-subscribe to the ‘addiction’ debate about video games, simply because this game has become VERY popular in a few weeks – and I’ll set out my reasons why parents and kids are enjoying it.

Games rise and games fall. Pokemon Go is no exception to this reality. Nintendo’s current success spells the final-death-nail for toy-games such as Disney’s Infinity. While not connected, the rise of Pokemon Go enphasises changes in consumer reception to digital games. The  once massive toy game market in which parents bought physical plastic Skylanders, LEGO Dimensions and Infinity has paved the way for games like Go!.

I’m injecting this here – because my argument is that Pokemon Go is an evolved version of ‘collecting’ which appeals to a huge numbers of ‘latent’ playing adults and has made a connection between parents-children that other games (toy games, Minecraft etc.,) have achieved – but to a much higher level. As I’ll explain, games which allow children and adults to have a shared taxonomy are seen (by parents) as media worth having and playing.

Nearly all games are designed to be fun and play cannot be separated from  human behavior. Pokemon, like all games, requires the player to engage with a set of  rules which require particular human behavior to be applied to it. Let’s take a simple Pokemon ‘goal’ to be in a Pokemon Gym. Within hours of playing (and talking about) the game, players become attuned to the idea that these locations are split into factional ownership and there are player-elites which have more power than you – right now. In order to become elite requires hours and hours of what MMO players would call ‘grinding’. Repeating simple behaviors – the most significant ones being – spend many hours engaged with it and move to specific locations to for more reward that you might currently be receiving.

Pokestops are not ‘owned’ in the way they were owned in Ingress (the geo-location database created by players 2013-2016 used as the basis of where Pokestops and Gyms are located). Pokestops don’t require any ‘work’ other than to get there are wait around. They don’t defend themselves from new arrivals and your clutch of creatures are not damanged when trying to attain more ‘balls’.  There is not downside to going to a Pokestop and there’s no reason to leave one … because in a few minutes, it will let you have more Pokeballs. So when a parent takes a kid to a Pokestop and kids get what they want – more balls- everyone is happy. Imagine if they didn’t – but the Pokestop killed their best Pokemon or damaged it … less fun right? – Nintendo are not stupid – they are not selling to the same market that plays Ingress – but carefully re-shaping behavior and experience.

Media commentators have become to use the term ‘addiction’ in response. No shock here, as no game recently has managed to generate the level of ‘changed human behaviour’ that Pokemon Go has. Ingress didn’t as it was largely a ‘geek’ game (and still is). The perception, especially among TV new-anchors is that Nintendo have come up with a ‘new phenomenon’ which has magical powers (addition) – by way of them attempting to discuss behaviour which they don’t understand (meaning: haven’t much experience or knowledge of). Let the nodding begin – Pokemon Go is a new opportunity to revisit themes of ‘decaying childhood’, ‘the simple society’ etc., but no one’s interested in a full on media panic – as mobile phone games are largely seen as permissible in society these days.

The original game had just over 150 to collect, which expanded to over 700. There’s no reason to think that Nintendo will not add more – if the game remains popular in this form. The have told us that the current game is about 10% of the final thing (we want to believe it don’t we).

3 Reasons why is it ‘fun’

  1. The games involves taxonomy — the process of naming and classifying things into groups – and that is something humans find enjoyable, so yes kids soon get a handle on this.
  2. Collecting is a rewarding pass time. I am totally guilty of this – I have more cars than I need and obsessively collect parts for them at every opportunity. I don’t drive most of them, I just like to ‘own’ them. It’s irrational to most people, but not to thousands who were in Valla this week for the bi-annual Volkswagen gathering.
  3. The fun is not just in collecting and working to develop knowledge of the taxonomy. Like all successful games in recent times, the fun works around the social-graph of comparing and discussing your collection with others.

The social-graph, who is top and bottom in class, is used in very different ways at school and in society, so Pokemon Go is very much counter-school-culture. No surprise to see those teachers who are fustrated by the generalised-school-image have been quick to show they are using it – in class. You rebels! But imagine if a child’s learning was built around collecting and comparing, not timetables, silos and tests. Now that would be rebellious.

The thrill of the chase is not a sign of addiction

Pokemon turns the thrill of finding rare car-parts Pokemons into a chase. That chase is a personal story – and we love that. Take a look at educator stories in the last two weeks – a high energy story where each teachers sets about ‘showing’ how their class is into Pokemon and how thrilling it is – this is also part of the educator ‘taxonomy’ of collecting EdTech things.

People are not ‘addicted’ in the scientific sense, but in the self-expressive “spending too much time sense” usually shared around a social-graph. So many people tell my wife that I am ‘addicted’ to buying old cars and that I don’t need them (waste of time and money). They generally don’t tell me this directly, but my taxonomy isn’t one they value.

