Creative Code


Want to support the development of young creative coders in South Africa? You can make a donation via our crowdfunding campaign on Thundafund.

Creative Code is a prize-winning World Design Capital 2014 recognised project. Winner of a WDC2014  “Best Pitch” award (27 May 2014), Creative Code introduces school kids to computer coding, making coding and visual design more accessible through youth media, gaming and mobile phones. You can see some of our lessons here.

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Winning pitch: The Creative Code team at a World Design Capital 2014 pitching session

A low-cost media literacy coding curriculum is presented through weekly lessons and longer workshops during summer and winter vacations.

Khazatown Blues: A localised version of Super Mario

Projects  emphasize youth culture (mobile photography, pixelart games) and local visual languages and media  (beading, patterns and fabric design) to engage students with the logical and procedural dimension of visual design.

In contrast to the ‘black box’ approach of most digital literacy curricula, Creative Code emphasises tangible programming, embodied learning, web-making, visual design, FOSS development processes, and game design and development.

Our goals

Code craft

A central goal is to engage young people in meaningful creative digital design projects. Over the past eighteen months, the Ikamva Coders have produced several   original games and many visual designs. These experiences and learning processes  have been documented with the aim of producing curricula, learning materials,   and research into the representational and conceptual processes at work as   young people learn about coding and digital design.


Logo for Khazatown Blues – a game developed by Grade 12 students from Creative Code.

Careers and further study

We also encourage and assist the coders in applying to courses of study involving digital media and Computer Science.  The Coders learn about various opportunities that are open to them – not only Computer   Science (where Maths can be a big barrier) but also the many creative career   paths which today require digital skills or coding.


We mobilise code

Our key long-term aim, is to make our coding lessons accessible to young people via low-cost mobile phones and tablets, and to use our research to improve the accessibility of such introductory materials. Right now we’re experimenting with our own tablet apps, and with the great resources available for mobile coding from TouchDevelop.

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Why coding lessons?

Only the most privileged young South Africans have opportunities to study Visual Art or Information Technology at school level. According to the Department of Basic Education, in 2013, only 4 874 of SA’s 562 112 Grade 12s studied Information Technology and only 6 755 studied Visual Art for the National Senior Certificate. This means that only around 1% of matriculants are getting a foundation in the subjects which would help lead them to careers in Digital Media or Computer Science.

Who are we?

Creative Code is run in partnership between the Centre for Film and Media Studies from the University  of Cape Town, and Ikamva Youth, a multi award-winning youth development  non-profit organization. Ikamva Youth relies on volunteer tutors and equips learners from disadvantaged communities with the knowledge, skills, networks and resources to access  tertiary education and/or employment opportunities once they matriculate.

We often work collaboratively with staff and postgraduate students from Computer Science and UCT’s Centre in ICT for Development.

Bhavana Harrilal from the Centre in ICT4D and Paul Mesarcik from Thingking

The Ikamva Coders are twenty eight members of Ikamva Youth, ages fifteen to eighteen. They   participate in a volunteer-run after-school programme, attending extra-mural   homework and tutoring  sessions and holiday workshops.

Contact Us

Our Facebook page

You can make a donation via our crowdfunding campaign on Thundafund

We publish our artwork and games on our website

More about Ikamva Youth

Ikamva Youth

Youth participation and social media in SA

Here’s my talk from the keynote for the Digital Youth & Learning conference.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.


I’m here to talk to you today about the rise of social media in South Africa – it is exciting to see a potential space where young people’s voices can be heard, one which can help to place youth issues on the national agenda. But today I’m going to ask you to look beyond the stories that we like to tell about the successes of social media, stories of Arab and other Springs, Occupy and so on, and see what we’re really dealing with when we rely on these forms of media in our local organisations and networks.

Francis Nyamnjoh has explained beautifully why social media is so exciting to us in Africa – its sociality builds on local traditions of informal communication, or ‘pavement radio’. Building on this idea, Herman Wasserman pointed out how SMS and other mobile communication works to help ordinary people obtain information, share it and create possibilities – especially where mainstream media and free expression are out of reach.

