This is the free, Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Kowert about the new genre of alarmist rhetoric around kids’ pandemic gaming and screen time. You might not have kids, and you might not spend much time worrying about gaming. But you can still recognize that as a society, we often spend a lot of time worrying about how a cultural product is affecting a group of people — kids, teen girls, grown-ass women — and very little time actually talking to the people actually consuming it.
In Cultural Studies (the academic discipline, not this newsletter) there’s a robust field of research dedicated to doing just that: figuring out how people actually make meaning out of the cultural objects they consume. The ur text is probably Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, published back in 1984 — a book that not only took the romance genre seriously, but also took romance readers, and the process of reading, seriously. The field that grew out of this posture argued that there was nothing simple or straightforward about the way we consume a text. It’s always a negotiation, always more complicated than anyone on the outside might assume.
The problem, then, is that some people don’t want things to be complicated. They don’t want to hear people talk about why they like things, because if they listen long enough, it will challenge neat understanding of things that are “good” and “bad” — especially when it comes to children, or teens, or women. Those groups of people aren’t often trusted to know themselves well enough to articulate why something matters. Or, when they do, we simply don’t believe them.
Kids don’t know everything. But they often do know themselves. So I wanted to hear them talk about their own relationship to the games they play: what they like about it, when they like to play, how games make them feel, who they like to play with, and how they respond to anxiety about their gaming/screen time.
What follows is a handful of interviews — conducted by their parents, grandparents, and siblings — attempting to get at those ideas. I gave adults a list of potential questions, and then asked them to transcribe answers in as close to their kids’ voice as possible. Some of the answers have been shortened, but none of the wording has.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading these, as I did, and consider setting aside some time to ask curious questions — and really listen to the answers — of the people you care and worry about the most.
I’m Doug. I’m 5 right now, but I am almost 6. My favorite games are Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, and Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker. I also like games about falling. I like Zelda because you can explore and you can cook food out of the ingredients you find, sometimes it's good food and sometimes it's really gross, but you can watch Link make all sorts of funny faces when he eats the gross food.
I like making some good food like an omelet with eggs, but I also like making bad food like rock hard food with wood and monster wings and eyeballs, and then watching Link eat all the gross stuff. I just never know whether the food I'm making is going to be good or gross and I like to be surprised.
I like to play with my uncle who is really far away in Maryland. It's pretty fun to play with him. We played Super Smash Brothers on the Switch. I told him 'I was really good because I had been practicing so I am going to whoop you' and I won the first two and was telling him how good I was but then he started winning a lot. I told him to please be more easy and he was once, but he whooped me a lot. It's annoying to be whooped.
The other day, my dad helped me beat a big boss in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It is a Hinox. It was so hard. Like, so hard. It was a giant pig, the size of a mountain. It was so hard, but my Dad won and it was amazing. Then we got some gross toenails. I used them to make gross food and made Link eat it!
It makes me kind of mad when I don't get screen time or have to take a screen break. It's like I don't want to take a break. I'm having fun and I don't want to stop. It robs my happiness.
If I was trying to convince my teacher to let us play games, I would tell her that she could play video games with us! We could take turns, like a pattern. We'd play my favorite game, then her favorite game and take turns showing all our favorite games. I'd show her new stuff she doesn't even know about yet. My teacher could help me read what all the ingredients do in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I want to make good stuff, and I'm trying to make good stuff, but sometimes I make gross stuff. She could help me learn how to make good stuff.
I hope you really enjoy video games too. They're invented to be really cool. I haven't invented any games yet, I'm just a player. And I'm stuck in this house and maybe one day I'll invent a game but for now, I’m just going to play.
I’m Amity, I’m 9, and my favorite games are Splatoon, Roblox, Among Us, and Sims 4. In Sims 4, I can do whatever I want, live a different life, and make people perfect, or not perfect, and I can also make them awful or mean, and I get to make a fantasy house and have my characters live cool lives. Sometimes I download houses and I like making restaurants and moving my Sims around all the time, and being out of the house all day.
I like to play at night because that's when it's most busy online so it's easy to find people to play games with. In COVID I don't get to talk to people other than my parents and I can kind of do whatever I want in a game. I really like Roblox because I can talk to people and kind of play with them and get my imagination flowing.
In Roblox I love getting out of the map. That means you kind of glitch outside of the map and get stranded out there. Then you have to leave the game and start over. I like to find glitches in games. Roblox is a very glitchy game. It's not very stable because everything is made by kids and we aren't good at coding yet.
When people say that screentime is bad, I want to say, hey, I want to be more social at the moment and it's hard to do that right now and I can only do it with technology. It's hard for me to deal with because I want to be able to hang out with other people, because I'm a very social person. I'm like, well, I'm socializing with people and having a good time and I'm happy, I'm smiling. None of the games I play will let you say "COVID" in chat. I think it's because they want people to have a good time but sometimes you just want to talk about your feelings.
