Mobile Code and The Department of Sharing


The web initially took off thanks to the DIY efforts of many millions of self-taught web developers. Many people (including myself!) learned to build websites thanks to the ability to ‘view source’ in browsers. We learned by studying (and cutting and pasting) the HTML source code of the websites we admired.

The same openness and learnability is not there for mobile apps – unless their source code is released, that is. Even then very few users know how to go to look for it. My project Creative Code is inspired by a sense that we should also be able to “View Source”, tinker with and customise our mobile apps, thus driving interest in and knowledge of mobile coding on the most accessible platforms available. Through the series of customisable open source youth culture apps that we are building and testing for Creative Code we want to spark a DIY ‘appmaker’ DIY spirit among young people. While there are many comprehensive online resources available for this, they are somewhat inaccessible to the majority. Young people are fascinated by technology but they have shockingly limited opportunities to learn to code on computers – fewer than 1% of South African Grade 12s have the opportunity to study Information Technology at school level. After-school programmes like Creative Code are limited by young people’s very restricted access to computers. While people in urban areas generally have a level of internet access via mobile phones, they certainly do not want to spend all their airtime downloading Khan academy videos. Furthermore the web-based live-coding environments do not work on mobile browsers.

Until recently mobile coding seemed pretty far away – apart from some simple tutorials and visual tools teaching very young children the principles of programming. Recently this has changed with Mozilla’s Appmaker and Microsoft Research’s TouchDevelop, which, like APDE, allows on-device coding. We have elected to use APDE because it allows on-device coding in Processing, my favourite language (Java-based but designed around the needs of artists and other interesting people) and moreover it’s a mobile IDE which is not cloud-based. This may seem somewhat old-fashioned but it does means it can be used under our usual circumstances of limited or intermittent connectivity.

After four months of preparation, Creative Code is all set now to launch mobile coding lessons that can easily be edited and adapted on Android phones. We will try out these lessons during a series of three workshops that centre around developing animated, playable stories,  made with our new app, The Department of Sharing.

The idea of making interactive, sharable stories was inspired by discussions I had with two young writers, Anathi Nyadu and Vhuthu Muavha. I met them in January 2015 at a networking meeting for South African organisations working in the mobile literacies space (hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg). Anathi and Vhuthu were as engaged by games and instant messaging as they were by reading stories on their phones. They were at the meeting because their love of reading had led them to write their own stories, and publish them through the Fundza Fanz programme.

A global movement to develop mobile reading has taken off since the m4Lit project launched in South Africa in 2009. See, for example, the recent UNESCO study Reading in the Mobile Era surveyed users of Worldreader/Binu and presented new quantitative data around the prevalance and implications of reading on mobile devices in developing countries.

As a result, a wide range of organisations provide reading materials designed to be read on cellphones.

Anathi and Vhuthu brainstormed with me about how text-based mobile stories would be more attractive if they could be given more gamelike features such as interactions, branching and animations. This was where I first developed the idea for the Department of Sharing. It is a Processing app for making and sharing animated, playable stories.

Collocated sharing or ‘side-loading’ (copying stories to a friend’s phone via Bluetooth or cable) is a very important feature of the app. For example, when we were doing the research for m4Lit,  readers complained that they could not download mobile stories to read them later and share them with their friends. Similarly Daily Sun users post their phone numbers so that other readers can send them the videos published by the Daily Sun on Youtube via Whatsapp. (This way they keep their own copy on their phone and can watch it and share it without using their airtime). The Department of Sharing creates cc licensed stories which belong to anyone who might be interested in reading them and which promote creative commons licenses.

Department of Sharing runs in the Processing mobile IDE, APDE, which allows on-phone editing and vastly simplifies the process of exporting from .pde to .apk files  (a Herculean task  for beginners). The first sharable story was completed using artwork and a game story from Khazatown Blues, a Mario mod designed in 2014 by five Grade 12 students.

Khazatown Blues was based on a Mario mod created by Talita Maliti, Ndilisa May, Vuyani Vorslag, Ludwe Zigwebile and Lwazi Fanana.

When published on Android phones, Department of Sharing stories are playable with written stories and simple interactive visuals. Since Android is popular but still not ubiquitous, it is really important to be able to give stories to people who are using simple feature phones rather than smartphones (running Android, Windows or iOS).  For this reason, stories created by the Department of Sharing can be exported in more basic formats – e.g. images or gif animations, such as the one below.

