UPDATE: A Literary Addendum
I know a boy who plays Minecraft somewhat as if it were his quest to reach the nirvana state that comes of internalizing the Jesus Prayer. I suppose he substitutes “Steve” for Jesus.
I argue with him instead of taking away the laptop where he lives within this frame. However, you cannot argue with a mind trained via unconscious, unwilled, willfulness.
Today a friend and fellow parent of a child lost to Minecraft sent me a link to a Slate piece on this newest digital drug. While the article and author appear absolutely lacking critical thought, it was at least revealing. It presented its author as an “educational technology researcher” who is “wary” of the future if Minecraft becomes a kind of template for the digital learning environment. However, the article reads as kind of advertisement so that while offering no depth it promotes its contentious topic.
First, we should examine the context of the piece. It originally appeared in “Future Tense”:
This article emerges from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies and their effects on policy and society. On Thursday, Future Tense will host an event called “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader: What Kids’ Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming, and Sharing Tells Us About the Future of Elementary Education” in Washington, D.C. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.
This is a progressive think tank–”future-oriented” and tech-obsessed. ”Emerging Technologies” is the wave of our impending “dominion” by our social managers (i.e., Masters). This article’s author, Lisa Guernsey, is “director of the Early Education Initiative [where] Ms. Guernsey focuses on how to scale up high-quality learning environments for young children, birth through age 8,” but more tellingly is simply a purveyor of trends via the “neutral” lens of journalism.
And by her own successful marshaling of the emerging waves we too find ourselves (and our children) in the capable hands of a seasoned technologist. We can proceed knowing that tech is king and, though Minecraft isn’t “ed-tech” yet, it soon will be a paradigm for such if this article is a barometer (who knows what the hell a barometer is anymore? Can we scale up barometer learning?).
Further confusing things: the title of the article is “An ‘Educational’ Video Game Has Taken Over My House” with the abstract or precis phrase (metadata is discovery, peeps) saying “Minecraft inspires creativity and problem-solving. But my daughters are obsessed.” However, the article’s URL “title” is “minecraft_teachers_love_the_game_but_as_a_parent_i_m_worried_my_kids_are_addicted” and it’s this that shows up on my browser tab. Phew.
I’m forced to be “ambivalent” from this presentation–rather, it seems the author’s intention to be ambivalent and yet promotional. ”Educational” is qualified by the quotation marks; but “creativity” and “problem-solving” are asserted without qualification–oh, but for the obsession issue (no big!). And apparently “teachers love the game” and this parent is worried about “addiction.” I’ll note here that only one teacher is mentioned in this piece and that teacher is a Minecraft entrepreneur trying to make hay while this sun shines.
You will no doubt divine that I am in no way ambivalent concerning any of the claims above.
The author gives an outline of the game (the links are in her text):
Minecraft is an open-ended video game that lets players build virtual houses and communities with a few simple keystrokes. Since it officially launched last November, Minecraft’s website has recorded more than 36 million registered users, with 6.8 million purchasing a copy to run on their own computers. Look for Minecraft tutorial videos on YouTube and millions of entries pop up. The game, which can be played on a computer, on Xbox 360, or on a smartphone app, doesn’t rely on high-resolution graphics or keep track of earned points. It’s nothing like those road-race games that favor fine motor skills and quick reaction times…..
Once that task is mastered, other opportunities beckon: Mine for diamonds, tame cats, stock chests with found objects, create glass windows by building kilns and gathering sand, make bows and arrows out of spiderwebs (but be careful—vanquish those spiders first!), lay out railroad-like roller coasters, design wonderlands for friends to visit. There is no end to the options.
Surely there is an end to the options…unless this game is a kind of god facsimile, but it isn’t as it is bounded in the nutshell of code and narrow conceptions of “experience.”
