Sunday, June 29, 2008

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I consider my offspring to be basically good kids: they get good grades, they can pay attention for hours at a time at operas and movies with subtitles, and they know not to show disrespect for the profession of teaching.

But they also love having fun with computers. And kids who like to have fun with computers spend a lot of time in school tech labs turning ingeniousness that sadly could have been spent learning programming skills toward how to get around institutional screening software. The main reason is that these programs block access to online games, supposedly in the interest of emphasizing the educational aspects of computer-mediated experiences.

As Mimi Ito has pointed out in her essay on "Education vs. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children's Software" in the "Hidden Agendas" section of Katie Salen's recent collection, The Ecology of Games, "the politics of enrichment, indulgence, and empowerment" in kids' computer labs often expresses a particular ideology about the "structural opposition" of "education" and "entertainment" as cultural categories. Ian Bogost has argued that the denigration of games also has a lot to do with a particular rhetoric around cultural politics that closely identifies gaming with childish activities and immature time-wasting and refuses to accept games as legitimate cultural products.

Last night the two brothers were reminiscing with each other about their elementary school computer lab exploits and comparing notes on technique. What's interesting is that both of them worked in duos to accomplish their subversive ends, much I suppose as pickpockets work in pairs, in order to have one partner working on distraction while the other executes the exploit. My older son's accomplice was a chess-playing Russian-speaking boy who collected Warhammer figurines. My younger son paired up with a vidogame-playing young Sikh who was the son of an transnational IT professional. In the spirit of collective intelligence, this younger pair also sometimes teamed up with a brace of geek girls pursuing similar undermining of the software.

Older brother described realizing that both the "secret" user name and the password for superceding the system were the same as the name of the elementary school. Younger brother told about how the kids figured out that the post-it note with a three digit code stuck to the tech person's computer contained the key to the lock that they were seeking. They also talked about using "ghost" technologies to mask domain names and compared notes on the tools and techniques from sites like I also learned about how they accessed "cheat codes" for the timed typing games that are the pedagogical centerpiece of many keyboarding classes for grade-schoolers.

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