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Playing on the Net

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There are some unique features of the Internet that may be influencing how it is used for pleasure or profit — it's interactive, it's varied, and it's enormous. James Cortada reviews how people are using the Net for fun.

Playing on the Net

Nearly since the first day PCs came into existence, commentators have been arguing that children have a natural affinity for computers that somehow eluded the rest of us. Of course, given the fact that more adults than children use PCs, the observation on its face begs to be challenged. But, as any parent can readily attest, children do seem more comfortable with this technology than the rest of us. Part of the reason for this circumstance that we normally hear is that children were raised with computers all around them while their parents' generation encountered the technology either as teenagers or as adults. We also are told that children have had screens of various sorts in their lives, meaning television. But here again, anybody under the age of 55 could say the same thing, unless they were raised in a household that did not have a television in the home. Even in that situation, children would have been exposed to TV at a friend's home, just as children are exposed to PCs and the Internet at their friends' homes too. Given the fact that over a third of American homes now have PCs, we could expect that a child has a minimum of a 1 in 3 chance of being exposed to a PC on a regular basis. That statistic does not include the odds of exposure at school (today about 1 in 9, with the ratio changing rapidly in favor of more exposure; this is particularly evident in wealthy school districts). The point is, however, screens have been a part of the American scene for a very long time. Multiple generations have been exposed to these in various forms and to a greater or lesser degree.

We now have, however, a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that children raised in the period after the arrival of the PC are very likely to use this device for entertainment, not just simply to do homework (the positive image we are presented) or to become sinister hackers (the negative image we are also so frequently offered). They are more likely to use it for games and homework because these activities do not require extensive technical skills, especially today, given how games and operating systems work. To be a hacker, on the other hand, does require extensive technical skills; that is why there are fewer hackers than press coverage about them would lead us to believe. The fact that many people, adults included, use PCs and the Internet as a form of recreation should not be a surprise. One student of the process, Don Tapscott, put it this way: "Play has its own pursuits: amusement, competition, expending excess energy and companionship—all of which can be fulfilled on the Internet."54 Part of the reason children find the Internet so entertaining is due to the fact that, along with PCs, it tolerates an enormous variety of ways for the mind to work and think. It also provides a plethora of games and activities, and a growing array of interesting information to feed a child's curiosity. This applies to both boys and girls, to preteens and high school seniors, and, of course, to college students and young adults.

The central activity of children and teenagers with PCs and the Internet is playing games, usually video games. But the sale of computer-based games gives us a hint at how many people became interested in these diversions. These games are played on a PC and do not require use of the Internet. To be sure, not all were children buying them, but they did represent a large portion of the demand for this software, along with teenagers and young adults. The key observation I can make is that video games have been popular from the earliest days of the PC. By the early 1990s, video games had become very big business. For example, in the first half of 1994, Nintendo sold 2.3 million copies of its N64 systems in the United States. Sony did very well too at the same time with its Playstation, selling more than 4 million. All through the 1990s, sales of video games did well, rising from less than $3.5 billion worth in 1990 to more than $5.5 billion in 1997. Unofficial sales data for 1998 and 1999 demonstrated continued growth in sales as well.55 In Chapter 4 I described some of the more popular products being sold in the United States. I do not need to repeat that story here. However, what is interesting to review here is everyone's reaction to video games.

All through the 1980s and 1990s various groups, including parents, had expressed deep concerns about violence on television. Following a long-standing tradition that information should be of a practical, moral nature, the effects of what some called "bad information," corrupting in its influence, would capture the nation's attention. Periodic eruptions of violence at schools (like the high school shootings in Colorado in 1999) stimulated a great deal of additional debate and passion about the role of technology in affecting children's behavior. Specific targets were violent programs on television and action video games. With the arrival of the video game in the 1980s, and in particular with violent shoot-em-up games sold primarily to boys, the debate had been intense for nearly twenty years. By the late 1990s, the Clinton Administration had decided it would support technology to restrict children's access to violent TV programs (the V-chip proposal) and endorsed self- regulation by movie producers to reduce access to violent movies by children, but proved reluctant to go after the video game market. Part of the problem for policymakers and parents alike was the fact that child psychologists could not demonstrate with sound scientific evidence that violent games led directly to violent behavior. Boys, in particular, had played violent games for centuries and somehow civilization survived. Politicians, law enforcement officials, and parents felt otherwise. The evidence was not clear-cut. Meanwhile, children continued to play with videos because they were fun.56

