The Video Generation

At age eleven, I experienced Disney at the movies or on VHS, nowadays Digital Natives are experiencing it online. Nielsen Online, a service of The Nielsen Company, reports:

“Kids 2-11 viewed an average of 51 streams and 118 minutes of online video per person during the month, while teens 12-17 viewed an average of 74 streams and 132 minutes of online video. Those over 18 viewed an average of 44 streams and 99 minutes of online video”

The way I see it, it’s impossible to avoid this phenomenon, and if anything, these numbers will continue to increase in the near future. Digital Natives can find anything from “digital play for girls today” ( to “where the hell is matt” ( to the NBA Finals. As Michael Pond, senior media analyst, Nielsen online, states:

“Today’s youth don’t know – or don’t remember – a time when they weren’t going online, so their adoption of online video has been seamless”

For young Digital Natives online video seems to compliment their TV experience. Their top online video destinations include Disney Records, PBS Kids, Nick, and Barbie, among others. For DNs, ages 12-17, the demographic with the highest average of streams viewed, the most popular destinations include YouTube,, Google Video, Facebook, bebo, and, among others.

In many ways, online video is more engaging and interactive than conventional video sources such as TV or DVDs. For example, YouTube enables users to watch related videos, post video responses, and make comments about the videos viewed. This establishes a community where users are not only able to find videos but also network with others who share similar interests. PBS Kids, for example, allows users to color and play games with their favorite characters. One common theme in all of these websites is availability of related-video-links. This makes it more likely for users to spend longer periods of time online. We all know the way it goes, one link leads to another link, which leads to yet another link…the possibilities are endless.

And there’s video content for everyone. Some of my school friends who studied abroad became experts at finding sites that would enable them to watch American shows while abroad. When they came back to the states they were hooked on websites such as or These are “link-sharing-website that catalogue links to TV shows, movies, music videos, sport, anime and cartoons to make them more easily accessible.” Not only do we have YouTube, where you can “broadcast yourself”, we also have websites that make it possible to watch all the episodes of all the shows you’ve ever loved watching, online. For those who love sports, there are websites such as, where soccer fans can watch matches for free. And my personal favorite, I recently started attending a church where they offer podcasts of the sermons, so if you spaced out for a second and did not pay attention to the youth pastor, no biggie, just watch the podcast.

Finally, I believe this development to be positive. From my own experience, I know I can sing Hakuna Matata better than I can recall the departments of Colombia – something I apparently learned in the 3rd grade. As a child I always loved learning through video. I learn about how babies come to the world at age five through a video my mom rented and to this day I remember clips from it. It is crucial that we learn and continue to harness the influence and power online video has on Digital Natives today. Video content online shouldn’t be just an extension of what young Digital Natives are experiencing in front of their televisions. It must continue to go beyond.

The Video Generation: Kids and Teens Consuming More Online Video Content Than Adults at Home, According to Nielsen Online


Creativity and Media Literacy Forum

This past Wednesday, June 25, featured a wonderful collaborative conversation at the Berkman Center – the Digital Natives Forum on Creativity and Media Literacy. Thirty five of us crammed into the Berkman conference room on with gyros and baklava to talk, discuss and brainstorm about the issues facing various production/research venues in our neighborhood, and five projects from around the area shared their obstacles and their opportunities in today’s digital age. Here’s a taste of what happened:

-Jayne Karolow of Locamoda demonstrated Jumbli. Karolow shared an interesting mobile-text specific challenge with the group: Privacy and Trust. It seems many people do not trust “just send us a text message and win!” campaigns. There is a general feeling, Jayne reported, that mobile-texting games will charge you more than the usual text message or that the company will steal your information and spam you. How should LocaModa to counteract this bad image? The group suggested that they work with established intermediaries to become a more trusted brand. More specifically, some Berkman group also suggested that Jumbli position itself as a spelling game for schools, where all kids are mobile-ready.

