Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"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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The Gamer and the Tinkerer Plan Out a Future with Computers

I spent one semester conducting participant observations with kids in a computer club at an urban high school in Los Angeles. All of the kids in the class are male and their racial/ethnic background reflects the demographics of the school. The club includes Armenian, Filipino, Latino, and African American students. The boys come in to the computer lab everyday during lunchtime and even during their 17-minute nutrition break. They play games on computers that they have networked to each other, view anime on their laptops, and sometimes actually eat their lunch too. Although the atmosphere is very relaxed, the boys have established some rules. These rules are hand written on a piece of white paper and posted on a wall. The rules include: “Don’t talk loud,” “When playing don’t scream,” and “Five deaths only.” Breaking these rules are grounds for having one’s computer privileges revoked for a week. The boys take their club quite seriously and hold fundraisers to purchase new equipment. Yet they still have a lot of fun joking around and creating a friendly environment for kids who were more interested in new media and technology than the rest of the school’s population. I interviewed the president of the computer club and an officer of the club to get a sense of the roles that computers play in their day-to-day lives.

MacMan is the president of the computer club and Altimit is an officer. The boys met in middle school when the two were recent immigrants from the Philippines. Their fathers, who are both computer savvy, first introduced the boys to computers. One boy’s father used to engage in computer hacking activities and both men enjoyed using computers when they were younger. However, they are now employed as a banker and as a landlord overseeing apartments in the U.S. Altimit and MacMan romanticize the early days of computer programming and their father’s participation in this world. The boys’ decision to enroll in particular classes and their formation of the computer club may be an attempt to tap into some of the renegade spirit that their dad’s once possessed. The high school that the boys attend is in session year round and has three tracks. The boys chose Track C because the New Media Academy offers computer graphics classes during this session.

These classes have an even participation rate among female and male students. However, as was stated earlier, all of the members of the computer club are male. The disproportional high rates of male participation in most programming courses and low numbers of women gaining degrees in the fields of Information Technology and Computer Science can be traced back to gendered technological orientations (Schofield 1995; Gilmour 1999). From a young age boys are encouraged to view computers as toys that they can use at their leisure. On the other hand, girls are more likely to approach a computer as a tool that will help her finish a specific task (Cassell and Jenkins 2000). Both MacMan and Altimit began using home computers at a very young age. When I asked them about their first experiences with computers they mentioned games without me even bringing it up. Altimit said, “My dad just bought me, the family, a computer. And he was like - here. I’m like, what’s this? I was playing. I think I was like three years old. I was like playing with that little tank game.”

I interviewed Altimit and MacMan together. When MacMan heard Altimit refer to the “little tank game” he said that he also remembered the game. The two exchanged stories about playing the game and it became clear that both of them were introduced to computers as a toy rather than as an educational tool or adult device. After reminiscing about the “tank game,” Altimit said, “[My dad] showed me how to use DOS. It was great. He showed me how to use DOS. Then he was like okay, if you’re getting to use DOS, access the games there. I was like, there’s games?!?!? So I used it. I accessed the first computer game. It looked really, really, old.” The boys take on an a sense of nostalgia when they remember the first computer games they played. When MacMan talked about playing an early version of The Sims in which “everything’s all pixilated,” Altimit responded by saying, “Don’t remind me of those days.”

A lot has changed since “those days” and now the boys don’t only play computer games but they fix computers themselves. Altimit’s dad taught him how to use computers and fix them and now he expects the fifteen year-old boy to help friends and family members who have computer problems. Altimit recounts the ordeal he goes through when his father asks him to fix someone’s computer while he is absorbed in his favorite MMORG:

Altimit: Yeah, and like my friend’s house right, usually my family friend,
they would say, “Oh something’s broken.” So, rather than him coming, he
sends me. So, like, [in child’s voice] “I’m trying to play World of Warcraft”
[in dad’s voice] “I don’t care. Go. You’re not doing anything anyway!”
[in child’s voice] “Like, I’m trying to level.” [in dad’s voice] “I don’t care. Go!”

MacMan heard Altimit telling this story and immediately asked if the boy gets paid for his service (Altimit does not receive any monetary compensation). MacMan, a young entrepreneur, has found a way to develop multiple small businesses - even at school. He heats up water in the computer room during lunchtime and sells Ramen to students for one dollar. Also, when he learned that a group of teachers were going to be throwing away their old computers he asked if he could take them off their hands. MacMan fixed the computers and put Windows on them. The computer club was started with these computers. MacMan still comes to school with a small bag carrying the tools that he uses to work on computers. Teachers and other adults kept giving him computers that were broken and he had to figure out what to do with them. He fixed them and realized that he could sell them on eBay. He makes a $100 profit for every computer that he sells.

MacMan’s entrepreneurial spirit is very much influenced by his father’s work ethic. When I asked what his father thinks of his small business MacMan told me a story about his father creating the chemical mixture needed to kill cockroaches when he saw that the apartments he managed needed this service. His father also purchases beat up classic Mustangs, refurbishes them with his son, and sells them. MacMan showed me before and after photos of the cars they’ve worked on then he said, “My dad and I – we’re similar because we’re physical people. We like to get our hands dirty, you know? Pull things apart, put them together. See I do the computer things. My dad does the car things. We’re very similar.”

