September 18, 2003

Girlfriends, Keyboards, Literacy

by Scott Rettberg · , 10:38 am

Back home in Chicago a few weeks ago, I played Girlfriends with my niece Kayley. Maybe Disney isn’t all bad. Kayley’s four and half years old. The experience of playing this game, designed for girls six years old and up (sure she’s an overacheiver) was interesting for several reasons — not just because my goddaughter is always a pleasure, a giggling joke-telling, nonstop kinetic force of nature. It got me thinking about literacy, and about how computers are influencing the way that the current generation of post-toddlers are learning to read and write. Kayley, for instance, can’t yet read. They’ll cover that next year, probably. But she can install a Windows program (in this case the Girlfriends CD-ROM), can distinguish the Next button from the Previous button, and can agree to an End-User License. With no coaching at all, she was able to install the program, and to complain about the fact that she’d already installed it, but that the Windows box was buggy, and that the password interface was a big pain.

The program, once installed, however, proved to be a smart if flawed piece of software. Along with an aleatory fortune-telling game (Play Fates and Friends with Jasmine) the software socializes children to participate in various web-building and internet communication activities (Create an address book with Ariel, Keep a daily journal with Belle, Post personalized Web pages and e-mail friends). In other words, it teaches them to email, instant message, and blog. The program includes a simple WYSIWIG web page editor. I had a sort of moment of petty epiphany as I watched Kayley build a Web page. I don’t think she was thinking about, or even understood the concept of posting it to the Web — she was just screen-doodling — but it’s sort of amazing that before she can properly read and write, she can put together a Web page. The strange part here is that the progression of her technological skills, encouraged by software such as this, precedes the progression of other skills we might have previously associated with childhood (such as handwriting, shoelace-tying, etc.). Functionally, training in Web-building and Internet communication are preceding, or coming at the same time, as basic literacy itself. The girls of Kayley’s generation are learning how to instant message at the same time as they are learning how to read. The interface of the software was not particularly good (it involved an awkward network interface and a sort of stupid literalized “desk” metaphor), but overall I’d describe it as “empowering” — a far cry from Barbie dolls.

A more simple, and in my opinion, more ingenious part of Kayley’s computing experience is the “Little Tykes KidBoard” from KB Gear Interactive (a company which has apparently gone out of business since my brother bought the keyboard). There’s nothing particularly complicated about the keyboard — just a brightly colored, full-sized, extra-durable, spill resistant keyboard. The smartest thing about it, however, is that each letter key includes a corresponding icon (an Apple on the A, an Ice Cream on the I, and Elephant on the E). This proved very useful as Kayley and I were working on how to type out her friend’s names for the “Jasmine Friends” game. Again, the thing I found fascinating about this was the radical shift in skills acquisition — I remembered the typing class I took in highschool as I watched Kayley, not yet five, hunt and peck for icons — she is learning to type at the same time as she is learning the alphabet itself.

I suppose critics of computer play might have some things to say about the problems of children replacing traditional play with networked interactivity (and Kayley’s parents are very aware of the need for outside and physical playtime — she tumbles, dances, swims, and is now learning karate — the kid has a busier life than I do and after the karate lessons will doubtless be more dangerous as well), but it sort of staggers the mind to think that many children of Kayley’s generation will have memories of being socialized on computer, and learning to write on the computer, contemporaneous with their memories of riding a bike or learning to swim for the first time. Hopefully they won’t all suffer from RSI by the time they reach adolescence.

I ran across an interesting 1999 paper by Maggie Rhodes. “Computer Interfaces for Young Children” on this topic.