Nature in Chinese digital games for children

At the second conference of the European Association of Art History in Zürich, 24-27 August 2017, I presented some findings from my ongoing research about how the natural environment is depicted in games and apps for children. The presentation focused on the visual analysis of fourteen apps available for free (and one for 10 SEK) for children in the age range 6-8 categorized under ‘protecting the environment’ and ‘protecting forests’. I studied those apps partly based on research of children’s books. Children’s books, created by adults, are the site of a power struggle; pictures in them are designed within the framework of a certain ideology. Perry Nodelman, a researcher of picture books, finds that “picture books are a significant means by which we integrate young children into the ideology of our culture” (1999, 73). He explains that ideologies are not necessarily undesirable, as we need this system of beliefs to make sense of the world, social life, the environment etc. Similarly, computer games, be they within the category of ‘educative games’ or pure ‘entertainment’ for children, are also made by adults and exist within a certain ideology of what ought to be. The research question was what kind of nature do the images portray?

Children must learn to decode images. Picture books, when available, are good tools to do so. Although China becomes the guest of honor of the biggest children’s book event, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2018, and although Chinese artists have won prices for their texts and images for children’s books, picture books in Chinese children’s rooms (if they have them), kindergarten or schools are rare and not many parents can afford them, and neither can kindergarten or schools in the countryside. Therefore, I suggest that children are more likely to see images on the computer or the mobile devices and apps than in books.

Due to the effects of climate change and the rapid decline of natural environments worldwide we see a greater emphasis on environmental education from kindergarten and elementary schools onward. Also in China environmental education, how to do one’s own personal effort against environmental degradation is part of the curriculum (see this post). On behalf of the environment and against wastefulness of resources, urban children learn that it is better to walk to school instead of being driven by car, to take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, to turn off lights, to save water, and turn down the air condition etc.

Research has found that children’s knowledge and image about their environment depends on their geographical and cultural background and also on social background and their conscious exposure to nature. Furthermore, depending on their cultural and educational background, people place themselves in different positions when they are asked to draw landscapes, which means that their perception of landscapes differs, as well as their ideas about their own place in nature. Nature pictures in schoolbooks for sciences, moreover, have been pointed out to play an important role in the formation of an understanding of human’s role and interdependency of nature. Finally, depending on their age, children have different insights into their natural environment. Also education at school has a great influence – negative or positive about how children perceive nature, where and under which circumstances they grow up they gain different awareness of their interdependency with nature (for example urban children and rural children who work in agriculture).

The pictures in the apps I analyzed show an urban environment with cute animals that need to be assisted in their environmental protective acts. Nature is related to food (mostly sweets), it has to be transformed (for example by cutting a tree to make it look like the head of a panda). Most important and recurrent in other games is water management like watering beautiful flowers, turning off a dripping tap, collecting rainwater. But also sorting trash is a significant theme. In those games nature is background only; it is seen as trees and open grass fields and in weather events (cozy snow). No animals apart from the anthropomorphized actors are seen (and no humans). Children in those games are trained in ‘environmental saving’ activities that they are introduced at school. Sorting trash, for example, is now a great concern in Chinese cities where it has been introduced a few years ago but with still little result. Thus, the games, ‘citi-fied’ (often suburban) as they are, fit into the environment of the children that play them.

Perry Nodelman, 1999, Decoding the Images: Illustration and Picture Books. In Peter Hunt (ed.) Understanding children’s literature: key essays from the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 69-80.

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Fairy tale transformations in the Chinese internet and the representation of women and girls

Ever since childhood I loved fairy tales and I still do so now. But only about a year ago I started searching for Chinese fairy tales online. I don’t know why it took me so long to also start checking out fairy tale and story telling apps, but I finally did it. I presented some ideas and mostly questions around those apps (and a game) at the “Age Agency Ambiguity – gender and generation in times of change” conference in Oslo this year.

