Book Review: “Engineering Play – A Cultural History of Children’s Software” – By Mizuko Ito

On: September 19, 2010
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About Isobel Gorman
Isobel Gorman is an alumni of the MA in New Media at the University of Amsterdam. She also studied at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD) in Dublin, Ireland where she graduated with a BA in Visual Communications and History of Art and Design in 2001. She received a First Class Honours for her graduating thesis ‘Second Skins’ which dealt with the rising phenomena of Multi-player online gaming. An extract of this thesis was published in the NCAD anthology ‘Thought Lines 6‘. Isobel currently runs a digital design studio and lectures at the Dublin Institute of Design.


Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito, takes an in-depth look at the evolution of children’s software and it’s development into the three distinct genres; academic (edutainment), entertainment and construction.

As a person who has followed the evolution of video gaming from the early days of 8-bit home computers, I found this cultural history of children’s software to be an extremely interesting and enlightening read. However, I was more than a little surprised (given the levels of research) by the all-encompassing title, which reads ‘A Cultural History of Children’s Software’ and then discovering that the study only focused on a localized market, with no mention of children’s software outside the United States.

Ito weaves a compelling tale of the dynamic and rapidly changing face of the children’s software industry from the pioneering days of the early 1980s to the late 1990s when she completed her case studies. This historical perspective shines a light on the academic genre, which primarily plays on the achievement-based anxieties of parents and students through grade based software. The entertainment genre, which focused on home-based family orientated software that encouraged open-ended child-centered play with educational elements. In the final genre, construction, Ito discusses how the children themselves became increasingly involved in content creation through customization, authoring and more dynamic self-motivating approaches to learning.

It is interesting to note that the history of children’s software saw the computer grow from a professional tool to its domestication as a learning and entertainment device. This Lev Manovich described as “…during one decade a computer moved from being culturally invisible technology to being the new engine of culture.” (Manovich, L, Pg. 10)

Engineering Play is a well-structured and easy to follow book. While each of the children’s software genres developed almost simultaneously, the author effectively manages to break these down into individual chapters and present the evolution of each mode chronologically. This was no easy feat given the multi-disciplinary approach and wide scope of research carried out, which also included history of the genre, interviews with early pioneers, marketing analysis and live case studies.

While the language is a little technical and dry at times, the content was very informative and structurally well-balanced which more than made up for this. Overall, this is an excellent, engaging and relevant read for anyone with an interest in the history of children’s software or video game studies. On a final note, I would suggest including a global study or comparison in order to give a more international overview.

Book: Mizuko Ito, 2007, “Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software”, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

References: Manovich, Lev., Draft version: November 20, 2008. “Software Takes Command”

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