Created by the Department of Sharing
Created by the Department of Sharing. Visuals and story from Khazatown Blues by Talita Maliti, Ndilisa May, Vuyani Vorslag, Ludwe Zigwebile and Lwazi Fanana

The idea here is simple – there are plenty of cloud-based mobile reading libraries, including Yoza, Fundza, Worldreader, and the African Storybook Project. Yet it is surprisingly difficult for people to create their own mobile stories and share them with those around them without needing to use their airtime to access a website or join a cloud-based service such as Facebook or Binu.

Here’s Lungile Madela at work configuring our Convergence Lab for the next series of story-making workshops with The Department of Sharing. The Convergence Lab includes a smart TV, a charging trolley and a pair of large cupboards  stocked with smartphones and tablets.

There is still a long journey ahead on the road to mobile coding, but I am very grateful indeed to UCT Strategic Equipment Fund and the Shuttleworth Foundation – without their support these big steps towards a mobile coding curriculum wouldn’t have been possible.

Dramatic uptake of mobile internet in SA – latest stats

Fascinating mobile stats from +Arthur Goldstuck and World Wide Worx reflect dramatic increases in extent and intensity of mobile internet use in South African cities and towns (in an URBAN >16 sample) with data spend increasing by half to 12% of airtime budget.

According to their findings, 41% are browsing the web now, Facebook use has almost doubled to 38%, instant messaging app for smartphones Watsapp is now used by 25%, Blackberry grew fourfold to 18%.

Now that the internet adoption curve for South Africa is well into the early majority stage things should get very interesting indeed.

Read the article on Times Live


Spatial injustices and mobile communication: Patterns of internet access in urban South Africa

Marion Walton, University of Cape Town

Jonathan Donner, Microsoft Research

Spatial injustices and mobile communication: Patterns of internet access in urban South Africa Marion Walton, University of Cape Town Jonathan Donner, Microsoft Research Abstract We describe results from interviews, prompts, and observational exercises with resource-constrained teenage visitors to cybercafés and public libraries in Cape Town. We observed a split between a mobile habitus, focused on social coordination and communication, and a mobile production habitus, which included mobile resources in research and the creation of documents for school homework. Those we observed using the phones in this way were more likely to be on the peripheries of the middle class, or at least exposed to the literacy practices demanded by better schools, often those outside of the township neighborhoods we studied. Our data suggests that both public access resources and mobile resources were most useful to those young people whose socio-technical networks were already extended beyond their local environment through attendance at non-local schools. We describe results from interviews, prompts, and observational exercises with resource-constrained teenage visitors to cybercafés and public libraries in Cape Town. We observed a split between a mobile habitus, focused on social coordination and communication, and a mobile production habitus, which included mobile resources in research and the creation of documents for school homework. Those we observed using the phones in this way were more likely to be on the peripheries of the middle class, or at least exposed to the literacy practices demanded by better schools, often those outside of the township neighborhoods we studied. Our data suggests that both public access resources and mobile resources were most useful to those young people whose socio-technical networks were already extended beyond their local environment through attendance at non-local schools.


Walton, M. and J. Donner. 2012. Spatial injustices and mobile communication: Patterns of internet access in urban South Africa. Paper presented at ICA 2012 (Phoenix, AZ. May 24-28, 2012). International Communication Association. Washington, DC

Want to study in Humanities? There’s an app for that.

Here’s the press release for the best project by my third year production students this year, which developed from my work with matriculants at Ikamva Youth. Many young people I met at Ikamva struggle to conceptualise the possibility that they might be able to study at UCT. When they do allow themselves to dream that they just might be able to make it happen they struggle to access information which would help them choose suitable courses, or help them get a realistic sense of what the university’s criteria for admission are and how hard they need to work at school to get a place. I think this mobile web app is definitely a step in the right direction for UCT to demystify the admission process for prospective students. I’m very happy with the great work produced this year by the interactive media production class of 2011 and their excellent tutors, Fabio Longano, Afsana Kahn, and Travis Noakes.

Calculate your eligibility to study in Humanities

Explore your options in Humanities

Exploring options in Humanities

By Rebecca Johnson and Lee-Ann Lipman

31/10/2011 CAPE TOWN

Ever had trouble trying to figure out which degrees your favourite matriculant might be eligible to study? Two UCT students, Lee-Ann Lipman and Rebecca Johnson, have built a site which allows would-be UCT students to calculate their scores according to UCT’s points system and work out their eligibility for admission to study various courses within the Humanities Faculty. The pair explained their concept as follows: “We realise that admissions systems can be really confusing for matriculants who are overwhelmed with information about the various options for further study, so we decided to build an online calculator which does the work on their behalf. The best part is that it’s simple and quick to use. There’s also a mobile interface which brings the information within reach of matriculants who don’t have easy access to computers’.