To talk about Pokemon Go as a game, in the way we might discuss Ingress or Tomb Raider isn’t possible, because the leap from screen to augmented reality changes the user-perception of collecting, comparing and competing. Educators needs to ‘see’ the game against the broader context. Think about a friend who collects Disney memorabilia or Hot Wheels cars – this is what is going on, except that the ‘rules’ on how occurs isn’t constructed socially as you’d see at a collectors-meet, but by a corporation (with an agenda) and an immediate connection to the collector/player.

Of course, in extreme cases, collectors put their interest ahead of other things – buying an object and not paying a bill or spending too much time at a meet-up they forget to pick up the kids from swimming – but these are likely to be extreme cases – and so attempts to get a head of steam about Pokemon Go addiction are already tiresome and ignorant.

Parents need to set limits on screen time and take some responsibility for the ‘quality’ of that time. Games (screens) are not digital-childminders – they are portals to media experiences and not all of them are going to meet the expectations or moral standards of parents (and their friends). In school, Pokemon Go will manifest itself though the interaction and cultural production of the children.

Of itself, this game (like any other) needs to be articulated into the curriculum – to address defined purposes. Anyone can ‘tweet’ about how EduPunk they are — rebelling against the stereotyped modernism of the establishment. Big deal, why this game? What is it’s pedagogical imperative which other games don’t have? – aside from popularity, media attention etc.? For example: what other games are use a collecting/taxonomy which can be used around a social graph? – more specifically – which EDUCATIONAL GAMES.

Minecraft managed to achieve much of this, what blocks can you find, what is your best build, can we work together – how close or different are our interests etc., and yet Minecraft Pocket (mobile) hasn’t received much in the way of teacher interest. For example, why not take MCPE mobile and allow kids to ‘build’ while IRL. For example, go to the park – imagine how you could re-design it?

I think the BIG thing, the really BIG thing about Pokemon Go is that it’s taken the idea of ‘collecting’ into a digital form, in the real world at a time where society no longer cares if every single person on a train stares at their screen and disconnects with reality – working on ‘their story’. The question become how much time are people investing in this, and the extent to which ‘sharing’ their story makes them feel happy and more connected to each others – and who is going to miss-out or feel alienated by it.

Here are three ‘concerns’ I have … which to be fair, are true of most commercial games being used towards ‘educational’ time (I’d say purposes, but I don’t think we’ve earned sufficient CP to claim that yet).

  1. We know digital-media is used variously to create internalized constructions of the self. Being ‘digitally popular’ is important to many people. The effort they perceive to be needed or valid is translated into hours-spent as a form of work. We’ve seen issues with this in other social spaces, especially in teens.
  2. So far, research suggests children have variable levels of success in self-regulation of digital media. This game is designed to promote repetitive behaviour and provides consistent rewards for this. Aside from time-spent, the depth of the game remains relatively shallow, focusing on time-spent and simple actions. Given the Google DNA of the game, it’s reasonable to suggest that user-behaviour is ideally suited to rewarding sales-promotion and shopping behaviours, such as coffee-discounts, being in a store for a length of time, or winning a new limited edition creature.
  3. In schools, there are vast differences in location. We know rural schools are at a disadvantage for all sorts of reasons, and the Ingress DNA of user-created portals favours the city – where more portals we’re created over rural ones. So, city educators have more opportunity to use this game than more rural schools. There are limited choices for rural school to engage in this form of commercial game which presents further equity issues.

I’d be interested to hearing your experience and views!

 

 

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What she makes is Minecraft is your life.

The majority of positive debate about games is assimilationist. It attempts to explain what players are and what they do within the game-studies canon and is often autobiographical in nature. This focus on differences in the nature of reality isn’t particularly useful or informative if you’re a parent, or instructional if you’re a teacher.

For parents, talking about their children’s obsession with Minecraft is the reality. This belief is key, and is a product of irrationally constructing this belief (from the multiple meanings possible) — as media consumers. Their own construction of a safe-useful-productive ‘technologically mediated’ lifestyle is as consumers. Having been subjected to media-messages their whole lives, they focus on the individual child’s actions, responding emotionally to a conflicting array of images and messages which informs them of what successful, healthy parenting looks like. The behavioral response solicited from the media is choose this and reject all others. It’s annoying when children don’t reject it and when you find out why they reject it, it becomes alarming.

We know that product symbolism is an increasingly important strategy in marketing and that it targets families. Using Belk’s (1988) consumer theory of the “extended self” rather than the more common “the second self” from media theory, I suggest that seeing her as a player, where she creates and uses a game character (avatar) to interact with the biome is incorrect. She is using the game as an extended self to reproduce what she knows and is curious about. She has little fascination with the representation (character), but deeply interested in what it can (do) as a result of her interactions and ideas. Put simple, it’s a way of playing “families”.

The power and significance of saying “I’m a Minecraft player” is symbolically important. Parents might say “she plays Minecraft too much” because they are trying rationalize and predict her consumption as an  individual. This has a calming effect, as it glosses over the all important factor of her being part of the consumer community which parents introduce children to as a natural part of contemporary life. This means that she is using Minecraft to reproduce what she sees around her as real life and test it’s plausibility and believability. She is not playing because she is extraordinarily gifted, frustrated with school, or trying to escape reality (which is not broken). She’s playing because it’s a way to reproduce her life through play (naturalistic) and understand the complex media communications between adults and adults and computers as they go about their own lives.

