game design

Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants

Bill and I have always been fascinated by sub-cultures. Our personal definition of sub-culture refers to unique, niche interests that draw individuals together who have rich experiences creating a culture outside our normal, day-to-day life. In general, although we may dabble in these groups, we aren’t one of them but are in awe of their existence and the passion their people have for their “things.” A couple weeks ago, I volunteered to accompany Liam to the Boston Festival of Indie Games. Bill went last year, and I remembered the fatigue on his face when he returned home, and I remember the excitement on Liam’s face. Gaming. A sub-culture neither Bill nor I are a part of, but we live oh-so-close to the neighborhood.

At parenting and educational conferences over the years, I picked up a couple terms that help distinguish the players in and the watchers of this sub-culture: digital natives and digital immigrants.

Digital natives were born into the world of technology; it’s been with them since birth – the Internet, video games, hand-held devices. iDevices really are intuitive to these people. Our sons Will and Liam are digital natives.

Digital immigrants were born before the wide use of technology. In my senior year of college, our library installed ten computers for 2,100 students. We had to sign up for half-hour slots to use them. I loved the feeling of my fingers dancing over the keys and words streaming out. In fact, had I been born ten years later, I’m sure that writing would have been a career I pursued in my twenties rather than my forties. For Bill and me, iDevices are a kind of necessary evil. Bill and I are digital immigrants.

Used in a sentence, these two digital communities are more often joined by “versus” than “and.” The parent-child relationship of our era falls hard on native vs immigrant. As for the communication surrounding the use of extra-curricular technology in our home, I impale myself regularly on the sword of transition away from technology to something – anything – that doesn’t involve a screen. And each time is as painful as the previous, particularly when the native leaves the computer screen and migrates to the TV. This big screen is seen by the native as “electronics-free.”

My anxiety level rose as the day approached when I would spend hours purposefully visiting this sub-culture of gaming. I envisioned walking into a swarm of digital natives, and not being able to tell anyone to “Turn it off!”

Once parked at MIT, we ran up five floors to the auditorium. Our eyes were glassy in disbelief: mine at the height of the climb, Liam at the multitude of gaming tables set up. Liam, who is ten, didn’t hesitate to ask the game designers if he could try their games. The designers hovered over Liam to watch how he worked his way through their games. Despite age differences of a decade or more, they spoke the same language and were very respectful to one another.

As this was an Indie Fest, these were all independent game designers working to create games that they would hopefully sell via STEAM or some other avenue. I see STEAM as an on-line catalog where gamers can buy access to games they want to play on-line. STEAM requires new games to be voted in by gamers who play the games available on a trial-basis. Once designers attain enough votes, their games are “green-lighted” on STEAM.

All of the designers I met were employed full-time as computer guys – software, hardware, IT, programming – I heard all of those terms tossed in with the words “my day job.” So their passion, their hobby, is game design. Some had worked for months on their games, others for a few years. For many, this festival was the debut of their games and the road to getting players to vote them onto STEAM.

While standing for a good 45 minutes at one table while Liam pursued level after level, a young man and I chatted. Kevin was “a big” in the Big Brother, Big Sister program and his “little” was battling with Liam.

“So, how do you feel about gaming?” he asked. “My girlfriend doesn’t want her (future) kids to have electronics, but I’m OK with them. I was a big gamer myself.”

I shared my strategies of trying to monitor time spent on electronics. I might have mentioned impalement. Then I fessed up, “I think this is Liam’s thing. He’s hard-wired to like computers and programming. No matter how many limits I put on him, he loves this.”

“That’s what my mom and dad tried with me too. Until a certain age, then they gave up and just let me play whenever I wanted to.” Kevin may have seen me cringe.

“So,” he continued, “I’m torn. I get what my girlfriend says, but I loved gaming! What do you think?”

“You’ve held eye contact with me during our whole conversation. And we had a great conversation. No matter your decision, I think your kids will be fine,” I predicted. “Are you a programmer now?”

Kevin’s eyes danced as he explained what he is working on: the internet of things. He described his job as the cutting edge career for programmers. Basically, every day things are connected to the Internet and data flows between the thing and the thing’s company. In the future, will the Malcolms never run out of Northern toilet paper because the Internet connection on the toilet rolls will track what’s purchased, what’s used, and tell Northern when to send a new shipment?

Kevin and the designers who I met are of the digital native sub-culture, which will soon be mainstream. Or, perhaps it already is… So, while I’m not tossing in the hat to controlling how much gaming goes on in our house, I do acknowledge that Liam is most definitely a digital native by the simple fact that he is ten.

Happy Hump Day, from the digital immigrant who will always feel the ping of being a foreigner, despite fifty solid years on this planet.