-Eugenia Garduno of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education talked about River City, a Multi-User Virtual Environment for middle school students that teaches epidemiology and the scientific method. Even though students report more interest in science after playing the 17 hour curriculum, is there any way to ensure that they will be able to apply what they learn virtually to their offline lives? Prominent research says no. The Berkman group suggested designs for a second level of curricula—one that would takes kids out of the classroom and into their community—applying what they learned in River City to their own cities. Because situated learning is the only learning that ‘works,’ teaching anything on any subject must relate to real life if it is to transfer for the student.

-Karen Brennan, and Andrés Monroy-Hernández of MIT Media Lab presented Scratch, a simple graphical programming language for construction of animations. Scratch has over 15,000 pieces of unique animations and almost every minute new content is added. Students can reuse each other’s work but sometimes do without giving credit, so Scratch developed a way to track source code so that previous designers (from one level up) could be credited. How can they make clear its principles of sharing, creativity and remixing?

-Anna Van Someren and Clement Chau of MIT’s New Media Literacies explained their Learning Library project, an informal setting to explore media, mash-ups and appropriation. While they are still working out the logistics of their tool, they too are caught up in issues regarding ownership, authorship and copyright. How will NML engage students in thoughtful, nuanced or balanced exploration of the issues around digital engagement and the law? All parties present seemed to agree that young people need to learn what it means to share, to credit, and to build on others’ opinions. But how to do that, while navigating the complexities of the law, is a challenge.

-David Dockterman of Tom Snyder Productions showed off Timeliner, a software program that visually organizes information on a time line or number line. The next version Timeliner will launch with a built in internet browser that will allow students to embed and attach movies, music, photos from the web into their reports, but this will raise even further copyright issues. It can handle attribution through links to source sites, but attribution is really not a copyright issue. How can kids publish or share their work if the work they’re using is copyright protected? How can teachers encourage them to use such unsafe work?

The five main issues that emerged from the day were: branding and symbol clarity; the transfer of knowledge; authorship and plagiarism; simplicity in language; and educating about the law. These themes circle us as we too attempt to design meaningful learning opportunities in the Digital Natives context. How can we make simple what we teach? How can we make sure students learn content in the context of their real lives? How do we connect digital appropriation to ethical principles? How can use words and build web models that reflect our ethics? How do we connect our social norms and practices to the principles of the law, government and political balance?

Digital Natives’ copyright curriculum group was thrilled to have these groups here—to learn from their stories and to consider ways for complementing their efforts.

Our hope is to continue the conversation, with each other and with others. Our next Digital Natives forum, Civic Engagement, will be held on August 4, 2008. We will feature two researchers and one project, and will continue the conversation begun Wednesday.

-Rosalie Barnes

Google Book Search, Orphan Works and the Public Domain

Google Book Search has inspired passionate feelings and responses from many people since Google announced the project. Some, like Larry Lessig, view its scanning and indexing of copyrighted books as a legitimate activity under Fair Use. Others, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, are more skeptical of Google Book Search (and in Siva’s case, Google generally).

Either way, there’s no doubt that Google Book Search is a big deal. A key fact to keep in mind is one that Lessig makes repeatedly; namely, that

Google’s “Book Search service” aims to provide access to three kinds of published works: (1) works in the public domain, (2) works in copyright and in print, and (3) works in copyright but no longer in print. As some of you may recall from the presentation I made a while ago, about 16% of books are in category (1); 9% of books are in category (2), and 75% of books are in category (3).

And today there’s been a key advance in determining the often-difficult-to-divine status of whether some books are in category (1) or (3) – also courtesy Google:

For U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963, the rights holder needed to submit a form to the U.S. Copyright Office renewing the copyright 28 years after publication. In most cases, books that were never renewed are now in the public domain. Estimates of how many books were renewed vary, but everyone agrees that most books weren’t renewed. If true, that means that the majority of U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963 are freely usable.

How do you find out whether a book was renewed? You have to check the U.S. Copyright Office records. Records from 1978 onward are online (see but not downloadable in bulk. The Copyright Office hasn’t digitized their earlier records, but Carnegie Mellon scanned them as part of their Universal Library Project, and the tireless folks at Project Gutenberg and the Distributed Proofreaders painstakingly typed in every word.