She’s playing Minecraft as an extended self,  which she has more power and control over the inputs and outputs of the synthetic world than she does outside the game. The consumer society is weird to kids, with helicopter parenting, bluetooth cupholders and endless Facebooking of food. None of that feels as normal as parents assume it should.

If she’s playing too much then this is likely to be somewhat of a mirror to the overall family consumption (or avoidance) of media and technology, not because she’s addicted or trying to escape reality. Let me pick up on that. Reality is not broken as McGonigal claims. McGonigal focus on the individual as being “not good at life” which is fundamentally misleading as it treats game players as a minority discourse from the outset. Reality for children are parents hooked on consumer culture communities such as Facebook and Twitter and as such see themselves as part of a global culture which seems to combine corporeal and synthetic communications — and that is something that kids then feel they need to learn (to be a good kid) which frustrates parents rather than pleases them — as kids tend to be allowed games.

I argue that Minecraft in schools is more about the teachers own relationships with consumer culture communities as it is about learning. She’s not playing Minecraft to learn in school, she’s playing to reproduce what she believes is the reality adults create or want, and therefore Minecraft is creates further pluralistic confusion. Teachers of course follow the assimilation canon, claiming that Mincraft is “good learning” and that it should be “part of learning” by which they mean, their preferred lifestyle. No one is wondering how this affects kids already confused by the technologically mediated consumer society.

My hypothesis is that parents who complain their kids are hooked on Minecraft have themselves been assimilated deeply into consumer culture though buying and using products such as the iPhone and iPad — that they don’t see the significance of their child’s play. She’s playing Minecraft as a way to make sense of the most important things in the world — her parents — and is confused about why parents choose one media over another, which is bad, which is good and so on. To get her off Minecraft means getting off Facebook and Instagram, putting the phone down, turning off the TV and co-playing consistently over a long period of time. Minecraft is a mirror of our lives, and we don’t always grow old gracefully do we?

Making sense of media reports about games.

I happen to believe video games are an essential media-element in the lives of Australian families, because they are pervasive in our culture. They are on mobiles, computers, tablets and in classrooms.  In the decade that saw teacher-endorsement of Web2.0, and equal amount of time, effort and millions was spent trying to protect society (which includes children) from video games – and the DER vanished into history as school leaders try to ignore the past and talk this afternoons trope.

Parents are not idiots and everyone uses a mobile these days.

Firstly, games has a classification system. Given 97% of adults have played a game and 85% are present when games are purchased, media panics over game producers pushing horror an violence on the public (which includes children) is wrong. But then, as a thinking adult, I’m sure you know that media, especially when owned by Murdoch and friends, is both selective and biased. In addition, traditional media (which includes journalism) has nothing to gain (status or economic) from people playing video games and not giving them the attention they assume they warrant, despite social media being far more open and accessible than they are. But I digress.

Schools don’t believe in video games at all – ask why.

Video games are educational.  By saying that I mean — of themselves. They are as worthy of children freely exploring them as they are given silent reading time, free play in the school yard or put on the ‘edu-game’ in the library.

Games and game players are subjected to more academic scrutiny that 99% of technology that is now assumed to be “the norm” in classrooms — yet no significant studies suggest “Web2.0” makes any difference in the lives of children — or that games would be worse. That’s the tragedy of Web2.0 in education for me, it quickly became an unambitious trope, full of commercial dogma pretending to be scholarship in order for a few to create a conference-circus lifestyle, in the traditions of American Fairground Shows. Web2.0 is introduced at will because it’s popular – and because brands are great at getting your attention. Schools systematically and selectively represent media that they think politicians and bishops ‘like’, especially if they get to crow about it at a conference. If a game is allowed in, then it will be sanitised. The teacher must be the celebrated innovator and leader in the story — and the students emancipated from otherwise ‘dull’ teaching methods. Again, no evidence that this has any positive effects at all — where as there is plenty that a few hours alone with a game works wonders on kids – especially boys who clash with school. It works even better if adults are helping them. Kids are as BORED with mini-laptops and ‘apps’ as they are with listening to Bueller, Bueller — Beuller.

The method matters when reading about video games, not the metaphor.

When reading about what games,it’s really useful to look for the method by which the authors come to their conclusions. In academia, methods matter — and offering opinions over evidence doesn’t get you too far. Its like saying people drive cars, cars kill people therefore people are cars. It just doesn’t make sense.

In many cases the method is neither obvious or  mentioned in the popular press articles. In some domains, particularly clinical psychology it’s the wrong method, used to validate a theory — not to generate new theory of games. Rarely do they address the rich evidence available. For example, neuro-science shows video game play has numerous benefits to humans, but not all humans. Again, not all humans like TV, walking the dog or writing blog posts. Each of those need methods of approach, which can be from many angles.