The UCT admission table can be confusing and has mystified applicants for the past decade. Lipman and Johnson created a mobile web app which allows matriculants to calculate their points scores and match them to available degrees and programmes in the Humanities Faculty. They submitted the site as their final project in the Production Programme in Interactive Media Production.

The major advantage of their time-saving calculator is that it helps matriculants to compile a list of the courses they qualify to study in the Humanities Faculty. Applicants can now focus on deciding where their interests lie and make sure they understand special criteria for admission (such as portfolios) rather than trying to figure out whether they even meet the criteria in the first place. If potential students use this app early enough, it may also serve as a reality check to them, and inspire them to make the most of their time in matric to improve their results. This is an idea which certainly has potential to go beyond the Humanities Faculty and even beyond UCT, as potential students need to establish their eligibility for courses at more than one institution.

The site is still undergoing testing and is not official yet, but why not open in your browser to try it out for yourself.

Mobiles research @ UCT: The pick of 2011 CFMS student projects

This year for the first time I taught an MA level Mobile Media and Communication course to University of Cape Town postgraduates. It was a great privilege to work with such an bright group of students and spend a semester discussing the relationship between mobile technology and society, and exploring methodologies and theories for studying networked individualism, mobile social networks, mobile media and games. We also considered the place of gender, class and consumer culture in adoption, appropriation and domestication of mobile technologies in South Africa.

Gary Marsden from UCT’s Centre for ICT4D also made a guest appearance. I’m hoping that next year we will find a way for Gary’s mobile interaction design students to work together with us to think through some of the implications of our research for local phone, app and website designers. Here are some of the highlights of the excellent research the CFMS students produced this year.

Desperately seeking multiplayer bluetooth games

By Anja Venter, MA student, Centre for Film and Media Studies.

Ocean View, Cape Town, 24 October 2011 -Young mobile gamers in South Africa have little local content to choose from – and they badly need games which are designed for them to play together, and which they can access without needing to find a computer. A recent study conducted by University of Cape Town student Anja Venter revealed valuable insights into the cellphone use and gaming preferences of eight kids (11 and 12 year olds) in Ocean View, Cape Town. The study is important reading for mobile game developers, and particularly for developers seeking to use mobile games in ICT4D (Information and communications technologies for development).
Venter found that mobile gaming is still very much an individual activity for this group of kids, although they really want to be playing together. Gaming is fundamentally social and kids miss not being able to challenge other players on their cellphones. Modes of collaborative play such as online games are too expensive for local contexts. Enter the accessible nature of the mobile Java gaming platform in combination with Bluetooth technology that has proven to be inexpensive and sustainable: a potential avenue for ad hoc gaming with the people in your immediate surroundings. A trial of such a game proved to be very successful.

Multiplayer Bluetooth Mobile Games
Multiplayer Bluetooth Mobile Games

Although this study is limited in scope and is the result of a pilot Masters student study, it offers insights for potential game developers. Currently we see an explosion of mobile phone games, which were developed by international companies, available for free download directly from ones’ mobile phone. Competition in this arena is fierce and avenues for procurement are already in place, perpetuated through word-of-mouth testimonies amongst peers. There is a massive gap in the market when it
comes to Bluetooth multiplayer games that can be downloaded directly to ones’ phone without access to a desktop PC.

This research found that, in order to be successful, these games should be free and cheap to download (hence small in size), easy to find and access solely from a phone. They should work on a diverse range of mobile phones and cater to the intended audience’s interests. For further information, or a copy of the report, contact Anja Venter.

Men, Mobile Users Dominate Miyeni Facebook Debate

By Marise Haumann, Honours student, Centre for Film and Media Studies.

Cape Town, October 24, 2011 – When controversy erupted in the South African media around columnist Eric Miyeni and City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, many people continued debating the issues with friends on their public Facebook profiles.  Most of them seem to have been using their cell phones while they listened to the debate raging on local radio stations.

A study by University of Cape Town student, Marise Haumann, titled “Gender and the Public Sphere on Mobile-based Facebook”, looked at 203 public Facebook status updates posted on 2 August to investigate the role of gender in the debate that erupted around Eric Miyeni’s controversial column, “Haffajee does it for white masters”. Several public figures and gender rights organisations accused Miyeni of misogyny and hate speech and he was subsequently sacked from the Sowetan.

