Interpretive communities
The reception of computer games by children and the young

Carsten Jessen

The work of art only takes on meaning and becomes interesting for the person who knows the code by which it is encoded....Those observers who do not know these codes feel lost, they "drown" in it; for them it appears to be a chaos of sound and rhythms, of colours and lines with no rhyme or reason
(Bourdieu, p. 46)

For the uninitiated there can hardly be anything more chaotic and unmanageable than computer games; the flashing speed of the pictures crossing the screen alone often excludes the possibility of grasping the point of it all. The games, which at first glance look monotonous and seem to live up to all the prejudices about lack of content and stupidity, are phenomena that can be just as incomprehensible as abstract paintings and modernist poems for the unschooled eye and ear. As we know, that sort of phenomenon very often leads to misunderstandings, and since the first computer games appeared on the market at the end of the 1970s they have been represented as dangerous to children and the young. Until just a few years ago it was common that a strong interest in computers and computer games was suspected of being a sign of mental deviation, for example in the form of an exaggerated desire for strictly structured surroundings (1).

Such a view has become harder to maintain today, when it is no longer a minority of young people who take an interest in computer games and similar digital phenomena. They have achieved a central position in the everyday life of the young in line with a number of other media. This development has made it an urgent matter to try to understand the inherent nature of the digital phenomena instead of trying to explain the mental structure of the players. This means not least that the computer games must be rescued from the foregone conclusion that surrounded computers throughout he 1970s and 1980s, when "digital" was synonymous with cold, rational, mechanical and unimaginative. Unless the majority of youngsters in the western world have become unimaginative within a score of years, then something else must be at play in the digital world than what we can see at first glance. What is it the young can see in computer games?

To try to answer that it is perhaps better to ask the question the opposite way. Why is the interest of the young in digital phenomena immediately seen as something negative by most adults? Part of the answer can certainly be found in what the American literary theorist Stanley Fish has called "interpretive communities", something he has given a central position in literary research by asserting provocatively that meaning is not simply embedded in literary works as an essence (2). Art and other cultural phenomena are not independent of the eye of the beholder.

Fish uses a banal, but illustrative example of the role of the interpretive process: at the start of one of his classes in literary analysis, quite by accident, there was a group of words on the blackboard from a previous history class. The words were above one another, and without further ado the students accepted them as a poem and interpreted the words within a framework of understanding to which they did not really belong. Nevertheless, according to Fish, they could manage to make an aesthetic interpretation with some success. Stanley Fish's point with the story is not that the students lack training, but that training is precisely what they have. They are part of a special interpretive community consisting of literary students who know the right literary codes and can apply them to linguistic phenomena.

Electronic pets
With a term taken from Gregory Bateson (3), we can say that the students in Fish's example "frame" the words on the blackboard as literature, and that it is this framing that influences their understanding in a quite crucial way. I believe a similar situation applies when we try with adult eyes to interpret what the new digital media mean to the young - as we have seen for example with one of the latest phenomena of the type, the so-called "virtual pet" or "electronic pet", an egg-shaped plastic thing the size of a matchbox furnished with a miniature grey display and three small buttons - the Tamagotchi. The toy, which saw the light of day in Japan at the end of 1996 and has later sold countless millions of copies all over the world, has been a huge success among the young, and today is so well known that it hardly needs any introduction. As most people will know, the electronic "pet" has to fed, cared for, disciplined and played with if it is to survive and also develop positively (4).

When something is called a virtual or electronic pet, it must of course arouse surprise and wonder, and the Tamagotchi has stirred up quite a fuss, at least in the media. This is probably not exactly something the producers regret, but at the same time it is not just a PR trick, for the Tamagotchi joins the large number of digital phenomena that appear to break down the well known boundaries between the "natural" and the "artificial". If we take the Tamagotchi literally, it is a sign that something as genuine, warm and emotionally meaningful as the relationship between a child and a pet is replaced by an artificial simulation. That sort of thing must naturally lead to a fear of emotional damage to the growing generations, and if nothing else, the electronic "pet" has provided raw material for new lamentations over the loss of natural childhood and is yet another reason to criticize today's unfeeling career parents who will no longer give the children the chance to be together with a real pet. "Give the children a dog", we hear from indignant, well-meaning grown-ups, who feel called to protect children and childhood and who uncritically perceive the children's interest in the Tamagotchi as a symptom of emotional impoverishment and a cry for help (5).

