Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Westport, Connecticut, Public Library
July 23, 2007 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning

Suzanne Seggerman of Games for Change and I are pleased to be here tonight to talk with you about the way young people are learning and developing in the digital age.  She knows a lot about video games – both the promise and perils – and will talk to us about Games for Change, the organization she co-founded, and the role of games in social change.

Before we get started, I want to say how much it means to me to be in Westport.  I grew up in Weston, have a house in Fairfield and have shopped in Westport all my adult life.  I confess to missing The Fine Arts Theater, Klein’s, The Remarkable Book Shop and that wonderful Chinese restaurant next to the old library.

As I have traveled the world, I have always considered Westport and Fairfield County the center of my universe.  Indeed, my family came to these parts in 1680 and we have never left.

So much for nostalgia.  Let me tell you a little bit about the MacArthur Foundation and our work that brings us here.

MacArthur is one of the ten largest private foundations in the United States with assets of almost $7 billion.  John D. MacArthur, who made his money on insurance and real estate, left the bulk of his fortune to establish the Foundation in 1978.  He had only one instruction for the Trustees: “I made the money, now you figure out how to spend it.” 

MacArthur makes grants and program-related investments of more than $250 million annually.   We are perhaps best known for our support of public radio and television and our “genius” awards – the MacArthur Fellows program that each year gives 25 creative individuals $500,000 grants, no strings attached. 

But that is only a small part of what we do.  MacArthur supports work in 60 countries and maintains offices in Russia, Nigeria, India, Mexico and soon China.  Our international program focuses on: biodiversity conservation and sustainable development; international peace and security - principally, reducing threats of weapons of mass destruction; population and reproductive health; human rights and the creation of an international system of justice.  And we have a growing interest in migration and the mobility of people worldwide. 

In the United States, MacArthur has a long-term concern for building healthy urban neighborhoods, preserving affordable rental housing, and reforming the juvenile justice system.  For many years, we worked on public school improvement with, I must confess, limited success.  While schools remain critically important, we believe that the various forms of digital media are capturing more and more of kids’ time and attention.  MacArthur’s education program has taken a new direction.

Foundations, like people, have personalities.  MacArthur is challenged by change and invention, constantly examining trends, thinking about their consequences, and imagining the needs of the future.  Few changes have been as sudden and momentous as the birth of the digital age and information revolution.  In a few short years, much of the world has been wired. 

Consider these statistics. The Internet is used by 1.3 billion people around the world.  There are more than 120 million sites on the World Wide Web.  31 million were added last year.  There are more than 60 million blogs.  More than 2 billion people have cell phones.  And, as I say this, the numbers are already out of date.

MacArthur is taking stock of the impact of technology in all its work, but we are particularly interested in the effect of digital media on the way young people think, learn, play, make judgments, and relate to others. 

Parents and researchers alike know that this is the first generation to grow up digital, surrounded and shaped by the use of computers, the Internet, video games, and cell phones.  For today’s young people, these are not innovations but the new norm, an environment in which they intuitively express themselves and build communities.  Some illustrative figures:

  • The number of young people using the internet has grown 24 percent in the past four years; 87 percent of them between the ages of 12 and 17 are on-line.
  • 50 percent of all young people who use the internet have created media content and 33 percent have shared their content on the Internet.
  • High speed Internet use – and all that means for access to the richest content – jumped from 60 million in March, 2005 to 84 million in March, 2006 – a leap of 40 percent.
  • User hours in the virtual world Second Life have increased from about half a million in January 2005 to more than 7 million in November 2006.  And more than 500,000 young people now participate in virtual worlds on a regular basis.
  • Almost 90 percent of young people play video games regularly, a statistic that underscores the importance of our discussion today.

Although we have raw statistics about how many young people are using technology, we know little about how they are using it, its role in their lives, or what it means to them. 

A new interdisciplinary field of study is emerging called “digital media and learning.” MacArthur is taking the lead in building this field, and we are investing an initial $50 million to understand the experiences of young people and connect those findings to how institutions need to change and adapt.

Our new work has three goals:

● First, we want to learn more about how young people are actually incorporating digital media into their daily lives, and with what effects on their reasoning and ethical judgments, the way they learn and analyze information, their interaction with authority figures like their teachers, their sense of self and community, and their attitudes toward civic participation. 

● Second, we want to help create new learning environments for young people that help them to navigate, judge, and use digital information and tools in school and beyond.  We know that today’s textbooks and classrooms do not represent our best efforts at supporting young people’s learning.  We are looking at how games, fan fiction sites, and remix might become the new learning environments of the future.  It is possible that, through participating in immersive environments rather than direct instruction, young people will learn both traditional knowledge and new media literacy skills—such as how to judge the credibility of what they see on the Internet and how to deal with information overload.

● Third, we want to understand the implications of all this for the schools, libraries, museums and after-school programs that prepare our young people for the future.

MacArthur brings no agenda to these questions other than a desire to learn and share the results with as broad an audience as possible.  We have a sense of what may be happening, but we are eager to know what solid research will tell us. 

Our first grants range across research, media literacy, game design, and are early efforts to build this field. They include a large-scale ethnography at the University of Southern California and the University of California Berkeley collecting information on-line and in person about young people's social networks and peer groups, their family life, how they play, and how they search for information and learn.  We also have launched the MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning, devoted to topics of deep interest to this emerging field – identity, race and ethnicity; the ecology of games; and judging the credibility of information, among others.  Six edited volumes will be published in November, in print and electronic form.  We will follow  that up next year with a new journal on digital media and learning

We already know that children should be learning more than reading and math to prepare them for productive adulthood in a digital world.  With funding from MacArthur, Professor Henry Jenkins and his colleagues at MIT have developed a new framework for media literacy.  Its aim is to help young people filter, judge, synthesize, and use information on the Internet and from other sources.  A pilot application is underway in after-school media literacy programs at the University of Chicago’s charter school.

We also have made a set of grants specifically related to games and learning.  We have supported a team at the University of Wisconsin to work on "Game Designer." The goal is to promote young people’s media literacy through participation – by making digital creations, including games. Games can help kids learn in many ways.  I will suggest three, but there are many more. They require players to solve problems as they play – to negotiate unknown worlds or to outwit a crafty opponent, for example.  Games provide players with immediate feedback.  When players do well, they get a reward: they finish a level or defeat an enemy.  But they stay engaged. They immediately go on to play at the next, slightly more challenging, level. 

Games – if designed well – can be good tools to help young people learn. These skills, all based on gaming, include the ability to innovate within rule-based structures, an understanding of complex systems, navigation of information networks, and collaborative problem solving.   All skills, I think you would agree, that are necessary in the 21st century. 

We recently gave New Visions for Public Schools in New York a grant to develop what they are calling a Game School. The school will embrace the features of games I just described – a curriculum based on problem-solving in complex systems, learning through simulations and immersive environments rather than through passive consumption of information, and social networks that support productive peer and mentor support.   I believe it could become a powerful approach to education.

If 83 percent of young people play video games regularly, we must understand the changing nature of play and its effect on learning.    The national debate about games is highly charged, emotional, and even political. In the midst of it, however, parents and teachers are making decisions every day about digital media use by young people in their care.  We need  solid evidence of the role games play in learning to help parents and teachers know what to watch out for and how to foster the kind of learning, personal growth and civic engagement that we want for our children.  To this end, just last month we provided support to the Pew Research Center on the Internet and American Life on to conduct their first survey on young people and games. 

This study will explore the impact of games on young people’s civic engagement, including the quality of their involvement in the community and whether they develop and act on civic impulses.  In our work, we are interested in technology, but more importantly, in the role of technology in making the world a more just and humane place.  It is in this context that we are exploring how young people are using games. 

It is clear that the future is now – and we need to comprehend it.   This is why, most recently, I appeared in Second Life to host a discussion with Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life.  Second Life is not a game; it is a virtual world, where more than 7 million residents interact, socialize, conduct commerce, and learn. There are dozens of libraries in Second Life, where experiments are underway to see how these venerable institutions need to change to meet and embrace the future.  The very fact that you have hosted this evening and have a Gaming Day scheduled this Saturday, says that the Westport Library is getting ready for the challenge.

To help you prepare for your Gaming Day, I am pleased to turn the podium over to my colleague and Foundation grantee Suzanne Seggerman.  I would like to add just a few words to Joan’s formal introduction.  In addition to Suzanne’s role as co-founder and President of Games for Change, she is a director at the New York-based think tank Digital Innovations Group.  In that role, she is overseeing the development of the Knowledge Network, a centerpiece of our work in digital media and learning.  It is a social network on the Internet and what we hope will become the go-to place where researchers, practitioners, teachers, parents, policymakers and others interested in digital media and learning can interact, share information, new designs and information about innovations, videos and other resources. 

Tonight, she is here to give you a first-hand perspective on games and the potential they have for advancing human and community development.  During her part of this evening’s talk, she will share with you several games that take on serious issues, such as conflict in the Middle East, genocide in Darfur and world hunger.

After that, both of us will take questions.  I invite your questions about any aspect of the Foundation’s work.  I also may have a chance to talk a little bit about a very interesting project we are supporting at the Illinois Institute of Technology that is designing what we call “thinkering” space in libraries.

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