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Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children's Software

Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children's Software

by Mizuko Ito
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA USA/London UK, 2009
224 pp., illus. 34 b/w. Trade, $24.95/£18.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01335-2.

Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds

by Celiia Pearce and Artemesia
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA USA/London UK, 2009
336 pp., illus. 67 b/w. Trade, $29.95/£22.95
ISBN: 0-262-16257-1.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher,
Saginaw Valley State University


These two books are about two different kinds of game software.  The first documents the users of educational games, where kids learn while playing games infused with prescribed curricular content.  The second book enlarges a personal story of what adults learned while playing, recognizing and commenting upon their own behavior and their commitment to their particular virtual neighborhood.  Both are welcome additions to the corpus of software studies.

In the first chapter of Engineering Play, Mizuko Ito discusses her methodology and research sites, Boys and Girls Clubs in California's Silicon Valley and the San Francisco peninsula, and some in southern California.  The second chapter is informed by the many years of experiences of Ann Piestrup McCormick, co-founder of the Learning Company, San Diego and other developers.  This reviewer remembers an engaging lecture, about fifteen years ago, to BayCHI in Palo Alto, a regional chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction organization.  That evening McCormick showed a prototype for adult reading software that memorably included an image of Susan Greene's mural on a San Francisco socialist bookstore.

Subsequent chapters provide astute analysis of the marketing of educational games, and the subtle, often class-based meanings that their advertisements convey.  Ito is an attentive observer and recorder of the children’s interactions with games like Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body or The Island of Doctor Brain. Most fun are the instances of kids hacking the system, purposefully creating unnatural disasters to their constructed metropolitan agglomerations in SimCity, perhaps as much to provoke consternation in the grad student researchers monitoring them as out of sheer joy at watching things go boom.  It’s amusing how the kids subvert the pedagogical potential of SimCity to shape careful and responsible city planners, as they create cataclysmic disasters just for the heck of it.  This may be as an outlet for inchoate anger at parental and school authority, or an innate human pleasure in explosions and fire.

There aren’t de-urbanizing explosions to be found there, but Celia Pearce is the impassioned player at the center of her book, Communities of Play.  After the multi-player avatar world called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was shut down, still-loyal players rebuilt it at There.com.  She details the concerted migration (their “diaspora”) of participants from one commercial online social world to others, after the original owners pulled the plug, leaving only a terse error message onscreen.  Player-driven Uru recreations in There.com, and then Second Life, were built upon their shared collective memories, adapting—as exiles always do—to the circumstances of their new home.  Sometimes brand loyalty is created and then cavalierly thrown away, for Uru’s owners were unaware of the participants’ loyalty to the peaceful, convivial, industrious arena.  Theirs was a place where players could creatively invent polo games with themselves (hey, you can’t hurt an avatar) as the balls.

Pearce contextualizes her anthropological approach to her material, and reads with sensitivity the various contradictions to be found in the study of adult play communities, whether virtual or corporeal.  She maps them—MUDs, MMOGs, MMOWs—and their characteristics, with special interest in co-created, open-ended metaverses.  Her term “Paidaic” for them intentionally evokes classical public life, whose emergent cultural forms include not only play but also milestone rituals like weddings.

With bemusement she tells of the limited choices in constructing female avatars, whom all seem to come out looking like collegiate Lara Crofts.  Pearce peppers her book with postings by Uru participants, whom all bear Tolkienesque monikers like Tristan, Raena and Aria of Katran.  The book is well illustrated with numerous black and white screenshots. There is genuine passion, loss, and mourning felt by these wandering Uru players for their online homelands and avatar selves within.  Evidence of the personal investment people had in their Uru avatars is how Pearce shares co-authorship with hers, Artemesia.  This seems a bit precious, since Pearce doesn’t convincingly prove the avatar ever acts independently of her; surprisingly sometimes, perhaps.  If she’s concerned with letting fellow Uru participants know that Artemesia’s human wrote this book, “Celia Pearce a.k.a. Artemesia” might’ve been a sufficient byline.

Authors Ito and Pearce look to ethnography as an immersive methodology of research and participation.  Both books are attentive to gender issues in educational game and online recreational participation.  Therefore it seems odd that there’s little citation of 1990s girls’ games researcher-qua-entrepreneur Brenda Laurel (a single mention of Computers as Theater in Pearce).  Nor is there any of contemporary academic game developer Mary Flanagan.   Here the reader resists making snide parental comments about time spent in online game play vs. in the university library.

Last Updated 1 May, 2010

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