Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children's Software
reviewed by Aaron Chia Yuan Hung - April 05, 2010
Interest in the research and design of digital games for learning has been accelerating over the past ten years. Various groupsincluding private corporations, the MacArthur Foundation and the White House have provided incentives for researchers to tap into the immense success of the video game industry and find ways of using games to re-invigorate the waning motivation among students in schools today. Among the arguments in support of using games is that games are simply better suited for the Millennial generation that has grown up with technology . At the same time, integrating games into a traditional schooling environment can be challenging because games do not fit easily into the schools institutional system, which has its own concerns for evaluation, grade benchmarks and other accountability measures. It is against this backdrop that Mizuko Itos Engineering Play is set.
Itos book fills a growing gap in educational gaming research, namely the lack of empirical evidence that demonstrates how players interact with games. As Ito notes, most research on games has focused on representation and game mechanics, which are important but insufficient in helping researchers move forward in designing educational gaming. Ito provides the crucial historical and cultural context out of which educational gaming emerged. To provide these contexts, Ito draws on two sources of data: 1) multisited ethnographic fieldwork she conducted in the 1990s with The Fifth Dimension (5thD), an after school program that builds on Vygotskyan theories of learning and provides computer and other technological learning opportunities for students; and 2) interviews with prominent individuals in the childrens software industry, including Ann Piestrup, founder of The Learning Company, which produced titles such as Reader Rabbit, and Will Wright, co-founder of Maxis and designer of hit games such as SimCity, The Sims, and Spore.
Engineering Play is divided into three main sections: academic, entertainment, and construction. Each of these sections reflects a genre of childrens software that has evolved over the years, through marketing efforts that target different kinds of parents and children. Ito notes the importance of considering the uniqueness of these genres because they entail different kinds of social interaction and engagement with the game. For each genre, Ito provides a rationale for how and why the genre evolved the way it did, how these products are packaged and marketed, and how kids at 5thD interacted with the software.
The academic genre, or edutainment category, includes software most closely aligned with schooling. Some examples are Reader Rabbit, JumpStart, MathBlaster, and The Island of Dr. Brain. Many of these target specific grade levels and content areas, such as science or mathematics or reading, and are marketed as products that can help children excel in these subjects. Ito traces the historical roots of edutainment to the Victorian era, during which book publishers and toy manufacturers started to focus on products for learning and development instead of pleasure. With the growth of entertainment programming in television in the 1950s and 1960s, middle-class families began to seek more productive, structured work in place of entertainment and free play, especially in the hours when children are not in school. As video games and computers became more popular and affordable, innovators began to develop multimedia software that could combine the play aspects of games while promoting academic achievement. Academic games met with some success, but many early pioneers of this genre left the industry as the result of shrinking budgets and lack of innovation. There were issues with the design, too. Since these types of software are aligned with academic achievement, there is often a competitive dimension in them that overwhelms their academic content. In her fieldnotes, Ito points out that kids were often more concerned with winning the game than with mastering the content. Kids frequently solved puzzles in the game by random clicking, guessing or asking someone who has solved the puzzle beforehand. As such, these kinds of competitive engagement might be fun for the players, but ultimately miss the purpose of the software design, which was aimed at improving academic achievement.
Entertainment-oriented games explicitly emphasize fun over learning. That is not to suggest that learning is unimportant in these kinds of software, but that entertainment is just as crucial for players as learning. Some of the games in this genre are Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and The Magic School Bus series. Unlike the academic genre, the entertainment genre resists progressive or achievement-focused discourses of play and highlights the importance of having pure fun. Many software titles in this genre build on the success of video games in their design. In their marketing, instead of positioning the potential kid player as someone who needs to strive for success in school, entertainment-oriented games tend to put pleasure front and center of the experience. Design-wise, entertainment games are more open-ended and exploratory than linear. Having visually-stimulating graphics and interactive multimedia are important parts of this genre. Ito focuses specifically on a title in The Magic School Bus series called The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body, in which players can travel through the human body and click on various internal organs to elicit humorous sounds and animation. Unlike the academic genre, entertainment games often do not have a right or wrong answer; instead, they provide learning opportunities by packaging information in an entertaining format.
The third genre that Ito describes is the construction genre, which includes titles such as SimCity, SimEarth, DinoPark Tycoon, and LEGO Mindstorms (which resulted from collaborative efforts between MIT and LEGO). Construction games are authoring tools that allow players to decide how they want their game to turn out. As such, the construction genre is the most open-ended of the three genres, putting control of learning (or lack thereof) in the hands of the player. Construction games tend to be hardest to market because they do not seem to fill a clear position between entertainment and education. Many construction games do not achieve wide success, even though many titles, such as SimCity, are noted for their educational potential for use in schools. Construction games are not marketed explicitly as childrens software; indeed, many adults enjoy playing these games as well. Ito highlights the influence of the hacker culturedefined here as the community of programmers that supports free, open-source softwarewith its emphasis on computers as a tool for empowerment. In her ethnographic work, Ito points out that many kids circumvented SimCitys design by using cheat codes that provided them with endless resources. Thus, instead of having to worry about building a city and balancing the budget, players can focus on other aspects of the game. In her interview with SimCitys designer, Will Wright said that these codes are a way of engineering subversion and opening up alternative ways of playing the game.
Research on educational games has often focused more on design than player interaction . In Engineering Play, Ito expands the focus to include how games are marketed, designed, and played in specific contexts. More importantly, she also describes how player interaction unfolds between kids, who are usually more interested in having fun, and adults, who are more interested in learning. As more effort and resources are expended on educational games research, we need to start looking beyond the game design, and towards how games are implemented at home or in schools, and how players interact with them in context. As Itos ethnographic work demonstrates, players might circumvent the intended design of the game and still find the game enjoyable and meaningful. At times, this might defeat the purpose of the game, but occasionally, this provides new ways of engagement and resistance. Engineering Play opens up a sorely needed conversation within educational gaming research, one that does not look at games and software in isolation, but as products with historical and cultural roots and trajectories.