The questions revolved around the digital telling of stories: How do fairy-tales and the telling and consuming of fairy tales change in the internet? Does story-telling differ much from reading fairy tale books, shows in the radio, theatre, comic strips, and films or do fairy tale apps (and also digital games) merely broaden or even enhance and combine all other forms of story telling? There is a long standing history of studying fairy tales alongside changing technology, and while fairy tales are very flexible and lend themselves to changes in presentation, they undergo transformations with changing technology. The presentation was based on a feminist approach to fairy tales, resting on a tradition of studying women and girls in mostly Western fairy tales, and the importance and neglect of women collectors and story tellers.

What I wanted to present in Oslo were first the princesses in fairy tales in China. However, most princesses in China are often Disney princesses and I found much more interesting characters: Little Red Riding Hood, The Girl With a Pin in Her Head from story-telling apps, and the most vicious bird in Chinese history in the game Ubume (in the Chinese game Yinyangshi, here’s her cosplay version). The apps I looked at were for children age below 5, and age 6-8. Apps for younger children are often audio-apps. The thumbnails attract a certain age and sex, but otherwise the stories come without pictures. In the reading apps anything is read, from Snow White (among the most popular fairy tales) to Journey to the West, to Frozen, a film that sparked a lot of discussion among researchers in the west, but also among women bloggers in China who found that the film’s value lies in that it promotes living on one’s own strength as a woman and not having to rely on men. Apps for older children included short films.

After providing historical background of feminist theories of and approaches to fairy tales and a brief account of fairy tales in China, I introduced the apps and the game and discussed how the fairy tales are visualized and told and how they changed in their digital forms. As a very preliminary conclusion I found that
1) fairy tales indeed undergo transformations when told in apps, and more interestingly so in games. The stories in apps – only spoken, visualized in films or static pictures like in a book – and the possibilities to switch between diverse stories in apps enables children to gain greater intertextuality abilities at a higher pace. Intertextuality is a necessity that helps to understand mostly visual but also textual clues that children and adults are exposed to in different media (including apps, films, TV shows etc).
2) Chinese stories are put into the category of fairy tales. While there used to be the consent that fairy tales are largely Western which found their way to China only in the beginning of the 20th century, app makers add Chinese tales under the category of ‘fairy tale’. Although under scrutiny, such stories indeed fall into the category of fairy tales, they have hitherto not been clearly categorized and studied as such; app-makers change this.
3) In visual terms, Chinese and Western (Grimm/Andersen) originated tales are told with different images to distinguish their origins (that includes the landscape background, e.g. typical Yangshuo-like mountains for Chinese landscapes; Dutch windmills to denote Western stories and the like).
4) Girls and women are depicted in international slender standards and with either cute large manga-style sprinkling eyes for good characters and certain make-up and sharp-edged clothing (and no sparkling eyes) for evil characters. Ubume, the evil bird character, is represented in a style that fits into modern youth culture of not abhorring ‘evil, but one can admire her vicious beauty and strength.

Much more needs to be explored in story-telling apps. For example, it would be interesting to see whether story app makers are more men or women and how this changes the story-telling and selection. As those 19th century men who wrote down and published the stories that became fairy tales inserted their male-centred world-view into the fairy tales, could contemporary women app-makers take the chance to reclaim the stories or are they bound by capitalist values?

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Conference news: Digital Culture and Society: Chinese and European Developments

On October 19-20, 2017, Stefan Brehm, Barbara Schulte and Marina Svensson attended the conference Digital Culture and Society: Chinese and European Developments held at the Nordic Centre, Fudan University, Shanghai.

Stefan’s presentation was entitled Let’s talk! Are online stakeholder dialogues empowering Chinese citizens?

