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Bits, Buttons, and Boys: Video games and the mediation of cognitive, psychological, and social development in adolescent males

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Bits, Buttons, and Boys: Video games and the mediation of cognitive, psychological, and social development in adolescent males
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   1 Bits, Buttons, and Boys: Video games and the mediation of cognitive, psychological, and social development in adolescent males © Stephanie Urso Spina City University of New York  Multimedia session presented at the American Educational Research Conference, New Orleans, April 2002 Introduction: When two Colorado teens killed 13 students and then themselves in April, 1999, once again leaving friends, relatives, and the rest of the country struggling to make sense out of seemingly senseless acts, “experts” were called upon to impart meaning to the tragedy. Many of these psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, and other professionals blamed the usual scapegoats: elements of teenage culture like the black trench coats worn by the Littleton murderers, the music, television shows, and movies they watched, the video games they played (See Spina, 2000). Rather than facing the real socio-economic and ideological issues that contribute to our country's proclivity for violence, our attention was diverted, with strong support from the gun lobby (Klein & Chancer, 2000), to media violence. Video games were singled out as particularly dangerous influences on youth. Yet the research I am about to present, much to my surprise, found a great deal of value in violent role-playing video games. This study argues that a social semiotic perspective can give us new insights into the appeal and function of video gaming to some of those who are its most avid players. A social semiotic construct is a symbolic system of meaning generated by the society (Hasan, 1973) to transmit, or control the transmission of, the patterns of a culture. Culture, therefore, is not a noun but an “active process of interpretation reciprocally requiring care and inquiry and endowing one in return with the broader perspective of community life” (Rochberg-Halton, 1986, p. 153). Video games comprise one social semiotic system that constitute a culture. As such they actively symbolize the social system and serve as an expression of and a metaphor for society while actively participating in the mediation of societal — and individual — meaning (McLuhan, 1964, in Provenzo, 1991). From a semiotic perspective, meaning is multilevel and is embodied in a diversity of tangible signs of the self grounded in the social milieu. This view counters the traditional western emphasis on the Cartesian separation of mind and body and the splitting of the self from the environment. The semiotically mediated self becomes both subject and object to oneself (and to others) — the object of one's own interpretation (Rochberg-Halton 1986). It both shapes and is shaped by experience. Thus, this view of self is inextricably related to social and cultural forces. This relationship is the cornerstone of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. Critical to Vygotsky’s developmental approach is the dialectic between self and self, self and other, and self and society.   2 According to Vygotsky, development begins with external social activity and ends with internal individual activity (Wertsch, 1985). This basic tenet of Vygotsky's developmental analysis situates human mental processes in their historical context, grounding them in time and place. This emphasis on process and its situatedness in context (Strauss & Quinn, 1994) leads to a dynamic sense of self as "a being who is growing and becoming" (Taylor, 1989, p. 50). Semiotic mediation is central to this process, being the connection between the internal and external and the social and individual. Semiotic mediation is the means by which we organize the world and make it meaningful. According to Vygotsky (1978), the development of concepts, including self-concept or identity formation, is based on semiotic mediation. To Vygotsky, development is ontological. In ontogeny, all processes of development — biological and historical-cultural — are simultaneous and interconnected. This is in contrast to the phylogentic view whereby historical-cultural development displaces the biological (Scribner, 1985). Thus, Vygotsky has refocused our attention from the traditional emphasis on performance and products of development to the underlying processes. Individuals use a variety of symbols in the processes of cognitive, psychological, and social development. These symbols are often situated in a subculture that supports and sustains one’s sense of belonging (Shaw, 1994; Lightfoot, 1997). Since adolescents spend almost half of their time in leisure activities that involve media (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984), and playing video games is a substantial component of these activities, it seems imperative to explore their role in development. And because, cross-culturally, puberty represents a passage into adulthood and is considered a social and developmental milestone, it is especially important to understand these processes in young adolescents. (Text that accompanies film) Because youth culture is generally and generationally viewed with disdain by adults, it is often seen as offensive or degenerate. As John Dewey said, we measure the “goodness” of children by “the amount of trouble they make for grownups, which