Update: Been a busy PhD (Media Studies) student – submitted my first full draft, now editing chapters, strengthening arguments, etc. I thought I’d share this for now…

Image from No Soap Box http://www.nosoapbox.com

Thesis title: Performing and configuring ludic identities: Exploring children’s digital gameplay in two settings in Cape Town


This thesis offers new ideas about situated meanings of gameplay in the South African context by illustrating how gender, ethnicity and age play out for children in this context through domestication of gaming media within peer relationships as well as in relation to institutions that govern childhood such as the school and family.

It explores the diversity of gameplay and its various configurations, shifting it away from the focus on agonistic or conflictual play which is hegemonic in Game Studies and other dominant technicities. This contextual study of gameplay is situated in relation to Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies, Game Studies, New Media Theory and studies of digital literacies and game literacy.

The study explores how children in two Cape Town settings; an after-school Arts and Crafts club and a holiday club; construct ludic (i.e. playful) identities in various relationships. The study documents children’s identity construction through digital game play in their relationships with peers, and also in response to the gatekeeping role of adult regimes of control, such as parental rules and the regulations of ratings bodies. Children’s playground discourse mark digital games and related technologies as objects of conspicuous consumption that signify middle class assimilation. Boys and girls mark their gender identities through appropriations of particular games within same-sex and cross-gender peer groups. The children in the two research settings played a range of age-appropriate laptop and PlayStation 3 games. Fifty children participated in this study. More than 100 hours of gameplay were observed and recorded over a period of six months. Social network analysis and discourse analytic methods were used to understand children’s appropriations of digital games in relation to peers and adult authorities. The children’s interactions with the games and peers suggest that they valued particular kinds of play, interpreting game rules according to their own interests to make single-player games playable for more players at the same time.

Analyses of children’s negotiation of game rules question Game Studies definitions of ‘play’ and ‘games’. Theoretical contributions of this study include: proposing wider definitions of ‘play’ and ‘games’, challenging ‘magic circle’ (Huizinga, 1949) views of play which see such spaces as ideologically neutral, expanding on definitions of configuration in New Media Theory by considering children’s social configurations and meanings of games during play, recognising normative models of childhood and access inscribed by notions of game literacy, and how rhetorics of play (Sutton-Smith, 1997) position research on children and digital games in particular ways. It also provides a more nuanced understanding of how children navigate existing power relations with adult authorities in the process of constituting their ludic identities.

This thesis approaches children’s ludic identities as relational constructions, not residing in the minds of individual children, but rather performed and configured through discursive interactions. The children’s gaming practices in this study are treated as instances of appropriation (Silverstone 1994, Nyamnjoh 2002), which involves an assemblage of social practices and local meanings that children use to perform and configure gendered identities in relation to the platforms and games available, their peers and adult authorities. A cultural studies approach highlights the contextual nature of gameplay by drawing on Butler’s (1993) notion of gender performativity.


Angry Birds – SERIOUS business?

Wired magazine April 2011

I decided to dedicate a blog post to the Angry Birds phenomenon to remind myself of interesting episodes I observed with the children playing this game on my laptop during their time at a holiday club (my field site). If you’d like to know more about Angry Birds or are interested in flash and mobile games, read “In depth: How Rovio made Angry Birds a winner (and what’s next)”, a recent feature published in Wired magazine (this month’s copy, it’s cover is graced with our feathered friends too:). For the journos out there, this is a very well-written feature article  – except for the lead which says that games are a waste of time, but that’s probably an ironic lead because the article expands on the time it took for Angry Birds to reach the average Joe as well as how profitable this little loveable app has become. Not to mention the comments – they’re quite funny but also provide evidence of the kinds of things people think about in relation to Angry Birds. One of the first comments said ‘wish it was a little less violent’… You’re ‘killing’ pigs (that magically pop/explode without blood) because they stole your eggs. The moral of the story: don’t steal other people’s eggs. Just joking, but come on – Angry Birds being violent?