Thanks to the efforts of Google software engineer Jarkko Hietaniemi, we’ve gathered the records from both sources, massaged them a bit for easier parsing, and combined them into a single XML file available for download here.

This is, whatever your other feelings are about Google Book Search more generally, a wonderful advance in public accessibility of information. The list of what books are in the public domain can and will be used not just by Google Book Search in its ongoing (and arguably proprietary) book-scanning project, but also by other efforts like Brewster Kahle’s Open Content Alliance. Google comes in for a lot of criticism, but it’s worth acknowledging those times when they follow through on their stated goal of “organizing the world’s information,” and this is one of them.

One of the great challenges/opportunities that we face with digital information is the interface with print and analog information. There’s a danger – implicitly addressed by Book Search and the OCA – that our great knowledge resources from the past are ignored or left to molder, and the difficulty of determining copyright status has been something of a hurdle to digitization efforts thusfar. Recency bias will always be with us, but the possibility of making the great (and undiscovered or underappreciated) works of the past just as accessible to tomorrow’s students as the latest blog post or journal article is a goal to work towards.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

Digital Natives Links Roundup for 20080624

Some links that’ve come to our attention this week:

*Anne Collier with a nuanced, informative post on the state of online safety and privacy for teens today

*via Fred Stutzman, Douglas Rushkoff talks about identity, Obama’s brand, and participatory politics – following up on Fred’s own thoughts on Obama’s online organizing

*via Jon Phillips, the excellent and promising Creative Commons Case Studies. Definitely check it out.

*Atrios sez: “I don’t need the younger generation understand my “it’s actually really hard to find out if your favorite band is going on tour” teenage years, but for some reason I kind of want them to understand how things have changed. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Turn that music down!”

*danah boyd on feeding the trolls in an attention economy

Digital Natives, by a digital native from Germany

I am proud to be invited to write a guest post here for the Digital Natives blog of Harvard’s Berkman Center. It all started with sending an email to Urs Gasser, who is one of the heads of the team. As a Digital Native myself, I know best how they behave, how they think, and how they “work.” I know, my words reveal no new discovery, but I am not a researcher — I am just a digital native writing down his perspective…

German teenagers don’t really behave differently from their companions in the US. What is different are their primary social networks, where they upload photos, publish guestbook posts, and discuss in groups. There is StudiVZ for students or SchülerVZ for younger children. They are a complete copy cat of Facebook, which does not play a role in German children’s lives.

SchülerVZ and StudiVZ both have an enormous reach. More than 90 percent of students in my class and probably the same percentage in my age-group are registered. Those who don’t use it don’t exist. It’s often used for sharing photos; “traditional” photo sharing sites likes Flickr are not used. The two social networks don’t offer the same degree of functions and features that Facebook does (for example there is no open API), but what is interesting for me to see is the fact that they both allow you to share short messages with your friends, like Twitter does. And this feature is used a lot – believe me. But if you ask me, I would suggest they offer a txt-based Microblogging tool as well. That’s firstly a way to monetize it and secondly a new way for the users to send messages.

To speak more generally (and not simply about German youth), teenagers at large don’t have an understanding of copyright and ownership of digital goods. They want to share, want to mix, and want to edit. They can’t understand why it is not okay to go to Wikipedia, print a page, and use it for a speech. Anyway, that’s how they still do it. Most of their created presentations are totally or partly rip-offs and plagiarism. But teachers – especially the older ones – simply fail to discover them, and so it’s not punished, and there are no consequences for the students. Although they know it’s illegal, they do it, just because they can and because they know nothing else. Besides the school-related illegal sharing, there are of course downloading and sharing of songs, movies and other stuff. I don’t know whether that is because students do not have the needed money for buying every interesting movie or just because those things are too expensive.

Mobile phones are children’s toys of choice and primary tools of communication. Nearly every single person in school has one – which can be an advantage but also a torture. Cyberbullying can start with taking photos of people you don’t like and sending them to your friends or editing them with mobile photo editors. Since mobile phones became practical MP3 players, they have become a plague. Wherever you go, music played aloud bothers you if it’s not your taste of music. But, to be honest, I am one of these troublemakers myself. Teachers have to deal with that and with students playing during the lessons instead of listening.