So we tend to see social media as having powerful potential for citizen media and participation. That’s the promise that ‘citizen’ journalism and social media could be opening new opportunities for democratic citizenship.

Who gets heard?

And yet, when we look at who actually gets heard on social media platforms, unfortunately the picture is not so democratic. We know that, on online platforms, our attention is governed by what we call ‘power laws’. Economically these power laws tend to mean that the rich just get richer. On platforms like Twitter, where there are an infinite number of voices, and where people have a limited amount of time, power laws and the way information flows through the network means that, while new voices can rise to prominence relatively quickly, a small number of people tend to get more and more attention.

In a nutshell, this means that the large majority of people are still very unlikely to be heard, while others are ‘trending’, celebs who get huge boosts of attention and access to the microphone.

SA’s Massive rebellion of the poor

Let’s move our focus to young people in South Africa, which has been called the country with the highest number of community protests in the world. These protests mostly challenge the state’s non-delivery of basic services such as electricity, water and housing. My students created a map visualising the ‘service delivery’ protests that police data recorded between 2009 and 2012. In that time apparently the police dealt with 2.9 ‘unrest incidents’ each day.

So we may ask, given these incredibly frequent community protests, how are people expressing their discontent? Researchers like Professor Jane Duncan and my student Nicole Wilcox have shown that we definitely can’t really rely on traditional media to tell the stories of the protests. Mainstream media are particularly bad at reporting the perspectives of the protesters. Given these gaps in coverage, you may be wondering whether social media is helping to convey the protestors’ stories to a broader audience? You may well ask – let’s look at a case study of a protest that happened in my own home town of Sasolburg in January 2013.

Zamdela’s burning

Let’s visit Sasolburg – an industrial town in the rural Free State province. Sasolburg was literally built by and for a group of wealthy chemical industries situated in the area. Despite this wealth, in the township of Zamdela, the average income is now R400 per month.

In January, 2013, Sasolburg residents embarked on a protest against some extremely unpopular decisions involving a proposed merger of their local municipality and a deeply indebted neighbouring municipality. Government turned a deaf ear to the protest, and things turned really ugly. Television screens were full of burning cars and people looting. In the course of the protests, police killed four people. 

Sadly in a country where people’s rights are routinely just ignored protesters may have found that spectacular violence is a way to get attention really fast. As community leader Nkanyiso Xaba explained:

[The protestors] have marched, they handed over a memorandum and no one is willing to come back and answer to their memorandum. So the resolution that we are taking is that the community will continue burning tyres to demonstrating their anger until somebody listens.

Analysing social media

Nonetheless, to understand how these events played out on social media, we need to look at two very different but equally important questions

  1. The first is, when the protests are reported, who speaks?
  2. And the second is, when we learn about the protests via social media, who actually gets heard? 


So let’s first look at the question, who speaks? I took a random stratified sample of tweets from the time of the Zamdela protests. The tweets were captured using the Twitter REST API.

Tweets were downloaded on 23 January 2013 using NodeXL ‘s Twitter search network importer, resulting in a sample of 1599 tweets posted from 899 distinct Twitter accounts. (NodeXL used Twitter’s ‘garden hose’ search API – v 1.1.). Graph metrics for the search network were calculated based on retweets and mentions in the network.

Of these tweets, 571 (or 36%) included a link to an image. These tweets formed the basis of the content analysis.

I divided the dataset of tweets with linked images (n=571) into two strata according to how influential the tweets were in the larger search network. Accounts with the highest in-degree metric (>=2 retweets or mentions) were selected for separate analysis.

This identified the most influential accounts for content analysis of the images considered highly sharable, newsworthy or important in this network

The less influential tweets constituted the majority of the tweets (66%). These had not been retweeted and their author had not received mentions in the search network (i.e. in-degree <2). A smaller set of 192 tweets with linked images (34%) were more influential (in-degree >=2). These tweets had been retweeted, or the author had received mentions in the network.

Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions
Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions

I drew a stratified random sample from these groups for the content analysis. After duplicates were removed, the final dataset for the content analysis consisted of 27 images from more influential tweets and 18 images from less influential tweets.

Despite the potential for citizen media to tell the story from the protestors’ perspective, mainstream media appears to have played a dominant role in defining which images we saw on Twitter. The 27 highly retweeted tweets in the random sample together constituted 34% of the edges in the Twitter search graph. Thus this was pretty much a media ‘echo chamber’, which highlighted spectacular and highly “newsworthy” images of violence, arson and particularly of looting and its aftermath.

Sources of influential images posted to Twitter
Sources of influential images posted to Twitter

Citizen media (mostly from the white right wing) accounted for only about 11% of the images. Print news publications posted the majority of the images that were circulating (51%), perhaps because of their strong networks of photojournalists and links with freelance photographers. Broadcast media posted only 27% of the images, perhaps because their large team of journalists covering the story spent a good deal of time under siege in the Zamdela police station, but possibly also because they were not posting still images for their audience to share.

Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station

Finally, online-only news (particularly the Daily Maverick) was relatively well represented with 11% of the images.

Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests
Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests

I’m sure you’re wondering why the Zamdela protesters weren’t telling their own stories on Twitter in the same way as we have seen activists from Occupy or Ferguson do. In the first place, social media demographics are different in South Africa, and they were even more different in 2013. At the time of these protests Twitter, much beloved by South African journalists, had been adopted by the wealthier middle class, not by people earning only a couple of hundred rand per month.

In the second place, at the time, most South Africans used feature phones, not smart phones. Although they could access Facebook and Twitter, many still preferred cheaper instant messaging. Consequently, lots of grassroots participation was likely taking place on Whatsapp and other messaging platforms such as Mxit.


A search network gathered via the Facebook API revealed that Zamdela activists as well as local witnesses of the protests and their aftermath were posting their experiences to Facebook rather than Twitter. This citizen journalism primarily took the form of Facebook status updates posted to personal Facebook pages.

As seen in other contexts, this mode of citizen engagement is highly emotive and dominated by strong expressions of affect. The sample included several attempts to mobilise support for the protests and retaliate for the police killings:

n wat i sow was really sad fire arms were every where tear gas acid water n our fellow strikers were killed tdy im worried cos i left my kid behind hes only 6 years old guys fuck ace n fuck the police who killed our friends guys let sasolburg turn to marikana now

The Facebook sample also included commentary by observers, who were not directly involved in the protests, critical commentary on media coverage, rationales for the protest action and debate among community members, both pro and anti mobilisation.

The sample even included (informal) posts by police officers, who posted Facebook comments of desperation and revenge, apparently while in medias res:

“our hands are full”

“the back up can’t get threw”

“this is now personal”

It is notable that this wide variety of posts and commentary did not include a single image of the protests taken by a participant or a local observer from the community.

There are several possible reasons for why this analysis was unable to identity the visual “voice” of Zamdela activists or the broader community. Posting images on public platforms such as Twitter may have been too risky for protestors. Taking and posting images is relatively difficult on feature phones. Images also require quite a bit of mobile data, which is expensive in South Africa, particularly for cash-strapped consumers who tend to buy prepaid airtime in small denominations. Even zero-rated mobile services (such as Facebook Zero) do not zero-rate images.

Despite the possible problems with posting images, even the text of the Facebook posts would have provided very interesting perspectives and contacts for journalists reporting on the events. Sadly journalists’ were not paying attention to Facebook. In 2013, ‘pavement internet’ and grassroots citizen participation were still pretty invisible to mainstream media.

Being heard

It’s time to go back to Twitter and look at our second question, who gets heard on Twitter? It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what people are paying attention to on social media. Still, in our sample we can see what sources were retweeted and mentioned in the tweets. Judging from this evidence, during the Zamdela protests, the mainstream media, particularly print media and professional photojournalists were highly influential in determining whose perspectives were seen. Citizen media by protesters didn’t’ make much impact and this category was dominated by those tweets by the white right wing that I mentioned earlier.