Clinical psychologists turned ‘game addiction’ into a multi-million dollar business.

In this research domain, ideas in which data fits the theory “games are adductive” are commonly echoed. Somewhere they will state — less than clearly — that hundreds of studies show games are addictive and refer back to gambling addiction. Most famously, is Kimberley Young declared in 1999 that internet addiction was “akin” to gambling addiction, and has since tacked on mobile phone and video games, which she also connects with moral decay and loss of innocence. Young’s declaration has less to millions of dollars in therapy sessions to drive out the human enjoyment of interactive media. On the basis of these studies 97% of Australians are pathologically addicted to the Internet, mobile phones, computers and video games. However, try asking your health insurance if that is covered or apply for workers compensation for over use of technology at work. You see, as much as they want it to be true — it remains little more than ‘something to work on’ as far as the World Heath Association is concerned. Game addiction is right up there with Scientology when it comes to it.

Playing Black Flag: A pirate game, where feeling like a pirate allows a scarf to be a hat, and a dog to keep you company.

More cowbell

While it may be true that hundreds of studies repeat and reaffirm this negative position, there is also hundreds of academic counter positions which generate and offer better theory of games – and how to mediate them in the lives of children. You might have seen James Gee talk about this on PBS or conferences. There is significant other social research which rejects this need to validate and vilify electronic media on the basis of false theory and popular journalistic interest in whipping up parent anxiety. Why is this person saying this? What’s is they want? Why now? Mostly – what the hell to these people play?

For parents, it’s useful to remember when you read about how terrible games are that the data presented in most often there to verify and keep afloat continued assertions of clinical psychologists who’s business is — treating internet, game and mobile phone addiction — which is not a recognised pathology by any stretch of the imagination. They might as well treat you for TV addiction — which of course prior to 1999 was their previous gold mine among nervous parents. I like this quote attributed to Rod Sterling (1924 – 1975), best known as the creator of The Twilight Zone, was a seminal figure in the Golden Age of Television and became a cultural icon of the 20th century.

It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.

Today, you can’t have a serious conversation about video games without 12 dancing clinicians waving toilet paper at you – In the mean time, peoplewatch TV and play.

There no such thing as video games!

The best research generates theories of games which can be seen in examples in the real world, not simply small laboratory experiments or citing previous studies which agree with your view. This is where better understanding and approaches to social gaming emerges from. Sadly though, many educational games are not based on this research either, but on avoiding the wrath of clinicians our casing in on popular culture and parent fears. Having said that, clinicians and educators use a very broad brush when it comes to which video games hurt or help. Which games? Where are they used? What for? By whom? What did they say? How was this conclusion arrived at?

Video games are not a leap of faith. They are the most significant media firm used in society to date and part of cultural literacy.

Over 97% of people in western countries have played them. They it’s no evidence to suggest those people have any long term behavioural issues. With parent mediation, along with any other media, they are of themselves a valid media text which your child with both enjoy and learn from. They will not learn more from an educational game, though they may be able to repeat facts or patterns. They certainly won’t learn from our about them in school, which has historically done everything it could to ban and demonise them. The leap of faith comes when parents and schools recognise that playing them is healthier when they step back and don’t overlay it with their own agenda. Only then can they start to see the theories being featured in social research as game related media studies.

Let them play, learn what they play, learn how to predict and prepare kids for media. I’m sure my theory that a few hours a week of video gaming at school for the sole purpose of playing (enabling alert, orientation and executive brain networks) won’t be seen as academic, unlike copying from the board or one prison telling you about how the world is. But that’s because I have unicorn blood and I’m a parent as concerned about media as another.

Why to avoid kids catching second screen media addiction

This post is about the growing problem of “second screen addiction” and corresponding growth of “viewing communities” responding to media signals. Its also a response to a day listening to clinicians talking about ‘game addiction’. I had to disagree with much of it, but it did lead me to think – there an addiction that they need to be more worried about (even though Internet and Game Addiction is not a recongnised pathology in the DSM-V).

It’s insufficient to talk about “social media” as something all people do at the same level or layer of the Internet. At best this results in binary opinions about what is “good” and “bad” uses of it – which implies certain people are also “good users” and “bad users” in order to reinforce or weaken subjective social norms.  For example, teachers tend to see themselves as “serious” users, where as almost everyone expects famous people will ignore everyone, Tweeting about how important they are. There are exceptions to this of course – William Shatner is highly engaged with everyone, as is Sutter and most of the cast of SOA (even when no on the air). There are those foolish educators who believe they too have rock-star status, ignoring anything and anyone who can’t add to their bottom line. Spend enough time online, and I’m sure none of that comes as news.

