Angry Birds Is No Super Artillery: or, What Kids These Days Don’t Learn From Technology

So I just started playing Angry Birds recently, seeing as I now have a smartphone which wasn’t built broken and can run it.(1) I’ve seen it around, of course, so I was able to dive right in and start playing without much explanation. And I’ve played other games with similar physics, so I was able to guess how birds and glass bricks would fall or rebound.

But it wasn’t until I got into flow-state with the game that it really started to feel uncannily familiar. I’ve had to do this in a game before, I thought, pulling a triangular canary back in the slingshot and mulling the best place to change its killer arc. But where…

Super Artillery.
Graphics from the game Artillery showing two bases and a hill.

I used to play Super Artillery on the Apple IIs in the computer lab at my elementary school, in the off hours when I was waiting for mom to be done with her job as a school administrator. Sometimes the game would be called Duper Artillery, as the game was written into the computer by other, older students who were inclined to customize the code and leave their own mark on it.(2) My assumption is that they got the code out of computer magazines, as many kids did at the time.

The game was simple: two bases, small lumps of pixels, at the bottom of the screen, each with a “cannon” a few pixels wide sticking out of it. I think some versions of the game placed the lumps on hills of different heights. There was an indicator onscreen to tell you how fast the wind was blowing, in which direction.

And that was it. No background graphics; I think there was a text readout of instructions. I’m not even sure there was color. I think there was an option to play against the computer or a friend.

You were one of the bases, and your goal was to calculate the trajectory of your ammo in order to hit the other base. To do so, you entered two parameters at the command line (there was no mouse or graphic interface at the time): angle, and velocity. When you’d entered those, the computer would trace a parabola from your base based on your parameters. It would end satisfyingly in a pixel-crater in the hill or, if you had calculated right, in the opponent’s base. We all did the usual experimental learning of blowing your own base up by shooting straight up into the air, or shooting behind you. The coders, meanwhile, entered mildly insulting lines to be issued by the code when you succeeded or failed.

This was not considered an educational game; we were not allowed to play it during class hours. And yet I’d say it ranked up there with Carmen Sandiego and probably beat out some of the stuff Scholastic had on offer. Even if the physics were simple, the parameters mystifying and not necessarily realistic, we did learn basic physical principles about velocity and trajectory; we learned that many factors — height, wind, speed, angle — could influence what seemed like a simple point-a-to-point-b proposition. Knowledge that I take so much for granted that I was mystified, when I first learned that some people shoot guns into the air to celebrate New Year’s, to think that anyone wouldn’t viscerally know that a bullet shot straight up comes straight back down and craters your base.

So Angry Birds shares a basic mechanic of Super Artillery, a mechanic that’s about as old as computers, given computers’ early job in warfare: calculate a trajectory. But what you have to do to accomplish that in each game is very different. In Angry Birds, all you need is an instinctive feel for how a trajectory will play out.(3) In Super Artillery, you are aware that someone, somewhere, needs to do calculations to achieve that trajectory, and with the help of the computer, it will be you doing it.

This is the clearest example I’ve found of how different the experience of youth growing up with technology today is from that of my generation.

(My generation(4), and the one just older than me: the young adults who constitute the majority of workers in technology now, and who are responsible for many of the major technological developments of the past fifteen years. “Digital natives,” who are supposedly naturally better at computers simply because we are young and fearless and have always been immersed in technology. The engines of what economy we have left. The dazzling learners and creators who have convinced policymakers that, if we are all to be saved from economic perdition, we must raise more of them.)

I’m going to lay out an argument that’s been tickling around my research on educational tech for years, as well as around the edges of conversations with my cohort of siblings, classmates, and Silicon Valley colleagues. That argument is:

The assumption that kids naturally learn technology just by being left alone with it is fundamentally flawed. It is flawed for one major historical reason: it is based on observations about my generation. And since we’ve grown up, technology has evolved to the point where kids no longer need to learn the inner workings of a computer just to make it run. As a result, their time with technology involves far less of the industry-grade STEM learning and practical work (disguised as play!) which enabled people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to race to the forefront of industry and make tremendous amounts of money.

We will not see a Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates(5) coming out of this generation of kids. They will not have the knowledge. If anything we’re keeping them from developing it by locking down their access to computers and the Internet at school.

The graphic user interface is the major culprit here. When we had to know a little code to make a computer start, find a file, and load our favorite game from the command line, we learned a few things about how a computer works. By the age of seven I knew what the phrase “syntax error” meant from trying and failing to make things run: basically, computers speak a special language about which they are very particular; if you speak it wrong, they can’t understand you. They’re not like people, who are good at interpreting around mistakes and filling in gaps. I learned that errors meant I had to try putting something a different way.

Contrast this with what a kid learns about language and computing today. Word and your iPhone auto-correct your spelling for you. Internet Explorer finishes typing your internet address. Google automatically finds what you thought you were looking for. The basic lesson there is that computers are like magical people who answer questions for you, and you don’t need to worry about spelling or syntax when you use them.(6) Take that lesson with you into a Programming 101 class, and the computer will quickly and mercilessly confront you with your failings.

