Category Archives: Pop Culture

Gender in Comp Sci & Computer Games

A few things have had me thinking about gender stereotyping and role enforcement recently… not normally a topic I’d tackle, but as ‘blog o the month’ at ISTE Island I guess I’d better try and be erudite and wise… ;-)

It started pre-Christmas, reading in the Grauniad about how pink is being used more than ever in marketing and packaging for toys for girls. Becky Francis, an educational researcher at Roehampton reviews the gender divide in toys and notes:

“The very clear message seems to be that boys should be making things, using their hands and solving problems, and girls should be caring and nurturing,” she says. “It is likely that many of the boys in the study sleep with a teddy, but this was not noted by parents as a favourite toy.”

A similar article appeared a few days ago in the Torygraph bemoaning the ‘Pink Plague’.

I recall a genuine feeling when I was an undergraduate that the strictly defined gender roles were being eroded and greater equality between the genders was being reached, so its a bit of a shock to realise that in the world of toys the differences are more entrenched than ever. For example, buying what I considered a very gender neutral toy a few years ago – a basic Lego set – I noticed that the store had decided it was a ‘boys toy’ and it had been stickered as such.

JeongMee Yoon has been making a pictorial archive of the blue/pink divide, and it makes interesting viewing here. There is some scientific work trying to determine the origin of this preference, although I think this has some way to go and is open to criticism currently – such as for studying the colour preferences of adults who are presumably already affected by cultural factors (Hurlbert & Ying, 2007) or for failing to take account of the history of colour/gender ties. As JeongMee notes:

Pink was once a color associated with masculinity, considered to be a watered down red and held the power associated with that color. In 1914, The Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers to “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” The change to pink for girls and blue for boys happened in America and elsewhere only after World War II.

Indeed, had pink always had the same associations it now holds, perhaps Fenton Tower in the Scottish Borders might not have seemed particularly fearsome because of its girlish hue…

But what has this got to do with computer games and computer science? More below…

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Games, politics and media

Over at, Brian Baglow has some prime examples of media and political distortion around games, crime and violence. First, a member of parliament who continues to assert that Manhunt had a role to play in a murder, even though the police claim there was no link (and the game was owned by the victim, not the killer).  And not one, but two stories about how the media works to get the evidence it wants to write sensationalist stories round games and violence.

All these stories point to challenges in establishing serious and informed debate over the benefits and risks of new media, with the sensationalist undeniably winning in mainstream media column inches.

More information and less informed

Last month’s Wired had an interesting piece titled “Despite the Web, Americans Remain Woefully Ill-Informed”. It should be here, but I get a content not found error message. Instead, you can search for “wired infoporn” on Google and check the cached version of the page…

More than a decade after the Internet went mainstream, the world’s richest information source hasn’t necessarily made its users any more informed. A new study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that Americans, on average, are less able to correctly answer questions about current events than they were in 1989. Citizens who call the Internet their primary news source know slightly less than fans of TV and radio news.


The decision of the BBFC to deny a rating to controversial game Manhunt 2 has effectively banned it in the UK – making it illegal for shops to sell the game. The game has similarly been on the receiving end of effective bans in the USA and elsewhere.

The BBFC recently issued a report on classification, and generally has a good relationship with the game industry in the UK, which makes the decision interesting. Some links for further reading below…

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TV culture makes us smarter than… what?

Scott McCloud recently finished Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You Book”, and gives it a very positive review. I still haven’t read it all the way through – I dipped in, but couldn’t really engage with it at the time. I did post a couple of blog entries contrasting the overall message of the book with that of Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, here and here. Now to add some more to the discussion…

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Amused to death

Well, finished reading Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’m aware that both Marc Prensky and Steve Johnson have read it, though as far as I can see neither really addresses its main points. A few ideas are flying around my head just now, I’ll try and set them down with some semblance of order.

A very core point is that digital visual media present the world in a very different way from type.