Here’s what might be news. Ridiculous as it sounds, millions of adults take part in what are called ‘second screen networks’ in order to add their unique commentary, in unique clusters. They are not connecting to solve world problems or advocate for a better world, most of it is about whether or not Jerry Falliwell is past it or why Fandilands is still walking the streets with no obvious talent. With content being beamed at them, 24/7 TVs dogmatic insistence on controlling the viewers attention has shifted their attention to the second-screen. Why: Well because people are addicted to it – and it’s a brilliant way to get them to endorse a brand (or kill one). Even better, the second-screen dweller will willingly hand over metrics about their location, habits and preferences at levels “old school” media-bookers and demographers would have never thought possible. Did you know it takes about a minute to scrape every Facebook ‘fan’ list into an txt file, and then upload it though the interface Facebook provides to sell directly to them? Did you know you have a Facebook email address? Most people don’t know just how open for business ‘viewer networks’ are when it comes to their privacy and information and I suspect most don’t care (yet).

Having time and belief in television seems motivation enough for millions of people the zombie-hashtag around a wide narrative during just about any given show these days. In doing so they give away a piece of privacy and get a little more addicted.

Second screen addicts can’t watch TV without holding their phone in one hand and tapping the screen with the other these days. It’s an active goal to get “your Tweet” on the TV during #qanda. These “virtual viewer communities” are so new, no one’s had time to study them in any detail. For those who like (and trade off) ‘internet addiction’, the idea of ‘second screen networks’ is a bonanza.

Rank ordinary citizens group up in visible, measurable ‘viewer communities’ in yet another complex layer which can be influenced, shaped and sold to. The media of course love it. They can slag off anyone using social media (and then deny it) or incite a crowd of zombies to attack on their behalf.

So why then are children encouraged to download apps for the Block, Australia’s Got Talent, Big Brother and so on without a health and wealth warning? Why do parents consider these things ‘serious’ and ‘safe’ yet Call of Duty continues to be hammered for being anti-social, violent and un-reaslistic?

What needs to be stated in games research is whether or not, we’re talking about ‘small world’ communities – where who we know are immediate (such as your friends list on Xbox, or Warcraft) or whether we’re talking about “big communities” where people who like a particular game are happy to simply play with anyone. The problem for researches with ‘small world’ communities is that they stand so far from the centre of that community, it is barely visible. This leads to people conducting small-experiments (even 2000 players is small) in order to scale outwards to the edge. One problem with that is that in network clusters, the nearer the centre of the network you are, the more dense, frequent and encoded the communication becomes.

Why blather on about this?

Well, if you are a parent with a kid playing Minecraft (or other) – your kid is playing a game with millions of players. Unlike second-screeners, they are developing a ‘small world’ cluster of players around them, which is actually really powerful, supportive and rewarding. They are escaping the media apocalypse of second-screen addiction.

“Second screen addiction” to me, describes the use of smartphones, laptop and tablets to engage in peripheral, often counter-narrative discussions with people for whom their only connection is a #hashtag. These viewer communities (to me) appear to uphold the worst of digital behaviours and de-sensitising participants to the point where rape-threats are seem as ‘offensive’ but somewhat expected. Then there is the endless counter-activists rounding on ‘the other stupid people’ using their snarky-verbose reworks of 16th Century French Philosophers.

Even more alarming to me is that TV and Radio in particular positively encourage it – without any thought to their whole-society impact or responsibility. I can only think, journalists and producers see this a way out of their decline.

Mass media generalisations will continue to be made in the media about games being ‘bad’,. What important to know is that this has little relevance to the important value gained by knowing how to thrive in ‘small world’ game communities can be the most productive, supporting and useful networks online. They can be the polar opposite of viewer-networks tapping their X-Factor app and Tweeting “Who’d tap that?”. The problem is, parents don’t know where to find them and right now, don’t seem to think second screening is a real problem either.

Parents who believe they avoided games because they are bad – may have allowed their kids to become second-screeners, exposing them to the absolute pond-life to gushing-fans of any given show, or actor. They are immersed in a repetitive good/bad, love/had endorse/kill behaviours that cause so much harm online and perfect for kids – as binaries are the way kids make sense of the world.

Kids and parents getting addicted to ‘second screener’ lifestyles, participating in “viewer networks” are far more worrying to me than kids who are playing COD with their ‘small world’ friends. One is a world of binaries and the other … well, you figure it out.

What do you think? Is Second Screen addiction a growing problem among children and adults?

How to talk to your kids about Minecraft

One concern with Minecraft is that parents often find it hard to ask kids good questions about it. The good news is that good questions don’t require specific jargon knowledge. Good  questions help kids who are poor at managing their time playing it. It’s something that they (and you) can learn and work on.

I make no bones about it, games like Minecraft are exciting and rewarding to kids, often in exact proportion to how boring school and TV is. If you want your kid to be creative-curious-adventurous, Minecraft is hands down better than watching hours TV or copying a set of facts the board in a classroom. But parents – all of us – find managing game time a challenge, as most of us have no experience of it until it manifests in the home.

So, how do parents get better at managing Minecraft? Well its a two part solution.

First, think about the location and second, use questions that relate directly to potential behavioural changes (in you and them). It’s not so hard … but you do have to think rather than react to your own emotions. Yelling doesn’t make it better, which is not to suggest that it’s an easy thing to avoid when she freaks-out as you yank the modem out the wall. We’ve all been there. The first step it to try and better manage the situation.

