By Maureen McTaggart
Irrationality, subversion, risk, danger, destruction and conflict are - alongside learning and democratic relationships - all in a day’s play for children, says Professor David Buckingham.
If we recognise this, we might get beyond the “rather tiresome polarised, binary logic” that often characterises discussions about play and video games. Can't play just be fun any more?
Speaking at the National Toy Council’s recent “the Value of Toys & Play” conference, he said that the tendency to "celebrate play as if it is automatically a good thing that can only be vindicated if it has an educational value" really bugs him. “Journalists often phone me to ask if this stuff is good or bad for children,’ he said.
“Either children are being depraved and corrupted by video games violence or they are learning new and important cognitive skills. Either they are putting themselves at the risk of pornographers and pedophiles online or they are surfing the wave of information liberation. We need to get beyond this ‘either or’.”
Professor Buckingham, who directs the Institute of Education’s Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media and is a prolific writer with 21 books under his belt, agrees that children learn through play but thinks: “There are aspects [of play] we are not talking about: the emotional aspects of games; the feeling of sensuous immersion in a game; losing your sense of self, of time and place.
“We need to have a better argument for play which doesn’t see that value just in terms of learning not to mention some of the even less acceptable elements. The fact that playing games may be about competition, may entail aggression, that some of the value of play comes precisely from the elements of danger and risks that play has to entail.”
Along with other aspects of adult "child panic", concerns about children’s involvement in digital media and digital technology reflect a set of assumptions about what it is to be a child. That is, they are pure and corruptible, that they are unable to discriminate or to assess what they see with any degree of sophistication.
Therefore the "rhetoric of play as progress" (as learning) is a powerful one to invoke when concerns about the harmful effects of digital media on children and young people are being addressed. These concerns have been very apparent in some of the statements made around computer and video games.
We need to get away from viewing play in general as a rehearsal for adult life
“Young people's everyday use of computer games or the internet involves a whole range of informal learning processes of which there is a highly democratic relationship between teachers and learners," he adds. "These include remembering, hypothesis testing, predicting and strategic planning, while online chat and instant messaging require specific skills in language and interpersonal communication.”
But he argues that the virtues of computer gaming and social networking run far deeper than the relatively pedestrian issues like how they can improve young people’s spelling, problem solving skills and hand-to-eye co-ordination. More important, he says, we need to get away from viewing play in general as a rehearsal for adult life. Instead we should look at it as a form of pleasurable and, indeed sometimes unpleasurable, activity in the here and now.
“That means looking in a fairly unsentimental way at what children are doing as they play and not constantly seeking to vindicate what they do in terms of what they can learn and hence become better people in the future," he said. “We need to remember that the fundamental characteristics of play are precisely that it is just pretend, it’s not real. So when we think about risk, the risk of violent games or of 'stranger danger' online we need to recognise that risk might well be necessary. For better or worse it is something we need to experience, not just to learn about it but also because it’s a thrill – it’s exciting”.
“Adults are entitled to escape, to lose themselves, to experience pleasure just for its own sake but we seem to be much more worried about that when it comes to children.”