To point out one of the major differences between students and adults: young people don’t use email to communicate with their friends. It’s just not important, because it’s just not fast enough. They use IM or social networks to communicate with their friends. That’s also a much better way to meet new people, because you don’t know what the person looks like in an email. With social networks, you even know how you are connected to them (maybe you share the same friends or attend the same school). Of course, they all have an email account (you need it to register to SchülerVZ and StudiVZ of course) but if they use it, they do so only for sending big files and attachments.

I didn’t want this to become something like egotainment, so I decided to mention the things I do last. I am 16 years old and attending Realschule in Germany but will change to a new school soon. In my later life, I want to become a journalist. I was also one of the organizors of BarCampHannover.

It was my idea in July 2007 to write a post about why we should do a BarCamp here in Hanover (known for the largest exhibition ground in the world, the EXPO2000 and the annual CeBIT). Some people answered and we formed an organization team – of which I was the youngest, followed by some university students. I was responsible for sponsoring affairs and asked some of my entrepreneur friends to help us. In February 2008, we successfully finished our work with BarCampHannover. During this time, we met several times for organizational meetings, and, because everybody knew how old I was, they all respected me, even though I “fighted” several discussions. You must know, I am not one of these guys who hides his opinion. But it was a lot of fun and a great experience for life. In addition to that, I am the organizer of Lunch 2.0 in Germany, which had its first anniversary in May.

When I first met Sören Stamer, CEO of CoreMedia AG, in August 2007, he told me about his idea of doing a workshop for teenagers to discuss things like “How has the Internet influenced your life?” or “How would you like to work in the future?”. In December, we realized this idea and created the “Delle im Universum” (Dent in the universe), where CoreMedia employees, Sören the CEO, some of their partners, I, and a friend of mine met. We talked some hours about our future plans and played foosball after the workshop in a relaxed atmosphere.

Last month, Sören attended the so-called “Deutscher IT-Gipfel” (German IT summit), organized by the German Government, where IT people and high-ranking German politicians gather to discuss ideas. In his workgroup, Sören introduced the idea of the “Delle,“ and together they fine-tuned the plan and got new ideas. One of these was a competition where teenagers can upload their thoughts in a video. The best ones, selected by a jury, will be invited to meet with the workgroup (Deutsche Telekom is one of its members) and get the chance to meet the German chancellor Angela Merkel.

I liked organizing the BarCamp. Because I am a teenager and want to spread the thoughts we have, I am tinkering with the idea of organizing another conference, maybe even an unconference, about Teens in the Internet. There are already plans to do something similar in Germany, but with a different focus: while I want to gather people within this context and have experts talk about this topic (even older ones), the other unconference currently in development would have younger bloggers go to a BarCamp. The issue is really unresolved, and I am still searching for people to help me. If you are interested, use the email address below.

In case you have any questions, would like to give feedback, or just want to get in touch, here’s how: mail at timoheuer com (I choose email to demonstrate that not all the teenagers don’t use it..)

Timo Heuer

Return of the Geeks

If you were intrigued by our last post, which touched on a TPM Café discussion between Clay Shirky and danah boyd concerning the nature, essentially, of geekdom, you might enjoy Chapter 1 of Christopher M. Kelty’s Two Bits. As Kelty described at this week’s Berkman Luncheon, the book’s opener is an anthropological essay on geeks. Now, Kelty’s definition focuses on geeks as the technologically innovative tour de force responsible for the Internet (and not on Digital Native geeks), but he does acknowledge the origins of geek subculture:

Until the mid-1990s, hacker, geek, and computer nerd designated a very specific type: programmers and lurkers on relatively underground networks, usually college students, computer scientists, and “amateurs” or “hobbyists.” A classic mock self-diagnostic called the Geek Code, by Robert Hayden, accurately and humorously detailed the various ways in which one could be a geek in 1996—UNIX/ Linux skills, love/hate of Star Trek, particular eating and clothing habits—but as Hayden himself points out, the geeks of the early 1990s exist no longer. The elite subcultural, relatively homogenous group it once was has been overrun: “The Internet of 1996 was still a wild untamed virgin paradise of geeks and eggheads unpopulated by script kiddies, and the denizens of AOL. When things changed, I seriously lost my way. I mean, all the ‘geek’ that was the Internet was gone and replaced by Xfiles buzzwords and politicians passing laws about a technology they refused to comprehend.”