This is best to do this in two ways. First is about location. Sitting with them as they play (their zone) or in a neural zone (the park). Don’t summon them to the kitchen for a lecture – kitchens are for noms. The second is about using questions that have been shown to promote behavioral change away from regressing back to conflict.

So here are 10 questions that I’ve found work.

1. What are some of the skills that have contributed to your success? (insight)
2. What get’s in your way of success? here (insight)
3. What do you find most rewarding things to do? (motivation)
4. What additional skills or things could I (the parent) do to help them you feel even more successful? (abilities)
5. What do other people say about your Minecraft builds? (real world)
6. What have you said about other people’s builds? (accountability)
7. How much time do you think you play a week? (accountability)
8. Have you ever griefed someones Minecraft build? Why/why not? (accountability)
9. What makes a great Minecraft server ?(insight)
10. If a new person came to you to learn how to play this – is that something you’d like to teach them? (motivation)

Not an exhaustive list – but these are ten ways to talk about Minecraft in a positive way and avoid yelling at each other. I’d appreciate it if you added some more that you find useful too. :xd

Minecaft, Jeb and Jack’s mum

It has been said, more than a few times Minecraft is addicting kids. What this addiction is ( spending time being creative and learning how to use the Internet to reach ambitious computing goals) is less clear.

This post is for a kid called Jack, who replied to a previous post, saying how he didn’t think he could talk to his mum about Minecraft. So here’s some stuff that looks at why that might be, and what to do about it.

According to ‘gratification theory‘, kids and adults are drawn to media to meet their psychological needs (information, entertainment, social interaction, mastery, control and so on). As games are absorbing, they can act to reduce children’s anxiety and worry too. It sone reason I think teachers should think long and hard before rolling into kid-game-worlds with their subject mastery agenda. Yet it seems they are keen on gamifying their classrooms … regardless of whether this is a good thing or bad – it’s popular.

Some kids might be rich, they might have everything – but still feel alone. Minecraft might help them with that feeling. This is one of numerous plausible situations where a kid might find Minecraft a place to go to sooth unpleasant thoughts and feelings which are not being met by other games or other media such as Facebook or YouTube.

For each kid I’ve seen play or met during playing Minecraft – they are often interested in two things – self expression and social interaction. This is something they feel they are getting -regardless of parental belief of this. To the kid, this is real and concrete as that is how kids brains work.

Several studies have shown that kids watch television and play video games for entertainment, to spend time with family and when they are bored. Minecraft does this, but it also provides self expression and social interaction (beyond the family hierarchies)

More interestingly, kids choose games which suit their mood, where as adults tend to use media (television, video, the Internet) to improve their mood. For parents – young children are experimenting with social interaction, building knowledge and skills where as teens are using it to relax and escape. If she’s in the mood to be creative, she’s in the mood to play Minecraft. This doesn’t mean she’s in the mood to play Dishonoured, or that Dishonored would change her mood. Theres no association between wanting to play Minecraft and wanting to play an R-Rated game, but this doesn’t stop the media inferring it.

Minecraft is perhaps a new (and therefore more noticeable) media. But it’s still a media. Calling it ‘addictive’ serves to simplify games in the mind of adults lacking schemas and knowledge of games. The media is not particularly moral, ethical or interested in child development and is never un-biased or transparent.

For most adults, learning about Minecraft is hard (too hard). It doesn’t have an easily accessed ‘story’. Adults learn though stories not facts. For example, many people know about the story of Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates. They don’t know too many facts.

They probably know about the Facebook guy or the two guys that made Google, yet probably don’t know who Jens Bergensten is. But chances are, their kids know who Jeb is – and of course Notch. In case you didn’t know, Jeb is the lead developer for Minecraft, not Notch.

If you like, Jeb is one of the most important people in the game world – and from all accounts, a very nice guy – someone who I don’t think for a second would be anything less than an amazing influence on my own kids – should they ever meet him. To my kids, Jeb seems real. He’s not like Apple or some game studio – he’s a person, who appears on videos and is talked about all the time. If you like, Jeb is that neighbourhood kid that parents hear about, but don’t know. There is the story of Minecraft, the story of Notch and the ballard of Jeb. See below for a quick intro to what I mean.

So if games are inherently bad or even if good games go bad, then you’d think that those who make them are bad or go bad too. They are presented by the media at least as a type of  anti-culture, like Nirvana or Slayer. Making millions by addicting kids to games. However we still have cigarettes and numerous things we know kill people. For example, if two countries want to war – why to they need guns? Why not just go and do some hand to hand? Well because people like to win – and tools help them win. In the media war on gaming, presenting them as the greedy bad-guy harming innocents in an excellent story.

But that isn’t the story I see, what Minecraft says to kids (to me is) – anyone can have a regular job, and still be in the running to do something they really love one day – and right now you can start making unique things from your imagination.