Facebook seemed swayed by arguments in favour of Miyeni – 22% of the mobile contributors supported Miyeni, and only 10% disagreed with his statements. But that may have been because fewer women were participating. Unsurprisingly, positions in the debate were influenced by the poster’s gender – with men more likely to express support for Miyeni –   27% of all men using mobile devices supported Miyeni while only 6% of women did so. In contrast, only 9% of men using mobile devices disagreed with Miyeni,  while somewhat more female mobile users (13%) disagreed with him.

Support and opposition for Miyeni in Facebook status updates, by Gender
Support and opposition for Miyeni in Facebook status updates, by Gender

Haumann’s study reveals that while 69% of all the contributors to the debate used mobile devices to access the debate, 30% contributed their opinions through fixed-line internet. A large majority  (79%) of all contributors to the debate were men, while only 21% were women.  English was the most frequently used language in the debate, but mobile phone users seem to be relatively multilingual. Of the mobile contributors, 6% used English in conjunction with other languages, while only 1% of the fixed-line contributors used other languages in conjunction with English.

The study reveals that although more men than women took part in the debate on Facebook, both men and women received similar numbers of replies to their status updates. Haumann argues that this indicates that while fewer women may have been involved in the debate on both the mobile internet and fixed-line internet, they did not ‘receive a cold shoulder’ in the Facebook debate. She also argues that the fact that men and women exhibited such differences in their opinions on Miyeni indicates that the debate was free and unobstructed by sexism or discrimination. She warns, however, that if more women do not make the effort to enter into such debates, they may see that their opinions will become relegated to the side-lines.

The “Gender and the Public Sphere on Mobile-based Facebook” study was conducted through the  postgraduate course in Mobile Media and Communication (FAM5038S) at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. The study used quantitative content analysis to analyse a sample of 203 individual Facebook status updates, which were collected during the span of one day in August 2011. For further information, contact Marise Haumann.

Talking about Sex and Health on MXit.

By Mareike Kramper

Cape Town, November 1, 2011 – The mobile social site MXit signed a contract with The African Pulse a non-profit organisation with worldwide partners and associates. The company launched the health and sexual awareness portal H360º on the social site MXit.

The H360º forum allows young people from all over the world to participate in discussions around HIV/AIDS and sexuality. Teenagers can ask questions that are of burning importance to them, without the embarrassment of having to ask judgemental adults, or revealing secrets to their peers or ignorance to medical professionals. The online platform provides information on health and sexuality and allows users to connect to other H360º members worldwide. University of Cape Town MA student Mareike Kramper studied the requests posted on the site in order to find out more about what questions young people are asking about HIV/AIDS and sexuality. By studying the language used to express questions or to confess fears, Kramper found that H360º should be enagaging with young people’s everyday understanding of sex, health, love, shame and relationships. She said: “H360º needs to be able to answer questions such as, “I wnt 2 knw y ppls hate gays?” or “If u have love and u use a condom can u get it?”. The battle against social injustice and accurate health behaviour options needs to become part of daily conversations in South Africa.”

For further information, contact Mareike Kramper.

South African political activists mobilising Facebook

By Pierrinne Leukes

24 October 2011, Cape Town

South Africans are using mobile phones for political activism on Facebook, says Pierrinne Leukes, a University of Cape Town (UCT) Masters student majoring in Political Communication.

Some studies have been done about mobiles being used in South Africa for political campaigning and engagement during election times, but so far no studies show us how South Africans are talking politics on their phones a daily basis.  South African political parties such as the ANC, DA, COPE and IFP do have Facebook pages but Leukes found that hardly any of the activity on these pages come from mobile phones. Then Leukes found a Facebook group called ‘New Political Forum’, which was started in August 2010 by four South Africans who felt that they could not debate freely on the official Facebook pages belonging to political parties such as the African National Congress and Democratic Alliance. The ‘New Political Forum’ group grew rapidly and now boasts just under 8000 members.

Leukes studied posts and comments over  two days. “The level of engagement is impressive” , said Leukes. “On these two days, 49 messages were posted, and they initiated debates which totalled a whopping 1013 comments, again over just two days”. While the pages belonging to the political parties are dominated by computer users, the New Political Forum users are using phones to have their say and engage with fellow citizens. Approximately 60% of all these debates were initiated, and sustained by people using their mobile phones to access Facebook’s mobile site”.

The BB revolution

By Aziza Banderker

Cape Town, October 27, 2011 – South Africans love BlackBerries, but what in particular influences young middle class students to choose to jump on the bandwagon and adopt the popular smartphone? University of Cape Town Honours student, Aziza Banderker, interviewed a group of her BB-using peers to identifywhat factors had persuaded them adopt a Blackberry. And she decided to do so by chatting to them on BBM, the famous BlackBerry messaging service.