means of course the amount they deviate from adult habits and expectations” (1922, p.99). Youth have been demonized, romanticized, and criticized without representation; without voice. Video games (and gamers) in particular have been the focus of severe criticism from parents, professionals, and organized groups. These critics, not being semioticians, frequently do not see beyond the external surface or concrete materiality of the games’ content. Their views are often the result of glib observations that focus on the sheer spectacle of gaming through lenses colored by their subjective views of cyberculture as dangerous, subversive, and de-humanizing. A semiotic 1  perspective, on the other hand, tends to take a less judgmental view toward media than more traditional approaches which dismiss it with disparaging terms such as "trivial" and "vulgar." (This is in no way meant to deny the importance of content or to minimize its   3 effects, but to recognize that issues such as game biases and violence per se are not within the scope of this paper.) Semiotics recognizes that, while wearing baggy pants, listening to hip-hop, and playing video games may be seen as a struggle with authoritative discourses, it is also a way of creating discourses — of creating meaning — and that we have much to learn from inviting conversations with the full range of younger voices. At this point, I wish to thank my son, David, for his help collecting the video clips for this session, and the 12 thirteen-year-old boys who taught me so much in the course of the study this presentation draws on. The voices of these young men resound throughout this paper — not just in their words but in its very form and function. All were part of a network of friends (including friends of friends) who knew each other from school or extracurricular activities. Because they were associated by virtue of the sampling method, they were fairly homogenous in some ways, yet very different in others. All were average to above average eighth grade public school students. Their ethnic backgrounds included Indian (1), Puerto Rican (3), Chinese (1), Korean (1), Jewish (2), African-American (1), Italian (1), Irish (1), and Russian (1) ancestry. Religions were similarly varied. They were average to above-average students and overwhelmingly preferred role-playing games. In RPGs, as in many areas of life, no one tells you the rules in advance. Players must figure out what the characters and objects mean and how they act and interact. Winning does not depend only on the perceptual and physical coordination to push the right buttons with the right speed at the right time. Thus the findings may not be applicable to other game genres or populations. Building on the work of Bakhtin and Vygotsky, this paper argues that the notion of carnival can be useful to account for and provide new insights into youth culture in general and, more specifically, into both the pleasures and purposes of gaming. For the purposes of this presentation, Carnival is considered a semiotic inversion and extrusion (See Spina, 1998) of the conventional. Carnival, following Bakhtin, is a means for displaying otherness that embodies relations and highlights its constructedness through an emphasis on transgressions, sensuality, violence, and the grotesque — rather than subjectivity, restraint, or morality. It celebrates that considered base and vile in ritualized spectacle, parodies, and travesties — creating a parallel universe without social hierarchy or cultural taboos and all they engender. Satiric, self-referential, and irreverent (long before postmodernism became fashionable), Bakhtinian carnival unmasks the arbitrariness of normative assumptions and distinctions, and shows them for the power plays they really are, even if, as Eco has argued, it is only a short-lived “authorized” transgression. In any case, carnival metamorphosizes identity, violates boundaries, and mocks mores. Like the humor of adolescent boys, it revels in body orifices and functions, which — not coincidentally — must be increasingly controlled as one crosses the threshold to adult society. It is a performative space where identities can be tried on and discarded, like the costumes of game characters long favored by these boys for Halloween and dress-up play acting where risk taking is sanctioned and safe, and escape is elemental. This is not to privilege carnival as more or less “authentic,” but to recognize the function   4 of its symbolic fusion of the roles of spectator and performer (player) and the dissolution of social boundaries. Discussion Part of the pleasure of gaming is related to identification with the grotesque violence and corporeal destruction of the games which symbolically transgress conventional standards of behavior. Yet, as the participants in this study emphasized It’s not real It’s fun It helps me unwind after a hard day at school It gets the anger out Nobody gets hurt and I feel better after I play As in Rabelais’ Gargantua (Bakhtin, 1984), where the Catchpoles earn their living by letting themselves be graphically and violently beaten and then suddenly return to life, much like the habitually flattened Coyote in Roadrunner cartoons, the violence serves as a symbolic action and is not directed at the supposed victim — but elsewhere. It is carnivalesque violence. It is becoming, change, and renewal. It is death and resurrection. Whether hockey or warfare, humans or gargoyles, super heroes or machines, cartoon characters or monsters, the complex polyphonic interaction of technology, aesthetic, narrative, visual, verbal, aural, and