There is a very powerful message that always comes through in the adulatory words of those who earn their keep by suckling the teat of Techne. We might forgive them for they know not what they do somewhat as Sheldon Wolin, in the context of “inverted totalitarianism,” absolves its acolytes saying that these simply live in lockstep with the economic system; they are minded in it and of it. Chomsky says the same of sociopathic CEOs–they have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders that “usefully” (foul word) absolves their evolving from an awareness of shame to a laudatory greed.
Now, I know this will seem overkill but I find the whole of this piece so objectionable that I feel I need to examine most of it here.
…It’s no surprise, then, that parents are cursing its birth. As a researcher examining the potential of technology in education and as the mother of two Minecraft-obsessed girls in elementary school, I have an acute love-hate relationship with this game. One minute I’m mesmerized with its potential for encouraging children to get creative, explore, and think critically about what it takes to build new communities. The next I’m shrieking at my kids and issuing ridiculous threats. (Me, stomping over to our kitchen computer: “I have already said this three times. Shut it down. It’s dinnertime. Do I have to unplug this from the wall? Want spiders, huh? How ’bout I leave you outside tonight to find the real ones on the back porch!”)
First, I’ve got to say that I always find it revealing (though I know it is a commonplace) when folks use the “creation/birth/product” metaphor and in this instance it is further revealing as a “curse.” It’s long been my contention that technology is the “birth” of the useless and violent male: the male is now conceived of as the Alpha of “intellection” set against the “natural” and common physicality in the woman of the species. That is not the focus of this piece, but to me it is the entire character of our fate.
But, back to the author’s text: Guernsey gave the game away a long time ago (being a paid proponent of emergence) and here she tells us as much. However, she uses her career, her business interest, as a badge of expertise, a credential. This is rather a bias and not a mark of thoughtful and studied neutrality.
Her terms are more clearly indicative of the truth of this trap than her explicit message–her girls are obsessed and she is herself mesmerized. But yielding the progressive’s shield, “potential,” she then unleashes a barrage of ambiguous terms to cover the field: creativity, exploration (discovery), community. The royal road to utopia.
Minecraft has many markers of what makes for a good learning environment: child-initiated projects, deep engagement, challenging tasks that push kids to persist and reach higher goals, excitement over what has been learned or discovered, tools for writing, and multiple modes of play that enable kids (and adults) to mold the game to their liking. Want to play by yourself and have loads of gold bricks available for your yellow-brick road? Use “creative” mode. Want to invite friends to build a town? Turn on the multiplayer server. Want to add more monsters and turn the game into a swashbuckling adventure? Add a “mod” created by fans and game developers to trigger more zombies or creepers to appear.
Here Guernsey’s opening metaphor is genetic–”markers” are those “tags” in genetic transcription that identify species but also the mechanisms of development and targets of manipulation in gene therapy. But still she follows this leading metaphor (one that “tags” the rest of the contention of benefit) with more framing terminology sure to put a smile on the edupreneur’s face: child-initiated learning, deep engagement, challenge, persistance, excitement and so on. This is a veritable kitchen sink of progressive educational benefit.
But, all of these terms are misleading and really ambiguous at best. ”Child-initiated”? Your kid sits down and starts playing the game, and “learning” is a catchall term as we “learn” how to flick a light switch too; deep engagement? Funny how she described this herself earlier as “obsession;” persistance? Again, obsession, refusal to get off the computer.
I could go on, but I won’t (relieved?). The apologist nods at the possible detriments but finds so much potential that she can “blame the victim” when the child turns zombie.
The next paragraph promotes the “teacher” in the URL who “loves” Minecraft: ”And it has classroom potential, too. For example, Joel Levin, a second-grade teacher at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City…” and goes on to promote the author’s own organization and upcoming events that sound very educationally “forward.” (Did you note that workhorse term “potential?”) Then two more paragraphs promote the model of “educational markets.”
