Storytelling and Education in the Digital Age

Experiences and Criticisms

by Matteo Stocchetti (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 192 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Notes on the Contributors
  • Table of Contents
  • The Politics of Education and the Digital Turn in Storytelling: A Critical Introduction
  • Children’s Storytelling in Virtual Worlds: A Critique
  • The Digital Turn in Storytelling and Creative Industries in China: A Report
  • Story-Telling and Narrative Inquiry as a Gateway to Methodology
  • Digital Storytelling, Book Trailers and Literary Competence in Initial Teacher Education
  • An Interdisciplinary Approach for the Digital Media Landscape of the 21st Century: Storytelling as an Instrument in Design Education
  • Personal Stories and the Visual Turn: Exploring Digital Stories as Identity Representation
  • From Storytelling to Storymaking to Create Academic Contents. Creative Industries Through the Perspective of Students
  • Social Media Storytelling as a Method for Teaching Literature
  • Index

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Matteo Stocchetti

The Politics of Education and the Digital Turn in Storytelling: A Critical Introduction

Abstract Storytelling is an activity with important social and political functions. The digital turn in education affects the educational functions of storytelling in ambivalent ways. While the emancipative affordances of this turn are given much visibility in academic and corporate discourse, the risks are neglected. Education and storytelling are influential practices in the social construction of reality. The uncritical endorsement of the digital turn in storytelling, however, makes education vulnerable to the influence of technocentrism and its myths. The ideas that images “have power”, that digital community can compensate for the isolation of the individual and that the digital “revolution” brings about the “end of history” and politics are influential manifestations of these myths. The possibility for the digital turn in education and storytelling to open up emancipative opportunities depends on the extent to which educators are aware of and able to develop countermeasures against the oppressive tendencies associated with technocentrism and its myth. The chapters in this collection aim at supporting the efforts in this direction.

1. The Politics of Education, the Functions of Storytelling and the Problem of Control

The politics of education is a key dimension in the competition for control over the future of society. For the actors participating in this competition, mastering the functions of storytelling is both crucial and elusive. It is crucial because storytelling is the activity through which the meaning of the world and the social world itself are created. It is elusive because storytelling is everywhere, present in numerous forms and shapes, public and private, and mediated and non-mediated communication.

The dual and perhaps contradicting nature of storytelling functions poses a very practical problem for those forces in society that are in apprehension of the intrinsic capacity of storytelling’s meaning-generation ability to subvert existing relations of power. The political ambivalence of this capacity reflects the broader ambivalence of education: necessary but dangerous. The question of control is rooted in this ambivalence and in the efforts to resolve the uncertainty it generates in one direction or another.

In much of the relevant literature, digital storytelling is credited with all the functions of traditional storytelling in addition to the alleged virtues of digital ← 13 | 14 → technology. The potential of this combination seems to exceed the mere sum of its parts. In this chapter I discuss the power of storytelling and the implications of the “digital turn” separately, in order to avoid confusing the two. Clarifying this confusion is especially important because it helps to avoid the intrinsic attribution of the emancipative properties of storytelling to digital technology while disclosing the ideological implications of the digital turn in the politics of education.

By changing the rituals associated with the practices of storytelling, the digital turn frames the role of storytelling in education within the myths associated with digital technology and, in doing so, enforces the performative control of digital institutions on the subversive potential of the culture, if not the content, of storytelling itself.

It may be a good idea to start by discussing the power of storytelling, its fundamental ambivalence and the problem of control that it implies. Among the most effective and, in a sense, most radical cases for the power of storytelling is still that made by Jerome Bruner when he claimed that reality itself is constituted through narrative form (Bruner, 1991: 5). All other functions commonly attributed to storytelling, including its pedagogical functions, are in fact included in the idea that narratives are the tools through which reality itself, as accessible to humans, is constructed.

If the idea of the “narrative construction of reality” sounds too generic to underscore the problem of control, one should consider that most of the relevant practices to establish, reproduce or subvert relations of power are based on and are intelligible through storytelling of some sort.

The broad notion that storytelling is essentially about sense-making points, for example, to a variety of communicative practices with important political implications such as the legitimisation of political power, the construction and manipulation of the symbols of collective identity, the interpretation of history and collective memory, the social construction of truth etc.

Justification, for example, is a particular form of sense-making through storytelling: an explanation with strong moral elements that perform important emotional and cognitive functions at individual and collective levels. Painful personal experiences need to be made sense of to deal with their emotional implications but also with the rational need to control the possibility of their occurrence in the future. At the collective level, events that can seriously undermine the integrity of the community also need justification. The best examples that come to my mind are the narratives of war casualties, especially in the Great War, and the narratives of economic “austerity” deployed in Western Europe since 2008. The justification of war casualties usually contains the idea that the sacrifice of so many young lives has not been in vain. This is obviously easier for the societies of those states that ← 14 | 15 → won the war. But the idea of sacrifice in these narratives also contains normative values that stretch into the future: from the sacrifice of the past into the lives of the present and the possibility of their sacrifice in the future (Mosse, 1990). More recently, the economic crisis triggered by the financial speculation in the US has been made sense of through narratives of sacrifice similar to those used in war, but ones in which democracy seems to be the first casualty: a luxury that the European citizen may not be able to afford anymore (Silva & Escorihuela, 2013: 1–8).

When wars or other dramatic events occur that may undermine social cohesion, institutions may engage in “authoritative sensemaking” through forms of storytelling that reduce public anxiety but also reassert the integrity of social institutions that the crisis may undermine, through myths that depoliticise the crisis (Brown, 2004: 95–112).

The concept of legitimisation usually describes the form of justification involved when political power is at stake. The legitimisation of the forms of authority described by Max Weber – traditional, charismatic and legal-rational – is grounded in narratives of one form or another. It is through these narratives that traditions, charisma and law itself become influential in the daily lives of people. In practice, to legitimise the power of some individuals, groups or institutions means to justify their power but also, and maybe this is the distinctive content of this concept, to issue an implicit claim about the rightfulness of the concrete manifestations of this power in the future.

In the critical tradition, Walter Benjamin’s ideas about the importance of storytelling and the politics of truth are probably among the most influential in contemporary research. Narges Erami, for example, uses Benjamin’s essay The Storyteller to deploy a metaphorical linkage between carpet making and storytelling in support of the case for the ethnographic and “experiential” significance of the latter (Erami, 2015).

Inspired by the same essay, in addition to the works of Kierkegaard, Jung, Heidegger, Bruner and others, Patrick J. Lewis juxtaposes research and storytelling in a passionate plaidoyer for the value of the latter in human life in general and teaching in particular (Lewis, 2011: 505–510).

Annabel Herzog argues that Hannah Arendt’s ideas about political storytelling and the “redemptive power of narrative” (Benhabib, 1990) were inspired by Benjamin’s notion of storytelling as interpretation and the relation that, through this notion, connects history to those who experience it (a collective) through storytelling (Herzog, 2002: 89). The emancipative function of storytelling emerges quite clearly in both Benjamin and Arendt’s endorsement of the idea that the truth that can be passed on by the storytellers is the ← 15 | 16 →

In this account the power of storytelling consists in the recovery of a “destructive standpoint” which “dissociates the linearity of the victors’ commemoration and wrecks conformist historical narrative” (Herzog, 2000: 15).

If storytelling is the activity that can recover the truth of those who are denied the power of objectivity, one may appreciate with a certain dose of irony, the idea that even the authority of science needs narrative support.

Jean-Françoise Lyotard famously argued about the importance of narrative legitimisation of truth in the practices of scientific enquiry to ground its thesis about the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that, in his view, is the distinctive trait of the “postmodern condition” (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: xxiv). In relation to our discussion, I would argue that this “condition” is not one in which storytelling has lost its power but rather one in which performativity or “legitimization by power” (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: 45–48) signal a fundamental change in the nature of the dominant “grand narrative”: a new story in which “truth” is replaced by “operativity” as the leading criterion inspiring the quest for reliable knowledge (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: xxv). From the perspective of Benjamin and Arendt’s notion of political storytelling, one may therefore argue that, in the postmodern condition, storytelling may constitute the “destructive standpoint” from which modern science can resist performativity and legitimation by power – a point that unfortunately I cannot address in this chapter.