Banderker explained her interviewing strategy as follows: “BlackBerries are relatively expensive, and so I tried to find out when the cost of exclusion from BB starts to exceed the cost of adoption, and when that happens, what is actually the deciding factor which helps students justify the cost of the service?”. She considered individual demographics, socio-economic status, personal factors, social influence, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, facilitating conditions, attitude and behavioural intentions. The interviews were constructed in a way in order to discover which of these factors are the most salient for this group of friends.

She found that the majority of the individuals in her social circle had waited till they felt there was a growing trend to adopt this mobile phone before they bought one themselves. Social influence was the greatest determining factor influencing adoption in this particular group. All had learned about BlackBerry via word of mouth. As a cost-saving feature, BlackBerry’s ‘free’ Internet service was one of the most important determining factors.

Gender played an important role. Banderker’s male contacts claimed that their decision process was based on whether the BlackBerry had the integrated features that they required. Female contacts emphasized that features which enhanced their social life were a deciding factor. Personal factors, such as preference and device capabilities, seemed to be the most important mediating factor.

Gaming women on Gameloft

By Jade van Blerk

24 October 2011, Cape Town

Mobile phones are the most popular gaming platform in South Africa, where downloaded and built-in games played on mobile phones are widely available and appeal to a large target market, including many women and girls. Developers such as top mobile developer Gameloft have realised the potential of the female market. UCT student Jade van Blerk asked what images of women these mobile games are using to sell their products, and whether marketing materials for mobile games are reproducing the adolescent stereotypes  associated with the traditionally  male-dominated world of ‘hard-core’ gaming.

Van Blerk wondered how images of women in cellphone games might compare to the stereotypes that are commonly encountered in other popular media directed at women such as magazine advertisements, where research shows that women are often stereotyped as homemakers or sex objects. Van  Blerk explained ‘I was interested in how mobile games might be establishing new images of femininity’. Van Blerk investigated the promotional imagery for a range of 45 mobile phone games selected from the Gameloft website.

Mobile ads from Gameloft

Van Blerk found that traditional gaming stereotypes seemed to have been imported wholesale into mobile games. In the first place, women were underrepresented in comparison to men. If they were depicted they were in the company of men, as sidekicks or symbols used to communicate information about the men in the image. Many images told stories with men carrying out the action, and women being represented in a passive way as the goal,object, or reward of the action. Male game characters confronted the viewer directly, more commonly demanding an emotional response, while women were offered as undemanding eye-candy for the viewer.

In contrast, women were largely depicted as subordinated to men and were often depicted performing what Goffman refers to as ‘appeasement gestures’ such as ‘body canting’ or the ‘bashful knee bend’  In the only case where a woman was the game’s protagonist she still performed appeasement gestures and was posed with a male.

Generalisations about mobile games cannot be made from this small sample of 45 advertisements, but Van Blerk’s research certainly suggests that there would be many opportunities for game developers who make the effort to understand which images  appeal to female players.

This research paper is available for download from or contact the researcher for further information.


Affording images: Digital imaging and media-sharing practices in a corpus of young people’s cameraphone images

Paper presented at Multimodality in Education colloquium held at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch on 10 August, 2011 by Marion Walton and Silke Hassreiter, Centre for Film and Media Studies. University of Cape Town

The affordances of mobile phones as devices for creating, publishing and distributing images means that they are often seen as a threat to young people’s safety or to public morality. Alternatively, they are celebrated as having immense potential for supporting an individualised and highly networked mode of mobile learning or ‘m-learning’. These issues are particularly significant in the global South, where photographic practices and digital imaging are being adopted rapidly, as mobile networks reach over a billion people and feature phones with cameras become increasingly accessible.

This paper documents the image-sharing and photographic practices of fourteen young people who participated in a mobile video-making project over four months in July-November 2010 in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. We analyse the corpus of images which they shared with us as researchers. We explore distinct communicative genres which, in this context, are associated with (i) personal photographs, (ii) photographic composites (iii) downloaded images from popular culture (iv) multimodal image messaging. In this paper, our focus is specifically on interpersonal meanings and the representation of interpersonal meanings and social distance.