It might not be a cure for cancer, feed the world or regain flagging western interest in religion, but to many kids, Minecraft at least improves their spatial cognition, co-ordination and fine motor skills and is a social-network in it’s own right. It is far less toxic than Facebook (peer-pressure to create rather than be a target/entertainer) – and leads to the all important positive self-identity and agency all kids benefit from – if parents use it for a media-healthy diet.

Minecraft is not linked to poor general health. You won’t get fat, sick or become stupid playing Minecraft. All kids are notoriously poor at managing time. This is why parenting experts have argued for routines for decades. Negative things such as sleep deficit,  less time undertaking heathy activities, mental health, education problems and so on, cannot be attributed to Minecraft any more than they can be attributed to television viewing – and numerous large studies have shown no association between screen-time and physical activities.

Kids are complicated, unique and individual. There is no A-typical gamer. Kids, like adults can make unhealthy lifestyle choices – when they lack information and experience. They can easily suffer from fear, anxiety and phobias, yet studies have shown there is no constant link between screen time and these things.

In short you can’t blame Jeb for the epidemic in childhood obesity (in fact he’s kind of skinny, but we can’t suggest he’s anorxic’s pin-up) ,. We can’t see Minecraft as the problem for monumentally un-imaginative classrooms, poor school funding, prejudice against people of colour, gender or ability either. But the media can, and does many of these – maybe not the Jeb bit.

Society can do that perfectly well without video games. It might do better with them. As young kids are concrete thinkers, the violence and monsters in Minecraft  (or other games) has far less impact than seeing repeated natural disasters on TV or annual ‘biggest loser’ – which form concrete associations about the world and them. They know they are unlikely to meet a creeper, but the world does tend to kill people with trees and fat people are probably going to die sooner rather than later.

If you are a parent, then take some time to sit down and watch the Minecraft Story. It’s a great documentary. It’s just $8 or if that is too much you can also get it from the Pirate Bay for free (on purpose). You’ll begin to see what kids see in it – the other alternative is to watch Dr.Phil and others recycle fear and moral panic about games … something it seems parents are doing. It’s not a game, its a story which you can be part of. For most parents I’ve shown it to, the people at Mojang are exactly the kind of people many parents hope their kids will associate with – or be like. (I do a parent thing where we watch the film and un-pack it, it’s kind of fun).

And finally, the topic of agression. I accept only this (so far) … because this is what the research says about media violence, and games are a part of that medi – yet have unique properties. This means in all the research, games are the least studied, the least known. In over 30 years of research, there is evidence that media contributes as much as any other studied contributor to community violence. There is  a disproportionate amount of media coverage about violence in ‘game media’ compared with other (television, radio, Internet, film and so on) which has a disproportionate impact on public views. This has been found in hundreds of studies over decades.

In short – in all the various forms of media, games are singled out more often and therefore seen as worse yet wholly unsupported in scholarly research which doesn’t see more games or more game-time as contributing to kids and [insert concern] as being a inevitable convergence. In education, there is a similar problem – that eventually subject-mastery and technology will converge. It’s a convenient idea at best to push an agenda, but unproven no matter how much people will it to be true.

Parents don’t have the kind of ‘knowledge structures’ needed to make sense of video games, especially Minecraft. It’s what they call – you are what you eat. If all you eat is an unhealthy diet of media-hate and opinion, then when she’s busy on Minecraft, all you see is negative.

If Minecraft has raised concerns, then this isn’t a bad thing. It’s like finding out eating Burgers and 10 liters of Coke a day is bad for you. It’s an opportunity to think  about media more broadly – for yourself. It’s something worth doing, so you are more likely to do it. Thinking for yourself is fast becoming a lost-art in a culture addicted to media-feeds on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Surely not! I am so not addicted to social-media. Sure you are … you just don’t have a hand-controller.

  • Talk to kids about what they have seen online (in games, on TV as well)
  • Find out about the factors than enhance negative impacts of media (everyone has a screen in their pocket, the Internet is un-regulated, the media has a commercial agenda, pain and suffering gets human attention – so sells ad-space and so on).
  • There is no evidence that cartoon violence or fantasy (Harry Potter, Bugs Bunny, Minecraft) is harmless yet media constantly uses violence as a way to condition children that it can be used in lieu of being correct, to get your own way and as a punishment for non-compliance with the norm-behaviours. This is often exaggerated in television and film as fantasy telling a morality tale (See any Disney film ever).

We know being a good role model with your own media use and encouraging alternates – walking the dog, riding a bike, painting, reading and so on have positive impacts on kids. However, if a parent comes home, eats and settles down to an evening of television most days – this is un-heathy for the child. If the parents reads or listens to music and never turns on the TV, this too is un-healthy. If they carry a smart phone – and use it to socialise virtually and exclude the child (under 13s are usually banned) this in un-healthy for the child. If they watched Die Hard and said to their kids “its not appropriate, you can’t watch it”, this is unhealthy.

So before bagging Minecraft – take a look at the totality of media use in the house. Then try watching The MInecraft Story with your kids … you never know, it might be the first step in connecting the kids world and talking about it.