In sum, all forms of political power need the support of storytelling: the process through which the grounds, values and beliefs on which these forms are based are established and re-actualised in the community. There is no engagement with storytelling that is not directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly associated with relations of power. However, storytelling is also the activity through which all forms of power can be challenged, or delegitimised and the ‘magic’ of storytelling can work in different ways. Whether we like it or not, to deal with storytelling is to deal with an important process in the establishment, preservation, challenging and subversion of relations of power. And it is because of this intrinsic ambivalence that the discussion about the political functions of storytelling is always, in one way or another, a discussion about the control of these functions. The ambivalence intrinsic in the affordances of storytelling constitutes the problem of control as the fundamental problem associated with this activity because it is the very power and ambivalence of storytelling that prompts the effort to control this form of communication. If we restrict the discussion about the virtues of storytelling in education ← 16 | 17 → to the power of storytelling, without looking at the forces that inside and outside the educational arena are competing to control this power, we make ourselves, educators and learners vulnerable to these forces. If scientific research is incapable or unwilling to broaden the scope of its attention to capture this dimension and to make a credible case about the nature of the risks involved, it will fail its mission.

In a critical perspective, the main goal in educational storytelling is first of all to make people aware of the fact that the ambivalent nature of the power of storytelling supports influential efforts to control its subversive potential in education and elsewhere. Other critical competences, such as recognising the moral and social implications of alternative stories, assessing the impact of particular stories on particular relations of power, and even the capacity to create stories that can effectively support a more emancipative social order, depend on this awareness.

2. The Digital Turn

If the emancipative or subversive potential of storytelling is already, albeit ambivalently, embedded in storytelling, and this very potential is at stake in the politics of education and, more broadly, in the competition for the control over the distribution of values in society, what is the impact of the digital turn on this state of affairs? My suggestion here is that this ‘turn’ can be interpreted in relation to the problem of controlling the productive capacity of storytelling through the repression of its radical potential. This is where digital technology enters our story.

At least some of the important functions usually associated with storytelling pertain not only to the “story”, for example, in Jonathan Gottschall when he discusses the role of story as “a counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart” or “the center without which the rest cannot hold” (Gottschall, 2012: 138), but also to the “telling”. Intuitively, an “untold” or uncommunicated story is a non-story. What this means is that whatever storytelling can do depends not only on the features of the story but also on the conditions of the “telling”: the nature of the relations in which storytelling occurs as a communicative event and that the event itself contributes to reproduce, or subvert. The case for the importance of this dimension was famously made by James W. Carey in his discussion of the “ritual view of communication” (Carey, 1988: 14–22). The importance of these rituals is discussed, for example, by Nick Couldry in relation to the symbolic power of television to keep alive the “myth of the centre” (Couldry, 2003: 36–54). Even more radically, Marshall McLuhan’s renowned phrase “the medium is the message”, which lends the opening chapter of Understanding Media (McLuhan, 1964) its title, expressed the idea that the main story in the media is always, albeit implicitly, about the media themselves. In this way he argued convincingly for the ← 17 | 18 → kind of shift in attention from issues of content to the capacity of new media to change the nature of relations in society. Neil Postman made a similar point even more explicitly, in relation to the educational role of computers:

From this point of view, the movement from traditional to digital storytelling implies a movement from one set of rituals to another. The problem I am discussing here is to understand the implications associated with the rituals enforced by the digital turn. To ask this question is important because the idea that digital storytelling has all the goodies of storytelling plus the bonuses of digital technology is a philistine simplification. To neglect the changes brought about by the digital turn in the rituals, relationships and ultimately “power” of storytelling is a form of reductionism that endangers the critical assessment of this “turn” in education.

To put it otherwise, the problem is not only to assess the impact of more or less dramatic changes in the quantity or quality of information that can effectively be embedded in digital stories, but also that of understanding the implications, changes and continuities in the relationships involved. Particularly significant among these is the relation between storytelling and its legitimising functions and the forms of power associated with the “digital turn”. The idea that digital storytelling makes it easier to produce and circulate “immersive” stories, thereby increasing the “power” of the Author, hides the enormous complexity of the digital infrastructure, the variety of political conditions, actors, negotiations, interests, struggles etc. supporting it, and ultimately the magnitude of the social change associated with its effects.

In traditional storytelling, the relationship between the “teller” and her audience is probably the most salient one. In the digital age, however, an equally if not even more salient relation is that between the human and the digital interface or, more precisely, between the human motives that establish the narrative relation and the infrastructural constraints (ideology, interests, conditions of use etc.) that transform storytelling into a productive activity and stories in textual objects that can be produced, promoted, circulated, consumed etc. In these circumstances, it seems to me, issues relating to the possibility of emancipative changes in content may be no more relevant than issues pertaining to changes in the rituals associated with the digital turn in storytelling. ← 18 | 19 →

Among its supporters, digital storytelling seems to be considered a new educational tool and one that is useful for emancipative purposes. Enthusiasts are fascinated by the attributes of appeal and “circulability” of digital storytelling and seem to believe that, because of these, digital storytelling can credibly perform as critical pedagogy: one that could enable the excluded and marginalised voices to be heard and, consequently, to support political inclusion. Sceptics, however, point to problems that have more to do with access and implementation than with the ideological and pedagogical implications of the digital turn in storytelling.

According to Gregori-Signes, for example, “digital story is a genre that allows students to work both individually and in group to produce a critical opinion about a conflicting social issue” and “multimodality should receive the same attention that we give to reading and writing” (Gregori-Signes, 2014: 247).

Rina Benmayor acclaims digital storytelling as “a signature pedagogy for the New Humanities in the 21st century” (Benmayor, 2008: 201) for its formidable pedagogical, political and even theoretical power enabling students to

More critical formulations point to a variety of problems. For Robert Clarke and Andrea Adam, for example, the actual assimilation of digital storytelling into students’ curriculum may be more complicated than some of the enthusiastic supporters are ready to acknowledge. Problems include

This kind of criticism, however, underestimates the performative power of the technological infrastructure and the “complex underweave of power at play in the digital mundane” (Beer, 2009: 999), especially when this all applies to storytelling in education.

For example, recent research suggests that, in the digital environment of social media, the practices of storytelling are vulnerable to the “capitalist regime of time” (Fuchs, 2014) and to self-representation strategies that ultimately reflect the sense-making role of technological platforms (De Ridder, 2013: 370). ← 19 | 20 →

A convincing argument in support of the emancipative potential of digital storytelling must first decouple the potential of storytelling from the changes associated with the digital turn. As I argued in this section, the political potential of storytelling is ambivalent, and an important question is to understand if the changes introduced by the digital turn can resolve this ambivalence in an emancipative or oppressive direction. The relevance of the educational functions of digital storytelling is a reflection of the functions of traditional storytelling. The digitalisation of these functions is a process with ideological and political implications that cannot be ignored. In the next section I will look into these implications from the point of view of the myths associated with digital technology.

3. Storytelling and Digital Mythologies: Images, Community and Revolution

My analysis of the digital myth here is inspired by Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (Barthes, [1957] 2000) and Vincent Mosco’s analysis of cyberspace as a mythic space (Mosco, 2004). Through this analysis I intend to offer a few propositions as a preliminary interpretative framework to understand how the digital turn may bring about the repression of the emancipative potential of storytelling in education.

First, myths are a special kind of story. The first proposition is that myths are stories but of a special kind. They appear as timeless and authorless, effectively hiding their origins as part of the charm which endows them with some sort of everlasting wisdom. While the significance of every story can be established in relation to particular events, spaces, time, authorship etc., a myth is a story whose significance resides in the indeterminacy of the same elements. This is one preliminary reason why, as Barthes suggested,

A myth is productive of other stories. A second and related proposition is that myth is a story of a special kind also because it establishes the symbolical grounds for the intelligibility of other stories that keep the myth itself alive. As such, a myth is the source of “magic” from which the “magic” of storytelling depends. In this capacity myths establish meanings that, albeit implicitly, support the intelligibility of other stories. The dependence of these stories from the story-myth however reproduces the fundamental symbolical elements of the latter whenever the former are communicated. From this perspective, myths are not “true or false” but ← 20 | 21 → “living or dead” (Mosco, 2004: 29) depending on their productivity: their capacity to generate, inspire, instigate and encourage new stories.

