More Processing … this time for Kids

mapcoords mapcoords ms_pacman

Mozilla is running a free online collaborative course to explore new ways of teaching digital literacies through making and learning together. It’s called Teach the Web This leads up to the Mozilla #makerparty, which celebrates the web and making, two of my favourite things.

I’ve joined a group who are discussing ‘Creative Coding with Canvas’ and so am hoping to get some new ideas and tips about how to teach coding-shy design students and newbies about the HTML Canvas element. As my contribution to this group, I thought I’d share an introductory programming course that I’ve been running with a group of teens at the Ikamva Youth branch in Makhaza, Cape Town.  They call themselves the Ikamvacoders – what an inspiring group of young people.

Hard-working Ikamvacoders take a break
Hard-working Ikamvacoders take a break

The course introduces some basic programming topics using Processing and Processing.js, a language designed for visual expression. Processing is based in Java, but now makes it easy to export procedural art, interactive sketches, simple games and animations to Javascript, via processing.js, which uses  the HTML5 canvas element. Processing now also provides a very effective and easy Android mode.

Learning Processing from Pacman

Processing comes with absolutely beautiful tutorials, clearly explained examples and extensive online resources. In my experience, although these resources are aimed at non-programmers, they are generally pitched a bit high for absolute beginners, particularly for kids. The Ikamvacoders asked whether they could learn how to build a simple 2D game. This led me to develop some absolute beginner Processing tutorials around a Pacman theme.

As you’ll see the tutorials are still quite sketchy, and I hope to have some time to put in some extra explanatory details which I handle verbally in my classes. But the examples all work and they should provide a good starting point for anyone who wants to take this visual approach to teaching programming.

The Ikamvacoders also want to make web portfolios and I’m looking forward to introducing them to some of the new Mozilla tools, so that they can start publishing their own work using tools such as Thimble and Popcorn Maker, which look perfect for kids and teens working at this introductory level.

Future goals – mobile Processing

I’m extremely impressed with how the Ikamvacoders have taken to  Processing, but its frustrating that they have so little access to computers, so little time to practice their skills. Overall my objective is to investigate mobile interfaces to developing Processing sketches. These need to work on the phones even when they are out of airtime (this happens a lot of the time). This kind of app will allow them to tinker and mess around more,  even when they’re not at the computer.

If I have time, I’ll also post about a similar course I run with media students at the University of Cape Town, where the focus is on webmaking for journalists.

Internet and electricity are also basic needs for South African schools

Basic infrastructure for every school.
Basic infrastructure for every school.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are particularly apparent in educational infrastructure. While some children don’t have toilets, brick classrooms or electricity, others go to schools with broadband, computer labs, laptops or tablets, which they start using before they even go to school. Such technologies are often flaunted as markers of superior education, and used to differentiate expensive private or semi-private schools from the cheap or free government schools.

According to our constitution, everyone has the right to equality, and to a ‘basic’ education. In addition, the state needs to take reasonable measures to progressively make it possible for more citizens to access further education. Should internet access and electrical infrastructure be considered part of this ‘basic’ package that must be made available to all South African children? If schools introduce children to internet use, isn’t that a  ‘reasonable’ way to facilitate their access to further education later in their lives?  I would argue that it is.

Much of my own research focuses on the problems of technological solutionism. In other words, it’s a serious and often expensive mistake to believe that you can ‘solve’ difficult social problems such as education with technology. Technology projects are often poorly conceived forms of conspicuous consumption. Actual educational adoption is slow and tends to amplify existing pedagogic practices – what teachers already do. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that,  if infrastructure is not in place in some places, and is made accessible elsewhere, (particularly a highly enabling infrastructure such as the internet) you are effectively guaranteeing that the system perpetuates and magnifies existing inequalities.