So, when we think about citizen media which goes viral or gets thrust into the spotlight, we’re thinking about exceptional cases. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of tweets in this sample had very little influence on others discussing the topic of the Zamdela protest. They were neither retweeted nor mentioned by others using the keyword. Instead, a small number of high influence accounts (in this case primarily from mainstream media) received the lion’s share of the retweets and mentions.

In conclusion, I would challenge you to consider how our society and our public media can work against these ‘power laws’ and harness viral to help to equalise public participation. We can see the huge potential of social media to extend and amplify ‘pavement radio’, but there is still extremely limited grassroots use, especially of Twitter. People who do have access and are using the networks to report their experiences are not being heard. Neither are their perspectives being seen.

Nonetheless, I believe both journalists and activists could be playing a huge role in bridging this gap between affordable and accessible messaging platforms and mainstream media. Only when this happens to a far greater extent than it does now will people learn to trust the power of documenting and sharing their experiences, and start to become confident that they, too, are being heard.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.

The Remaking of Citizens: Media, Civic Participation and Learning. Lecture at UCT by David Buckingham

We’re hosting the following public lecture at the Centre for Film and Media Studies next week:

The Remaking of Citizens: Media, Civic Participation and Learning.

David Buckingham

Loughborough University, UK

In most Western democracies, young people are seen to be disaffected from civic and political life. Yet while television has been accused of contributing to apathy and alienation, the internet has been proclaimed as a means of stimulating participation and regenerating public debate. In this presentation, I will look back to some older research on children and television, and draw on some more recent work on a large pan-European research project about young people, the internet and civic participation. I will be taking a critical look at the evidence for such claims, but I also want to challenge the terms of this debate, in terms of the dominant constructions of young people, of technology and of citizenship. I will suggest that technology alone will not address the fundamental causes of young people’s disengagement: rather, we need to address more basic issues of social power and inequality, and identify the forms of motivation and competence that young people need to develop if they are to become active citizens.


TIME: 4.00PM – 4.45PM


David Buckingham is Professor of Media and Communications at Loughborough University, UK. His research focuses on children and young people’s interactions with electronic media, and on media education. His recent books include Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture (2007); Global Children, Global Media; Migration, Media and Childhood (2007); Video Cultures: Media Technology and Everyday Creativity (2009); and The Material Child: Growing Up in Consumer Culture (2011).

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.

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

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.


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.

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.

Mobile literacies – bridging the gap between phone and book.

South African teens were happy to give their thumbs a rest for a while and take a break between MXit chats to read the m-novel Kontax, on their cellphones. The m-novel (a novel written to be read on a cellphone) meant that there was finally something on their phones that would make their parents smile rather than frown.

The m-novel Kontax was written by Sam Wilson, translated into isiXhosa by Nkululeko Mabandla, and commissioned by the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4lit (mobiles for literacy) project. The story’s success shows that teens have mastered a whole range of mobile literacies and the m4Lit research shows how wide-ranging these new skills are. Still, teens need better support if they are to make the most of the opportunities of ‘Web2.0’, and benefit from the new phase of social media where people do not only browse the web, but contribute to knowledge and share creative ideas with the world.

Mobile literacies report
Read full report on Mobile Literacies (pdf)

The m4Lit project included a research component which investigated teens’ responses to Kontax and surveyed 61 teens from Langa and Guguletu who all had access to GPRS-enabled phones. Researchers Marion Walton (Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town), Ana Deumert (Department of Linguistics, University of Cape Town),  and Steve Vosloo (Shuttleworth Foundation), found that despite regular bad news about South African youth’s poor performance at school and in literacy tests, and despite their ongoing difficulties in accessing computers, teens’ digital literacy is developing rapidly as a result of their passion for internet-enabled cellphones. The success of Kontax suggests that cellphones have significant potential in literacy development and that schools and teachers could benefit by knowing more about teens’ mobile literacies. (Read the full report here.)