We argue that the social practices of young people and the marginal contexts of this appropriation play key roles in their domestication of mobile photography. Consequently, it is a mistake to assume that new genres and practices can simply be ‘read off’ by listing the features or affordances of the new generations of smart phones. Instead, it is necessary to consider a wider range of contexts and uses before the ‘affordances’ of the new medium can start to be understood. In particular, the differences associated with the specific contextual meanings of artefacts such as mobile phones, local genres of communication and interaction, and broader issues of access to communication infrastructure and mobility need to be considered. We argue that a contextualised study such as this should be conducted before embarking on the development of new curricula for learning or self-expression for young people.

Degrees of sharing

Yesterday at the plenary session of SACOMM 2011  Anton Harber challenged delegates to face up to South Africa’s information inequality. The fact that the media serves primarily the wealthier sectors of our society is both a cause and result of the extreme inequality in our country. Professor Harber’s challenge was that those who cared about freedom of expression should be as serious about ‘empowering citizens and allowing them to express themselves’. I agreed with him whole-heartedly, although the challenge he presented is perhaps more complex than it appears.


Today I presented Silke Hassreiter’s MA research at the SACOMM 2011 conference – what a pity Silke couldn’t be there to present it herself.

Silke worked on one of my projects in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. The research was conducted as part of a Nokia funded project, in collaboration with Gary Marsden from the UCT Centre in ICT4D.

Silke’s research involved working with twenty young students from Ikamva Youth who used Nokia feature phones (Nokia 5530 XpressMusic and Nokia X3) to produce and edit cellphone videos about issues that concerned them.

Her dissertation (which is still work in progress) illustrates some of the complex issues involved when marginalized young citizens are given access to cellphones as tools for media creation and dissemination and how they go about developing a ‘public voice’ through mobile media production and distribution.

Silke’s project was part of an ongoing partnership between the Centre for Film and Media Studies and an NGO called Ikamva Youth. Since 2008, a series of student volunteers from CFMS and myself have assisted with the ‘Media, Image and Expression’ programme run by the organisation.

For five months Silke worked with the Grade 10 students who were all between15 and 18 years old. She offered a course of intensive mobile video production training  and individual coaching, with classes twice a week. Her formal research methods included participant observation, diaries, informal interviews and in-depth interviews. It was an action research project and she was tasked with updating the curriculum for Ikamva’s Image and Expression programme. She also developed a set of creative commons licensed materials for the organisation. These will soon also be published on UCT’s Open Content portal.

The young people’s videos are now published online on the Ikamva Youth Flickr site.

The project report we prepared for Nokia is also available now:

Hassreiter, S., Walton, M. and Marsden, G. (2011). Degrees of sharing. Public voices, impression management and mobile video production in a participatory media project for teens in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. Project report produced for Nokia Research, February 2011.

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.

Deep thoughts or deep prejudices?

This article of mine was a contribution to the Educational Technology Debate (InfoDev and Unesco) and also appeared in the Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter.

Are Google and other websites rewiring our brains? Do the potentially distracting non-linear structures of new media pose a threat to ‘deep’ thought, contemplation and even empathy? This is Nicholas Carr’s argument in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr argues that there is a good fit between the way ideas develop along a linear path in books, and the way in which human memory works. This match makes possible a certain ‘deep’ style of reading and thinking, Carr claims, while the non-linear designs of the Net and eBooks are not so well suited to human patterns of thinking. New media structures tend to overtax the limitations of human working memory, he argues, in that they offer a surfeit of information, leaving users stranded in the ‘shallows’ of thought.

Carr’s book is a reversal of the usual assumption that up-to-date technology makes its users ‘smarter’ and more sophisticated than people who rely on outdated forms of technology like books or other traditional technologies. But his argument is not free of the deep cultural prejudices that underpin simple oppositions between book culture, orality, and electronic textuality. In particular, by giving book culture the monopoly on ‘deep thinking’ Carr’s work certainly lacks a broader understanding of how communication and thought takes place in ‘continua’ of orality and literacy (Finnegan 1988: 175) as well as through visual communication (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2008).

m4Lit Example

Mobile literacies report
Mobile literacies report

To illustrate my point, I want to discuss the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4Lit project. The findings of this research project showed that South African teens use mobile communication technologies as part of a shifting repertoire of modal interactions characterized by interplay between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ modes of communication, indigenous languages and English, with their mobile phones providing a site for vital cultural creativity.

Like many people around the world, the teens who participated in the study used media technologies in diverse ways to maintain complex social affiliations or interactions, and to develop knowledge of their social network, and to find information through their interpersonal interactions, rather than only through media.

The problems with Carr’s theory of media can be traced back to two venerable scholars, Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong; both can be described as technological determinists in that they claim that modes of communication determine the ways of thinking and cultural characteristics of entire societies.