Both MacMan and his dad can be considered tinkerers. It is quite common for boys to approach computers with a tinkering mentality. This creates a sense of enthusiasm about taking apart a device. A study on mothers’ and daughters’ use of computers found that mothers tended to use computers for word-processing and did not engage in programming, tinkering, pirating, or game playing. Although daughters use the computer more than their mother, tinkering has consistently been found to be a male leisure-time activity (Seiter 1999). However, the examples provided by the fathers of Altimit and Macman suggest that it may be common for men to abandon this leisure-time activity when they grow older.

Altimit’s father was once a computer hacker and was even friends with one of the people that created the “I Love You” virus. Knowing this history, it is hard for Altimit to understand why his dad doesn’t enjoy using computers anymore. He says that now his dad is “just a banker.” I asked him if he had any ideas why his father prefers being a banker to being a hacker. In answering my question, Altimit and MacMan engaged in a comparison of early and more current forms of computer programming.

Altimit: I don’t know. He doesn’t like [computers] anymore. It’s probably
because too much, because remember back then, remember the old,
old computers --
MacMan: They were easy to work with.
Altimit: Oh, not back then.
MacMan: No. They’re harder than before, now they’re easy.
Altimit: Yeah, that’s why I don’t think he likes the easy ones.
MacMan: He thinks it’s too easy.
Altimit: I mean, look, remember back then the old monitors, right?
You can’t do dual sweep --
MacMan: Only single sweep.
Altimit: Yeah, no. He was able to do a dual sweep.
MacMan: Oh, yeah. Then that’s cool then.

Altimit suggests that his father no longer feels challenged by computers and once again the boys display a sense of nostalgia for earlier formats of digital technology. Although he can’t look to his father to learn how make a living off of his interest in computers, Altimit has been able to find role models in the world of professional gaming. Altimit is an avid gamer and claims that strangers pay for his World of Warcraft (WOW) subscription just so they can play against him. I interviewed him during his school’s winter break and was not surprised to hear that he had been spending most of his vacation watching anime and playing WOW. We were discussing the South Park episode that features WOW and Altimit began talking about the fact that the “best gamer in the world” makes his living off of playing games. MacMan, always the pragmatic one, said that this gamer is “one in a million.” Their discussion is presented below:

Altimit: He got a job for it though.
MacMan: Only a few people get a job.
Altimit: No. Yeah, but he’s rich. I mean, come on, just for playing
games, he’s rich.
MacMan: There are exceptions.
Altimit: That’s just kick ass --
KZM: Is he a pro gamer or --
Altimit: He’s the best gamer in the world, at shooter games. He can
kill anyone and he will not die. And I think some guy picked him up
to play for tournaments. He would win all the tournaments, and then
he got paid to play games, pretty much. And like make shows, so --
KZM: And does this guy seem like a nerdy guy from South Park or --
Altimit: No. He’s normal. He’s, what he did, it’s like, what he’s
doing is before he played games right, he would wake up, eat, jog,
like exercise. Play games for three hours. Play console games for
four hours, and then play PC games, eat again, just take a break,
three hours again. I do three, four, three.
MacMan: Is that what you do?
Altimit: Yes.
MacMan: Why are you not getting paid for it?

Both Altimit and MacMan are high-end users of new technology. However, they clearly have very different personalities and approach media in different ways. Altimit says that he’s the “software guy” while MacMan is the “hardware guy.” MacMan is also the more practical one who, although he plays games, does not have aspirations of making a living off of this leisure-time activity. I asked him what his ideal job would be and told him that he could make up a profession or job if it didn’t currently exist. He said that his ideal job would “be either in biomedical engineering or in business.” He added, “In both of these career choices, I would definitely be using computers.”

The boys imagine that computers will continue to be a central part of their lives. Currently they are engaging in this technology on their own terms. By starting up a computer club at their high school they are establishing their own community in a hierarchical environment that can often be hostile for kids that don’t conform to mainstream interests and activities. Both boys bring a DIY ethos to the construction of their identity. Altimit participates in a DIY youth culture by drawing his own manga while MacMan engages in a type of DIY capitalism by selling Ramen and refurbished computers. An initial childhood interest in gaming led them to deeper explorations of computer technology. It remains to be seen whether, as adults, they will be able to find employment opportunities and continue to establish new forms of social organization that hold on to the same inquisitive spirit that drew them to games and computers in the first place.


Cassell, Justine, and Henry Jenkins, ed. 2000. From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gilmour, Heather. 1999. What Girls Want: The intersections of leisure and power in female computer game play. In Kids’ Media Culture, ed. Marsha Kinder, 263-292. Durham: Duke University Press.

Schofield, Janet Ward. 1995. Computers and Classroom Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Seiter, Ellen. 1999. Television and New Media Audiences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.