Thursday, July 17, 2008

Crossing a digital divide to find the next generation of designers

The digital world has been described as revolutionary so many times that it's thoroughly cliche. But the future of digital media, including digital signage, depends upon nurturing a good crop of designers and developers who believe in that revolutionary potential. Kids are, by far, the most frequent users of digital technology, but do all kids have equal access to digital media and the social and economic rewards that potentially accrue from greater democratic participation in the digital environment?

Recent research suggests that although adults spend a fair amount of time on line, kids between the ages of 12 and 17 are the heavy users, especially of streaming video. The web provides a platform for younger children whose interest in TV shows, toys, movies and music is channeled into a playful interactive element. For older youth, YouTube definitely dominated the streaming video use, outpacing all other sites by three to one. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, "game designer" has become one of the top answers among boys in particular.

But how does that translate into real experience? Recall one of my previous posts that focused on the demographic differences in digital media use: African Americans and Latinos use new media more frequently and more freely than their Asian or white counterparts, but if we mix in socioeconomic status, they have less regular access to online sources. Some of the best research on inequality among young users is being done by Eszter Hargittai, a professor at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Speaking recently at a Harvard event, Hargittai detailed some of her groups most recent findings. Looking at youth web use complicates the talk of a “digital divide,” the idea that just because people are on line does not mean they have same access and resources. She reminds researchers that digital use happens in a social context, literally where people have opportunities to use web-based media, with people around who might or might not be around to help with technological problems. While kids may be savvy users on their own, it does seem that web abilities are related to the skills and knowledge available from the people around you.

Looking at an index of weekly digital media use, it's clear that, barring other differences, women, people of Hispanic origin, and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds do less online, have less autonomy in the digital landscape, and are given fewer opportunities to explore. Thus one of the main conclusions we can draw from Hargitaii’s work is that access is not enough to create equality among digital media users. What's important are support and knowledgeable social networks.

Hartigaii and her colleagues are interested in equaling out digital media use, which is a laudable goal for any society. Greater access and knowledge about digital media is good for the industry, too, as it becomes a main conduit for both information and sales. But at another level, encouraging creative and ongoing use of digital media by kids of all backgrounds also guarantees that a new generation has a conduit to careers either directly in digital media or in fields that require the skills developed in these environments.

A recent book, The Ecology of Games, edited by Katie Salen, provides a wealth of research designed to speak directly to this issue. Although I've only read a small portion of it so far, many of the articles look at how youths are empowered when they participate in creating, using, and revising games. The articles also focus on “emergent gaming literacies, including modding, world-building, and learning how to navigate a complex system; and how games act as points of departure for other forms of knowledge, literacy, and social organization.”

One important form of access is creating a culture of critical game design and development. Some educators use creative production as a path to critical reflection in the school environment, but also as a potential avenue for future employment. Barry Joseph of Global Kids, Inc, talks about how the kids they worked with were able to learn skills, but also see on a daily basis what it was like to actually have a job in that environment, the experience of working in an office together, learning how people dress, speak together, collaborate, and finish projects. Joseph describes how one of the girls in the Global Life project,
"learned how to play video games with a critical eye, and worked with her peers and the professional game development company, Gamelab, to make their own game. Ayiti: The Cost of Life challenges its players to educate an impoverished family of five in contemporary Haiti while keeping them healthy and out of debt. When the day came to release it online at, she presented the game to her school community at a special event attended by students, faculty, and even one curious security guard."
In another example, the Design Studio for Social Intervention in Boston has funded a number of projects focusing on getting local youth involved in game design, art, and public festivals, with the ultimate goal of designing campaigns that speak to a broader audience and encourage social change.

Finally, this April, Cisco, which develops a wide array of digital media products and services, sponsored a project to provide homeless and at risk teens an opportunity to work with professional artists on new digital media. The art created by these teens was recently displayed on more than 20 large screen LCD displays at the 01SJ Global Festival of Art on the Edge in San Jose. According to Cisco’s press release,
"The Cisco project, developed with artist Dorit Cypis, ZER01 and Bill Wilson Center, is called We-C. The goal of We-C is to engage young adults in transitional life situations to critically look at themselves and consider how they want to be "seen" by the public, to whom they are often invisible. The artists-in-training will work in a wide array of new media art and creative media formats, including digital still cameras, live music, poetry, and the performing art"
As professionals in the digital technology field, these projects should help us consider how to engage in more community-based work. The benefits are both in terms of reaching new demographics with marketing and digital media, and in terms of creating the next generation of creative and innovative people who we want to work alongside.

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