Politics of children's games
The evolution of toys and games is interesting as it goes back to an age when childhood, as a concept, did not exist and where history records children to be little adults. Now, when children have become consumers in their own right, ANURADHA KUMAR examines the debate over the `influence' of modern games on impressionable minds, and the importance of playtime.
WHEN Philippe Aries published his landmark book Centuries of Childhood in 1963, it revolutionised the study of young people. Until then, much history writing had mainly been the study of kings, nobles, wars, the rise and fall of governments and empires. But Aries' book found new ways of understanding the past; his methods unravelled the story of common families and the youth of these families.
According to Aries, childhood, as a concept, did not exist at all in the medieval period. In Europe, it grew into existence in the upper classes in the 16th and 17th Centuries, solidified itself somewhat more fully among the 18th Century upper classes, and finally mushroomed on the scene of the 20th Century in both the upper and lower classes. Childhood did not really penetrate the great masses of the lower and lower-middle classes until very late in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As Aries argued, while there were many between the ages of seven and 15, they were not seen as children. Most would have spent much of their time working with their parents (and thus learning the skills they would need in later life), but they also found time to play. However, many of the board and dice games found in the ancient and the medieval periods would have been equally popular among children as adults. In the medieval world a seven-year-old was already an adult. Aries points out that most young people were apprenticed, became workers in the fields (later, after the Industrial Revolution, in the factories) and generally entered fully into the adult society at a very early age.
Even in the artwork of the period, there are no children, though there are babies. Children appear as little adults, whose gesticulations, dress, expressions and mannerisms are all adult. According to Aries, artists couldn't paint young people as children because they were not children. In their cultures they were little adults, and this is precisely what the artists saw. Childhood is a later historical creation.
Before the 18th Century there were virtually no toys or books made and sold especially for children. It was not until the theories of philosopher John Locke and his followers began to take hold in the 18th Century that toys and games were seen to have an important role in educating children. It was this new attitude that led to the development of a market aimed at adults who wished to "improve" their children.
The earliest toys and games manufactured and marketed specifically for children were developed during the late 18th Century. By the early 19th Century, there was a successful international toy market largely centred in Germany and England. In keeping with the theory that play should be educational, early toys and games were often designed to be challenging to young minds. One of the leading producers of children's games during the early 19th Century was the Wallis family of London. Their toy building set "The Young Builder" was designed to improve a child's skills in assembling materials into recognisable structures.
Toys and games were also commercially made in the United States in the same period. Like children's books of the period, many were highly moral in tone. Toys and games that were developed then might evoke images of innocence and play from a simpler time, but, in fact, they emerged out of changing views of childhood and the development of new markets and consumers in the early 19th Century.
Modern day games
In the 20th Century, the story changed radically. As markets grew bigger and more integrated, and as the media's reach extended into every home, children became consumers and decision makers in their own right. The kind of games that have since become popular have much to do with advances in technology, as well as a growing uniformity that has stamped itself all over the world. As a recent survey in Europe by the market research organisation Mintel shows, 70 per cent of all children aged between seven and 14 in Europe own a video game machine of some kind. Among boys aged between 11 and 14, the figure rises to 85 per cent. At first, most video games were based on multi-coloured characters battling in mystical worlds. But now, games simulate real-life.
The Mintel report also found that two-thirds of children played games with their friends. This suggests computer games are now an important factor in maintaining a social life, rather than preventing one develop. One concern that has remained constant, however, is the fear that computer games are having a negative effect on children. Many adults have been worried about children playing violent games. Recent research, however, is divided on the issue. Some studies have found that children who have recently played a violent computer game are more likely to be aggressive. Another theory, the "catharsis theory", suggests instead that video games help children get rid of violent feelings.
But it is unlikely that any of these concerns will stop the spread of the gaming bug. Computer machines and software now generate £ 7 billion a year, more than the Hollywood film industry. In the United Kingdom, the market has doubled in the past five years to £ 1,064 million, and that is likely to grow by another £ 200 million this year. As studies show as many as 300,000 children in the U.K. now own a cell phone. Last year, mobile phones were the most requested Christmas gift by young people aged 10 to 15.