If you have had an electronic pet in your hands, you have to wonder how anyone could confuse it with a flesh-and-blood pet. The Tamagotchi has only a few formal features in common with a real pet, for example the fact that it has to be fed and disciplined, but it completely lacks the aspects that are important to children in their relationships with pets. Claiming that youngsters might confuse one with the other really says very little about children and Tamagotchis, and so much more about adults' ideas of children and childhood. These ideas are interesting enough, but have a limited truth value when it comes to the meaning of the new media in the lives of the young. The new electronic media always seem to fit rather too neatly and completely into a community of interpretation where modern childhood represents a loss and a decline compared with the childhood of earlier times. "Electronic pets" or even worse, "digital pets", are eminently suitable as a new argument for such a view, for such designations must almost be called self-contradictory.

Any owner of a Tamagotchi would probably agree, which does not however mean that the owner cannot forge emotional ties with the thing, just as one can with dolls, books, cars, paintings or other material things with a sentimental value, and you can even cry over a "dead" Tamagotchi, as over other things you lose (7). Undoubtedly you can go too far in your emotional attachment to things, but that is not only true of digital products, and it does not make an electronic toy into a pet.

The Tamagotchi can hardly be seriously considered as a replacement for something else, something better, as implied by the criticism of it, and by the general tendency to view the new digital media for the young in this light. The electronic "pets" are just one of many examples of new media types that are immediately met with surprise and concern, because we too quickly take the "content" at its face value. It is an indication of naive interpretation when we equate what the digital phenomena simulate with what they actually are and mean to the media users in the specific situations in which they are used. Thus we confuse what the Tamagotchi imitates with what it is, and it is placed in a context of understanding which is quite different from the context in which the young place it and use it.

Computer games
The reaction to and the interpretation of the electronic "pets" does not differ much from the reaction to the first types of popular digital media. When the first home computer began to appear around 1980, they give rise to a widespread fear that youngsters would be "seduced" by the new interactive medium and see the computer as a partner that could simulate and replace social interaction with others. A prominent example of this fear was the American sociologist Sherry Turkle, who described in a successful book about computer culture in 1984 how adolescent boys could become very preoccupied - almost obsessed - with computer games and could end up preferring the well-ordered, rule-bound, controllable universes of the games to relations with others in a more chaotic reality (8). With the greatest of ease she linked this preoccupation with the mental and sexual development in puberty of the boys who were interested in computers, and got the digital, rule-based character of the computer games to fit beautifully with deviant mental development and narcissism among the young, so that her interpretation of the interest in computers could easily be dovetailed into an interpretive community which in the mid-eighties included many teachers and carers in the child and youth areas.

In theory - or perhaps in the light of certain particular theories - such an interpretation may look credible. It may seem a plausible explanation of why boys can be so fascinated by computers and computer games, but this reading of the role of computer games rarely stands up to an encounter with reality. Turkle bases her theory for example on a basic assumption that the use of the computer is an individual affair, which agrees with the general view. Playing computer games has generally been regarded as an individual, more or less asocial activity, but we need not go further than the nearest youth recreation centre, youth club or computer caf? to discover that this is far from the case. On the contrary there is a wealth of social activity around the games, which are closely integrated in the social relations and cultural networks of the young.

The point of Pac-Man
Neither the traditional computer games nor more recent types like the Tamagotchi really make sense until they are placed in the right context of understanding. An even more illustrative example of this is the computer game Pac-Man, one of the most popular, best known games from the early years of the computer games, at the end of the 1970s. Like many other games from that period it is so simple that it seems incomprehensible that the young spent much time on it; but Pac-Man is a genuine classic which many young people will also know today. Viewed with today's eyes the game is very primitive, with crude graphics rather like the Tamagotchi. Pac-Man consists of one fixed display with a few small square dots distributed among horizontal and vertical lines, arranged in a pattern which with some good will can be seen as a simple maze (10).