Myths have a special relation with truth. As sense-making devices, the social influence of myths does not depend on the correspondence between the mythic and the empirical event(s) since, in fact, “myths persist in the face of powerful evidence that they do not accurately embody an underlying reality” (Mosco, 2004: 49). Myths do not tell an empirical or verifiable truth. But they tell no lies either. Rather

In their capacity as interpretative framework, “attractive vision or template of perception” (Mosco, 2004: 49) supporting specific forms of engagement with problematic aspects of the world, a myth is a narrative device to preserve beliefs, together with the principles, values and the relations of power associated with them, from the erosive effects of time and social change. Mosco appropriates Barthes’ notion of myth as “depoliticized speech” arguing that

Myth in bourgeois society is depoliticised speech. While Mosco adopts Barthes’ notion of myth as depoliticised speech, one should not forget that Barthes coined this notion as a “semiological definition of myth in a bourgeois society” (Barthes, [1957] 2000: 143) to describe the strategy of the bourgeoisie in the ideological competition with the revolutionary forces in society:

For Barthes, this myth performs identifiable ideological functions, and there is little doubt that

The bourgeoisie and capitalism rely on myth to present as eternal what is contingent and as natural what is social. Myths legitimise beliefs to be believed not because they are true but – especially when they are not true – because they are ← 21 | 22 → necessary to preserve the credibility of values, visions, identities, hermeneutic frameworks and the relations of power associated with them – e.g., a certain idea of France to justify French imperialism or, in our case, a certain idea of the digital to enforce technocentrism in education. Myths are therefore stories performing the legitimisation of relations of power by hiding the political dimension of these relations: the competition for power, the uncertainty of the struggle before it is won by one of the parties and ultimately the vulnerability of relations of power to the possibility of social change. In this perspective, the important contribution of Mosco consists in revealing how the myths of the “digital sublime” are the functional equivalent of that certain idea of France.

The analysis of myth performs the re-politicisation of speech. The political functions of myth that Barthes and Mosco synthesise with the formula of depoliticised speech result from the cultural productivity of myths and their peculiar relation with truth. This special relation with truth makes the analysis of myth useful to gain a deeper understanding of the aspects of reality that may otherwise be overlooked because they are taken for granted. Mosco suggests that “myths can be understood for what they reveal, for example, the desire for identity and community, but also for what they conceal” (Mosco, 2004: 154).

If myth performs the depoliticisation of speech by naturalising the capitalist order, the critical analysis of myth applied to cyberspace may bring about the re-politicisation of speech as a way “to loosen the powerful grip of myths of the future on the present” (Mosco, 2004: 15).

In his argument about the “cyberspace as a mythic space” and the political relevance of the “myths of our time” attached to it, Mosco described three central myths: the end of history, the end of geography and the end of politics (Mosco, 2004: 13–14). In my analysis I look at another set of myths that in my opinion is more relevant to understanding the political impact of the digital turn in educational storytelling: the myth of the “power” of images, the myth of the digital community, and the myth of the digital revolution. More precisely, I argue that the influence of the digital myth

3.1 The “power” of images

The mythic relevance of the cyberspace extends to the technological affordances of this space absorbing and giving a new appeal to the myth of the “power” of images. The argument that digital storytelling has superior educational potential because of its visual affordances combines the myths of the digital turn with at least two beliefs associated with the so-called “visual turn”. First is the idea that “one image is worth a thousand words” or, put more technically, that images are “living organisms” (Mitchell, 2005: 11) that can “speak to us” (Mitchell, 1980: 3). As I argued elsewhere, giving agency to inanimate objects is a pathetic fallacy with serious ideological implications (Stocchetti, 2011: 11–38). Claiming that images can “want” or “speak” is an apparently innocent figure of speech that legitimises the removal of human agency from the process of sense-making, which is then construed as depending on the image itself: the naturalisation Barthes describes so effectively in relation to the image of the “Negro giving the French salute” (Barthes, [1957] 2000: 116–117). Second is the belief that the power of digital visuality is a revolutionary power: a form of communication that supports democracy and participation by exposing and discrediting the practices of tyrannical regimes. This belief not only underestimates the capacity for resistance of these regimes but, most unfortunately, also simplifies the complexity associated with successful revolutionary efforts and the role of material and immaterial factors such organisation, ideology, leadership etc. (Stocchetti, 2014).

These interpretations of the ‘power’ of images depoliticise the process through which not only the meaning of images but the meaning of visuality is established. As Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and, more recently, Jonathan Beller, among others, have argued, this is a most political domain: a place of struggle between competing forces. The recognition of this struggle and the forces involved is repressed because it exacerbates the problem of control resulting from the ambivalent power of storytelling. This is why the emancipative potential of digital storytelling cannot be taken for granted but has to be critically assessed. Neglecting to recognise what remains hidden in the naturalisation of visual meaning makes visual storytelling in education vulnerable to the same forces ← 23 | 24 → that Benjamin discussed in relation to the “capitalist exploitation of cinema” (Benjamin, 2008: 33–37), Guy Debord described in his analysis of “the society of the spectacle” (1967) and Jonathan Beller discussed in terms of the “industrialization of the visual” (Beller, 2006: 3–7).

3.2 The digital community

The idea that digital storytelling has (digital) community-building capacity seems to be the newer version of an older myth about the capacity of technological progress to conquer distance in the physical sense but also in the metaphorical one: erasing difference, bridging intellectual or emotional distances, making us “equals” in the fruition of technological opportunities (Mosco, 2004: 117–140). Digital storytelling promises to reconstitute the lost sense of community in the mythic space of cyberspace (Coskie, Trudel and Vohs, 2010: 2–9). This promise contains a moral appeal to democracy, egalitarianism, polyphony (plurality of voices), participation, empowerment of marginalised identities etc., which makes digital storytelling quite appealing especially in education. While this promise effectively voices the hope that a technological infrastructure could not only overcome spatial barriers and distance but most importantly diversity of identity and interests, it also hides the fear that feeds this hope. The appeal of this promise is all the more seductive in the conditions of late modernity, when the dissolution of traditional communities generates new form of precarity which transforms the experience of freedom into an experience of insecurity – a process that Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and others refer to as “individuation”. The belief in the digital salvation of the community needs to be re-evaluated against the fact that digitalisation is one of the constitutive processes of late modernity. The fears, frustration and alienation associated with this condition feed the need to believe in the egalitarian, participatory and democratic virtues of storytelling. Construed within the coordinates of the digital myths and the end of history and politics, the same fears, frustration and alienation may easily turn to the power of digital narratives for the legitimisation of inequality, exclusion and authoritarianism. The question is then to see if utopia will prevail over dystopia: if the communities of late modernity will be inspired by their hopes more than their fears since, as we know, the power of storytelling is ambivalent.

3.3 Digital Revolution: End of History & Politics

The myths of the end of politics and the end of history converge in the myth of the digital revolution and the faith in the revolutionary potential of digital storytelling – in education and presumably elsewhere. The ideological implications of this myth ← 24 | 25 → were already clear in the early stage of this “revolution”. Cees J. Hamelink for example, observed that

The idea that the digital turn in educational storytelling has “revolutionary” capacities, participates in the digital myth evoking and betraying its political significance: it evokes the radical subversion of an established order but betrays the emancipative promise by hiding the conservative, if not reactionary implications of technological determinism. In fact,

As Robert McChesney’s observed in the case of American society, the idea of a revolution brought about almost automatically by technological progress is easily embraced by the “celebrants” of the digital that

The belief that education in digital storytelling is an emancipative practice for subjugated identities, one that makes the power of recognition suddenly available to everyone able to master digital technology reflects the mythical belief that

By performing a fundamental misconstruing of the nature and working of relations of political power, the myth of digital revolution gains egalitarian connotations that increase its appeal in education and strengthen the incitation to forget the past, embrace the future and challenge the authority of educational institutions and its representatives. The same notion, however, hides the power of the institutions ruling the digital space, the double processes of increased concentration and ← 25 | 26 → decreasing liability of corporate power in the digital industry, and ultimately the resilience of capitalist exploitation in late modern societies. In practice, as Mosco noted, “for all its revolutionary potential these myths tend to hide the continuities with the past” (Mosco, 2004: 49).