Equal education have shown us how desperately some South African schools need sanitation and classrooms – children don’t have a hygienic toilet to use and principals struggle to access and maintain simple educational technologies such as desks and textbooks.  So it seems very Marie Antoinette to say ‘give them internet’. At the same time equal education increasingly does require connectivity, electricity, and creative, well-trained teachers and support staff who can make the most of available infrastructure. This means understanding local circumstances and practices in order to help teachers and young people to access and create online resources and networks via appropriate technologies and in local languages.  See for example, what the Shuttleworth Foundation managed to achieve a couple of years ago with basic feature phones and publishing mobile novels in isiXhosa on MXit, and more recently there’s this popular user-generated digital library which records local knowledge in isiZulu. For resilient local connectivity, there’s  this promising looking Kenyan-designed BRCK or ‘backup generator to the Internet’, which could work well with mobile devices.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga  has invited the public to comment on the Draft Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.My colleagues and I prepared some comments in response to the invitation and in support of the campaign by local NGO Equal Education for basic norms and standards:

We are a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town. Our projects focus specifically on digital and mobile communication in young people’s access to education and participation in youth culture. This work makes us painfully aware of the challenges faced by educators and learners in the South African education system, the barriers to young people’s participation in higher education, and the ongoing role of infrastructural inequalities originating in apartheid education. For example, in 2006, 17 percent of schools had no electricity, 12 percent had no reliable water source on site, 68 percent had no computers, 80 percent had no libraries, and 24 percent had grossly overcrowded classrooms, housing 45 learners or more (South Africa, 2008). Inequalities in adoption of computers and the Internet in this context has been documented relatively extensively in the academic literature, including our own research (see for example, Haupt, 2008; Kreutzer, 2009; Deumert, 2009; Walton, 2010; Pallitt, 2008; Prinsloo & Rowsell, 2012; Prinsloo & Walton, 2008; Schoon, 2012; Venter, 2012; Walton & and Kreutzer, 2009; Walton & Donner, 2012; Walton, Marsden, Hassreiter, & Allen, 2012; Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). Given the findings of this research we support Equal Education’s call for equalisation of the available infrastructure in South African schools, and their campaign for Minimum Norms and Standards for school infrastructure. In particular our comments on the draft norms and standards highlight areas within our expertise, notably the need to make electricity, Internet access and crucial educational spaces such as libraries, computer labs and media centres available to all learners in South Africa.

 Here is the document with our comments: Comments on norms and standards (pdf).

In my case, the comment was informed by recent research that I conducted with Jonathan Donner on a study of young people and internet use in public libraries and cybercafes in Cape Town. As a result of the study I became even more aware of the extent to which public library infrastructure for young people is grossly inadequate and overextended in Cape Town. To a large extent this can be attributed to the way people turn to public access facilities such as libraries and cybercafes to compensate for the inadequacies of school infrastructure and availability, and the excessively expensive cost of airtime and out-of-bundle mobile data in South Africa.

‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’ – realizing this goal of the Freedom Charter involves more than providing a desk and a toilet or plugging a device into an electrical socket and connecting it to the internet. But I fear that if we don’t provide these basic infrastructures, the dream of equal education will continue receding  further and further out of our reach.

Workshop with David Buckingham – Media Education, digital literacy and young people

Professor David Buckingham will be a visiting Andrew W. Mellon Scholar at the CFMS for the most of August. David is a leading researcher on children’s and young people’s interactions with electronic media, and on media literacy education.

Media education, digital literacies and young people

August 3 9-4pm

Venue: TB Davie Seminar Room, Postgraduate Centre, Otto Beit Bldg, Upper campus.

South Africa has had its share of panics about young people and digital media – most recently by placing age restrictions on Brett Murray’s controversial portrait of Jacob Zuma, The Spear of the Nation, while scandals involving abusive uses of mobile media have contributed to calls for cellphone bans in schools. At the same time there’s a belief that new technologies will allow young people to bypass the massive shortcomings of the educational system or that disgruntled young people will use new technologies to express themselves and transform their societies through civic action. This workshop will be a great opportunity to open a broader discussion about digital literacy and media education in South Africa, at what seems a key moment, when South Africa has more cell phones than people, and when rapid adoption of social media is redefining ‘private’ and ‘public’ and challenging the ways local broadcasters, politicians, educators and researchers engage with young people.
This workshop aims to develop a more nuanced view of young people’s relationships to digital media and technologies by addressing the following issues:

  • The diversity of technologies in use, and their relationship to different social contexts
  • The variety of ways in which young people are introduced to technology use at home, school and university,
  • What digital media means from young people’s perspectives, and distinctive appropriations in peer and interest groups
  • How distinctions in access to technology contribute to young people’s experiences of growing up in a highly unequal society.
  • How the rise of user generated content and social media affects the practices and mandate of teachers, public broadcasters and community media catering for young people,
  • The challenges of multimodal and networked communication to traditional print-centred curricula, and
  • How young people’s evolving practices and use of new media genres challenge existing research methods.

We hope to create a dialogue which will allow researchers and teachers to address the meaning of media literacy in relation to the violence, commodification, inequalities and surveillance young people live with, but also to account the new forms of connectedness, the pursuit of fantasy, intimacy and play, and the shifting possibilities emerging as young people engage with and imagine the world.

Here is a full programme for the day.

Here is a map of upper campus to help you find  the venue. Otto Beit building is C7 on the map.

Grand Theft South Africa? Local game literacies

”]GTA meets ZA in the imaginations of SA's young suburbanites

Here’s the abstract of a paper Nicci Pallitt and I just had accepted by the journal Language & Education:

‘Grand Theft South Africa’: Games, literacy and inequality in consumer childhoods

By Marion Walton and Nicola Pallitt

Discussions of ‘game literacy’ focus on the informal learning and literacies associated with games but seldom address  the diversity in young people’s gaming practices, and the highly differentiated technologies of digital gaming in use.  We use available survey data to show how, in South Africa, income inequalities influence consumption patterns, shaping experiences of digital games. Two case studies of young people’s play practices involving digital games in Cape Town suggest the fragmentation and inequalities of contemporary play practices and the need for a more inclusive understanding of digital gaming. Mobile phones offer more accessibility than other digital gaming platforms and local appropriations include display of micro-commodities, concealment of outdated technology, control strategies and deletion of functionality. Digital games articulate between multiple overlapping communicative spaces and hence complex cultural articulations arise when global game narratives are appropriated to make sense of racial otherness, crime and politics in South Africa. Since educational curricula cater for highly fractured publics, we ask whether it is advisable to speak of ‘game literacy’. We suggest the need to validate less strongly mediatised forms of play, and to address diverse identification practices in consumer culture, including prestige and status as well as othering and shame.

Here’s a prepublication version of the full article.


Games studies goes South

Our games panel proposal has been accepted for SACOMM 2011

This panel reports ethnographic approaches to play practices and digital gameplay in different sites in Cape Town, in the context of the regulation of the games industry in South Africa. Contributors explore the significance of games as commodities in the local context, identify digital literacies shaped by local socio-technical practices and differential levels of access, and theorize how commercial games produced in the North are being interpreted, reconfigured and appropriated in these South African contexts.

List of participants

Marion Walton, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town,

  • Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies: University of Cape Town,
  • Anja Venter, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town
  • Muya Koloko, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town


Digital games are an increasingly important part of consumer culture and feature particularly prominently in the lives of children and young people around the world. Game studies has only recently begun to address the ways in which gaming is a situated social activity (Buckingham, 2006, Burn, 2007; Pelletier, 2009) and to apply the insights of cultural and gender studies to gaming (e.g. Dovey and Kennedy, 2006; Carr et al., 2005) Nonetheless games studies researchers have not yet explored the significance of global differences in access to digital games, consoles and other consumer electronics, beyond an interest in how gaming in public access venues such as cybercafes can provide a pathway to ICT use in developing countries (Kolko & Putnam, 2009). Existing scholarship does not address the global diversity in gaming and play cultures, neither does it account for local cultural appropriations of games or explore how young people experience substantial inequalities in access to consumer goods, electricity, communicative infrastructure and bandwidth and how this shapes their play with digital games. In South Africa, basic mobile phones or public access computers are the most common digital gaming platform, while more expensive consoles and smartphones remain the preserve of a relatively small middle class. Different regimes govern access to leisure time and to spaces for leisure in these contexts, and this plays a role in shaping distinctive modes of gaming. This panel reports ethnographic approaches to play practices and digital gameplay in different sites in Cape Town, in the context of the regulation of the games industry in South Africa. Contributors explore the significance of games as commodities in the local context, identify digital literacies shaped by local socio-technical practices, and theorize how commercial games produced in the North are interpreted, reconfigured and appropriated in these South African contexts.