The benefits of gaming are that everyone could get their energy out and be ready to focus. It's a little like recess. I learn creativity and whenever I play Roblox I learn some coding. I have to be reading to play a game. Some role-playing games have money and you have to learn how to spend cautiously (except when you have a cheat). I also learn how other people live, like some people live in an apartment and some live in a house. Different jobs give you different money. Having a cat is easier than paying for a bunch of kids. Kids cost so much money while cats only cost way less.
My name is Connor and I am five. I love Osmo, Build a Bridge, Stack the States, and coding games. I like the Osmo word game because when you go to the next level when you solve the level before it, and that’s fun because it’s harder. I like to play whenever my parents let me. I feel okay when adults are worried about us spending too much time playing games. I don’t know why, but I do. I wouldn’t want our teacher to let us play games in school. I like the remote school how it is.
My name is Soren, and I’m 15 years old. I like to play a lot of games, but mostly Horizon Zero Dawn for the graphics and Fortnite for the action and the social play. It usually takes me about an hour to warm up when I play, so I focus on non-competitive or creative modes, like Zone Wars, and work on box fights. If I have at least two hours to play, then I get into competitive matches. We have an E-sports team at school for League of Legends. My tech teacher plays even more than I do.
I feel annoyed and angry with the “too much time playing video games argument,” because people don’t really understand. They don’t play these games. They don’t have any experience themselves, and they’re judging what we do based on what they’ve heard or read. Gaming is so new that there's no conclusive evidence yet to prove if it's actually harmful. It feels like they’re just trying to control us and tell us what to do.
I’m Marlowe, age 10, and I like to play Megaman, Mario Cart 8 Deluxe, Shovel Knight, and Pokemon. I love Megaman because it’s creative, challenging, lots of fun, has amazing boss themes, cool weapons, and unique stages. My favorite time to play is when everyone is out of the room because I like space when I’m playing. The best moment I’ve had playing is when I beat Megaman 2 for the first time. I mean everyone loves it when you beat a game — it just fills you with so much satisfaction. I get scared sometimes that I spend too much time playing games or that it’s bad for me, but I don’t look at screens all day. I know it shrinks people’s brains when they do it too much.
My name is Hayden and I’m 15. My favorite games are Minecraft, Among Us, and Terraria. Here’s how I would explain Minecraft: you spawn in a randomly generated world made out of only cubes, and you must gather resources to survive and build anything you want, which can either be solo or with your friends. I like to play after dinner, since I usually have my work done by then and sometimes my friends will be online.
I run my own server with a lot of my friends, and one of them is known for being very good at designing and building houses and other detailed buildings. We all went on our own near the beginning of the server, so we didn’t have too much interaction. One day, I went over to his base when I was wandering around, and I found all of these incredibly well-designed and detailed builds which he designed himself, which I had no idea had existed. He had a wonderful house, a large farm (in the traditional sense, not like what I talked about in question #3), a mine, a barn, his own custom-built forest, and even a winery, all of which was made in Minecraft’s limited style of building.
During the pandemic, playing online games is one of the best ways to spend time with friends and have social interaction. So, as long as you finish what needs to be done in your life, and it doesn’t get in the way of anything else like homework, exercise or sleep, I think kids should be able to play their video games.
I’m Rune, and I’m 13 years old. My favorite games are FIFA 21, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Fortnite. I like to play late at night or early in the morning, when it’s dark outside and everything else is quiet and I can concentrate. When adults say that kids play too many video games it makes me kinda angry and confused. We’re already stuck at home and it feels like they’re trying to cut us off from our friends even more. So it’s kinda annoying.
I’m Henry and I’m 13; my favorite games are Minecraft, Bloons Tower Defense 6, and Beat Saber. Recently I’ve been playing a modded version of Minecraft and have been slowly working at making my base bigger and better and exploring some of the mods I’ve never seen before. Other times I log into the newest beta release of the game and mess around with new things and build machines to do stuff. Sometimes I just mess around with TNT or something. The best thing that’s happened to me while game is when I first built a binary calculator out of the game’s logic connector (called redstone, a sort of wiring if you will). It runs in two two-bit inputs and a one-bit input and has an output of three bits and it can successfully add them.
Honestly I don’t really worry about spending too much time game at all. I already spend almost all my time on there anyway and it doesn’t seem to have any negative side effects. Key word “seem.” People need to make sure they don’t get correlation and causation mixed together.
I’m Luca. I’m 14 years old and I am neurodivergent. I love to play Minecraft, Shadow of War, any Lego Games, and Injustice 2. I have unlimited gaming time as long as I have my house chores and school work done well. Whenever I play I usually spend my time playing alone doing building and inventing in Minecraft. But I love it most when I game with my sisters, and parents. When gaming with other people, the most exciting thing that happened to me was when my dad first invited me to play with him and my uncle. I love playing with them.
My parents don't worry about my screen time partially for this reason. I know or have heard of other kids who get less time. Ridiculously short amounts of time, which don't even allow you to get your game started let alone play. So I'm glad my parents understand all of that and allow me to have free amounts of time as I want to. I think that games can allow kid's minds to relax and let the information be learned easily.
