Reviews 2015

Children’s Games in the New Media Age: Childlore, Media and the Playground

Children’s Games in the New Media Age: Childlore, Media and the Playground. Ed. Andrew Burn and Chris Richards. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 238 pages. $39.95 (paperback).

Children’s Games in the New Media Age is the product of a two-year research project which finished in 2011 but is indebted to the work of Peter and Iona Opie started over fifty years ago. In 1959, the Opies wrote that because of "the cinema, the wireless and television" they felt they had started their investigation into traditional play "fifty years too late" (v), and that is always the worry when writing about any new technologies. However, in the same way as the Opies’ work has provided the foundation for much subsequent research, the findings in this book also have a timeless quality as forms of traditional and media-based play are considered alongside each other in the widely ranging, but always cohesive, eight chapters.

Andrew Burn and Chris Richards’ collection presents the five key outcomes of the diverse research project which encompassed the digitisation and analysis of some of the sound recordings from playgrounds made by Peter and Iona Opie in the 1970s and 1980s, a two-year ethnographic study of play in two British primary schools, a documentary film of the games played in the two playgrounds, the building of a website which provides examples of children’s games played over the last century, and the creation of a proof-of-concept prototype motion tracking research tool. The scope of the study means that the book is an important reference for researchers of childhood studies, children’s folklore, new and emerging digital media and their connected fields.

The opening chapter by Burn dispels the ongoing public perceptions of children’s play perpetrated by the media as it extends the Opies’ work, exploring the interrelatedness of the "fluidity, performativity and inventiveness of playground games" and the "computer game console and participatory internet" (1) from varied disciplinary perspectives before going on to provide the background and framework for the five strands of the project. The chapter marshals the rest of the book well by establishing the links between the Opies’ original work and the influence of digital media on the play of children today, as social play is reshaped by the two-way traffic between the realisation of formerly imaginary worlds of children’s play and the immersive virtual worlds to be found online.

This sets the tone for the next two chapters in the first of which the Opie recordings are re-examined with a twenty-first century awareness of children’s agency within their play. In the second, aspects which were not considered because of the constraints and focus of the original research, such as the variation in the tunes, not just words, of playground games are considered. The merging of the offline world of playground games and the online world of children’s play is examined in the next chapter through an exploration of the effect of YouTube on the transmission of clapping games and the development of one game over time at a primary school. In this, the continuity of the practices the Opies observed being enhanced by the children’s use of technology are demonstrated again. Chris Richards then situates his chapter on play fighting within a historical context and considers the role of video games, television and film in shaping play. In his discussion, he reaffirms the adult anxieties associated with such play and its long term effects on children.

Although the Opies’ work underpins the entire book, there is a sense of it being a book of two halves as the following chapters shift more towards the digital worlds and how technology has become a wholly integrated part of children’s play with some reflections on the effects of this. As a researcher, teacher and parent, I found Jackie Marsh’s chapter exploring the blurred boundaries between children’s online and offline play the most thought-provoking. She surveys children’s use of online worlds and sees the impact of this on real-world relationships and, despite considering an online/offline play continuum, concludes that there are still palpable distinctions between the two as children manage their identities in real and virtual spaces. Rebekah Willett’s research into media-referenced children’s play is a refreshing consideration of the way in which children construct meaning from a range of individual, and hybridised combination of, media texts. Willet uses case studies to indicate how children’s play is affected not only by the content of television programmes and computer games, but also by the medium and its associated production techniques.

Grethe Mitchell’s penultimate chapter discusses a new technological means in the form of a console "game," Game Catcher, to explore two strands of children’s play: firstly, to enable children to apply the inventiveness seen in real world playing to a digital medium which reflects their play on the screen, and secondly to create a research tool to record data about children’s game playing in a searchable format which is more useable, more cost-effective and more efficient than traditional film or video recordings. The design and real world trials of the "game" are documented and its potential for future research is clear from the positive way in which children responded to it and wanted to develop it. Moreover, from a practical perspective, the consistency of the collected data will make it easy for subsequent researchers using the technology to draw comparisons between children’s games in the early twenty-first century. As Game Catcher looks forward, the final chapter uses technology to look backwards as it documents the creation of a website archive with the British Library which provides access to the digitised recordings with which the book started. It looks as if the individual website has now been subsumed into the BL’s larger online digital holdings, but the chapter’s consideration of the involvement of children in the original design process shows how they think about and use the technology which is very much a part of their lives.

The nature of this research means that a substantial proportion of the book is descriptive as it recounts the findings of the field work, but the contextualisation, range of methodologies employed and analytical commentary make the research project and this concomitant collection of essays a timely addition to childhood studies. As well as observing similarities with the Opies’ original findings, the project also sees the effects of technology’s influence on children’s games in the twenty-first century. This study therefore provides a substantial stepping stone for future researchers in children’s play in an increasingly digital world.

Richard Shakeshaft
University of Cambridge, UK