4. Steps Towards a Critical Engagement with the Role of Digital Storytelling in Education

The digital turn in storytelling is a process that contributes to the normalisation of education in the digital age. This process consists of the suppression of the radical potential of digital media, storytelling and education by framing them all within the coordinates of technocentric discourse. The credibility of this discourse is supported by the informal reproduction of the myths associated with technology in general and digital technology in particular.

The functions of storytelling are politically relevant, and the educational use of storytelling should introduce students to them: to the processes through which meanings, relations, values and indeed the whole reality is socially constructed.

What has changed in the nature and functions of story/storytelling in the movement from the analogue to digital world? Does digital technology introduce some significant difference in the functions of storytelling? And if digital storytelling is indeed a “powerful tool in the 21st century classroom” (Robin, 2008: 220–228), what is the nature or direction of the changes it can bring about? Do they support emancipation? The answer is yes to the important changes and not necessarily to emancipation.

Digital storytelling is not only about delivering stories with other means. Rather is it about changing the way meaning is created and changing the nature of the relationships based on those meanings. Educators need to question the nature and direction of the change brought about in the social creation of meaning by the digitalisation of storytelling.

Digital storytelling takes the functions of storytelling and wraps them up in the technocentric myth. This, like all myths, is a form of depoliticised speech in which storytelling loses its subversive potential. Digital storytelling thus becomes a form of communication that is supportive and reproductive of capitalism, of its cultural logic, of the functional identities, relations of power and transformative tendencies associated with it.

If one keeps in mind the fundamental importance of education in the construction of societal future, and the competition for the control of this future in the politics of education, one cannot disregard the impact of the ideological elements that accompany the digital turn in storytelling. My suggestion is that the digital ← 26 | 27 → turn in education may indeed perform the repression of the subversive potential of both storytelling and education by repositioning these activities within the performative reach of the myths associated with technology.

In these conditions it is crucial that critical educators become aware of the risks of the digital turn in educational storytelling. This is a preliminary step to developing forms of educational engagement with digital technology and storytelling that are endowed with credible emancipative potentialities.

The chapters in this collection are inspired by the effort to make educators aware of these risks but also of the opportunities for critical engagements as these emerge for the experience of researchers in this field.

In the next chapter, Nachshon Goltz and Tracey Dowdeswell discuss the risks associated with the growing use of virtual worlds for children, presenting evidence that this kind of digital storytelling lacks many of the positive aspects of non-digital storytelling, may inhibit the development of imagination in children, and appears to reproduce corporate and commercial narratives and values. While more research is needed in order to determine the long-term effects of virtual worlds on child development, the authors invite caution and suggest that virtual worlds may indeed be an inappropriate educational tool for developing children’s storytelling abilities.

Even more radically, Vincenzo De Masi and Han Yan’s report on the Chinese animation industry is an empirical falsification of the belief that the digital turn in storytelling is associated with or strengthens emancipative tendencies in society. At least in that society, the “digital turn” has transformed cultural repression into a productive process while at the same time thwarting dissent and marginalising whatever emancipative functions this ‘turn’ may have.

Bringing the focus back to Western education, Nathalie Hyde-Clarke argues for the educational productivity of storytelling and its usefulness, even without the support of digital technologies. Her experience confirms the idea that the educational potential of this practice is not dependent on the digital infrastructure but rather on the teacher’s competence and, ultimately, commitment to creating an engaging learning experience for methodology courses usually “deemed to be boring or a ‘necessary evil’”

In the other chapters of this collection, the attention shifts to experiences of more critical use of digital technology in support of practices involving storytelling as a tool or as an educational outcome.

Cristina Aliagas-Marin and Ana M. Margallo conduct a microanalysis of the implementation of digital storytelling in an Initial Teacher Education course on literary education. The study highlights the importance of appropriating digital ← 27 | 28 → storytelling in each particular educational context, rather than thinking of digital storytelling in education broadly and just applying it generally. This chapter discusses the complexities involved in the process of making sense of digital storytelling in a particular subject, and testifies to the need of empirical educational research analysing the process, challenges and effects of introducing digital storytelling in the classroom across the educational span.

Simge Esin Orhun discusses the effects of the digital turn in design education and argues for the need of revising the traditional approaches in this field. Her chapter describes the Communication Design Program, an educational initiative based on storytelling in which digital media are used to facilitate youth participation in the use of cultural knowledge in the transformation of meanings.

Julie Faulkner and Greg Curran report on their experience as educators not only aware of the risks associated with the uncritical introduction of digital technology in education, but also committed to developing its emancipative affordances. In their chapter, they give a closer look to the conditions in which these emancipative affordances may be actualised in the construction of meanings associated with personal identity.

Gloria Gómez-Diago suggests a conceptual shift from storytelling to storymaking, arguing that while the former is based on a linear mode of communication, storymaking describes a communicative environment resulting from a shift in emphasis from investigative and writing skills to new collaborative and participatory skills. In her chapter, the author describes the use of storymaking as an environment for learning in which students can become aware and gain control of conceptual, procedural and tacit knowledge.

Finally, the linkage between critical uses storytelling and critical pedagogy is explicit in the chapter of Susana Tosca, Anne Katrine Nørgaard Isholdt and Niklas Tarp-Petzke. Their chapter recounts an experiment, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which social media are used as a tool to teach literature in a Danish high school. The authors coined the notion of “social media storytelling” to describe the practice through which a social medium is used as technological infrastructure for role playing – and role playing itself as a participatory approach to a Danish medieval ballad.


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Nachshon Goltz & Tracey Dowdeswell

Children’s Storytelling in Virtual Worlds: A Critique

Abstract In this chapter, we offer a critique of the growing use of virtual worlds for children, particularly as tools to teach children the basic elements of storytelling: language, narrative, the creative imagination, and generativity in applying learned skills. We argue that virtual storytelling is not like other forms of storytelling, particularly for children, who are still developing these abilities. There is evidence that digital storytelling through virtual worlds lacks many of the positive aspects of non-digital storytelling, and may even inhibit the development of imagination in children. In this chapter, we review the literature on children and virtual worlds, focusing on the importance and development of the creative imagination in children. We discuss the visualization hypothesis – a theory that was developed to explain how television produces a reductive effect on the imagination because it presents the user with ready-made visual images – and generalize it to new media, including virtual worlds. We posit the ‘displacement hypothesis’, which states that when manufactured content is supplied ready-made to the individual, then it displaces the creative and imaginative processes that the individual would otherwise supply for him or herself. The more immersive the medium, the more psychological dimensions are captured by this displacement – such as sound, the visual, narrative content, time, space, physical presence – the more reductive are the effects on the individual’s imagination. We conclude that further research is needed in order to determine the long-term effects of virtual worlds on child development, and that in the meantime virtual worlds are an inappropriate medium for children’s storytelling.


Virtual worlds – games in which the user interacts with a persistent digital environment through a self-representation known as an “avatar” (Hew and Cheung, 2010: 34) – are a unique form of digital storytelling. Unlike ordinary games, virtual worlds are highly immersive, and create the impression that the user has a good deal of control over their interactions with their virtual environment. Therefore, it might appear at first glance that virtual worlds can become an important tool for children’s storytelling, for engaging and teaching children skills in language, constructing narratives, and developing imagination. Indeed, virtual worlds have begun to be used in this manner, even for pre- and primary school-aged children (ibid.). Some scholars, such as Bitarello (2008: 2), argue that virtual worlds have long existed in literature, art, and mythology, and they view virtual worlds as ← 31 | 32 → merely an extension of these non-digital forms of storytelling. In this chapter, we challenge this view of virtual worlds, focusing on the negative effects that virtual worlds can have on the development of the creative imagination in young children, and thus on their ability to learn the complexities of language and narrative – the essentials of storytelling. We argue that there is a fundamental difference between non-virtual storytelling that seeks to ignite the imagination, and virtual storytelling, which can limit and oppress the development of the imagination in young children.

The research on non-digital storytelling shows that it enhances children’s imagination (Raines and Isbell, 1994: 264–265), supports and extends children’s social lives (Britsch, 1992: 80), further develops their cognitive skills (such as “deferred imitation”, speculation and knowledge) and contributes significantly to all aspects of language development (Cooper et al., 1992: 10–11). There may be a temptation, therefore, to assume that digital storytelling through virtual worlds can be similarly effective in teaching young children. While some authors argue to the contrary (Miller, 2008: 189–227; Lundby, 2008: 1–21), we argue that digital storytelling through virtual worlds not only lacks these positive aspects, especially with respect to the imagination, but may actually suppress them.

