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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