Buckingham, D. (2006). Studying computer games. In D. Carr, D. Buckingham, A. Burn, & G. Schott, Computer games: Text, narrative and play (pp. 1-13). Polity.

Burn, A. (2007). The case of rebellion: Researching multimodal texts. In Lankshear, C, Knobel, M, Leu, D & Coiro, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Research on New Literacies. New York: Laurence Erlbaum

Carr, D., Buckingham, D., Burn, A., & Schott, G (2006). Computer games: Text, narrative and play. Cambridge: Polity.

Dovey, Jon and Helen W. Kennedy. (2006) Game cultures: Computer games as new media. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Kolko, B. E., & Putnam, C. (2009). Computer games in the developing world: The value of non-instrumental engagement with ICTs, or taking play seriously. 2009 International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development ICTD, 46-55

Pelletier, Caroline. 2009. Games and Learning: What’s the Connection? International Journal of Learning and Media 2009 1:1, 83-101

Mobiles, games and play in South Africa

Marion Walton, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

In South Africa, sharply unequal levels of access to consumer goods, the internet and electrification all co-exist in the same country. Studying games in this context is a reminder of the complex ensemble of material and economic resources required for digital gameplay, which are not available to all young people around the world. This paper reports ongoing research with young people in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha, and explores the significance of mobile games in their media ecologies and orientations to consumer culture. Like the large majority of South African gamers, they play free games, often those preinstalled on basic mobile phones or downloaded from WAP sites and passed around via bluetooth in a peer-to-peer commons or proximate social network. In their mobile gaming, a focus on local and social interactions and shorter bursts of casual gameplay reflects the fact that airtime, phone processors, screen space, memory, and electricity are often scarce resources.

Screen Play: Children configuring gender through character customization in The Sims 2TM and Little Big PlanetTM

Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies: University of Cape Town

Digital games are semiotic domains that offer a variety of options for customization, which in turn allow players to personalize gameplay. It is also a common form of player control, yet little is known about this game feature and even less about how children employ such tools and choices in their gameplay. This paper offers a multimodal analysis of children’s character customizations in two games – The Sims 2TM and Little Big PlanetTM – informed by theories of gendered performance and interaction with configurable media. The children’s choices demonstrate that such avatar transformations are influenced by gender and wider patterns of gendered consumption. This discussion allows for a more nuanced understanding of children’s gameplay and how digital games become a stage for performing social identities. Additionally, it highlights how children engage with games as a form of digital media which challenges outdated ideas of the television as text. This paper describes how television and laptop screens become virtual playgrounds where hegemonic discourses around gendered identities are a site of struggle and play, but often reaffirmed in the process of play.

Games and Learning: a perspective on low-income, resource-constrained youth and PC gaming in a public access venue in Cape Town

Anja Venter, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

This paper reports on pilot findings from a ethnographic study of PC gaming amongst low-income, resource-constrained, urban, teenage males in a public access venue in Cape Town, South Africa. Framing their activities using the communities of practice model as outlined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, I explore how the popular definitions of “gamer” and traditional gaming communities of practice are challenged in a resource constrained environment. Findings include evidence of gamers re-appropriating technology and social relationships to create learning communities, exploration of the material and social limitations and challenges for successful collaborative play, and describing the socio-technical ecology currently found in this venue.