Many of the negative effects that virtual worlds have on the development of the imagination are caused precisely by the characteristic that makes their use in education seem attractive: their degree of immersion, which is a heightened sense of interactivity between the user and the virtual environment. We refer to this as a ‘sense’ or ‘appearance’ of interactivity, because it actually masks the fact that the user remains bound by the rules of the game, while it draws the user in to a greater degree than do ordinary games. As Sanchez-Vives & Slater (2005) remind us, “[t]he degree of immersion is an objective property of a system that, in principle, can be measured independently of the experience that it engenders” (p. 333). There are therefore possible avenues for testing the level of immersion that a virtual world engenders, and thereupon to also test for its effects upon the user. We posit that virtual worlds can harm the normal development of imagination in children by the fact that it displaces true make-believe play, while pretending to provide it. Not only does this displace the benefits of make-believe play, but it distorts children’s developing sense perceptions and negatively impacts their ability to tell reality from fantasy; the imagination and the creativity it engenders is thus stunted, while rule-based and sensory-motor thinking predominate. Thus, storytelling through virtual worlds is in direct conflict with the main goals of storytelling itself. This heightened degree of immersion can also give rise to many of the ill effects produced by the use of virtual worlds, including Internet Addiction ← 32 | 33 → Disorder (IAD) and Pathological Internet Use (PIU) (Hilarie et al., 2012: 292–298; Kuss et al., 2014: 27). Moreover, the context of storytelling emphasizes the fundamental difference between non-virtual storytelling that seeks to ignite and foster the imagination, and virtual storytelling, which can displace, distort, and limit children’s developing imagination. This chapter will open with a discussion and review of the literature on virtual worlds, particularly those that target children, and will discuss potential harms to the development of children’s imagination through their interactions with virtual worlds. Next, we review the literature on the development of imagination in children and the empirical research concerning the impact of artificial media on this development. We conclude that virtual worlds are an inappropriate medium for children’s storytelling.

Virtual Worlds

A virtual world is an artificial environment created by computer software that enables users to interact with other users and with the software itself using self-representational figures called avatars (Hew and Cheung, 2010: 34). Communication can be performed through text, graphics, avatar movements, gestures and sounds (Wadley and Benda, 2007). The user logs onto the internet to a server hosting the software creating the virtual world. This software introduces the user to perceptive stimuli and the user can manipulate objects in the presented environment, thereby experiencing a certain degree of virtual presence. These virtual worlds can look similar to the real world or to a fantasy world – a world in which the rules of nature are different than the rules of the real world and the characters in it are not known in reality (Hunter, 2003: 443).

In her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal (2011) illustrates the staggering influence of virtual worlds on our lives:

McGonigal concludes that we have therefore spent as much time playing World of Warcraft (WoW) as we have spent evolving as a species (ibid.).

Virtual worlds, as a result of their high degree of immersion, are often very good at drawing players in for long periods of time, and this is an important source of the revenue they are able to generate. World of Warcraft reaps an estimated ← 33 | 34 → $100 million every single month (Superdata, 2013). McGonigal points out that “no other computer game has ever made so much money keeping so many players occupied for so long. Each WoW player spends on average between seventeen and twenty-two hours per week in the virtual world, more time than any other computer game attracts” (ibid.).

Children’s virtual worlds are not far behind in their abilities to generate large revenues. Research suggests that children are using electronic media at younger ages (Rideout et al., 2003), and news reports indicate that children as young as three are participating in virtual worlds (Chmielewski et al., 2008). There are over 400 virtual worlds designed and targeted specifically to children (Smolen, 2012; Kzero, 2013). According to some estimates, virtual worlds garnered over one billion users in 2010, roughly half of whom were under fifteen years old, with 219 million users being between the ages of 5 and 11 years old (Watters, 2010).

One popular virtual world for children is Webkinz. Dellinger-Pate and Conforti (2010) describe Webkinz as an all-encompassing experience, stating that

This description illustrates the growing influence exerted by virtual worlds on children’s early experiences. There is no standard definition or description for children’s experience in virtual worlds. However, most of the major brands in the market are based around a mix of social interaction and casual game-play. One classic example is Club Penguin.

In Club Penguin, children sign up as registered users and take on the form of penguin avatars. They then go to a fantasy world called Penguin Island where they can play games, customize their characters and talk to other children’s penguin avatars. Chat is moderated to ensure that there is no kind of anti-social behavior. Registered users of Club Penguin, typically aged 6–12 with a slight skew towards girls, can get a basic entertainment experience for free. If they want the complete experience, they have to pay a subscription fee of $6–8 per month (Club Penguin, 2015).

Club Penguin’s headline statistics indicate that the site has 175 million registered users in 190 countries, up from around 12 million at the time of its 2007 purchase by Disney for $350 million (Eldon, 2007). This indicates strong growth, but perhaps more important is the number of children who choose to pay for premium access. Disney is coy, but analysts estimate this is around 5–10% of registered users (White, 2012). If these estimates are correct, then Disney may be generating as ← 34 | 35 → much as $122.5 million per month from subscription fees alone, which indicates the extremely large profits to be made from children’s virtual worlds.

Two key differences that separate virtual worlds from other video games are that virtual worlds are both persistent and dynamic (Lastowka and Hunter, 2004: 5–6). This means that even when the player is not in the virtual world, the virtual environment continues to exist and change over time (Rogers 2008: 407; Castronova, 2005: 80). Virtual worlds’ heightened sense of interactivity is another important difference between video games and virtual worlds. Jenkins (2009) states that “[v]ideo games like Zelda, Halo, or Harry Potter allow players to enter into an environment and interact with objects, but they don’t allow the player to create an environment and that’s what virtual worlds are all about.” But it is precisely their persistence, dynamism, and heightened sense of interactivity that we argue lead to the ill effects of virtual worlds. Dellinger-Pate and Conforti (2010) illustrate the potential harmful influence on children through the following story:

This story illustrates the child’s inability to distinguish between the virtual nature of the Webkinz pet and reality. His perception of the virtual world’s persistence is derived from his experience in the real world. He reacts normally to an abnormal environment. However, this is to the child’s detriment, and to the website operator’s financial benefit.

There are those who argue that the growing number of virtual worlds geared toward young children is a benefit, one that can “provide young learners with experiences that scaffold skills needed for community building and civic engagement” (Berson et al., 2009: 28), while interconnecting with people and issues they confront in real life (Wang, 2010: 32). One broad-based review of the literature showed that virtual worlds can have a positive impact in creating communicative spaces for remote users, as well as in assisting experiential skills learning, although this study focused on older children and adult learners (Hew and Cheung, 2010: 45–47). Another study found that virtual worlds had a positive impact on primary students’ achievement and motivation in learning geography facts (Tüzün et al., 2009: 75–76). ← 35 | 36 →

Others disagree, citing evidence of the negative effects of virtual worlds on child development. Many of these critiques point to the narratives embedded in the virtual worlds themselves and demonstrate their harmful effects on children. For example, Marsh (2010: 30) states that while virtual worlds are a space in which children can engage in make-believe and narrative-related play, this is impeded by the ways in which virtual worlds restrict children’s choices (ibid.: 35-6). Similarly, Hannaford (2012: 17) found that children engaged imaginatively with one another and the virtual environment, and that they took the narratives they learned there back with them into the outside world. Both Marsh and Hannaford discuss children’s imagination and make-believe play in terms of identity practice, and so one might be tempted to conclude from their work that if we constructed better and more inclusive narratives for children in their virtual worlds, then this problem might be overcome.