Abstract

Chinese citizens articulate demands and voice grievances in social media; they organise resistance, reach out for help, ask for advice, and share information. In this context the academic literature debates Internet use as driver for enhanced political deliberation. The focus has been state-society relations. Grievances, however, are often related to the consequences of corporate misbehavior in particular environmental pollution and worker exploitation. As a result, interaction between citizens and firms is increasing. From this perspective social media may constitute a new driver for economic deliberation. This paper seeks to explore this hypothesis in the context of China. I use Habermas’ theories of communicative action and democratic deliberation to develop a framework for analyzing stakeholder dialogues between corporations and citizens online. I apply this framework to a case study of a multinational enterprises’ online engagement with Chinese citizens in a second tier city between 2004 and 2017. The results suggest that the conversation mode changed from information towards persuasion. Yet there is little evidence that online stakeholder dialogues serve as deliberative means.

Barbara’s presentation was called Education and New Technologies in China: The Politics of Visions and Strategies

Absract

In the Western hemisphere, the opposition of surveillance versus privacy appears to be common sense: any technology use with the potential risk of infringing upon personal integrity and privacy is in return expected to lead to substantial improvements in security in order to constitute a legitimate course of action. In China, the main problem of inhibiting the free flow of information is rarely seen in the potential violation of privacy rights but in the disadvantages that could emerge for China’s innovative capacity. These two different approaches towards digital control and surveillance are reflected in a number of fields, including education. Outside China, it is particularly the concept of critical digital literacy that has been focusing on how each individual can be equipped with the necessary tools to critically handle the infringing effects of digital technologies. In China, the relationship between education and technology is deeply intertwined with the nation-state project: new technologies are supposed to support the country’s modernization, which in turn is considered of utmost importance for the economic well-being and sovereignty of the nation. This paper investigates how the interaction between education and new technologies is framed in Chinese society, by focusing on the political visions and strategies that underlie potential uses of communication and information technologies (ICT) for educational and pedagogical purposes. It will be analyzed how official visions as articulated in strategy papers and guidelines portray the interrelationship of education and digital technologies, to then investigate how these items have been utilized by educators.

Marina’s presentation was entitled Mediated Visions: IT Entrepreneurs and Internet Visions in China

Abstract

In order to understand how visions and narratives about the Internet are articulated, negotiated, and circulated in China, one needs to address and unpack a number of interrelated issues. It is important to map who has the possibility to articulate visions on the Internet in China, who is actually doing it and why, what having a ‘vision’ actually means, and which platforms different individuals and institutions have at their disposal for articulating these visions (including policy documents, news media, academic journals, art etc). Visions can be embedded in technological solutions and products, and also driven and articulated by IT entrepreneurs and companies that create new demands, behaviours and visions. The development of the Internet has to an important degree been driven by IT entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who have been very good in articulating their visions and through their products also shaped ordinary citizens’ visions of the Internet. Chinese IT entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma of Alibaba have also to varying degrees articulated their visions on different platforms. In this paper I focus on a selected number of Chinese IT entrepreneurs and discuss whether and how their visions differ from their Western counterparts, and how they are articulated and speak to Chinese conditions. I also focus on where these visions have been circulated, whether it is in traditional media or on the Internet itself, and how this has shaped how these visions are articulated and circulated.

 

 

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New article: Chinese collective memory on the Internet: Remembering the Great Famine in online encyclopaedias

New article by Karl Gustafsson in Memory Studies

Article abstract

Recent research on how the Great Chinese Famine was debated on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, in 2012 suggests that information and communication technologies can challenge official versions of the past and increase pluralism in collective memory narratives in authoritarian states. This article suggests that analysing change in the treatment of the famine in Chinese online encyclopaedias during and following the debate helps us further explore the debate’s impact. Moreover, it allows us to determine the extent to which Chinese online encyclopaedias function as the type of memory place that previous research on Wikipedia in other contexts might lead us to expect. The article concludes that the changes made to the narratives about the Great Famine in Chinese online encyclopaedias following the debate were rather limited and that the Chinese online encyclopaedias have not yet developed into participatory and pluralistic memory places that challenge official narratives.