The object of the game is to get a round figure, Pac-Man, to "eat" his way through the dots in the labyrinth. When this has been done, the player gets a similar, but slightly more complex maze on the screen and can start over again. Some excitement and dynamics are added to the game by four triangular figures (often called "the ghosts"), who move around the labyrinth in an apparently random pattern. If one of the figures touches Pac-Man, he "dies", and the game is over, with the usual message "Game Over. Do you want to play again?".

If you take Pac-Man at face value, then there is not even, as with the Tamagotchi, a story to get hold of, and it can be hard to see any other point to the game than training the player's skills in moving around in labyrinths as fast as possible (11). It is hard to find leverage for an analysis and to decipher any meaning in it at all. Unlike other cultural phenomena, there is no help to be found in a universal cultural background (12), and Pac-Man clearly demonstrates the importance of "interpretive communities". You have to play the game before it will reveal its nature, and this is something that far from happens to everyone. Some fall for it, others find it monotonous, boring and pointless, but whatever attitude one has to the game, the interest rarely lasts very long. If one plays it individually, Pac-Man may be exciting at first, but rather boring in the long run. The game only takes on a content in a social context.

Cultural and social utility value
Many attempts to explain the meaning and influence of computer games have, perhaps for want of a better approach, taken their point of departure in computer technology and have tried to deduce the meaning of the game from this. To date this has not led to any convincing explanatory model - for good reasons, I believe. This is really like starting with the physical properties of a ball when you want to understand football as a cultural phenomenon. In the physical sense a ball can in principle bounce, roll or fly, but that tells us nothing about football; and from the physical properties it is at any rate not easy to guess how the ball is the basis for many hours of play for children and adults and for a huge entertainment industry. To add a description of a football pitch and the rules of the game does not help much either. The ball cannot be understood meaningfully outside the situation, the social and cultural practice, in which it is used. The difference between the physical ball and football is purely and simply a shared culture, an interpretive community which forms the setting for the game of football, and which of course consists of much more than the ball, the pitch and the official rules. In that sense cultural phenomena are quite dependent on living cultural, interpretive communities, and even if there are many differences between football and computer games, both are functions of social and cultural communities (13).

Above, I quoted a statement by Bourdieu that works of art only become interesting when one can decode them. However, this is only one side of the matter. Just as important is the fact that the decoding of a work is not simply the same as the experience if it. Knowledge of the codes is rather just a necessary condition (14). Even if one has learned the codes, this does not necessarily mean that one can (or wishes to) do something with the works. Often one "can't use them", a problem that any teacher with art and culture on the agenda knows from pupils and students. One can possibly learn to find a use for the art, but decoding and understanding are hardly enough in themselves.

It is worth asking whether works of art and the phenomena of popular culture actually differ in principle in this respect. A poem or a sculpture does not reveal itself to us without some prior knowledge in the observer, but computer games and music videos, for example, do not immediately reveal themselves immediately to the outsider either. Not that I would claim that values and qualities in a modernist poem and in a game like Pac-Man are one and the same thing. On the contrary they are precisely very different and incomparable entities, each belonging in its own register, something of which we are perhaps not sufficiently aware. It is a prominent problem for example in teaching that the grown-ups of today not only lack familiarity with the codes; they also rarely have "a use for" computer games, Tamagotchis and music videos. At the same time very few adults have personal experiences to draw on that can correct misinterpretations of the phenomena. In the educational system, this is further reinforced by that fact that one first and foremost has to deal with culturally formative work and thus with a particular kind of cultural quality, while the young freely use popular culture phenomena whose aim is not formative - at least not in the sense in which the educational system understands it.

When it comes to understanding phenomena like computer games, it is first and foremost a matter of looking through and beyond the filter constituted by formative culture, and of seeing what the young in fact do with the media. Some of the exercise consists of trying to stop focusing on the content of the media, as it appears immediately to our "adult" eyes, and looking instead at how they are used; that is, trying to see how the young interpret the media in practice (15).

Play value
In one framework of interpretation the Tamagotchi appears to be a simulation, to be "artificial life", and thus a simplistic mechanical substitute for the so-called genuine. But Tamagotchis are only in theory of interest as examples of "artificial life". They have not achieved their popularity because they imitate real pets more or better than other phenomena, but because they function and work in the social interaction among the young.