Check out the rest of the book, which is under a CC Non-Commercial, Attribution, ShareAlike license so you can mix and mash it.

Nikki Leon

Social Contexts and Solidarity

Clay Shirky, in discussing his new book at TPM Café, concludes with the following question(s):

I can imagine that however unjust it may be to be relegate to the status of a despised cubicle rat, it’s gotta be worse to be a d.c.r. who doesn’t kick ass at WoW. The question it leaves me with is this: if we have a way of increasing people’s satisfaction with their activities in flexible social spaces, is that a net gain, because it increases satisfaction, or is it a net loss, because blissing out on our local social contexts lowers our sense of injustice, in a way that makes us less likely to fight against it?

Also at TPM Café, danah responds:

It is possible to gain satisfaction from achieving high status in World of Warcraft, even if popularity there is quite niche. In our ethnographic study of new media and youth culture, the Digital Youth group at Berkeley and USC also found that many youth involved in interest-driven digital practices rejected traditional status markers in preference for those that could be achieved in subcultures… [But] just because status markers can be rearranged does not mean that they universally are.

For most teens, the status that matters is that which is conferred in everyday life. Everyday friendship and dating matter more to them than the connections that they make online. This isn’t that surprising because, for as much time as teens spend online, they spend very little engaging with strangers and far more connected to people that they know. Finding interesting music videos or gross-out content online may heighten status amongst peers if this content is valued, but becoming popular with strangers online does not transfer to popularity offline.

I agree with danah here, but think there’s also more reason for hope regarding the value of online popularity. For introverted – nerdy, geeky, etc. – kids, online activity can be a source of validation absent elsewhere in their lives, and sometimes that affirmation can transfer back to their off-line lives either as greater self-confidence or, in some cases, more local social capital. In the upcoming Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser focus on the case of one introverted teen who was not classically popular – until word made it back to his school that he was a successful and popular video mash-up artist online.

Certainly there’s a n=1 danger here – most nerdy, socially awkward kids will remain, as ever, at the lower rungs of the social totem poll in high school (saying this as a proud alumnus of the class of nerdy, socially awkward kids), and danah also relates the thoughts of,

Dominic, a 16-year old from Seattle: “I don’t really think popularity would transfer from online to offline because you’ve got a bunch of random people you don’t know it’s not going to make a difference in real life, you know? It’s not like they’re going to come visit you or hang out with you. You’re not like a celebrity or something.”

Bringing this back around to Shirky’s original question – will this dull our sense of injustice? I would ring in here with a full-throated “NO.” What Shirky is really talking about when he says “blissing out in our local social contexts” is a very old idea, and a powerful one – you say esprit de corps, I say solidarity. Building social capital is a good thing, no matter how local it might be, because the alternative (could be) a society atomized down to the most basic component level of the individual. That doesn’t work, Thatcherite critiques notwithstanding: we’re social creatures, happiest and best when we’re most social. ICTs at their best can be a tools in creating greater solidarity among citizens: more people with a sense that working together and towards a common purpose might, as a general principle, be a good thing. And in my book, there are few goals more worthy than that. A generation raised with practice building solidarity – even if it is with “random people” (indeed, perhaps especially if it’s with random people) – is a hopeful sign for society.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

The Way We Remember Now

Are Digital Natives forgetting how to remember? This was Anne Balsamo’s parting suggestion at the Berkman luncheon last Tuesday, and it chilled the gathering instantly. Up to that point, Balsamo’s talk had been largely upbeat, a primer on the power of what she calls the “technological imagination” — the “quality of mind the enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible, and to evaluate the consequences of such creation from multiple perspectives” (as she explains in her essay “Taking Culture Seriously”). Balsamo highlighted many positive aspects of the Digital Age, including the development of new kinds of literacy and the transformative influence of technology on education and art. Nevertheless, her final thought reminded us that with the great gains of digital technology come inalterable change and inevitable loss.

