Thursday, 25 February 2010

In the future there will be robots

This made me really angry. Explodey-head angry. So angry I unleashed an incoherent mess of half formed objections onto the comments after watching.

Since then I’ve been trying to work out what about it got to me so much. He was working from a number of inherently flawed presumptions and assumptions, or at least his material suggested this. But that is the norm for “futurologists” and doesn’t normally press my buttons. Yes, yes in the future there will be robots. And flying cars. Oh is that the time...?

I’ll admit that I wasn’t comfortable with the barely disguised glee that he contemplated the cash generating possibilities of “psychological tricks” within some games, but again I’m not surprised by it. Advertisers have been trying to refine these tricks for decades in other media, it’s a natural progression.

It was where he described the virtual pet things. When he started talking about the inner stuffed toy that children have. He was right, and then he was massively, disgustingly, sickeningly wrong.

For those who haven’t or don’t want to wade through the whole thing I’ll give you a potted version.

He asserts children who have a stuffed toy really have two toys. There is the actual physical manifestation of the toy and then there is the child’s projection of the toy as an actual living personality. So in the child’s imagination the toy cries, is happy, wants fed, etc. While to us it is just a bag of sand. Apparently we as adults forget this. (I haven’t but then I’m a relatively engaged parent living with a boy and Mr LukesywalkerRabbit.)

Some bright spark has come up with a toy that has a digital counterpart that does have a little personality and lives in its own little world. Webkinz I think they are called. This apparently taps into this “second” toy in children’s heads and gives them what previously they had to create in their imagination (good lord!) as a fully realised digital avatar.

Except it doesn’t really tap into this at all . If it did it would be a vile and monstrous evil. Anyone who knows or has children of an appropriate age will tell you that young children spend a lot of time roaming around in their imagination when playing with their toys. It’s where children order all the information, language and concepts that pour into their heads on a daily basis. They use role-play and conversations to connect concepts to actions, words to thoughts or, in my son’s case, Rabbits to Star Wars. Sensitively approached you can approach difficult or painful subjects with your child through roleplay with their toys (as many parents do) and often a child will express their own fears and anxieties more coherently through them.

Digital systems such as games, or in this case virtual Pandas, don’t do this. They aren’t capable or flexible enough to keep pace with a child’s imagination. They are by their very nature constrained in what they can and cannot do. Their world is restrictive, written and controlled by the designers, not the child. They are attractive place to explore, they entertain, but the stuffed toy “life” he talks about is a crucial developmental aid, not a gleeful chance to squeeze more cash out of Mum and Dad, not something you should look to channel or restrict by imposing limitations and not something adults should be thumping around in willy-nilly in their size nines.

This is what is, even now, making me burn with cold fury. I am a massive advocate for gaming with children. My son and I spend a lot of time playing games together. What I know from this is that it can promote a lot of very beneficial things: numeracy, literacy, teamwork, lateral thinking to name but four.

What I also know is that games and digital environments can be the equivalent of crack cocaine to children if you allow then unrestricted access. They can replace healthy social interaction, exercise and yes, development. My feeling is that games are more responsible if they are marketed towards the child and the parent, in a sort of Jim Henson company way. A child needs space to be alone with their imagination sometimes, not alone with a Nintendo DS or indeed their Webkinz site. You as a parent need to be involved, even if it is just to watch over the shoulder and ask them what they are doing, what they like, what they think of the story now and again.

Being excited about marketing anything – far less Webkinz- directly to children I personally find repulsive. But that could just be me., and anyway the cat has been out of that particular bag for a long time now. Irresponsibly encouraging developers to push technology, especially games, into children’s lives based on a misunderstanding of a developmental need? It angers me as a parent and it disgusts me as a gamer.

If the only way some people can approach children within gaming is as a potential audience then I have a little “Futurology” of my own for them. These are your future customers, it’s probably not wise to mess with their heads.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.


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