When published on MXit, Kontax attracted over 28 000 teen subscribers, suggesting that teens were intrigued by the idea of using their phones to read a story.  An estimated 26% of these interested teens became loyal readers of the Kontax story, a teen mystery which included 21 400-word chapters, written in cliff-hanger-style. Kontax was slightly more popular with female than male teens, and the overwhelming majority of subscribers came from Gauteng (69%) or the Western Cape (16%). We are not sure exactly why the novel was so popular in Gauteng, but we suspect that this reveals the existence of a rural-urban ‘digital divide’ between urban teens who regularly use the internet on their cellphones and rural teens who may not have a modern phone, network access, or money for airtime.

Many South African teens may be more comfortable writing on phones than on paper or computers. The teens from Langa and Guguletu barely used computers for writing, and only 18% had a computer at home. Outside school, teens wrote on a mobile phone (mostly short messages on SMS or MXit), or else, in only a minority of cases, on pen and paper.

Adolescents need to develop self-knowledge and broaden their horizons beyond their immediate family, and teens’ mobile literacies and MXit use are playing an important part in this process. Teens used the internet on their phones to chat on MXit (75% were daily users) because they wanted to deepen their existing friendships with their peers, meet new people outside their immediate surroundings, understand themselves better, and establish new romantic relationships, both online and offline. Because of this emphasis, we weren’t really surprised that none of the teens used MXit to communicate with their parents. Overall teens were quite savvy about using MXit and understood that their adventures in the world of online chatting might have unpleasant and all-to-real consequences. Many teens had made rules for themselves to limit interactions with strangers, to guard their real identity, or to protect their time for schoolwork and household chores.

Still, teens weren’t always successful in managing their phone use, and some teens talked about how, in a contest of ‘Book vs. Phone’, the phone often won hands down. A large majority (76%) reported that they had experienced conflict with their parents because of their cellphone or MXit use, most often because of late nights, neglected schoolwork, or uncompleted household chores.

Mobile literacies (such as ‘txtspk’ or ‘MXit language’) are forms of literacy where South African teens are more expert writers than many of their elders. Overall, teens are using writing to express a youthful, casual, up to date identity and to establish their status and manage relationships in the all-important peer group.

It may surprise parents and teachers to find that teens still value the ability to communicate well and that they take care to hone their writing skills. They enjoy chatting to others who are able to use written language flexibly, responsively and creatively. Teens told us that they needed to learn to spell differently because, when they chat on MXit, speed and responsiveness are of the essence. ‘Txtspk’ deliberately breaks with the spelling conventions that teens have learned in school. It introduces a whole new set of rules for them to learn, and many of them talked about their embarrassment when, as newcomers to MXit, they unwittingly transgressed these new rules. They learned the hard way that they need to pay attention to their writing style or run the risk of ‘being deleted’ or losing friends on MXit.

Beyond MXit, many teens were also actively exploring the web. Their favourite site was Google, many had discovered Facebook, and ‘wap’ media download sites were also popular. Most teens had used the web on both computers and phones, but they were more likely to use their phones for everyday Web use, particularly to access news and Facebook. Beyond this improved accessibility, having a web-enabled phone did not appear to expand the range of daily opportunities for web use for this group.

Some teens had difficulties using websites, preferring to access content on MXit. These teens struggled to find their way around and sign up on the Kontax mobisite. Overall, when we compare them with their wealthier suburban counterparts or to teens in the US or Europe, the  teens from Langa and Guguletu didn’t seem to have as much experience in finding information for school, joining interest groups or publishing their own creative writing, art, video and music. This is partly because it is not possible for teens to publish their own writing or artwork or manage interest-based online communities on MXit. South African teens who learn to use the internet on their phones, who focus on MXit rather than the web, and who don’t have regular access to computers may thus be missing out on some educational and creative opportunities.

Schools could also be making better use of teens’ internet access on their phones and using teens’ enthusiasm for all things mobile to encourage educational uses of the web. Nonetheless, the limitations of mobile access mean that it is still an urgent priority to improve computer access in schools and libraries, particulary in rural areas, and to make broadband internet access more affordable for all South African households.