I’m going to cry foul on the next paragraph and call it pure fabrication. This fantasy serves mommy’s meme:
My girls, who beg me each day to look at all the new buildings they’ve created, broached the idea of an educational Minecraft before I could even mention it: “I like Minecraft better than my homework,” my 8-year-old told me this spring when I struggled to redirect her to that night’s math. “Maybe my homework could be on Minecraft? Like when we were learning shapes, I could go on Minecraft and make pyramids! And I could put up signs like, ‘A pyramid has a square on the bottom.’ ”
Brilliant! Um…sorry, not buying it. (As I struggled to teach my daughter about gender roles and the degradation of women in all masculine cultures I realized I might simply build a better future for her in Minecraft where she might return to a paradise before the Creation story in Genesis made woman out of a rib. Ah, technology…so much better than reality, and spiders!)
This, though, is the kicker: the paving of the way (on the road to…) for edupreneurs, likely via the New America Foundation grant program.
Now families with Minecraft-obsessed children have to come up with new ways to accommodate it in their daily lives. Some have banned Minecraft on school days. (If Minecraft becomes part of lessons, they’ll have to adapt, I suppose.) Others have put time limits on its use each day. (A much trickier strategy than time-limiting TV watching, where programs conclude after 30 minutes.) One father wrote into the question-answering site Quora to find out how to cope with his 12-year-old son’s Minecraft addiction. (The advice: Engage with him. “Don’t just unplug your kid, teach him how to unplug himself, and encourage him when he does,” said one.) In our house, we have rules about kids doing their book-reading first and making sure to have daily outdoor time. We also encourage them to tell us about what they are making on Minecraft and show them how to conduct research online to figure out how to concoct new things. My husband, nearly as Minecraft manic as they are, has created quests for them and their friends to find treasures he’s hidden.
I love how families must simply admit defeat and cede the field, or excuse me, “adapt.” How Darwinian is technology! (You may have been instructed in this meme already by that Wired! guru Kevin Kelly, a devout Christian interestingly enough considering my opening line. Kelly is the author of What Technology Wants.) In any event, it sounds like it’s a done deal, right? And we’re even given our first counseling session advice in order to help us cope with the inevitable. Worse, it seems like reading and playing outside are now to be framed as “tasks” and perhaps something akin to the tyrannous dictum of the dinner table–eat your vegetables if you want dessert (you can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!). Of course, according to this article the dessert IS nutritious!
Hallelujah! How long has the ignorant Western sugar-junkie been waiting to be told that Twinkies are good for him?
Sadly for the Guernseys it appears that Minecraft is a family “mania,” which means that it is positively reinforced by love and attention and commonality.
She ends with “worry”–
I’m fascinated to watch whether Minecraft and other immersive games will eventually change the culture of our staid and struggling elementary schools. But I have to admit: I’m worried about what might happen when they do.
though her entire piece is overwhelmingly in support of this brave new world.
We must note here the clear, but really pretty subtle, way the author has undermined the current state of education (“staid” and boring with “struggling” schools).
Let me be abundantly clear: the only potential here is for Minecraft and other “capture” technologists. Your child is no one’s concern. Thinking is no one’s concern. What kind of Human Potential is this?
Gamification. This link brought to you by the future of “higher education”–Coursera. Coursera was designed by a Computer Science professor at Stanford who specializes in “Machine Learning“–is that learning via the tool called a machine? Nope. That refers to machines that learn.
Who imagines that Minecraft might just be “learning” and not your zombie child?
I have tried in previous posts to make this understanding of our technological frame as something akin to “you are what you eat.” That is your mind is a product of context. Even the argument regarding the primacy of Nature v Nurture loses sight of the “nurture” that is the natural soup of all context. That is, Nature is nurturance as well. Above I alluded to the Greek phrase “Character is fate,” first recorded in Herakleitos (circa 540-480 B.C.) and translated in those words by Novalis (“One cannot step twice into the same river” is also Herakleitos). Guy Davenport tries to explicate this gnomic fragment (69):
The Greek says that ethos is man’s daimon: The moral climate of a man’s cultural complex (strictly, his psychological weather) is what we mean when we say daimon, or guardian angel. As the daimons inspire and guide, character is the cooperation between psyche and daimon. The daimon has foresight, the psyche is blind and timebound. A thousand things happen to us daily which we sidestep or do not even notice. We follow the events which we are characteristically predisposed to cooperate with, designing what happens to us: character is fate.