Similar reports of gaps in young people’s knowledge are now coming from librarians and university professors who find that students’ search skills are lacking — even though incoming freshmen may now have had access to Google since they were about five years old. They tend to pick the first result the engine gives them, and they do not develop search terms with modifiers to weed out the bad or select for the best results. It is not the experience with the technology which builds useful skills; it is the nature of that experience.

My sister, a technology coordinator and skills teacher at a college preparatory school, has taken to asking her students to diagram how their computer accesses the Internet on her first day of class. Few of them draw a connection to the wall, much less anything outside of their homes; she says they seem to have no concept that the Internet exists outside of their machines. This is what my sister has to teach around — my sister, who along with me had to engineer getting a string of free AOL accounts piped in to and set up on our family’s computer in a room remote from a phone jack, without running over others’ calls with an unearthly modem screech. If we wanted the technology, it was up to us to set it up, because our parents didn’t know much more about it than we did.

I’m getting close to shaking my fist and yelling “you damn kids, get off my lawn,” here, so I should say out of respect to younger folks that this cannot be a description of all kids, because there is no description that covers all kids.(7) The real question is, Which kids are still getting good informal learning just from playing with technology? And what was the context that got them there?

Nicholas Negroponte, Marc Prensky, “trend” journalists, and others who are convinced that young “digital natives” will naturally coax the mysteries out of any computer are wrong, dangerously so, in leading public opinion towards a faith in kids’ “natural” skills with technology. Yes, kids are curious and they learn quickly. But the context in which they learn about technology is vital to what they learn. Kids whose parents understand computers (or at minimum understand what is valuable about computers) have a jump on kids whose parents’ don’t — they always have. And if those kids are also in a context where they must make use of code and the command line, I am guessing that they will have an even greater advantage.(8)

We should continue to press Negroponte on his insistence that it’s useful to give kids computers without context — like the plan for his latest stupid stunt, airlifting laptops into remote parts of developing countries.(9) Yes, the OLPC makes it comparatively easy to get around the graphic interface and to the code. But if we drop laptops into their countries without so much as a “hey, this isn’t just a doorstop!”, what is the scenario in Negroponte’s plan in which kids will get to the command line? Where is the copy of the super-simple Super Artillery that the local high school kid coded his name into, so that the kids will realize another person made this, and they could too? Where is the computer magazine that gave that high schooler the code that he modified?(10) Where are the people who will convince these kids’ parents that the thing that looks like a toy and is full of fun games and music tools might be more worth their time than toiling in the field?(11)

Negroponte likes to point to the Hole In The Wall project in India as proof that this will work. But in the Hole In The Wall scenario there was at least a person behind the scenes to ensure that that computer turned on and kept running without breaking. In Peru, Negroponte likes to say that kids have taught parents how to read using their computers. Most of what Negroponte uses to argue for the OLPC project’s worth seems to be anecdotal (while other interested OLPC parties engage in more complex discussion). I’ll fight my anecdotes against his anyday; neither mine nor his amount to a large-scale, longitudinal studies of how people become expert computer users.

OK, I digress. Negroponte and Prensky aren’t the only game in town. There are plenty of other educators out there who want to understand technology and learning better. The ones I know best are the New Literacies researchers, who have the great strength of seeing the social meaning in all kinds of things kids do, from blogging to gaming to bathroom graffiti. Despite their good intentions, I worry this group has tried to claim too much ground in technology education while focusing mainly on end-user technologies — stuff where kids are working with graphic interfaces, and rarely touching any workings of the machine. I worry that trying to argue their findings about software(/app?) learning into curriculum standards, or into teachers’ consciousness and use of technology in school, might end up taking up time that could be spent on explaining parts of technology which have been around and will be around far longer than the latest gadget or online publishing platform — things like search engines, databases, addressing and networking, and, yes, code. These may seem like they’re a subject for math, science, or computing classes, but they’re also parts of basic literacy online. A knowledge of addressing and search engines greatly enriches users’ ability to identify the author of an article online, for example. Identifying authorship is a literacy skill.

I don’t know what the answer is, obviously. Insisting that kids start from the command line, play Super Artillery, and forgo Angry Birds would be a strange kind of Luddism, probably not productive.

It’s the usual academic’s song, I guess: more research into the usefulness of understanding how computers work is needed, as is more research into the life trajectories(12) of expert computer users. In my dissertation I found myself comparing expert and inexpert Internet users in real-life situations where the inexpert had stumbled onto pages by accident; by doing so, I was able to identify the skills expert users were drawing on to find their way around the Web. (It usually involved a knowledge of Internet addresses, the differences between kinds of software and their public/private exposure, and an understanding of search engines.) That’s one way to determine what needs to be learned. Another might be to find the other end of the spectrum: identify common knowledge gaps among the inexpert population, particularly the ones which keep them from living productive lives or being empowered to solve their own problems online.

