Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.

Pacman Enters the World of Grand Theft Auto, Fifa Soccer, MacArthur Park, and Anti-Immigrant Minutemen: Stories from the field

Why on earth would kids that play Grand Theft Auto, Fifa Soccer, and Counter Strike be at all interested in Pacman? The 1980s arcade game is pretty simple, does not involve serious acts of violence, and does not feature any scantily clad women. It features no humans for that matter. And the story line – chomping on pellets and the occasional fruit while running away from ghosts – does not necessarily resonate with a high school boy’s grandiose dreams of becoming a professional athlete or skilled marksman. However, the kids at a local charter high school became more interested in Pacman when they learned that they would have the opportunity of creating their own version of the game and personalizing it to reflect their own experiences. These kids are enrolled in an animation class and come to USC twice a week to work on their projects. I’ve been engaging in participant observation at their animation class since January 2006.

After using paper and pencil to create maps of the world, their neighborhoods, and their homes, the kids began working on their version of Pacman. Their Pacman would no longer be a yellow pie-like figure. Their Pacman would have a real mission that would be accomplished in their own neighborhood. Their Pacman would be a kid helping out a hotdog vendor in MacArthur Park, a kid running away from bums in his neighborhood, and an immigrant picking up trash while being chased by the minutemen. These video game protagonists have never been seen in an Xbox or PlayStation game but they were created by kids that are quite familiar with standard video game formats and themes. The kids have created games that draw from their own life experiences.

The kid in one game is just like most kids – he wears a Pokemon t-shirt and desires “the coolest toy in the world.” This toy costs $29.99, not a steep price for upper-middle class kids with an allowance. Yet the toy is just out of reach for the game’s protagonist who lives in a neighborhood where aggressive alcoholic homeless men take refuge in a liquor store that is twice the size of the church next door. All of the kids in the class live in the same general area of Los Angeles, a densely populated urban area just west of downtown. Taken together their games create a youth-oriented vision of this part of Los Angeles and the role of digital media in the neighborhood. One game prominently displays satellite dish antennas on apartment rooftops (these antennas are even pointed in the correct direction!). Another game introduces us to MacArthur Park by highlighting the types of music one would hear while walking by “a group of drunkards,” “a gang of wannabe cholitos,” and “a little clan of drug sellers.” Music is an important part of life for all who hang out in the park especially the hot dog vendor – “a man of bachata.” While working on this game the creator told me that his mom listens to bachata, a style of music originally associated with poor Dominicans, and that this is why he chose to highlight this particular style of music. The boys that created the Imigrante game referred to their parents’ undocumented status as influencing their decision to choose an immigrant as the protagonist of their game.

I am currently conducting home visits with the kids in this class to learn more about how their home life and home use of digital media may have influenced their creative decisions while working on their games. Interviews with parents supplement these interviews and my field notes from the class. Taken together this gives me a larger picture of what parents think of their kids’ use of digital media, especially in relation to the games that that they have created.

To view the students’ projects please visit: