Choose Your Own Adventure

Propaganda, games, and the quest for a more 'democratic' media environment.

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Those ideas spread into other areas too, notably education. In some cases, that meant more manipulation disguised as liberation. (You may have heard the perhaps-apocryphal tale of the student in an "open classroom" who asked her teacher, "Do we have to do what we want to again today?") But it also meant genuine increases in children's ability to act freely, particularly when those changes took place outside the coercive environment of the school.

A new trend in playthings, Turner writes, included products like "Tinkertoys, sets of rods and wheels that let kids build in whatever way they saw fit." Something similar was at work in the sadly short trend toward adventure playgrounds and in the rise of a particularly fertile multimedia environment that Turner does not cover: the interactive, hands-on children's museum, an institution that has roots in the early 20th century but didn't really sweep the country until the 1970s. To get a sense of the thinking behind those places, watch Jon Boorstin's 1974 film Exploratorium, a documentary that doesn't just tour a San Francisco science museum but does it in a way that tries to be as open and decentered as the institution itself. (Boorstin eschews narration and simply presents pieces of the Exploratorium experience, inviting us to piece the picture together ourselves.)

At the movie's end, the audience eavesdrops on a conversation among some of the museum's employees. One man complains that kids aren't always absorbing the right lessons from the installations, telling the story of a boy who mistakenly concluded that events at one interactive exhibit were influencing the outcomes at another. "What's wrong with that?" replies museum founder Frank Oppenheimer. "That's science for them. They're figuring something out. They're not just getting somebody else dishing it out to them....Now, they don't go ahead and do a whole lot of other experiments to see if it's right, but that's hard to do. But at least they got something and figured it out...something that nobody had given to them, that was just their own."

In some ways this was a far cry from what those propagandists planned in the early 1940s: Oppenheimer was willing to let kids follow their thoughts to an unprescribed answer. In other ways it was a fulfillment of those '40s dreams. Here was an environment designed by experts to foster a certain sort of development within the audience.

The results may be unobjectionable in the case of a children's museum, but there are other environments where the implications might make people more nervous. Consider the 1959 exhibition erected by the U.S. Information Agency in Moscow as part of a cultural exchange with the U.S.S.R.

The Moscow setup embodied the core ideas of the multimedia theorists. There was a fair-like environment that visitors could explore along their own paths and at their own pace, a seven-screen documentary film that you couldn't absorb all at once, a closed-circuit TV that let visitors see themselves on television, a computer programmed with answers to more than 4,000 possible questions about the U.S., even a polling machine that let you vote for your favorite exhibit.

But unbeknownst to the Muscovites, this zone of choice and interactivity was also a total surveillance environment. The exhibition's machines recorded not just those votes but all the questions asked of the machine, paying special attention to which queries were most popular. The guides reported trends in their conversations with the natives. There was even a running tally of which texts were most frequently stolen from a book display. This wasn't the sort of spying the KGB engaged in, of course; the Americans weren't going to send any Russians to Siberia. It was a more modern sort of surveillance: psychological warriors doing market research.

That combination of free action with covert tracking presaged the social media we use today. On one level Facebook is a sandbox where we're free to create and communicate in ways the old one-to-many media never allowed. On another level, the architects of that environment are constantly jerking us around, watching what we do, trying to herd us in one direction or another.

On yet another level, we're still as autonomous as those listeners who resisted radio propaganda in the 1940s, able to adjust our use of social media in ever more careful ways. And when all else fails, we can always walk away en masse. It already happened to MySpace and Friendster, and there are signs that younger users may be starting to do it to Facebook too.

That might be the most important element of that puzzle about the video game. A designer may have the final say on what you can do when you play, but it's the player who has the final say on whether he'll keep playing this game, pop in a different one, or just turn off the console and take a walk instead. The gamer's greatest freedom may be the freedom to step outside the game.

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  • Will4Freedom||

    My 7 year old grandson is a video game adict. I try to get him away, but it's hard. I've got to double my efforts and find other things we can do.

  • Gene||

    This past weekend we had my girlfriend's granddaughters out to the farm.
    Despite their surroundings the main source of interest and conflict among them was who could use the tablet (some game called subway skipper ). In the end we had to impose a 45 minute rotation between the three girls (aged 4,6 and 8).

  • UnCivilServant||

    What? You didn't make them earn time though farm labor?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Hay ain't baling itself.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    That's incredible. Nothing beats a game of hide and seek in a barn.

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