“Television’s strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads.” (p. 123)

“Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television-teaching always takes the form of story-telling…” (p. 148)

With television, or graphical games, how can we teach philosophy or spirituality? Or are these subjects to be considered unsuitable for the 21st Century? It is not that games or television cannot or do not have content about philosophy or spirituality, but these mediums are simply not suited to dealing with abstractions. Instead, we might expect programmes centred on the lives and characters of preachers, philosophers or scientists, rather than their abstract notions (‘Longitude’ is only one of many programmes that comes to mind here). If it can’t be shown easily in an image flashed on screen, it doesn’t work well in a visual medium. Continue reading

Smarter and Sillier!

I’m finding it entertaining at the minute reading bits from “Everything bad…” alongside sections of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. We know Johnson has read the Postman book – he refers to it towards the very end at least – but it is interesting how he avoids its arguments entirely. In looking to the ‘cognitive challenges’ that pop culture makes of it viewers and participants, Johnson generally (but not always) avoids discussing the content.
Postman, on the other hand, argues that the medium constrains and shapes the content in very real ways.
Johnson finds that Pop Culture is making us smarter. Postman, that due to popular culture – and the mediums that carry it – “we are getting sillier by the minute”. Postman did not see the rise of blogs and wikis, but his comments on the fragmentation of information surely apply at least equally as well to these new forms of communication as they did to television.

Is it possible that as pop culture sharpens the abilities to deal with visual media, the speed by which people react to visual cues increases, the ability to track multiple threads grows (to accept Johnson’s arguments) that the abilities to search for depth rather than breadth, to concentrate on individual tasks, to build extended and reasoned arguments is impaired?

Pretend to play games – get cred!

As will become increasingly obvious as this blog progresses, I am a games-based learning skeptic. A bit of a funny thing for someone whose day job is teaching computer game development, but there you go.

It’s not that I think games are bad, or that games can’t be educational – but rather that the educational value of games is wildly overstated by some of the GBL evangelists. I think some of the claims made are a little wild and outrageous and, as far as I can see, are lacking in strong supporting evidence. It will take me a while to detail all of these – but first lets go back to the Marc Prensky quote from a few days ago.

Marc recommended to a hall of over a thousand Scottish primary and secondary school (ages 5-17) teachers that they just mention a game – say ‘Civilization 3′ – and gain instant respect and cred, even if they don’t play games at all. Its basically the same as having a teacher pretend to like the current crop of bands. Anyone who ever had a teacher pretend to be trendy knows how that comes across. Even if they happen to pick the right band/game, what realistic chance do they have of kidding the pupils?

Last time I had a room full of secondary school pupils, and was talking about games, I was discussing and playing Burnout 3 and SingStar for my examples (idea blatantly stolen from Hull’s Jon Purdy). They wanted to talk about and play Grand Theft Auto – if it gains ‘cred’ is it right for a teacher to discuss strategies for playing an 18 rated game with significantly younger pupils?

This Modern Life

I was going to explain my views on yesterday’s post, but instead something came up.

Modern life leads to more depression among children… so claims an open letter to The Daily Telegraph. A range of the usual suspects are rolled out – junk food, ‘screen based entertainment’, and a lack of contact with parents and carers.

It’s actually all (well, see below) very reasonable and, reading it closely, it’s a lot less reactionary than one might expect of a letter sent to The Daily Telegraph. Well, at least the opinion piece and comments doesn’t disappoint in reactionary content with talk of a ‘sinister cocktail’ of modern life.

But, back to the letter itself. One of the points it argues against is the excessive amount of assessment in UK primary schools. The increase in assessment in UK schools does appear to have led to an increase in teaching-to-the-assessment. In particular because it’s not just the pupils who are graded based on assessments – the schools are too. So it has become in the interest of schools to focus teaching as tightly on what get assessed as possible. Not a good development, and not good for children.

I have to say that I’m not quite so sure about a couple of the points though.

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