Thoughts about Power, Uprooted Children, and Digital Play

It has been my great privilege to talk to some wonderful (young) people about their online play. While there are all kinds of valid reasons to be wary of aspects of the Internet, as Jackie Marsh notes, digital play is real play. My early research into digital play questioned whether children played make-believe games that were influenced by the narratives of their favourite Internet play-worlds – in the same way that, for decades, children have constructed make-believe worlds after reading an enjoyable book or seeing a favourite film.
(Love this cartoon from Brian Eric Kaplan)

As I hope my bio makes clear, the children I write about come from families that have made global moves for reasons of their parent'(s)’ employment. While there are all kinds of valuable reasons these moves are instituted, and all kinds of associated benefits, as all gardeners know – uprooting does involve some shock. For example, Justin, who was part of an after-school computer club I ran, found it very difficult to adapt to his first life experience of being moved to a new country. He cried frequently both at school and at home, and found it hard to make friends, partly because of a socially-isolating tendency to repeatedly talk about the benefits of his previous life and criticise his current one. An academically able child with good reading skills, his mother reported that he favoured computer play over other activities as a recreational choice.

In those days, eight-year-old Justin was a big fan of Line Rider. This is a simple Internet application in which the player draws a ‘pencil’ line and then a little figure on a sled rides along it. Playing on this site reminded Justin of “roller coaters and slap stick comedy from olden-day cartoons”. He made up his own games influenced by this website, such as pretending to accidentally drop a flaming baseball when there are lots of trucks underneath.


Justin’s Drawing

During one computer club session the children were asked to draw something influenced by the games they liked to play. Justin drew a very free, line-based picture and spun a complex story into it:

“Well um, like it’s supposed to be a race of line riders but Bionicles are trying to attack the Line Riders. This guy here (top left) at the beginning tried to push this guy off. This one pushed off most recently is about to be attacked by one of the bosses. These are two small Bionicles, that one is bad and that one is good, and this Line Rider is about to be grabbed by the deputy bad boss―the victim is saying rats. This other good guy is maybe going to save the victim but he doesn’t know if he should or he shouldn’t because he is sort of a robot and a human is an unknown thing for him. He doesn’t know if he is a poor little mitty thing or a secret invader and enemy.”

As I have written elsewhere, his description brings to mind Anne Haas Dyson’s conclusion to her research into children’s involvement in superhero narratives; “(c)hildren’s imaginative play is all about freedom from their status as powerless children” (1997, p.166).


Dyson, A. H. (1997). Writing Superheros: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hannaford, J. (2012). Computer Games and the After School Club. In C. Beavis, J. O’Mara, & L. McNeice (Eds.), Digital Games: Literacy in Action (pp. 108-114). Adelaide: AATE/Wakefield Press.

Marsh, J. (2010). Young Children’s Play in Online Virtual Worlds. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 8(1), 23-39.


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