The fulltext PDF is available for download here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1750698017714836

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New publication: “Digitally enabled engagement and witnessing: the Sichuan earthquake on independent documentary film”

Marina Svensson, “Digitally enabled engagement and witnessing: the Sichuan earthquake on independent documentary film,” Studies in Documentary Film

Free download at http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/BDk3zQH7YBIZ7sUj8ucg/full

Abstract

This article builds on recent works on witnessing, socially engaged documentary filmmaking and studies on the role of new digital technologies for witnessing trauma, recording memories and enabling activism. In a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008, almost 90,000 people, at least 5000 of them being children, died. Parents and bystanders provided the first footage of the earthquake, recorded in shaky images on their mobile phones and camcorders, and many later continued to document the destruction and their search for justice, which hailed the beginning of citizen camera witnessing in China. A range of Chinese filmmakers documented the disaster and its aftermath in full-length films, and in doing so helped the victims bear witness to their trauma and fight for justice that was unacknowledged in the traditional media. At least 16 independent documentary films have to date been made dealing with the earthquake in different ways. The films fall into different types, ranging from poetic, observational, expository, participatory and performative, and they also reveal different forms of witnessing practices. The article addresses the witnessing practices of ordinary citizens, enabled by new digital technologies, and analyses a selection of the documentary films with respect to their genre and modes of witnessing.

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China and the world: Digital developments and challenges

As part of the Lund University’s 350 anniversary we took part in the thematic week digital society with the aim to highlight the multiple and diverse experiences of the Internet worldwide, and in particular in Asia with a special focus on China. It is easy to think that experiences and current debates in Sweden and the US are the norm, something that I found striking in the debate, entitled Will digital destroy or develop democracy?, that I took part in together with Lawrence Lessig, Carl Bildt and Amelia Andersdotter. However, the issues, problems and potentials in many ways look very different in China or Asia more generally than they do in Europe or the US.

It is worth remembering that Asia has the largest Internet population in the world in absolute numbers, and in addition is at the forefront of digital developments in many fields, including governance, entertainment, and e-commerce. But the region also contains a very diverse digital landscape that reflects its different political and socio-economic realities. The average percentage of the population that has access to the Internet in Asia is only 41.9 per cent but as high as 91.1 per cent in Japan. Although only 53 per cent of the Chinese population has access, at 731 million users China is however the world’s largest Internet nation. On 25th April we organized a panel on Local Experiences, Global Challenges, which included presentations on China, India, and Africa. Professor Hu Yong, Peking University, gave the keynote and provided an insightful overview of the internet in China. I myself gave a presentation that provided a broader perspective on human rights and the Internet (available on YouTube.) The next day we devoted a whole day to digital developments in Asia where Stefan Brehm, Annika Pissin, and Tommy Shih gave presentations on their findings from the Digital China project.

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Impressions from the Digital Café

54th Bologna Children’s Book Fair, 3-6 April 2017

Certainly, the presentations in the Digital Café of the Bologna Book Fair were held in the name of commercial interest. With this in mind I provide a commented summary of some of the impressions I got from there.

Who are the children-consumers?
Sketching the demographics of child-users, a presenter points out that great changes occurred between 2007 and 2010 when the swiping mobile technology was released and manifolded. That means that children age 10 do not know a world without mobile devices, whether their parents had one or not, and that the mobile phone is part of their everyday. Unlike televisions or older style mobile telephones that acted as telephones only, the mobile phone that can be connected to the internet, on which you can listen to music and download apps for all sorts of purposes, turned into an extended part of the human body and identity, a part that children of course feel the need to grow as well in order to become part of the community. Other recurrent ideas about children are that they love competition, and that they have the need to move around. I thought that this probably might not be a healthy idea to have in mind when creating toys or literature for children (as other theories of society and childhood exist that stress collaboration instead of competition).