What Balsamo intimated was this: Digital Natives are unconcerned with remembering events and data because they can usually find the information they need online. My own experience indicates this is true. Take, for example, the act of remembering the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In a pre-internet age, a young person might have felt compelled to memorize its approximate date, the circumstances that led to its collapse, and, just maybe, the fact that someone named Edward Gibbon wrote a giant book about it. A Digital Native, on the other hand, can say, “I’ll look it up later on Wikipedia,” and leave it at that. This nonchalance towards remembering facts applies to experiences as well. For Digital Natives, a party, rock concert, or political rally is no longer a prized moment shared with a select few, no longer an ephemeral event that will live on only if attendees choose to remember it. Before a concert has even begun, before tickets are even available, a Digital Native can network with other fans, buy merchandise at the band’s website, or download tracks that will be played live on stage. If a Digital Native can’t make it to a political rally, he or she need only follow the event’s twitter feed. And if the Digital Native can’t remember what, exactly, he or she did last night, no matter – it’s all been recorded in a friend’s Facebook photo album for the entire school to see. In Balsamo’s view, the Internet has become a prosthetic memory; as Digital Natives rely on it, their own capacity for recall only grows weaker.

These days, it seems the cry of memory has never been louder. We are told to “never forget” 9/11, urged, in the face of Darfur, to remember the Holocaust. Amidst all this remembering, the Internet breeds crisis. On the one hand, anything we do online — be it traveling from page to page or uploading content — is logged. Our information persists whether we want it to or not, preserved by the collective digital memory of the web. On the other hand, as Balsamo puts it, “Every day, the web forgets more than it remembers.” The face of the Internet can change in an instant: a headline altered to reflect breaking news, a picture photo-shopped to exclude political dissidents. While proof of all these changes should be lurking in a cache somewhere, the sheer volume of information online can prevent the average person from finding it. Web users, too, exercise willful forgetfulness. As blogosphere culture demonstrates, new is in. Old news is no news.

All the same, this “memory crisis” may not be so new. Older generations have also experienced great and terrible things to remember – The Revolution, the Great War, Vietnam. Always, it seems someone is urging us to remember something. This is not, moreover, the first time technology has changed the nature of memory itself. With the advent of writing came the fear that people would lose the ability to recite oral histories; the art form would disappear, and history would be forgotten. Although many did lose that bardic skill, it was a small price to pay for the birth of a new art form, a new way to log history, and a new way to spread knowledge.

So, how do we deal with the changing state of memory today? As when writing became widespread, we will have to recalibrate our notions of what it means to remember. We need to exercise the “technological imagination” Balsamo describes, to “think” with our technology and examine how we can harness it in service of, and not counter to, memory. Memory in a Digital Age is collaborative. Whereas one person could easily forget the details of an event, a community of users can now swap pictures and stories to let the moment endure. As a result, facts and experiences take on their own life, presences greater than any one person could render. At the same time, the web’s shifting nature demonstrates that experiences – and our memories of them – are as tenuous as ever, that they are something to be cherished. Perhaps the Internet can actually teach us reverence for memory. If that is the lesson to be learned, it is no wonder internet-savvy thinkers like Balsamo are so concerned with remembering to remember.

Nikki Leon

(Special thanks to Jacob Kramer-Duffield for his thoughts on the impact of writing.)

Katie Salen, ed., “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning”

(cross-posted from John Palfrey’s blog)

The first book that I read in the series of MacArthur/MIT Press’s Digital Media and Learning series was “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning”, edited by game designer and educator Katie Salen (open access version here). As with the other books in the series, it’s a very important contribution to the scholarly literature of a nascent field. (I’ve come back to Salen’s work just as Urs Gasser and I are turning in the final, final version of our forthcoming book, Born Digital.) “The Ecology of Games” is an excellent primer on where innovation is happening at the intersection between games and learning and where future avenues for research offer promise.