Mobile phone companies have reported a massive surge in sales in the run-up to Christmas. Worried experts liken children's mobile phones to "a dangerous extension of the umbilical cord". In Japan, where 60 per cent of teenagers have access to a cell phone, computer games maker Nintendo is plotting to allow Gameboy owners to battle each other via their phones. Apparently the company's hugely popular Pokemon game will be the first to be phone compatible.
Shrinking playgrounds ... open spaces in urban areas are disappearing.
Ever since it was launched, Pokemon has become a craze among children around the world, and a multi-billion dollar industry. In more recent months, the game of Pokemon has, however, acquired the status of public enemy number one. In Europe, there have been schools that have banned the cards on reports that children steal cards from each other, and there have been a few incidents of violence surrounding children's attempts to get hold of these cards.
In the beginning, children gained considerable enjoyment from playing the game and learning the names of the 150 or so different characters. The game involved them sorting the cards out into several shifting categories of species, weaknesses and grades. Swapping Pokemon cards to get the complete set did not seem really any different from earlier generations' swapping of football or cigarette cards, or from other collective obsessions. Yet Pokemon cards began to be stolen, parents began to grumble about the excessive cost of the cards, and the sheer numbers that children were trying to collect.
Before long the cards were banned. Meanwhile, children became acquainted with the ever more clever marketing techniques employed to ensnare children and their parents into making further purchases. There was the continual release of "new" decks of cards. There was the practice of making some cards unavailable in any of the standard products. The only way, for instance, to get highly prized cards "Charizard" was through the device of "booster packs", which retailers routinely opened to sell individual rare cards over the counter.
It is not that Pokemon itself is all that different from any other game or craze that generations of children have engaged in. But it is an obsession that is being continually fuelled and whipped up with ever more money being extorted from children and adults alike. And it has evoked controversy everywhere.
Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, the Mufti, directed all Muslims to prevent their children from playing Pokemon in order to protect their religion Pokemon, apparently encouraged gambling as well as depicted religious symbols said to represent Zionism, Christianity and Freemasonry. In the U.S., trading in Pokemon cards has been banned in many schools on the grounds that it is distracting children from their studies.
Turning back the clock
As the debate rages over the benefits or otherwise that such modern games have on impressionable minds, there is also a call to return to more traditional games. Traditional playground games in primary schools in some places in the U.K. are being promoted in the hope it will curb bullying and promote greater co-operation among children. Ancient games such as hopscotch, skipping, London Bridge and hide-and-seek are now being encouraged for they help suppress dominant characteristics among pupils. Other traditional games such as skipping and marbles are also being brought back in other primary schools.
Such advocates, however, are still in a minority. On the other hand, another long-time children's party game of musical chairs has been accused of breeding violence and of rewarding only the "strongest and fastest". It remains a fact that play in any form has faltered to a stop in schools because there has been such a great emphasis on literacy and developing numeric skills.
Open spaces for children to play are rapidly being encroached on all over. In October, children in a housing complex in Kolkata were banned from playing games outside their homes because their neighbour, a civil judge, claimed they were disturbing him. But another common problem is that in most schools all over, playtime is a time that is not often left entirely to the children's wishes. Many of the children's attempts to play have been extinguished by the supervising adults who complained that children "did not play". Far too often, schools cope with playground problems such as noisy children colliding into each other by clamping down.
But while school playgrounds may look like chaotic places, playtime is one of the few moments in children's lives when they can just be themselves. As some educational consultants are beginning to suggest, playtime constitutes a kind of "informal curriculum" and needs as much sensitive nurturing as the subjects taught formally indoors. Sadly, in recent decades, this has come to receive less and less emphasis.
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THE 34th International Children's Games is being held from June 29 - July 3, 2002 at Plock, Poland. The spiritual father of the games, Slovenian sports instructor Metod Klemenc says, "My childhood suffered from World War II. It destroyed my family. Since I wanted to create a better world based on friendship, sport seemed to be one of the best means to bring together young people from different countries. Therefore you need the will power and friends who are enthusiastic about sport, and who are willing to give up their spare time." Klemenc organised the first games on June 5, 1968 in Celje.
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