However, the problems go deeper than the narrative content and are often embedded in the structure of the game itself. Dellinger-Pate and Conforti’s (2010) study of Webkinz led them to conclude that the game harms children’s developing communication skills and social connectivity. They state, “there is no scenario where cooperation between players takes place. There is no true community in this playground. Although the site visuals offer the illusion of community (a village with shops and friendly, furry characters waving to each other, with open, green fields to run and play in), they are fleeting images and never experienced by the player” (p. 264). Grimes (2015a: 120) has also found that the narratives in children’s virtual worlds promote consumer culture. Children are instructed to acquire and display items and to construct social hierarchies based on acquisition (where restrictions based upon a lack of funds are taught as “fair play”). Respecting copyright and other corporate rules are embedded in the structure of the game itself (ibid.), as is the practice of “immersive advertising,” which “enables interactive and deeply embedded forms of product placement” (ibid.: 122). Even more invisible are the ways in which children are co-opted into performing forms of immaterial labor, such as data mining and market research, but also less tangible forms of labor (ibid.: 126). After all, it is the participation of the children themselves in the game that actually constructs the virtual environment, and it is their interactions with and emotional connection to the game that lend it its meaning, its cultural value and, ultimately, its immense monetary value as well (ibid.).

Grimes (2015b: 136) concludes that virtual worlds provide very limited opportunities for children to exercise their imagination in make-believe play, since adults ultimately shape and impose an idealized play environment on the child. She states: ← 36 | 37 →

Plowman (2004: 221) found that when their own imagination exceeded the functionality of a “smart” toy, children quickly became unhappy and preferred to play with the toy switched off. We conclude that, even if adults could design “suitable” narrative content into the virtual world, its use would continue to have harmful effects on children’s developing imagination. The virtual worlds would continue to displace children’s true imaginative interaction with adult-generated rules and constructs – ones whose weaknesses cannot easily be discerned or simply switched off.

The Imagination

The essence of imagination lies in its generativity, in the fact that through our imagination we can conjure up experiences and representations that are wholly novel to our lived experiences. Imagination is critical to children’s mental development and abilities to learn, as we discuss further below. Despite its importance, it remains intangible and difficult to define. Cohen & MacKeith (1991) described psychologists’ ambivalence towards it, stating that “on the one hand, it fascinates. Just as no other species can speak, no other species can imagine or invent. On the other hand, it is extremely hard to study imagination – especially experimentally” (ibid.: 11–14).

Despite this ambivalence, there have been numerous attempts to define and classify the imagination, none of which have yet received widespread consensus. Vygotsky (1978) defined imagination as “a new formation which is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action” (ibid.: 537). One can imagine, for example, a bird turning into a snake while flying over a lake without ever having seen such a transformation actually taking place. One can produce novel representations in the mind by generatively combining past perceived representations.

Elaborating on this definition, Singer & Singer (2005) define imagination as a

The emphasis is on the “images or concepts originally derived from the basic senses” that are then “reshaped and recombined”. But this raises the question of whether “images or concepts” that are artificially mediated – and which are usually the product of the imaginary process of a TV show or video game creator – will function in the same way as basic building blocks for the user’s imagination.

Other authors have defined the imagination in the context of the human spirit. For Watkins (1990: 75), the imagination is “the intermediate universe – the universe between pure spirit and the physical, sensible world – which is the world of the symbol and of imagining”. According to Latham (2003: 91), “[i]maginative capacity thus underpins our species’ ability to make sense and guide us beyond ego-directed aims and conditions that life brings our way. Creative fantasy freely expressed is our key to balance and wholeness”. Dubos (1965: 7) argued that “[m]an’s propensity to imagine what does not yet exist, including what will never come to pass … most clearly differentiates him from animals. The more human he is, the more intensely do his anticipations of the future affect the character of his responses to the forces of the present”. The imagination bridges the time from the present to the future.

Ulanov and Ulanov (1991) point out that there is no life of the spirit without imagination. “Properly understood and pursued,” they state, “the imagination is perhaps our most reliable way of bringing the world of the unconscious into some degree of consciousness and our best means of corresponding with the graces offered us in the life of the spirit” (ibid.: 3). In our spiritual lives, the imagination enables paths that cannot be traveled in any other way, and its absence detaches us from the unconscious and the spirit. This is in stark contrast to the superficial and artificial representations of children’s virtual worlds, with their flat and fleeting images, a world in which everything is offered, but nothing can truly be experienced.

A more prosaic definition of the imagination claims that imagination is an activity of the human brain, operating much like memory or logic or any other cognitive process (Misson, 2000). In this view, there is nothing mystical about the imagination: it is simply working on the material present in the brain (Feldman et al., 1994: 47). The critical character of the imagination lies in its generative and transformative abilities, to take existing ingredients and bring them together to generate something novel. It is perhaps for this reason that imagination is critical to learning. As Egan (1990: 166) states, “all learning that is to be of educational value seems necessarily to involve an imaginative-finite creative component. The ← 38 | 39 → imagination is the making, composing, vivifying power that is required if the student is to reconstitute codes into living knowledge”.

Generally, imagination has not been studied as a single concept. Valkenburg and van der Voort (1994: 316–317), in a review of the research on the influence of TV on daydreaming and creative imagination, found three closely related but distinguishable imaginal processes, which they define as follows: imaginative play – play in which children transcend the constraints of reality by acting “as if”; daydreaming – a state of consciousness characterized by a shift of attention from external stimuli to internal thoughts and images; and creative imagination, which is defined as the capacity to generate many different novel or unusual ideas (Valkenburg and Calvert, 2012: 158). This chapter will not deal with daydreaming, being outside the scope of this discussion, but it will discuss below imaginative play, the creative imagination, and the negative effects of media on the imagination as expressed in dreams.

Virtual worlds differ in many ways from authentic imaginary experiences, and these differences may actually impede the development of imagination in young children. According to Cobb, the psychological distance between the self and the object of desire “is the locus in which the ecology of imagination in childhood has its origin” (ibid.: 56). In virtual worlds, the distance between “the self and the object of desire” is vague since the self is portrayed as a virtual avatar; the object of desire is always at hand in the virtual environment but cannot be reached in the real one.

Scholars have defined four key characteristics of children’s imaginary worlds: first, the child must be able to distinguish between what they have imagined and what is real; second, the child’s interest in the fantasy world persists for months or years; third, the child will be proud of the world and consistent about it; lastly, the child will feel that the world matters to him or her (these worlds usually disappear by the age of ten) (Cohen and MacKeith, 1988: 14; Silvey and MacKeith, 1988: 173–174). As with the tale of the child whose Webkinz pet fell ill from his disuse of the game, virtual worlds can mimic the last three characteristics. However, it is on the first characteristic that virtual worlds fall short: the child has not imagined the world, and is not in control. The child may, therefore, have significant difficulties distinguishing the virtual world from the real one.

Others contend that the development of the imagination is critical not only to our individual development but also to our collective development. Jung (1933), already cognizant of the pressures of our modern life, warns us not to abandon our species’ hard-fought accomplishments in developing our spiritual life. “The wheel of history,” he states, “must not be turned back, and man’s advance toward ← 39 | 40 → a spiritual life, which began with the primitive rites of initiation, must not be denied” (ibid.: 125). The consequences of losing or not developing our imaginative capacities can have serious and as yet unforeseen repercussions and, as Jung warns us, our collective accomplishments can be turned back.

In summary, the imagination is unique to humans, and it is critical for our learning and for children’s proper intellectual development. It is also a key part of what makes us human. In addition, the imagination is a learned ability, one which is not yet present in young children (we can conclude from Piaget’s theory on make-believe play that the imagination develops along with make-believe play). It is originally derived from the basic senses, works on the material that is present in the brain and bridges the gap between the self and the object of desire, as well as the time from the present to the future. The development of the imagination also appears necessary in order to be able to distinguish between the imagined and the real. In children, the imagination develops and expresses in imaginative play and creative imagination. The emphasis is on the novel reshaping of already-familiar images and experiences. These skills are all essential for both understanding and creating stories. But the question that we wish to raise in this chapter is whether the images and concepts that children receive from playing in virtual worlds function as building blocks for the development of the child’s imagination in the same way as images and concepts derived from less artificial media. To take a simple example, the images a child gets from having a book read to them come from his or her own mind’s eye, but the images they get from watching a show on TV come from the creator and are imposed upon the child, crowding out the images in the mind’s eye the child would otherwise create. Because a virtual world is an even more fully-immersive experience for the child than a television show, even more of the images and concepts that child users receive are imposed upon them, thus increasing the ill effects of the medium. Below, we describe good reasons why we think this is the case, and why further research needs to be done in this area.

