Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Brenda Matthis


This researcher reviewed software review publications checked for indicators of character representation by gender and ethnicity, and cultural assumptions of logic in educational math software for children. These indicators were chosen as major manifestations of a software designer's narrative in software. The research supports the theoretical frame that knowing the author is important in selecting software for social construction and cognitive development; and that only one review publication checked for these indicators, which were buried in the overall rating. If these indicators of author narrative exist, they are not identified because the review mechanism does search for these indicators.


Books, music, literature, television, and motion pictures -- virtually every form of media has an author1 who shapes the narrative2 of the story. Software programs are no exception. Like narratives in other media, narratives found in software programs shape a person's experiences. Yet unlike other narrative forms, the author of software programs often goes unknown. When we look at the software box, the manufacturer of the product is listed, but rarely the author. Recently, a handful of software programs has started to identify the author. David Macaulay's The Way Things Work, based on his original book, identifies the single author although a team of developers created the software. Other programs, such as Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?, do not list an author but members of the software team. Listing a team is similarly done in film, where the director has a crew that produces the film but

". . no. . .film has ever been made without the vision and unifying intelligence of a single mind to create and control the whole film. Just as there is only one poet per pen, one painter per canvas, there can only be one creator of a movie" (Mast, 1991).

For this reason too, there is a single creative vision in each software program. Whether the creator's vision is that of a single person or a team, the authors who are providing the narratives to the software are rarely identified.


The identification of the software author and narrative is of crucial importance to teachers and parents in understanding their impact on children's social and cognitive development. In software, the narrative defines and controls the child's actions. The child is presented with or guided into possible actions in the software program. It is implied that there are no limitations to the direction one can take, however, actually, in software, the possible actions are very "narrow and circumscribed, and -- what is even more important for the child -- it is defined by the game developer and the manufacturer instead of by the child" (Provenzo, 1991, 1994).

An example of action circumscription occurs in the software program SimCity, a city development simulation game, where the child creates and develops a city.3The child is guided in making decisions by the software's "rules for city development,"4 that provides detailed reasoning for what the child, as city developer, can and cannot do, presumably imitating real-life. The illusion of a real city development simulation is shattered when, paying for taxes, the algorithm or basis for calculation for the tax bill is not provided. Taxes are a primary concern in capitalist development but the software author did not find it necessary to provide this lesson. Who was the author? What is the author's background? How was it decided that this lesson of city development is not provided? Is this is a case of author oversight? Did the author deem the information not necessary to know? How would this narrative differ if the author was H & R Block, Nintendo, or Scholastic?5

Regardless of the reason, the narrative result is: You don't need to understand the tax calculations -- pay the tax or you can't continue. This omission is significant in terms of narrative because the game's social construction is narrowly and, in this case, negatively circumscribed by the author, the software designer, by the withholding of important rules that provide learning and understanding of city development -- which is the purpose of the game. The player must adhere to the limits of the game, assume the narratives as provided by the game, and absolutely follow the rules of the game -- or she or he can't play.

The omission of information illustrated by SimCity is of concern in education software where social construction as well as cognitive instruction is provided to the child by the software. In addition, ethnic and gender representation of characters, and cultural, ideological and philosophical assumptions in the design can occur in software programs that otherwise provide strong education instruction and cognitive challenges. These implicit and explicit design decisions on the part of the author may have an impact on how children see themselves and the world.


One of Erikson's classic analysis of play seems relevant to the analysis of software use by children. Software is used by children to construct a social reality "...namely to use objects endowed with special and symbolic meaning for the representation of an imagined scene in a circumscribed sphere" (Erikson, 1950, 1975, 1977). Software developers take this ability of construction several steps further by redefining communication, knowledge, and vocabularies (Provenzo, 1991). They do this first, by mediating the child's understanding of culture through the software by selecting what is amplified and what is reduced (Bowers, 1988). Provenzo (1991) carried out an analysis of features that appear in children's software. For example, the top ten game software programs have identical major themes: rescue, revenge, and good versus evil. Other options are reduced, or are not provided or selectable by the child. The child is "directed by the content of the games to construct a social reality based on the games" (Provenzo, 1991). These choices by the software developers prevent the child from constructing his or her own reality, and the child is in relationship with the game. When using software, children may be required to adopt the voice of the software author in order to participate. When using software, children may be required to relinquish their voices for the voice of the software's author, assume the software's social construction, give up all options that come with making a choice, and relate to the software that is choosing on their behalf.

The "voice" of the author can appear in the software's design in many ways, but the two simplest to identify are in the interface -- the images on the screen. The first is the representation of the characters as boys or girls and as different ethnic identities, and second is the assumptions made about the culture the child is from or is familiar with through the words, actions, and pictures of places and things (logic and organization) in the software. Literature exists that can identify gender and ethnic representations and cultural assumptions of logic and organization: software reviews.


I investigated how gender, ethnicity and cultural assumptions are represented in children's software by examine which features got attention and which were ignored or "assumed" by conducting an analysis of the software reviews, and reading theoretical sources. The software reviews were published in periodicals, journals, and books.

I examined a maximum of three review publications of children's software. There were two criteria for selecting reviewers. First, the publications' primary purpose is the review of software. This includes technical, professional and teacher education review journals, and excludes reviewer segments for daily newspapers and weekly periodicals. The reviewers must at least include teachers and software specialists, to bring experience from the teaching and software development professions, and can provide expert opinions on narrative and pedagogy. Second, reviewers are not affiliated with, take advertising from, or are otherwise accountable to software publishers and manufacturers, to discourage bias.

There are thousands of software titles and many genres, therefore, the criteria for selecting the software reviewed was narrowed to include the "top ten" titles of mathematics genre6 software sold to schools by ESR, which distributes education software to over 33% of the school market. The software titles are designed for grade groups K-4 and 5-9.


The Interim Findings

Only one software reviewer specifically developed and published its review criteria, and that criteria had two inquiries for gender and ethnicity content. However, these evaluations were lost when tallied into the review's overall rating. Outside this exception, software reviews do not evaluate for these indicators of the author's narrative.

Further research is being implemented to determine if reviewers would re-evaluate the software, adding gender, ethnicity, and cultural assumptions of logic criteria to their evaluation lists. Based on this added criteria, they will be asked if their software programs' previous ratings would change, and if they feel such criteria are deemed necessary.

Educators and developers of educational materials regardless of the medium must have an understanding of the narrative provided by the authors of that medium, develop criteria with which to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the learning provided, and select or develop a review model they can use to develop an evaluative tool. The risk is creating educational software with that, even with the best intentions, fails to teach effectively because the biases are barriers to learning.


1 A person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist. Webster's New World Dictionary of American English, 1976, World Publishing Company. 2 The art, techniques, process of narrating. Ibid. 3 The SimCity example courtesy of Judah Schwartz. 4 This description is from the SimCity box. 5 H&R Block, Nintendo, and Scholastic representing home productivity, game, and education software developers, respectively. 6 Mathematics skill is a major concern to educators and parents in children's academic development.



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Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and society. 1st ed. New York: Norton,1950.
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Broderbund Software Inc., Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego* Novato, CA,1992-1994.
Macaulay, David. David Macaulay's The Way Things Work*, Dorling Kindersley Multimedia, New York, 1994.
Maxis, Inc., SimCity*, Orinda, CA, 1994.

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