ideological signs contributes to the chronotopic or hyper-reality of the games. In Bakhtinian terms, polyphony, or multi-voicedness, creates the conditions for dialogism and thereby enhances the reality of the characters and setting. We have all, I’m sure, experienced the odd sensation of disorientation that accompanies our transition from one chronotopic reality to another as we return to our own time-space (or chronotope) after immersion in a good novel or film. Similarly, video games foster a polyphonic (or multi-voiced) dialogism that interactively constructs meaning at the intersection of the historical and social contexts of heteroglossia — which, in this case, refers to the semiotic mediation of opposing intentions. That is, the visceral experience of these carnivalesque environments unites psyche and soma, fusing the roles of spectator and performer, thereby heightening their ability to serve as semiotic mediators of genuine social import. The experiential “reality” of playing games was mentioned as a critically important feature of gaming by each of the participants in this study. During play, each boy would speak in first person, as the character he had chosen to play. According to the boys, the choice is determined by the character’s abilities and suitedness for advancing the game without regard to sex, ethnicity, or even species. Yet, particularly for male adolescent players, the sexuality of the games is an important element. The New York Times Sunday Magazine Styles page, on July 11th, 1998, featured a character from the game Final Fantasy VII, Tifa Lockheart, as the pin-up of the cyber-generation. Her animated competitor, Tomb Raider’s  Lara Croft (embodied by Angelina Jolie in the film version), receives steamy letters from males of all post-pubescent ages. Nonetheless, the teenage boys in this study had no reservations about adopting female roles in the games, just as dressing as a member of the “opposite” sex is an accepted part of traditional   5 Carnival. Similarly, a variety of races, ethnicities, and even species are equally assumable identities. (I wish I had time to go off on this tangent here and explore the implications for the semiosis of gendered and racial identities — but perhaps another time...) All of this is more than a cathartic or orgasmic “Brave New World” experience of power and sensuality. While all of these elements contribute to the experience, they remain ephemeral. What is more significant is that, while there are differences in each game and character, the iconography and fantasy all center around power play of frequently mythic proportions. Many video games, especially those involving action/adventure themes, use the symbolic characters and language of myths and dreams which have the potential to put us “in touch with deeper regions of the human psyche" (Shore, 1995). These games are often constructed around stories of life and death or good vs. evil and feature a bestiary of creatures (see Shank, 1987, 1998) “belonging to the mythology of everyone, eternally present in the collective unconscious memory and in the dream world where everything is a symbol” (Rowland, 1973, p. xviii, in Shank, 1987). Such deeply embedded mythological and carnivalesque symbol systems make visible some of the invisible forces of life and society and provide dramatic ground for the complex negotiations of meaning and the resolution of inter- and intra-personal conflicts. In play, as described by Vygotsky (1978), the child suspends other possible interpretations of things in the environment are suspended and the player becomes caught up in a pretend world...The individual gets caught up in a particular game or cultural system and sees himself or herself as an agent in it. Thus, while themselves part of the social fabric of our culture, video games can paradoxically provide a means of escape from the pressures of this culture. Conversely, as well as a means of escape and a forum for symbolic risk-taking, the games simultaneously provide an opportunity for identification with the hegemonic patriarchy and its emphasis on power. For example, while the adolescent boys in this study demonstrated and verbalized resistance to traditional roles of male identity and dominant codes of authority, they simultaneously identified with them, in carnivalesque form and function, in on-screen games of power, knowledge, and control. The strength and appeal of video games lie in their ability to symbolically broach boundaries and play with contradictions. In video game worlds there is generally little moral complexity or ambiguity. Bloodied bodies disappear like the spilled milk of yesterday’s childhood — and most likely with fewer consequences. Participation in such games may be seen as a ritual encounter with power and authority that turns the tables on the normal role of “child” they will be leaving (with some reluctance) and lets them vicariously assume some aspects of the adult male role they are expected to take on. This was also evident in the enthusiastic answers to a question nine of the boys subsequently named as their “favorite” or “the most important question” in the interview. Since the boys experienced such a strong sense of fusion with characters that already existed in the games, it was supposed that asking them to create a new character would provide a greater opportunity for them to semiotically mediate identity and that such a personalized character would provide a better vehicle for projection and self-representation than the commercial versions. The question was:
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