The Development of the Imagination

Imagination is critical to children’s learning and development. Vygotsky (2004: 11–12) states that “child’s play is not simply a reproduction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has acquired. He combines them and uses them to construct a new reality, one that conforms to his own needs and desires”. When the child is rehearsing a situation from his life with toys, he is not only duplicating the situation in reality but is creating a scenario that exceeds that reality and portrays what will or may happen, according to the child’s fears, hopes and other internal drives. Winnicott (1971: 72–73) further states that ← 40 | 41 → “[i]t is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self”. These two steps are essential. First, imaginative playing will enable creativity, and only in creativity will we discover ourselves.

While many animals engage in play, it lacks the generativity of children’s play. Cobb (1977: 29) contends that “while other animals do play, the human child’s play includes the effort to be something other than what he actually is, to ‘act out’ and to dramatize speculation”. Wittgenstein (1949: 37e) pondered, “Could one imagine a world in which there could be no pretend?”. Play is essential for the imagination, but it is pretend play that most deeply express and develops our creativity and imagination.

According to Piaget’s (1962) influential developmental theory, there are three main types of children’s play that direct and foster a child’s mental development: practice games, symbolic games and games with rules. When a child jumps over a stream for the fun of jumping, she is engaging in a practice game. Games with rules are “games with sensory-motor combinations (races, marbles, ball games, etc.) or intellectual combinations (cards, chess, etc.), in which there is competition between individuals (otherwise rules would be useless) and which are regulated either by a code handed down from earlier generations, or by temporary agreement” (ibid.: 142). Symbolic games imply representation of an absent object, since there is a comparison between a given and an imagined element. For example, a child pushing a box and imagining it is a car. It is the symbolic, or pretend, games that are most important in the context of the development of imagination.

Piaget argues that “while mere practice play begins with the first months of life and symbolic play during the second year, games with rules rarely occur before stage II (age 4–7) and belong mainly to the third period (from 7–11)” (ibid.: 142). Piaget theorizes that from ages 4 to 7, symbolic games begin to lose their frequency, but continue to appear in the same intensity. From the age of 7 to 11 or 12, symbolic play declines and games with rules (social games) emerge. According to Piaget, symbolic play takes place mainly from about age 2 to 7. Singer and Singer (1990: 32) agree that “imaginative play emerges toward the end of the child’s second post-partum year, struggles fitfully toward a flowering well into the third year, and in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years is a significant factor in the child’s behavioral repertory”. However, they claim that while “Piaget seemed to suggest that imaginative play fades by the early school years as ‘operational’ thought takes over, we shall suggest that it is merely submerged in the interest of the changing demands of school decorum and other social pressures” (ibid.). In their view, it is not an internal psychological force that propels the shift, but external ones. We ← 41 | 42 → posit that the use of virtual worlds may spur on this shift, making the symbolic play period shorter and thus impairing the process of imagination development.

Recognizing the developmental importance of the imagination, Singer & Singer propose that “our human stream of consciousness emerges gradually in childhood from children’s play and from their pretend games” (ibid.). As explained by Grossman & Degaetano (1999: 58):

Without pretend play, the imagination will not properly develop in young children, and the literature suggests that some of the deficits created thereby may be life-long. We posit that another mechanism whereby virtual worlds may be harming this development by misleading the child’s brain to think he is engaged in pretend play, while he is actually engaged in a combination of practice and rule games.

Cobb’s (1977) findings seem to support this proposition. She writes:

The artificial medium and the mediated stimulus it sends to the senses curtail this sense of wonder. Instead of experiencing the world in wonder, the child is experiencing the virtual world where the alleged wonder is mediated, misleading, and masks the ‘true’ imaginary universe with the ready-made and mediated one.

The Role of Play

The chief value of play in child development lies in the child’s total control over their imaginary universe, free from external constraints – an accomplishment that is simply not possible in the mediated virtual world. Piaget (1962: 87) argued that “[u]nlike objective thought, which seeks to adapt itself to the requirements of external reality, imaginative play is a symbolic transposition which subjects things to the child’s activity, without rules or limitations”. Although Piaget and Vygotsky experienced a theoretical controversy about the nature of imagination, there was a mutual understanding between them that “the symbolic game as a whole is again a practice ← 42 | 43 → game, but a practice game which exercises (and more particularly ‘pre-exercises’) the specific form of thought which is imagination” (Piaget, 1962: 118). Symbolic games develop the imagination free from any external constrains, a freedom which is not possible in virtual worlds that are inherently bound to some rules.

Mitchell (2002: 4) explains that “pretense or make-believe is a mantel activity involving imagination that is intentionally projected onto something”. More elaborately, make-believe is “the use of … props in imaginative activities,” where props are “objects of imagining” (Walton, 1990: 25). Props include the pretenders themselves and the objects. Pretence in play is called “symbolic play”, but pretending also occurs outside play, and need not be “playful”(Mitchell, 2002: 4). Pretence is essential for the imagination development either in play or outside it. But it is only possible when there are no external constraints forced on the child.

Adults and other children might force external constrains, the same as do virtual worlds. The difference is that external constrains in the real world are obvious and apparent, while virtual worlds actually enforce external constraints, while pretending to provide props for imaginative play. For example, a child can dress its penguin in Club Penguin, which is allegedly imaginative play, but cannot use the penguin as a chair, i.e., the child cannot stand the penguin as a symbol for some other object or idea, which constitutes true imaginative play.

Singer and Singer (1990) support the developmental value of symbolic games, stating that when “children engage in symbolic games they are practicing mental skills that will later stand them in good stead, just as practice in walking, balancing, or swimming aids the development of motor skills” (ibid.: 22). In a follow-up study of children from age eight to twelve, twenty years later, Shiner, et al. (2003: 1165–1166) found that those children who scored high in social skills, academic attainment, and work competence maintained these patterns as adults. These kinds of skills are the same as those found to emerge from imaginative play in the earlier years (Singer & Singer, 2001: 16–20; Smilansky, 1986: 926). Therefore, deficits in imagination in early years are correlated with long-term deficits in other pro-social skills.

Symbolic play enables children to have a clear sense of what is real and what is fantasy (Aronson and Golomb, 1999: 1424;). Russ conducted a study with 121 first and second graders, and then a follow up study with 31 of them in fifth and sixth grade. She found that “children who play imaginatively in their early years are more likely to think creatively … good early play skills predicted the ability to be creative and generate alternative solutions to everyday problems” (Adams, 2003: 3). Therefore, children who substitute their imaginative play with the rule-bound play in virtual worlds may not fully develop these skills. ← 43 | 44 →

Make-believe play produces other important outcomes. Spiegel (2008) argues that it develops the ability to self-regulate; Singer and Singer (1990: 10) posit that imaginative play is associated with more positive emotions in children. Other studies have shown how children engaging together in make-believe play demonstrate advances in recognizing others’ thoughts, or in differentiating fantasy representations from reality (Rosen & Singer, 1997: 1133; Schwebel, Rosen and Singer, 1999: 334). Children engaged together in play in virtual worlds are not involved in make-believe play; rather, they are playing games with rules, but these are the rules set by the creators of the virtual world.

An illustration of the negative effects of the lack of pretend play was made by Wulff (1985: 141), who finds that autistic children have severe early deprivations in symbolic play. Harris (2000: 6) states that “the study of early pathology shows that it is the absence of early imagination, and not its presence, that is pathological”. He continues, stating that “[o]ne of the major characteristics of the syndrome of early childhood autism is an absence or impoverishment of pretend play… The long term social and cognitive restriction of people with autism suggest that the capacity for pretence is an important foundation for lifelong normality” (ibid.). The imagination, the ability to think symbolically, and therefore the development of normal cognition are all closely linked. This can clearly be seen in children who have serious deficits in symbolic thinking and cannot engage in symbolic or pretend play, as occurs in children who are on the severe end of the autism spectrum.

Children playing in virtual worlds might, therefore, interact with the virtual world as though they are engaged in make-believe play, while they are really engaged in rule-bound play. We argue that this interaction with the game removes the benefits children would otherwise receive from their play. First, children are not receiving the benefits from symbolic play when they play in virtual worlds, and second, because they may acquire a learned deficit in the ability to distinguish the real world from the fantasy.