Similarly, games like Pac-Man or more contemporary action games like "Doom" and "Quake" can in one framework of understanding undoubtedly be interpreted as simplistic and extremely monotonous, so one has to wonder why some people can play them again and again - and this wondering can easily lead on the question of what it is in the games that creates the "dependence" that seems to affect at least certain young people (16).

The simplicity and repetitiveness of the action games is however an important reason for their popularity. In the context in which the games are used, for example in video arcades and amusement halls, the reason for the success is relatively easy to see, for the games work fine as a basis for the social interaction. They fit perfectly into the boys' play culture (17), where the competition to be "good" and preferably the best is an important pivot of their relations. The games are easy to learn, so you can quickly become part of the group, while it can take long practice to become good. In the competitive nature of these social relations we also have an important part of the explanation of the girls' lack of interest in the common computer games. As a rule the games fit well into the boys' play culture, but less so into the girls' social relations (18).

The more complex types of games, for example the so-called platform games consisting of a number of "levels" (19), which were mainly produced in the eighties for the popular Amiga computers and today especially for the Nintendo, Sega, and Sony Playstation, work in the same way as the action games, but they go far beyond the arcades and the direct comparison of how many points you have won. Here you can compete over which level you have reached. Since you only get through the levels by solving a number of problems, finding secret doors and the like, the games provide ample opportunity to discuss approaches and to exchange tips and tricks.

In other words, the games have both play value and a kind of exchange value, and the latter is an important part of what could be called the computer culture of the young, which from the outset has also included other types of games than the fast action games, for example the so-called adventure games, where the games are a kind of voyage of exploration into the adventure universe of the game. One of the first in this genre with very simple, primitive graphics, was "Castle", which is almost as old as Pac-Man, and for that reason makes the principles clearer. More recent games of the same type have the same structure and the same type of plot, but also have exuberant graphics and pictures which tend to divert the attention of the player. Connoisseurs of the genre can appreciate whether the graphics are impressive, but they do not confuse this with the game itself, and it is an important point that the old games were played with the same enthusiasm in their day as the more recent flashy types of today. In other words, it is hardly the appearance of the game that is crucial to its popularity.

"Castle" is not about being fast, but about finding your way around a castle of three storeys, each with twelve rooms. On the screen the rooms appear as from above with quite primitive patterns for walls, markings of doors and stairs, a few items of furniture and enemies, which may for example take the form of a minimalistic rhomboid or triangle. The players have to fight various kinds of enemies, find secret doors and routes, so in the end they can escape from the castle. The labyrinth is not manageable at first glance, for you only see one room of the castle at a time, and it is not possible to get an overview map. So it can be hard to keep track of the 36 rooms spread over three storeys.

A few years ago I observed a crowd of children who played Castle over an extended period, both at home and in their club. They solved the problem by making an overview - by mapping the castle room by room, storey by storey. This alone took a long (and pleasurable) time, but in itself it was not enough to get through the game. The boys often came to a halt, for example, when they could not find a secret door or how to get past a vampire. In this case the social network helped with ideas (20), and for a period the exchange of tips and tricks was a central element of the social relations in the group of boys mentioned. A good tip was of great value, and was not simply passed on; it was often held back as a secret until the right moment.

So computer culture comprises much more than the actual activity in front of the screen. The games for example provide raw material for exchanges that bear up the social network. Moreover, this need not be limited to games; it may concern the computer itself. For some adults, children and teenagers technology can be good material for conversations and discussions of bits and bytes, Megahertzes and RAM, matters about which the uninitiated of course understand very little. As conversational material, as a basis for the exchange of tips and tricks and for social relations, computer technology has played a central role since the first home computers appeared around 1980, and the great "computer interest" of the young, which as we have seen is often regarded with concern, has in most cases perhaps not to any great extent been about interest in the technology. Viewed in this light, interest in computers and interest in computer games are two sides of the same social coin.

Computer culture - interpretive communities
Computer games are today sophisticated, and above all they have far better graphics. It is no longer squares and lines you find on the screen, but three-dimensional figures with natural movements and so-called artificial life, and the images of the computer games are more and more like those we see on TV and in films. The games are far richer in their pictorial expression and they are more complex than Pac-Man and Castle. This development could easily make one regard Pac-Man and Castle as the first primitive attempts to create a new medium, and as a thing of the past. This is not least tempting when the new games provide far more opportunities to go to work on content analyses of the games as texts. Here we have stories, characters and images for which we have traditions and tools for characterization, analysis and interpretation.