When I'm playing with someone else, the most annoying thing that they can do is be toxic. That could mean using bad language, calling each other names, blowing up other people's stuff, killing other people or not being a team player. But the coolest thing that's happened to me while playing was building a working calculator in Minecraft. Also, when I beat Portal when I was 6 years old. My whole family came and watched me at the end. I was so proud of myself.
My first name is Milo, and I turned 11 years old six days ago. I like playing games that have strategy, not ones where you just click one button over and over, but where you have to think about it. Like Among Us, or Totally Accurate Battle Simulator. I've been thinking about getting a game called Bad North where you have to defend from Vikings and strategically put your troops around their landing point to protect houses and churches and stuff. In Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, you have units, or fighters, and you have a certain amount of money, and you have to strategically put your fighters in different spots, and it's super goofy — it doesn't always go the way you want it to — but it's one of the best games ever in my opinion!
I usually spend my time either trying to connect with friends or if I want some "me time," that's when I play TABS because it isn't multi-player. I like creating units or creating different people. I even created units that are my family that have my Grandpa and my cat.
I had my birthday party in Among Us, so I wasn't playing with strangers it was like 8 of my friends. Also Among Us is a portal so my friends who I can't physically see in real life, even the ones who live in LA where I used to live, I can be with them in an instant. It's keeping me from going insane in the pandemic! But I can’t argue when adults get worried about spending a lot of time looking at screens or gaming. I have a policy that keeps my eyes from dying which is that any opportunity to go outside I take it, no matter what. I think video games are only good in certain situations. If you do it too much your eyes die, if you do it too little you don't get to socialize. I think you have to find a perfect balance which I think I have.
My name is Violet and I’m 10. I’m almost 11 though. I really like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, which is a game about building community with small cute little animal friends that will talk to you, let you pay debts, have special events, design houses, and lets you play online with friends from real life. If I had just one hour to play I would first enter into the BEAUTIFUL world of Animal Crossing. I would listen to morning announcements from a dog named Isabelle and see if there was anything special going on for the day. Then I would go around my island and see if there was anyone visiting or traveling for the day.
Then I would look and see if any of my villagers had a thought bubble above their head, which would mean that they would want to leave the island which could to villager hunting (villager hunting is not real hunting, it’s just looking for a better villager to join your island).
Then, if no one had the thought bubble I would do my daily chores (picking up leaves and fallen branches). After all my daily chores had been done, I’d text one of my friends to see if they want to play Animal Crossing with me. If they were busy I would see if any of my villagers had quests of some sort.
I would also go back to some of the ongoing projects I work on for my island. Some of those are adding a new villager, getting rid of a hill I don’t like through terraforming, designing outfits for my character or my friends’ characters.
Animal Crossing teaches you how to build a nice secure community, and how to build relationships with celebrations, compliments, gifts, kindness, and building skills. It teaches you about how the economy works by showing you how loans and debts work. It teaches you about designing your own materials, including things you’re very passionate about.
I don’t think you should be spending all day on screens. It’s good to take a break just to hang out with your family or get some food. Sometimes I do feel a little anxious after spending a lot of time on screens. My parents have already given me a restriction where I have two hours a day on Safari or YouTube, and I’m not allowed to talk to my friends after 8pm or before 4:30pm on a school day. I think that’s reasonable so that my brain doesn’t rot.
Between my school work and the tablet or phone, I do spend a lot of time every day on screens though. I do like screens. Its kind of relaxing for me. I can get into my own world. In the zone where worries melt away. Its also the place where I most get to hang out with my friends, especially during the pandemic. My experience during the pandemic would have been a lot worse without the Switch. I think without it I would have felt a lot more bored and broken. It kind of makes me feel connected to people.
Things I Read/Watched and Loved this Week:
Miley covers “Fade Into You”
An interview with Astead Herndon, one of my favorite political journalists
I’ve been reading a lot about the insidiousness of positive psychology, especially as it relates to the workplace
Work until you die and then your digital ghost works some more
Best thing I’ve read on how pharmacy monopolies are fucking up/significantly slowing down vaccine distribution
Runner-up just trust me
This week’s just trust me
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This was incredibly special—thank you. I read some of these responses to my partner, and we found them so moving (especially Doug’s cooking adventures in BotW, but most importantly how much kids value gaming with their family and friends). It’s really sad to think about kids having to grow up during the pandemic and feel stigma around a medium that allows to safe socializing. But it makes me incredibly happy to see how thoughtfully kids think about these issues.
I really enjoyed the kids explaining their gaming world. Oddly I found it emotionally moving. I don’t have children, I have nieces and nephews and they have kids.
This piece moved me in part because it made me accept that just like me, kids are dealing with isolation too, and probably with fewer tools.
It was loud and clear when a few of the kids rejoiced when they connected with family inside or because of the game.
Thank you for the topic.