Story-telling in the digital world
In terms of story-telling possibilities a presenter explains that the devise (TV, apps, books) does not matter for a child, as long as the story is good, and maintains that books are still important as physical objects. Yet, the opinion is divided on that subject, and during a discussion between developers and authors the consensus is found that sometimes the device is more important than the content. Several app developers introduce apps that require the users to engage with literature and the physical books; furthermore, one presenter shows the great engagement of users with the app of her company; the app is a platform for users to write stories, either alone or together, and commenting on the stories (more for adolescents and older than for younger children).

While for the authors clearly the book is first followed by the app, the existence of the story-writing app calls that into question, as stories are written on the app (and occasionally a physical book can be published from that pool). Interestingly, movies, theatre plays, animation films, and story-apps were talked about in terms of ‘non-linear stories’, while books contain ‘linear stories’.

AR/VR
Online content for children is all about play – when the presenter says this, she shows a picture with an empty swing. While some years ago researchers grappled with a possible difference between online and offline until they finally reached the consensus that both social worlds coexist and overlap and are one in the end, the presenters at the Digital café show that the industry is especially playing with and furthering this blurring lines between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’, and most products deal either with AR or VR: augmented reality or virtual reality (more on AR, see these articles from the Economist and digi-capital).

Presenters point out that with devices that work with augmented or virtual realities disadvantaged children can be reached – mentioned are rural children who are shown as being locally and socially behind urban children, autistic children, and children in the Global South, for example. In the cases of those children, the educational as well as the fun aspect are stressed (as for children in general, actually). Devices work with but especially hope to improve on speech recognition, natural language recognition, vision, gesture recognition etc. Although prognosis for the general AR market in China is very positive – China is supposed to be the greatest market by 2020 – the companies represented in the digital part of the Bologna fair were dominated by Korea introducing their AR and VR devices, (they also had a beautiful children’s book (linear story) section).

Conclusion
While the digital development on the children’s book market is interesting and exciting, some developers were aware of the unaffordability of their products for the majority of children. In countries or localities were a kindergarten even cannot afford children’s books or where there are no children’s libraries, augmented or virtual reality devices or books in apps are a far dream.

As a final note concerning China – after a Chinese children’s book author has won the prestigious Andersen Prize last year (see earlier blog), China will be Guest of Honor of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2018.

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Digital Society symposium and events at Lund University 350 Jubilee Science Week

Lund University is celebrating its 350th anniversary with a week of many events, including a symposium on digital society 24-25 April. On 26th April, we organize an event called Digital Asia: Visions, Transformations, and Engagements. At the event we will also present some findings from our Digital China project.

 

Programme

9.15-9.30 Welcome

9.30-10.15 The Limits and Prospects of Nerd Politics in Indonesia John Postill, Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne

10.15-10.45 Coffee break

10.45-11.30 SNS and Civil Society Online in Japan Muneo Kaigo University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba

11.30-12.15 Cyber-Urban Space: Digital Media and Protest Movements in Malaysia and Indonesia, Merlyna Lim, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media & Global Network Society, Carleton University

12.15-13.00 The World (Wide Web) through an App: Internet Use in Myanmar, Elisa Oreglia, Centre for Media Studies, SOAS, University of London.

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Chinese Digital Visions, Puzzles and Insights: Presentations from a research project at Lund University, Stefan Brehm, Annika Pissin, Barbara Schulte, Tommy Shih

15.30-16.00 Coffee break

16.00-17.00 Localising the Internet: Roundtable Discussion with John Postill, Muneo Kaigo, Merlyna Lim, Elisa Oreglia, Johan Lindquist, Hu Yong, Marina Svensson.

The event is free and open to the public. Location: Nedre Palaestra. Time 9.15-17.00.

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Figuring out the Chinese Internet Puzzle

The Lund University Research Magazine has published an article on the Digital China project in a special issue on research about the digital society at Lund University.

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Human Rights Online: Chinese Perspectives and Global Developments

I have written a blog for the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Stockholm outlining some issues and challenges when it comes to protecting human rights in the digital age.

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