The six/three (you get less birds the further you progress through the levels) birds to complete a level made for some interesting turn-taking which the children came up with all on their own. There was also lots of competition, which led to the kids finishing more levels than I have. Mainly, I found it remarkable how they transformed the game, which although it can be played as a flash game online and many kids do so, is designed for a single user – as a flash game and more recently as a mobile app. One of the boys even reported playing the game on his dad’s iPad. So Angry Birds took on a new social meaning at the club – it was no longer a game designed for a single user or even casual gaming. For primary school kids, Angry Birds became serious business…

Brief review of games/tech related articles in Child magazine

I found some interesting articles in Child magazine, ‘SA’s best guide for parents’. Many schools in Cape Town distribute the Cape Town one for free to parents.

Six electronic gadgets that will help your children learn in a fun way lists DS Lite, iPad and Kinect. About Kinect, journo Tamlyn Vincent claims: “Why it works: While it comes with the normal assortment of games, Kinect also has a range of games that will help your children learn. Fantastic Pets and Kinectimals have you interacting with and learning about domestic and wild animals respectively. Body and Brain Connection gives the player a range of puzzles to test maths, logic and memory. There are also a variety of fitness and sports games to choose from.” Just the kind of thing parents love to hear.

The magazine’s back issues are easily accessible. The Cape Town Dec2010/Jan2011 mag has an article titled ‘MXit for Dummies‘  which I think is really nice because it’s a great guide for parents, informing them about MXit and how to get involved in their children’s social media experiences early on. This is very different to what I’ve experienced at schools – teachers are very anti MXit and many instill fear amongst parents and children about it. Children are told not to upload pictures to Facebook of them wearing their school uniforms because of the pedophiles out there, etc.

However, and article from the November 2010 edition titled “Fight or fantasy: Are electronic games making your child aggressive?” by Glynis Horning just reinforces moral panic by privileging effects research. However, one of the strengths of the article is that it says parents need to become more actively involved by learning more about games, playing them with their children and paying attention to ratings.

Sidetrack musing: Below is just one of the kinds of images Kinect uses, but Nintendo and Wii have very similar kinds of representations depicting a very idealized family life, most often there are two parents, the families are white, their home is immaculate and the family is shown playing together with big toothy smiles on their faces. C’mon – we all know that’s not how it looks on the home-front…

A South African perspective: children & digital games

Once I finished my MA on children’s use of educational software I found that there was very little research on South African children’s  use of commercial games. The majority of current research came  from the UK and USA. I even found lots of interesting work by Finnish  game scholars, but SA based research was scarce and I could count  the names of academics who had written about or had a research  interest in games in SA with one hand:  my supervisor Marion Walton,  Alan Amory and Steve Vosloo.  I felt that this was an area in need of  exploration because SA is a developing country and consumers here are often just a byproduct – globally distributed products are intentionally designed for people living in First World countries. In contrast to other countries, we got access to games and other technological resources relatively late thanks to apartheid and various sanctions against SA.

As a child, I played DOS games at home and at school and some of my friends had ‘TV games’ or SEGA consoles. My mom played the early LeisureSuite Larry and Prince of Persia games. I played Jazz Jackrabbit, The Lion King, Aladdin, Sam & Max and we had quite a collection of educational CD-ROM products such as Encarta, Ancient Lands, Dangerous Creatures and Dinosaurs. We also had clip art software to make cards as well as Mulan Print Studio. I find it interesting that children still have a relationship with Disney products, but in a different way because there is so much more available at the same time. There is even a Disney Channel and film franchises such as High School Musical. Although SA kids are not unique in what they consume due to globalisation (games, movies, TV, music, etc.) there are some differences in how they are consuming these products.

According to Euromonitor International, subdued market performance characterized the toys and games market in SA in 2010:

“The market performance for toys and games demonstrated declining trends over the review period. This affected developments in both traditional toys and games as well as video games hardware and software. The declining market performance can be attributed to the challenging conditions faced by consumers as a result of the economic recession. In video games, market performance was also affected by the growth in online gaming as well as the persistent problem of piracy.” (see Executive Summary)

For more insight on the gaming situation in SA, read The Lost South African Game Developer Interviews:

– Part 1: An Interview With Travis Bulford
– Part 2: An Interview With Luke Lamothe
– Part 3: An Interview With Danny Day
– Part 4: An Interview With Jacques Krige
– Part 5: An Interview With Damien Classen
– Part 6: An Interview With Judd Simantov

Gamasutra also had an interesting feature titled “The South African Game Development Scene: Past, Present, and Future” (2009) by Oliver Snyders.  Although these resources are focused on game development, they also allow for some insight into the consumption of games in SA.