One could argue that the debate over the benefits of video playing is similar to the 19th century discussion about the negatives of leisure. However, it is a different debate because of the modern focus on violence. In the 19th century there were discussions about men getting drunk on vacations and going home to beat their wives and children. But the issues turned more on whether or not leisure was unproductive (in a work sense) or immoral (leading to drunkenness or idleness) than whether it was conducive to violence. Today's debate centers on the issue of violent behavior. What the kids are saying is that video games are a form of play, hence fun. We know from personal experience and scientific evidence that play is a way children learn. In other words, play is productive and, in the American way of thinking, a good thing. Video games do teach children how to navigate on the Internet and to operate and be comfortable with personal computers. They also see the PC as a tool that they can use in different ways. For example, children report that they do research for their school papers on the Internet, which is just fine because librarians are encouraging people to use online database search engines to do their research and are investing millions of dollars in digitally-based sources of information.

Given their popularity, as evidenced by the number of video games sold and what children are reporting they do with PCs, game software is now a major element of the American leisure scene. This software is informative, since not all games are violent uneducational artifacts. A massive amount of children's educational software has been developed and is being used by thousands of school districts all over the United States. This software relies on many of the same design techniques and technologies as video games. So learning how to use a PC to play a video game also has taught children how to use educational software at school. In fact, in too many instances, they have a better understanding of how to use this information technology than their teachers. For many children, particularly very young ones, video games and educational software are one and the same, no different than board games such as Candyland and Scrabble were to their parents—one pure entertainment, the second closer to being educational and fact-based. Today there are thousands of K–12 educational software packages not counted in the sales figures I cited for games.

But grownups play too. In the late 1990s, Americans obtained the capability of downloading music of relatively high quality off the Internet onto their PCs without paying for the recordings. This was made possible primarily by a software program called Napster, made available to the public in August 1999, and which by the end of 2000 had over 10 million users. Initial impressions were that high school and college students were the primary users of such software for what appeared to be an emerging "killer app." The first major survey of the use of this application, conducted in the spring of 2000, suggested that there were 13 million Americans downloading music off the Net, or approximately 14 percent of all Internet users at the time. Surprisingly, 42 percent of those downloading music were between the ages of 30 and 49. In addition to downloading music, one can listen to recordings over the Internet like we do over the radio. Some 38 percent of all American Internet users reported having listened to music that way. But the big story remained the downloading of music using tools like those from Napster. Current thinking is that over one billion free music files now sit on PCs operated by Napster's customers. These users break out into roughly two-thirds men, one-third women. Yes, many are young; in fact nearly 1 in 4 Internet users who have downloaded music were between the ages of 18 and 29. There are three points to make about this data. First, this is yet another example of Americans eagerly going after information (digital files) for entertainment. Second, this practice cuts across many age groups and both genders. Third, this is an excellent example of building on an existing infrastructure because these people did not go out and buy PCs so that they could download free music. Rather, they exploited an existing technology that they already had for other purposes, and added this additional application.

Yet it is not enough to say just that people exploited the Internet like any other technology. There appears to be some unique features of the Internet that may be influencing how it is used for pleasure or profit. The differences from prior information technologies are sufficient to ask the question: Does the Internet represent a fundamental change from prior tools? I believe the answer is yes for three reasons. It responds so quickly to instructions; in other words, it is richly interactive while books and TV are not. The quantity and variety of information made available to the user surpasses any prior paper or electronic media, making it possible to combine different functions and data in ways new to the user. This, in turn, gives users of the Internet significantly more power to collect, change, apply, and enjoy vast quantities of information, leading to new ways of doing business and finding novel ways to play. In time, we may well come to the conclusion that the Internet was as important a new media as was the book five hundred years ago.

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