With the above I have tried to argue that with this type of analysis, we place the games in the wrong framework of interpretation, because computer games primarily acquire their meaning and content through their concrete use in concrete situations. In this sense they are more a kind of tool for social relations than a means of communicating the messages one normally looks for in the media. This should not be seen as a claim that there is no content in computer games, or that this does not matter; it should be taken as an indication that we cannot interpret a content outside the concrete practice which also provides the framework of understanding. For example, something that might on the face of it look extremely violent on the screen may in practice have quite a different function. The players might for example blast one another and everything else in a violent game like "Doom II", while at the same time enjoying extremely peaceful, playful relations, as is in fact usually the case in war games (21).

This is not to say that the content of computer games is of no importance. But the question of what the "content", the "message" and the "meaning" actually are should be answered within the relevant framework of interpretation. The computer games exist in and are dependent on a context which is at once a concrete social community and an interpretive community. In this sense one could speak of a "computer culture" or a "computer games culture" which is an integral part of the everyday life of the young - a more central part, of course, for some than for others. This computer culture neither arises from the computer games nor from thin air. It builds on young people's play culture, which shapes the use of the games (22).

The function of the computer games as a basis for and tools for social relations does not differ in principle from the role that TV and video can have, for example for a group of boys who watch violent action films together, for a group of kindergarten children who play "Turtles", or for a family that uses TV as a setting for being together on a Friday evening (23). In this context, quiz shows for example have some important qualities and can do something quite different from the so-called quality programmes, which are a hopeless flop on a Friday evening in the bosom of the family. This type of TV should, like computer games and other phenomena of popular culture, be evaluated on their own terms, as good or bad tools, not as true or false messages.