I am actually particularly interested in researching the latter when it comes to adult technology learners, who are frequently in the same boat as student learners; most of them only learned to use computers in the last ten years. This makes for a blind-leading-the-blind situation in schools (which has long been the source of frustration driving people like me and, yes, Negroponte, to try to reach kids outside of school settings). My goal at the moment is to develop a digital literacy show for adults, and try to deploy it with the same kind of well-planned-out audience reach as Sesame Street had with kids. So, yeah… if these questions interest you too, I know a researcher who’s willing to cover ’em… :)

(1) Yes, I know. Late to the game. Terrible thing to be, as an educational researcher these days, when one is expected to be on top of very important technology skills like blogging, MMORPGs, Second Life, tweeting about whether or not one is bringing one’s iPad to the conference, and suchlike.

(2) And one change they’d make would be adding in their names, someplace, and I read those names so often I still remember them. Jim Ho. David Filippi. They were pimply and in high school, and they were like gods to us, gods who made the computers speak and dance and sometimes killed them.

(3) Obviously, trajectory is not Angry Birds’ only mechanic: it also involves a lot of other falling-object physics, which a player also must have an instinctive feel for. It makes it a much more complicated game, and certainly a very rewarding and compelling one. (I’ve been hard-pressed to tear myself away to write this.) But my point remains: Angry Birds players do not need any awareness that someone, somewhere, or the proxy of the code they wrote, needs to calculate that trajectory in order to play the game.

(4) Which is a really dicey thing to say, “my generation.” Beyond larger methodological questions of whether generational divides really influence experience, or which ones matter, many calculations leave people of my particular birth year right on the cusp of Generations X and Y. We started college in the first year graphical Internet browsers were widely available — a pretty good dividing line, when it comes down to it, and we were right smack on that line. Some of of my classmates are now CTOs; others can’t Google their way out of a paper bag.

(5) Or Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak or Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds, or whatever flavor of brilliant creator suits your fancy. (Cmon. I had to smack the capitalists in the face with those two to make my point.)

(6) I shouldn’t overgeneralize here. One of the findings from focus groups my research team ran with Harlem teens last year was that they do, in fact, have some awareness that spelling is important online, though they weren’t so specific as to relate it to the nature of computers. “Spelling is important on Twitter,” they volunteered and agreed with each other: basically, if you spell someone’s @name wrong, your message won’t go to them. Between this, my dissertation, and an inbox at which I receive email for all kinds of people whose last name is Andrews and first initial is G (from friends who typo their address or even from themselves), I have become convinced that it’s very important to talk about spelling online as it relates to computing. We’ve recently shot an episode of The Media Show about it, though it’s not yet finished; I hope it will be helpful.

(7) There are kids out there who probably know as much as or more than I do about technology. And I’m pretty sure they hang out on 4Chan. I’m not looking for any drama, here…
Again we come to the problem of what “generation” means: clearly, some kids still get exposure to deeper aspects of computers, while most work at the level of the graphic interface. The experience of my friends who are a scant half-dozen years younger than me is usually different from my own: the programmers among them are every bit as tech-savvy as my age cohort, but they did not spend as much if any time working from the command line in elementary school. They did not go through high school without email, for that matter. The nuances here deserve far more attention than the big loud overarching case I am making here. For the moment, I’m ignoring the nuance to make the case, but I’d like to see more research on the technology histories of young programmers.

(8) I, like Bill Gates, was lucky when it came to computing context. His mom knew the future CEO of IBM; I had a grandfather who had worked at IBM, a whole family that worked at Caltech, and I went to the primary school which used to be part of Caltech. (John Battelle was another graduate of my school.)
I was a particularly lucky girl to be from a family which encouraged engineering skills and breaking out of gender norms. I notice that many of the girls from my elementary school who went into technology often came from families of scientists and engineers. Most of them also have no brothers, a trend which, from a casual survey of a roomful of women at a Game Developers Conference working group meeting, could be indicative of a broader pattern; in that room, about 2/3 of the female developers present raised their hands when asked if they did not have brothers. More research needed, etc.

(9) Just as Ivan Krstic, the former security head of the OLPC project, has pressed Negroponte. His review of the project gives great insight into where it is coming from and what’s likely to come of it.

(10) Yes, I *know* the answer is “on the Scratch website.” But Negroponte’s plan is not to load the Scratch website on starting the OLPC. And even then, I don’t think simply giving kids games, even those made by other kids, will force them think about how the games are made. I played those Apple II games and never had the impulse to code one; I didn’t take a grown-up programming class until I started grad school.

(11) And where is Lyle Hatridge, the 7th grade computer teacher who taught a class on the relatively un-fun topic of databases, accidentally inflaming my passion for making databases about my model horses, a skill on which my dissertation and career as a technologist are built? No, seriously, has anyone seen him lately? I miss him. Great guy. Totally worked as a circus clown before he was our teacher, is was a real leaves-as-toilet-paper kind of outdoorsman, advocate for bicyclists. Oh wait — he’s still at Poly! Yay! Big ups to Hatridge.

(12) u see wut i did thurr? heh heh heh

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