I hope Jack’s mum reads this … he feels like he can’t talk to you … and he wants to.

8 ways Minecraft works on your brain

Recently I’ve spent some time reading parenting websites about Minecraft. What is said is often repetitive, aggregated and lacks much substance. If you are a parent, or Minecraft player, then I hope this post will provide you with some further ideas about how the game works on our minds.

The thing which most articles omit is understanding of why imagination is a primary trigger for learning. Wherever we are, in school or at home, the immediate environment can either support or stifle children’s imaginative abilities. For example, copying notes from a wipeboard is submissive. Additionally, our brain has to work really hard to keep our imagination under control, as while we’re copying it down, our imagination is kicking and screaming to be let out, and we’re not thinking about all about the importance or significance of the information. This is why they invented photocopiers, mobile phone cameras and dropbox.

Minecraft puts players to work by providing the imagination with images and metaphors that give it direction. The blocks represents a random open world and the challenge to control it. Players learn which resources help them to thrive and what dangers need to be overcome. Next, kids use their imagination to make sense of the real world – more than facts or information. Ever wondered why parents say the same thing over and over and the kid does it anyway? … so Minecraft is a game which helps kids make sense of the real world – even though to the adult brain, it’s a lego world and nothing like real life – or the things kids need to know to thrive. Wrong, yes it is, just like kids in ancient cultures learned about hunting, or in the 1800s kids recited facts as in a factory reciting facts is was all that was needed for most kids.

The methods commonly applied in classroom towards what teachers call ‘learning out comes’ today routinely omit the word imagination from tasks and exercises. Schools like more measurable things such as list, find, calculate, show and so on. They can mark this … but marking Minecraft – what would be the point? Well the point is, for most people marks and league tables have been proven to de-motivate and train us to be submissive. So if you like freedom and liberty a kid playing Minecraft is unlikely to be submissive – hence why they wont’ get off it when you demand.

Academics have shown how important imaginative play is to child development for hundreds of years . This hasn’t stopped schools ignoring it. From the age of 9 or 10, a child’s day become less and less imaginative and more standardised as the great hammer of measuring kids by test scores emerges. There comes a tipping point where imaginative becomes day-dreaming and off with the faeries rather than a stand up student getting straight A’s. This is a social rule, the way we begin to define who is seen as a success and who isn’t. Again, ignore the fact many of the worlds biggest corporations and most valuable inventions were developed by people who dropped out of school, or crisscrossed it – like Einstein and Jobs.

All these things are set aside in ‘Minecraft is evil’ posts – not because it’s not true, but because life feels somewhat easier to adults who long ago submitted their imagination to someone else. The use iPhone apps, rather than imagine themselves making them so to speak. Kids don’t. In Minecraft, they can build anything … the imagination light is lit up like a 20,000 watt light the whole time they play.

Imaginative behaviors in Minecraft

Imaginative behavior is based on the brain’s ability to draw upon and combine elements from our previous experiences. Educational scholar Len Vygotsky wrote in 1930 …

The brain is not only the organ that stores and retrieves our previous experience, it is also the organ that combines and creatively reworks elements of this past experience and uses them to generate new propositions and new behavior. …This creative activity, based on the ability of our brain to combine elements, is called imagination or fantasy in psychology. (p. 9)

So here are eight things I see happening when children and adolescents play Minecraft.

  • Sensation – Learning as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy – Learning as make-believe
  • Narrative – Learning as unfolding story
  • Challenge – Learning as obstacle course
  • Fellowship – Learning as social framework
  • Discovery – Learning as uncharted territory
  • Expression –  Learning as soap box
  • Submission – Learning as mindless pastime

Note that of these eight ways of playing Minecraft, children switch between them. One minute they are searching a cavern (Discovery), the next they are building a Library (Expression). At times, when they lack direction or motivation with other ways to learn, they wander about the open world in a state of Submission until something happens.

To me, parents can be the something happens. Even if they don’t play the game. Asking “how high can you build a tower” switches the child’s effort from submission to challenge for example. In many ways, a teacher or parent in a world without games used to do this all the time.

Like it or not, games now do it too. Minecraft is very special because unlike something like Tetris or even Grand Theft Auto, it has all 8 of these facets firing all the time. When it becomes multiplayer, kids stimulate each other constantly – not to make new things – but to change state.

This to me is why they find classrooms boring – they don’t change state in the way games do. Or rather they can, if the classroom is designed to change state and I don’t mean from ‘listen to me talk’ to ‘write this in your book’ – that leads to learning as a mindless pastime. Of course, when mass education was invented, being a submissive worker, following instructions and not ‘day dreaming’ was what school was all about.

So if your kid is playing Minecraft, then according to deeply respected academic research and principles, she is not undertaking a mindless pastime. I’d argue playing Minecraft now might be one of the things that saves them from it in the future too.

The trick is to know how to design day to day learning the way Minecraft works … or to say it isn’t possible and write another ‘Minecraft sucks post’.

I say it is …