The first essay, Salen’s “Toward an Ecology of Gaming,” sets the frame for the collection. She recounts, helpfully, those things that “we” know already: “… that play is iterative as is good learning, and that gaming is a practice rooted in reflection in action, which is also a quality of good learning. We know games are more than contexts for the production of fun and deliver just-in-time learning, the development of specialist language, and experimentation with identity and point of view. We know games are procedurally based systems embedded within robust communities of practice. We know that video games and gaming have done much to shape our understanding and misunderstanding of the post-Nintendo generation, and hold a key place in the minds of those looking to empower educators and learners. Beyond their value as entertainment media, games and game modification are currently key entry points for many young people into productive literacies, social communities, and digitally rich identities.” (pp. 14 – 15) She ends her chapter with five unanswered questions, each worth reflecting and working on. (p. 15)

James Paul Gee’s “Learning and Games” gives an overview of what “good game design” can “teach us about good learning” and vice-versa (p. 21). He offers these insights through what he calls the “situated learning matrix.” (pp. 24 – 31) The most illuminating part of his essay for me was the discussion of the ways in which young people form cross-functional teams within gaming environments — and his view of the excellent training opportunities these contexts could hold in terms of training them for workplace experiences. (p. 33)

In “In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives,” three authors (Reed Stevens, Tom Satwicz, and Laurie McCarthy) take up a great topic: “whether playing these games affects kids’ lives when the machine is off.” (p. 41) The key insight for me was the notion of identity: “… young people are indeed forming identities in relation to video games. The idea that they can do things in the game that they cannot do in the real world is only part of the story; the other half is that they hold actions that they control in-game in regular comparative contact with the consequences, and morality, of those actions in the real world. Actions in games, then, are a resource for building identities in the real world, occurring through a reflective conversation that takes place in-room.” (p. 62)

“E is or Everyone: The Case for Inclusive Game Design,” by Amit Pitaru, followed a different structure than most other essays in the series. It’s told as a story about the researcher’s time with students at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, NY, a “remarkable school” that “educates approximately 200 pre-K to twenty-one-year-old students with a variety of physical disabilities and medical needs.” (p. 68)

Through this narrative, Pitaru offers insights on many levels. The essence of the argument is that a lack of play among children poses dangers, many of which can be avoided through digital games when set in the proper context. Pitaru claims further that digital games “provide a viable complementary activity to existing mediated forms of play” for children with disabilities.” (p. 85) I wondered, at the end, how many educators would agree with Pitaru, and where other experimentation is happening.

Mimi Ito, as usual, offers an extraordinarily helpful essay. If you read any single essay from the DML series, read this one: “Education vs. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children’s Software.” The topic is genres of participation. She tells a story about “commercial children’s software, designed to be both fun and enriching, lies at the boundary zone between the resilient structures of education and entertainment that structure contemporary childhoods in the United States.” (p. 89) Ito gives an instructive history of the development of games for kids along with a genuinely useful analytical frame and a clear conclusion. She writes, “If I were to place my bet on a genre of gaming that has the potential to transform the systemic conditions of childhood learning, I would pick the construction genre.” (p. 115) Here’s to tinkering (and to Mimi’s great work).

In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost makes an intriguing argument in favor of “procedural rhetoric” via games. In his view, this approach could enable the questioning of the values behind certain professional practices instead of their blind assumption. (p. 130) I’m not sure I completely got his argument, but it was useful and provocative to puzzle it through.

Anna Everett, the editor of another volume in the series, and S. Craig Watkins offer a counterpoint to much of the rest of the book, exploring ways in which games and other immersive environments are not always socially productive. (p. 143) It’s a helpful reminder and a useful link to the DML series book on race.