A somewhat reductive political example: Glenn Beck can be/represent the “moral climate” of your particular “cultural complex.” If so, then you are predisposed to make daily choices guided by that “complex” and “morality.” You are fated to it but it was designed through your contextuality.
It’s important to try to think harder about these issues rather than using the rational mind (simply a function of the self’s desire to narrate) to create justifications for ill-considered nurture (yes, playing Minecraft is a kind of nurture though no one is mindful of it to my knowledge).
It won’t be shocking to find that I will promote reading books as a more valuable and deeper kind of nurture; that I will propose going camping and walking in the woods as a more wholesome kind of nurture; that I will suggest that meeting friends at a pub, a coffee house, the park, a treehouse fosters a better chance at learning how to “build communities.” But there is always a caveat, too. What books? Which friends? We must make choices. We do have to try to evaluate these things in the face of our mortality. Our lives are “short” compared to the number of books there are to read. Especially when we are led to believe that the majority of our time must be given over to making others wealthy via our labor. We sleep and work and there is precious little time left over to LIVE, to be with family, to mature, to be mindful of what is uniquely human and to try to deepen it.
This means that reading one kind of book by one kind of author is likely not going to make a qualitative difference to your mindfulness; that possibly this is as restrictive to you as playing Minecraft or even more so. We can be reductive and limited in any number of ways and we can be unaware of it. It is this awareness that I am urging on you, on us.
It seems to me that if the “moral climate” is imbued by our “cultural complex” then we can change it. You may, in this understanding, redesign your fate.
Men and boys have been imprisoned by technology since, well, since “in the beginning.” What this piece on Minecraft demonstrates is that technology has now captured the women and girls. It had already begun this redesign via what we benignly term “social media.” Social media seems very communal and relationship-driven. Of course, there is no there there. This is a very conspicuous “brick in the wall” of humanity capture.
And it is in this regard that I want to say what I really think! Minecraft IS an addiction engine. Period. Not only does it “reward” your constant, “never-ending” questing via finding valuable resources it co-opts all of our communication tools. Kids chat and share and are together–in the machine. Everything that makes a human life human is degraded and flattened in this way. And the biggest trick of all…it is so damn easy.
It is the Promethean in us that seeks to conquer death via technological (non-uterine) birth. This is a most immature way of living. Unfortunately, we have not only been stuck in this “quest for fire” but we have accelerated the pace beyond understanding. We are under the illusion of control while the world around us makes clear our folly.
Melville gave us this lesson writ large in Moby Dick. Ahab’s quest is oblivion. The Whale is Necessity. Who is left? The observing author having no industry and no fuel, riding the ark/coffin/covenant that holds the Word and clarifies the world.
Wordsworth seems to have confused himself and us. (Who the hell reads Wordsworth?) The poet who demonstrates our folly and our failure
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
is also the poet who directs us inwards to our mind as “fabric more divine.”
Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this frame of things
(Which, ‘mid all revolution in the hopes
And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.
This is the proud prophet of human progress exalted over earth (“above this frame”). Perhaps it rejects the error of “making” in the Promethean mode–but it exalts the mindful effort of conquest over our bounded being. To me, these two things are inextricable as links in a chain tethered to destruction (the Pequod’s fate).
A side view: this is good for the planet. Mesmerizing humans into believing their finest and best life is in front of a screen “doing nothing” is perhaps the way we stave off climate catastrophe and resource depletion. You don’t need many calories when you’re not moving. I assume then that all of our “economics” will be “in the machine” and truly and finally concretely abstract.
Also, the name itself houses its “nature”–it is the new labor.
Stevens I think instructs us more wisely.
THE POEMS OF OUR CLIMATE
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
We still find beauty, but by discovering it in the chinks and admitting of natural necessity (Ananke), we may truly dream divine: we exalt our limited and only field of play: flawed words and stubborn sounds. Art.