Carsten Jessen, February 1998


1.E.g. in Turkle 1984. The assumption was still central to research projects at the beginning of this decade, e.g. in Provenzo 1990, Nissen 1993 and Leu 1993, while it is however increasingly being rejected as a relevant explanatory model.
2. Fish 1980.
3. Bateson 1972
4. For a more detailed description of the Tamagotchi and similar pets, see Eisenmenger 1998. The Tamagotchi has been joined by a new type, the "DigiMonster", where you have to train your own little monster to battle with other DigiMonsters. The battles are fought automatically when you link up the DigiMonsters.
5. Fyns Stiftstidende, 08.02.98
6. I.e. in fact the aspects that adults are often responsible for in connection with the care of pets. Attempts have also been made to sell the Tamagotchi as a kind of educational toy that teaches children to care.
7. Children's attachment to Tamagotchis however as a rule has nothing like the same emotional nature as their attachment to dolls, teddy bears or pets.
8. Turkle's views are still important and very influential, and in her latest book from 1996 she repeats a similar argument about digital phenomena as a substitute for social relations in connection with the Internet.
9. For further clarification of the social side of the computer games, see Jessen 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997.
10. The illustration shows the simplest version of Pac-Man. The game also exists with other figures, but the principle is the same, and the simple version is no less fun to play than the others.
11. Studies have in fact shown that taxi drivers and pilots are best at playing this kind of game, since unlike the rest of us they are used to judging the relative speeds of objects (i.e. specifically the "ghosts"). Greenfield 1984.
12. Many attempts have been made to analyse Pac-Man, for example by Bent Fausing fifteen years ago (Fausing 1984). His article, not least because of the interval in time, is a clear example of how a framework of understanding can shape an interpretation.
13. See note 9.
14. Which is in fact Bourdieu's point.
15. Cf. the way the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) analyses culture, and so-called media ethnography (see for example Drotner 1993).
16. As for example in a media debate on computer games and ludomania in the spring of 1997.
17. By play culture I mean here young people's own culture and cultural networks, which consist of both expressive forms such as games and forms of social interaction, as well as much more, which provide the setting for an important part of their lives with one another. It is not usual to regard the social interactions of youths as play culture, but it seems fruitful to me. For a thorough introduction to the concept, see Mouritsen 1996.
18. See Jessen 1995a and 1997a.
19. Readers with no knowledge of the genre can imagine the levels as something like the "cartoon films" you can make with a shoe box with holes and long strips of paper. The levels take the form of long "strips" of landscape on the screen and along the way the player has to solve problems and fight enemies.
20. Such networks around computers and games today consist almost solely of children and older boys, but when the computer games were a brand new phenomenon, they included children, youths and adults. 21. See Faurholt & Jessen: "Doom II i Havnbjerg", 1996, and for war games Mouritsen 1996.
22. See Jessen 1995a and Faurholt & Jessen 1997.
23. The role of the action films as tools is something I read out of Arendt Rasmussen 1995, while the example of the TV quiz in families with children was taken from my colleague, the research fellow Jesper Olesen.
Arendt Rasmussen, Tove (1995): Actionfilm og drengekultur. Aalborg: Institut for Kommunikation, Aalborg University.
Bateson, Gregory (1972): "A Theory of Play and Fantasy", in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1995): Distinksjonen. En sociologisk kritikk av d?mmekraften. Oslo, Pax.
Drotner, Kirsten (1993): "Medieetnografiske problemstillinger - en oversigt". Mediekultur no. 21.
Eisenmenger, Ricard (1998): My little Cyberpet. London: Prentice Hall
Faurholt, Lis & Jessen, Carsten (1997): "DOOM II i Havnbjerg. Computerspil, legekultur og uformelle kompetencer". Tidsskrift for Boerne- og Ungdomskultur no. 38/39
Fausing, Bent (1984): "Fascination - saet verden ikke mere er til" in Holst, Nina et al. (eds.) (1984): N.I.T. - problem og l?sning. En opslagsbog om Ny Informations Teknologi. Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers' Forlag
Fish, Stanley (1980): "Is There a Text in This Class?", in Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of interpretive Communities. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Geertz, Clifford (1973): The Interpretation of Cultures. N.Y.
Greenfield, Patricia (1984): Mind and Media: The effects of television, Video games and Computers. Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.
Jessen, Carsten (1990): "Boerns kultur i en computerverden" (2nd ed.) in Jens F. Jensen (ed.): Computerkultur - computermedier - computersemiotik. Nordisk Sommeruniversitets Skriftserie 32
Jessen, Carsten (1991): "Boern bruger TV". Unge Paedagoger no. 5
Jessen, Carsten (1993): "Boern, mediekompetencer og nye udtryksformer". BARN 5/ Tidsskrift for B?rne- og Ungdomskultur 28
Jessen, Carsten (1995a): "Computeren i boernehaven". Tidsskrift for B?rne- og Ungdomskultur no. 35
Jessen, Carsten (1995b): "Boerns computerkultur". Dansk P?dagogisk Tidsskrift no. 2
Jessen, Carsten (1997): "Girls, Boys and Computers in the Kindergarten" in Henning Bentzen (ed.): Forum on Children's Culture. Danmarks Laererhoejskole 1997.
Jessen, Carsten (1997): Boerns computerkultur. Artikler om computeren i b?rns legekultur. Center for Kulturstudier, Odense University (a collection of the above-mentioned articles)
Kaarsted, Thomas: "Saa koeb dem dog en hund!". Fyns Stiftstidende 08.02.98.
Leu, Hans Rudolf (1993): Wie Kinder mit Computern umgehen. Studie zur Entzauberung einer neuen Technologie in der Familie. Munich: DJI Verlang Deutsches Jugendinstitut.
Mouritsen, Flemming (1996): Legekultur. Essays om boernekultur, leg og fortaelling. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag.
Nissen, J?rgen (1993): Pojkarna vid datorn. Unge entusiaster i datateknikkens vaarld. Stockholm/Stehag: Symposium Graduale.
Provenzo, Eugene (1990) Video Kids. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Ma.
Turkle, Sherry (1987): Dit andet jeg. Computeren og den menneskelige tanke. Copenhagen: Teknisk Forlag. (Eng. 1984).

Carsten Jessen
Associate professor, Ph.d.
The Danish University of Education
Department of Educational Anthropology
Emdrupvej 101
DK-2400 Copenhagen
Tlf: 3969 6633
Fax: 3969 0081