The notion that there is a causal relationship between literacy and particular thinking patterns may be an old one, but it is far from universally accepted. One famous study of the effects of literacy on cognition (Scribner and Cole, 1981) set out to prove that literacy had cognitive consequences, only to find that actual interactions between thinking, literacies, and schooling were far more complex than the researchers expected. Science and technology studies depict the mutual interdepence between society and technology (e.g. MacKenzie & Wajcman 1985).

Studies of oral literature even find it hard to define what might be distinctively ‘oral’ or ‘literate’ given the huge diversity of cultural forms and human societies. Instead of looking for ways to generalize this diversity away, scholars of the African oral tradition have called for closer attention to the specific circumstances under which various modes, media and genres of communcation are accessed and produced, and to the social uses of communication (Finnegan, 1988). African scholars have also questioned Ong’s argument about ‘orality’, criticizing its ethnocentric, extravagant and totalizing claims (e.g. Biakolo, 1999).

Carr’s argument in The Shallows does not engage with these critiques, but extends McLuhan’s and Ong’s notions of cognitive consequences to a radical extreme. Carr claims that media use causes changes to the structure of the brain thanks to its ‘neuroplasticity’, or the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and lose old ones. Thus Carr believes that changes to society result when changes in communications media reshape the human brain (Carr, 2010:49).

Mobile Literacies

In 2009 I worked on the m4Lit (Mobiles for Literacy) research project with Steve Vosloo (Shuttleworth Foundation) and Ana Deumert (University of Cape Town). We investigated teens’ responses to Kontax, a serialized m-novel for South African teens, which was published on a mobile website and on South African mobile instant messaging platform, MXit (see Walton, 2010 for a more detailed report).

Kontax attracted over 64 000 subscribers in the course of a month-long campaign, a substantial audience when considered in relation to the very small markets for South African publishing. The popularity of the story when released on local mobile instant messaging platform, MXit, showed us conclusively that youth audiences were keen to try out reading fiction on mobile phones.

Kontax was less successful at maintaining readers’ interest and engaging them in immersive reading of the entire series: we estimate that only 7 200 (26%) of Kontax subscribers in the 14-17 age-group were sufficiently engaged by the story to read all 21 chapters.

This was a core group of committed readers, and MXit page-view data suggests that most readers who persevered in reading the third chapter finished the whole story. Nonetheless, almost three quarters of subscribers did not read that far. In fact, most readers abandoned Kontax after reading (or just downloading) only one 400-word episode. This trend may have been even more pronounced for the township teens specifically targeted by the project In interviews, only 10.4% of these teens told the fieldworkers that they had read all the episodes. The rest of the group said that they had planned to read the story, but had not had time to do so, given the many distractions available on MXit and their preference for other forms of literate interaction, such as mobile IM with their friends.

The m4Lit campaign thus appears to have been successful in using the accessibility and novelty of mobile phone fiction to spark interest in Kontax, while it only ‘hooked’ a minority of more committed readers. Our data didn’t allow us to establish whether it was the distractions of the mobile platform (as Carr might argue), the thriller genre, or specific features of the Kontax story that were primarily responsible for this pattern of declining interest.

Carr’s faith in only one mode of literate interaction (lengthy, linear, solitary reading) seems unduly narrow given the rich variety of interactions we observed in the course of the m4Lit project. M4Lit showed that large numbers of teens were eager to try out different modes of engaging with the written word, including reading lengthier texts, correcting errors and typos in the story, writing comments on the unfolding plot, and submitting their own ideas for stories. It also showed how important literate interpersonal interactions through texting and messaging are to their growing knowledge of the world around them, and of themselves.

Teens in fact reported difficulties extricating themselves from highly immersive messaging sessions. Our research showed that their texting and messaging practices centred around peer networking activities. Here the teens valued speed, responsiveness and attentiveness in their mobile conversations. In fact, for them, the marks of orthodox ‘literate’ writing such as punctuation and unabbreviated texts signified ‘newcomers’ who had not yet learned to “write well”, using “MXit language” – a teen ‘hetero-graphy’ (Blommaert, 2008) specifically adapted to this technology, genre of interaction, and social context. As teens grow older and move beyond the context of their local friendship networks these skills are likely to stand them in good stead. Studies of other low income communities around the world show that the ability to use available technology to maintain their relationships, leverage and develop strong social networks are a crucial grassroots survival strategy (e.g. Horst & Miller, 2005, Kolko, Rose and Johnson, 2007, Donner, 2007).