The most interesting data that is presented in the book comes from the private sector: Cory Ondrejka, then of Linden Labs/Second Life and the Annenberg School (now headed to an exciting new job…), points out some usage statistics about SL in “Education Unleashed: Participatory Culture, Education, and Innovation in Second Life.” The most striking — and hopeful — figure was his note that 67% (sixty-seven percent) of respondents to a survey of Teen Second Life users “had written at least one program using the scripting language.” (p. 239) Of course it is a tiny sample (384) of self-selected young people, but the tinkering spirit that Mimi Ito highlights in her essay is alive and well in the people that Ondrejka heard from.

Salen, Ito and Ondrejka’s essays, among others in the book, led me to a conclusion out of the book: in some contexts, great forms of learning may come for some students using well-designed games, primarily of the construction genre. There’s not yet sufficient evidence here, in my view, to turn over our entire educational system to games and virtual worlds, but there’s plenty to learn from what some young people are doing in these environments during school time and otherwise.

Avast! or, Language and Behavior

It’s not controversial to note that the meaning of words changes over time. Within the same language, different groups and cultures use the same words to different ends, or different words to the same end. It is widely noted (as so often happens when there is a linguistic shift) that Digital Natives not only alter the meaning of pre-established words but also change more basic elements of language like sentence structure, spelling, and capitalization. While many self-appointed defenders of language bemoan IM and SMS shorthand, 1337 culture, and LOLcat macros, I think that they demonstrate not the intellectual laziness but the creative depth of online culture. Creating new, highly phoneticized spellings for words is not an abuse of language but a respect for the medium and playfulness with it.

So what to make of the usage of “pirate” and “piracy”? Once conveying bloodthirsty terror, “pirate” to most Americans today evokes images of lovable rogues. Holders of copyrighted materials have used pirate to describe infringing users for at least a few hundred years, with mixed results. Pirate radio of the 1970s was largely stamped out as buccaneers of the Main were — with the force of governments — but piracy in software and media is proving more difficult to address. There are a variety of reasons for this, and the term “pirate” itself is changing in ways that were difficult to predict. Physical piracy in software and media (that is, where DVDs or CDs are produced to imitate [usually poorly] the real thing) in developing countries is difficult to the point of near-impossibility, given that (i) a “legal” license for Microsoft Vista can run to several months’ wages for most workers, and (ii) the copyright holders are often half a world away. Some governments at the behest of media and software companies have begun to crack down on the mass piracy of those materials, but realistically stand little chance of doing anything more than diverting current distribution channels to more distributed ones. Rich countries, with more enforcement resources, do not have the same problems with counterfeit physical goods.

Rather, the North has a booming trade in online piracy. Media organizations such as the MPAA have, as readers will be aware, propagated a maximalist definition of piracy:

Movie pirates are thieves, plain and simple. Piracy is the unauthorized taking, copying or use of copyrighted materials without permission. It is no different from stealing another person’s shoes or stereo, except sometimes it can be a lot more damaging.

Many – Digital Natives especially – are unconvinced, and might respond “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” At the top of that list would have to be Rickard Falvinge, founder of the Pirate Party in Sweden. He talked about this explicitly in a 2006 interview with Wikinews:

The name “Pirate Party” seems to identify the party with what is currently defined as a crime: piracy of software, movies, music, and so on. Will a name like “Pirate Party” not antagonize voters, given that the label is so negatively used? How about potential allies abroad who argue for a more balanced copyright regime, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Creative Commons?

Oh, it is a crime. That’s the heart of the problem! The very problem is that something that 20% of the voters are doing is illegal by punishment of jail time. That’s what we want to change. Where the established parties are saying that the voters are broken, we are saying it’s the law that is broken.

Besides, it’s a way of reclaiming a word. The media conglomerates have been pointing at us and calling us pirates, trying to make us somehow feel shame. It doesn’t work. We wear clothes saying “PIRATE” in bright colors out on the streets. Yes, we are pirates, and we’re proud of it, too.

Well-crafted public relations campaigns can have enormous influence on public attitudes and behavior, but campaigns of linguistic meaning are a trickier business. Meaning is constructed in practice, and the ultimate success of either the MPAA or the Pirate Party will be based not just on what they convince the public piracy “means” but on the value judgments that the public places on that meaning and their own behaviors.

So – are you a pirate?

Jacob Kramer-Duffield