Sex, violence and harm in games: An analysis of the guidelines for classification of the Film and Publication Board of South Africa

Marion Walton, Muya Koloko and Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

Game ratings are intended to protect children from potentially harmful experiences of media by targeting particular categories of disturbing, violent or sexual material. This paper analyses assumptions about video game play as revealed in the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board. We focus specifically on the interpretation of guidelines used to rate games according to the presence of ‘classifiable elements’ such as violence and sexual content, the use of public input, and raters’ interpretation of the guidelines. In particular, we identify how rating practices and policies make particular assumptions about games – what games are, the contexts in which gaming takes place and how they construct a specific narrative of childhood. We compare regulatory policies to some actual gaming practices in South Africa, and situate both in relation to current discussions of children, media, vulnerability and agency.

Jenkins on children’s culture

I’ve always been impressed by the way Henry Jenkins makes connections between computer games and broader issues of children’s culture, I find this infinitely preferable to the psychological studies which treat children’s media use as a purely individual matter — (psychological studies of children and the “effects” of violence in the media etc tend to do this).
Jenkins points out that children’s culture, (by which he means “popular culture produced for, by, and/or about children”)is not something innocent and thus separate from politics, economics, morality etc. Yes, it is “kid’s stuff” but it’s also an ideological “battleground” where we play out our adult fantasies about the future.
Here’s an article from him about boy culture and computer games which I found particularly useful. This and the MySpace interview I linked to earlier both suggest that new social circumstances in fact allow more parental surveillance now, and that this is the cause of at least some of the current rash of parental anxieties and panics. (The site has lots of other links to his articles and chapters on this theme).

Digital divide and social networking

I’d not paid much attention to the MySpace debates until recently. I get very bored with the American paranoia about children online, since US parents are so good at being afraid for all the wrong reasons. Their reasons predictably involve teen sex, pedophiles, and (when they need some variety) computer games. Remember that these same terrified people happily drive SUVs and vote for G.W. Bush. What’s a greater threat to the future of their children? Some steamy text chat or their current level of carbon emissions?
Nonetheless, here’s a more sensible response: a very interesting interview with danah boyd and Henry Jenkins about MySpace. Jenkins and boyd discuss some of the implications of the moral panics about paedophiles and predators, notably the calls to restrict access to certain sites from schools and libraries.
Henry Jenkins argues that children who have to rely on public facilities for internet access might be disadvantaged by their limited experience of the online social networks which are becoming such a powerful social force.

“Now, the problem shifts from concerns about technical access to concerns about participation in the key social and cultural experiences which are defining the emerging generation’s relationship to these technologies. What a kid can do at home with unlimited access is very different from what a kid can do in a public library with ten or fifteen minutes of access at a time and with no capacity to store and upload information to the web. We further handicap these children by placing filters on the Internet which restrict their access to information which is readily available to their more affluent classmates. And now this legislation would restrict their ability to participate in social networks or to belong to online communities. The result will be to further isolate children from poorer economic backgrounds, to cut kids at risk from support systems which exist within their peer culture, and to limit the social and cultural experiences of kids who are already behind in acquiring important networking skills that will shape their professional futures. All of this will compound what we are now calling the participation gap. The early discussion of the digital divide assumed that the most important concern was insuring access to information as if the web were simply a data bank. Its power comes through participation within its social networks. The authors of the law are reading MySpace and other social software exclusively in terms of their risks; they are not focusing on the opportunities they offer for education and personal growth. In protecting children from those risks, they would cut them off from those educational benefits.”

When studying the elaborate international networking practiced by online gamers, I’ve often wondered about whether South African children are missing out on something significant by not participating. Are South African children really missing out on new forms of online cultural capital? To what extent will a lack of knowledge of social networking practices hinder their social mobility? What happens when we replace the idea of a “digital divide” with the idea of a “participation gap”? By talking about participation, the discussion is less technologically determinist than we usually see in comments about the “digital divide”. Still, it replaces this with the idea that normative elite practices must be copied by all. And that all children would benefit from participating in this network.
Here’s the full paper