The m4Lit project showed that there could be real drawbacks to using a chatty mobile platform for certain kinds of reading, learning and study. Nonetheless the mobile platform allowed us to reach teens in a way that would have been almost impossible otherwise, and, in the South African context is a highly accessible, relatively cheap option for the growing numbers of people who can access mobile internet (current industry estimates puts this at 9 million South Africans, or about double the number who access the Internet with computers).

At the same time, while exploring all available options for making the most of mobile, we also need to keep up the pressure for government to invest in books, computers, libraries and librarians for schools. I say this not because I share Carr’s cultural prejudices against electronic communication, but because I believe in providing equal access to public education. Mobiles are a private resource which means that students and their parents must shoulder handset costs. They also require ongoing investment in airtime – so inequality of access and participation are built into this educational architecture and are likely to remain its biggest drawback.

Marion Walton is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


Biakolo, Emevwo. (1999) On the Theoretical Foundations of Orality and Literacy. Research in African Literatures 1999 30:2, 42-65.

Blommaert, Jan. 2008. Grassroots Literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. Routledge: London.

Donner, J. (2007). The rules of beeping: Exchanging messages via intentional “missed calls‟ on mobile phones. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 1. Retrieved Nov 28, 2009, from

Finnegan, Ruth (1988): Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Horst, H. and Miller, D. (2005) From kinship to link-up. Current Anthropology. 46 (5):755-778.

Kress, G.R. and Van Leeuwen, T. Reading Images. 2nd edn. London: Routledge, 2006.

Kolko, B. E., Rose, E. J., and Johnson, E. J. 2007. Communication as information-seeking: the case for mobile social software for developing regions. In Proceedings of the 16th international Conference on World Wide Web (Banff, Alberta, Canada, May 08 – 12, 2007). WWW ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 863-872.

Richard Conyngham and Doron Isaacs. 2010. We can’t afford not to: Costing the provision of functional school libraries in South African public schools. Equal Education

Scribner, Sylvia, and Michael Cole. 1981.The psychology of literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walton, Marion. 2010. Mobile literacies & South African teens: Leisure reading, writing, and MXit chatting for teens in Langa and Gugulethu. Research report prepared for the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4Lit project.

Social distance and mobile photography

Do we feel impersonal distance, a sense of personal contact or intimacy in relation to the people we see in images? Chances are that the scale of the shot (whether a photograph is a close-up or taken at a distance, or somewhere inbetween) has something to do with that feeling. I’m interested in looking at situations where, in any given body of images, the represented distance between the camera and the subjects of the shot is used to generate an overall sense of closeness or distance towards particular groups of participants.

I wanted to be able to quantify an aspect of social distance. My motivation was that I wanted to explore some of the overall differences I’ve picked up between geolocated images posted to two social websites, mobile site The Grid and conventional photosharing site, Flickr (discussed here and here). Social distance is influenced by a number of factors, including the vertical and horizontal orientation of the camera, but shot scale seemed to be the easiest thing to measure and quantify, or a lot easier than camera orientation at any rate. So I measured the height of faces depicted in the photos I collected and graphed the results.

Below are some of the visualizations I developed using Processing. I found a particularly useful tutorial which gives a detailed explanation of how to build a visualisation to use data from a Google spreadsheet:

Shot scale distance distribution on The Grid and Flickr
Shot scale distance distribution on The Grid and Flickr - low values are long shots, high values are close ups
Distant shots predominate on Flickr
Distant shots predominate on Flickr

Close-up shots predominate on The Grid
Close-up shots predominate on The Grid

I found it far easier to do the analysis when I could compare the images side-by-side and so I created a new 3D view of them in five planes which correspond to my coding categories – intimate, personal, social, impersonal, and landscapes (for this study, I included other shots without any people in this category).

Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from Flickr
Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from Flickr

Flickr close-ups focus on children, food, drink, a dog at popular Guguletu butchery and outdoor restaurant, Mzoli’s. Photographers rarely feature in shots.Impersonal shots of landscape, buildings and distant township residents predominate.

Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from The Grid
Visualising social distance in 3D planes - images from The Grid

Close-ups predominate on The Grid, often shot in self-portrait mode, with very few truly impersonal shots. Social distance is increased in some shots by the use of dark glasses and other distancing devices. Social distance is particularly difficult to code in some cases – if someone is photographed at what would otherwise be a ‘social’ distance, but in a provocative topless pose, it’s difficult not to code that shot as ‘intimate’.

If you’re interested in trying Processing, take a look at this introductory overview by my colleague Lyndon Daniels.