The Creative Imagination

It should be noted that this chapter deals with the creative imagination rather than creativity itself. The commonalities and differences between the two are beyond the scope of this chapter. Singer and Singer (1990) have noted some of the differences between the two concepts, stating that “[i]magination seems freer and broader, since our thoughts may remain as private and as fanciful as we may want them to be, with no constraints. Imagination may take the form of visual imagery with no obvious outcome other than the pleasure it affords us” (p. 268–269). It is the creative imagination in this sense that we discuss below. ← 44 | 45 →

Vygotsky saw creativity as a way of adapting to the challenges posed by our environment. “A creature that is perfectly adapted to its environment,” he states, “would not want anything, would not have anything to strive for, and, of course, would not be able to create anything” (ibid.: 29). Rogers (1959: 69) points out that, with the kaleidoscope of changes that are occurring at a geometric rate, the development of genuine, creative adaptation may represent the only way forward to build a constructive continuity As Rogers (1959) states, “[u]nless man can make new and original adaptations to his environment as rapidly as his science can change the environment, our culture will perish. Not only individual maladjustment and group tensions but international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity” (ibid. 70). There may be a heavy price to pay, therefore, if genuine creative adaptation cannot be fostered. At the same time as our real environment is changing rapidly, our virtual environment is changing in the opposite direction, becoming more and more convenient for us and adapting to our whims, rather than posing challenges to our creativity.

In this context, Winnicott (1971: 91) argues that “everything that happens is creative except in so far as the individual is ill, or is hampered by ongoing environmental factors which stifle his creative processes”. When the child is spending time in the pre-designed environment of the virtual world, his creativity is stifled in this manner. Cobb (1977: 15) states that “a major clue to mental and psychosocial health lies in the spontaneous and innately creative imagination of childhood, both as form of learning and as a function of the organizing powers of the perceiving nervous system”. As can be seen in children with severe autism, the lack of symbolic thinking and the creative imagination presents itself as a severe cognitive pathology.

Winnicott (1971: 87) further states that “many individuals have experienced just enough of creative living to recognize that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine”. However, children have not yet experienced enough creative imagining of their own to realize they are “caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine”. Vygotsky (2004) concludes that “[t]he entire future of humanity will be attained through the creative imagination … The development of a creative individual, one who strives for the future, is enabled by creative imagination embodied in the present” (p. 88). But what if there is no “creative imagination embodied in the present” because of the influence of an all-encompassing virtual environment? ← 45 | 46 →

The Senses

The argument that technology alters our sensory perception is not new. McLuhan (1964) remarked on the changes in the senses as a result of the introduction of technology, stating that “[i]f technology is introduced from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all our senses is altered. We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same” (ibid.: 24). Advanced technologies, such as virtual worlds, provide more powerful sensory output, like time and interaction, all of which were not present at the time of McLuhan’s writing. We ought, therefore, to think carefully about how our sensory perceptions are being altered by these developing virtual cultures.

In an interview with Rudolf Arnheim (Peterson, 1972), he discusses a generation that had lost touch with its senses. Arnheim states:

The mind cannot fully develop its imagination based on sensory input coming from an artificial medium, and this is more so for virtual worlds than it was in Arnheim’s time.

Pearce (1985: 63) states that “[a]bstract imagery is not present to the senses; it must be created from within. We must then process that imagery, transfer it into images available to the senses out there. If we cannot, we have no imagination, and if we have no imagination we are automatically grounded in sensory-motor imagery”. When the mind is bombarded with sensory input from an artificial medium, there is no place for acquiring and manipulating abstract imagery. There is no creation of images from within, and therefore no imagination.

In his warning to us about the dangerous aspects of children’s exposure to artificial media, Latham (2003: iv) concludes that “young children’s spontaneous imaginative capabilities may be neurologically foreclosed and become increasingly impoverished as exposure to screen-based electronic entertainment rises”. The internal process of imagination is replaced by the outside exposure to the artificial media. Kline (1989) summarizes this shift as one in which “marketing, rather than entertainment, considerations dominate the design of children’s characters, the fictions in which they appear, and hence the way children play” (ibid.: 311; ← 46 | 47 → Levin & Rosenquest, 2001: 243). At the same time, “[p]lay, the most important modality of childhood learning is thus colonized by marketing objectives making the imagination the organ of corporate desire. The consumption ethos has become the vortex of children’s culture” (ibid. – emphasis added).

Virtual worlds may therefore pose a fundamental harm to the development of children’s imagination through the ways in which they distort children’s sense perceptions. However, the harm posed to children’s imagination by the use of virtual worlds is challenging in two ways: it is intangible, and there is a paucity of research into children’s experiences with virtual worlds.

Empirical Research on Children and the Media: The Visualization Hypothesis

Most, if not all, of the empirical research regarding media and the imagination was conducted during the 1980s and therefore focused on television. For several reasons – undoubtedly the problem of quantifying imagination being one of them – this line of research has not been pursued further to other, more advanced artificial mediums. Therefore, we will review the existing research in this field, and the implications for the effects of more advanced artificial mediums will be drawn by analogy.

Two competing theories have been introduced regarding the effects of TV use on creative imagination: stimulation theory posits that TV stimulates creative imagination through its content; reduction theory, on the other hand, posits that TV hinders the development of creative imagination (Valkenburg and van der Voort, 1994: 324–325). While five types of reduction hypotheses have been proposed in the literature (Salomon, 1984: 650; Singer et al. 1984), only the visualization hypothesis is relevant and will be discussed here. The visualization hypothesis posits, in essence, that the visual nature of TV is responsible for the reductive effect that TV has on creative imagination. Unlike verbal media, such as radio and print, TV presents the viewer with ready-made visual images and thus leaves little room for forming one’s own. When engaged in creative thinking, it is hard to dissociate oneself from the images supplied by TV, with the result that one has greater difficulty generating novel ideas and images from TV (Greenfield and Beagles-Ross, 1998: 74; Meline, 1976: 81; Webb, 1980: 10).

Valkenberg and van der Voort (1994: 336–337) have found some support for the visualization hypothesis. They reviewed a number of studies which indicated that children who watched a TV story more often used visual content as a basis for drawing story related inferences, whereas children who had heard the same story on a radio more often based their inferences on the verbal content, as well ← 47 | 48 → as information from outside of the story, such as personal experience (ibid.: 332; see also Beagles-Ross and Gat, 1983; Greenfield and Beagles-Ross, 1988; Meringoff, 1980; Vibbert and Meringoff, 1981). Goldberg (1994), too, found that “[TV] supplies the same image to millions of people at the same time. We process those images rather than create them” (p. 16). Goldberg (1994) and Latham (2003) support this line of thinking. Latham states:

Further support for the visualization hypothesis was provided by Conway and Siegelman (1978), who found that “[h]eavy viewing destroys the natural ability of children to form mental images from what they hear or read. With too much TV, the young child’s basic capacity of imagination, like an unused muscle, never reaches a level adequate for performing even the most elementary of creative acts” (ibid.: 191). Mander (1978), discussing the visualization hypothesis, wrote that “[m]ore than any other single effect, television places images in our brain. It is a melancholy fact that most of us give little importance to this implantation, perhaps because we have lost touch with our own image-creating abilities, how we use them and the critical functions they serve in our lives” (ibid.: 216).

This can have a negative effect on the development of creative imagination in children. Pearce (1992: 166) argues:

Pearce (ibid.: 167) concludes that “failing to develop imagery means having no imagination”.

In their research on video game users and dreams, Gackenbach et al. (2009: 219 found that high-end users were associated with the lucid dream type, had more dead and imaginary characters in their dreams (Gackenbach, 2006: 108; Gackenbach et al., 2009: 219), and were coded as containing more bizarre elements in their dreams (ibid, 2009: 227). Gackenbach et al. (2009b) assume that ← 48 | 49 → dream bizarreness in high-end video game users is a result of a more developed creative imagination (ibid.: 228).

Similarly, a study conducted among users of the virtual world Everquest found that 80.6% of the female and 58.4% of the male players reported dreaming of the virtual world or having a dream taking place in the virtual world environment (Smahel et al., 2007). However, these findings may rather indicate the deep influence of video games (and consequently, virtual worlds) on the user. It might be said that the most ‘sacred’ space of the imagination – dreams – has been ‘invaded’ by the artificial medium, and that this is a warning sign as to its deep and embracing influence.

We argue that virtual worlds and virtual realities call upon us to extend the visualization hypothesis further – from the senses of vision and sound to higher psychological dimensions of perception, including of time, interaction and associated aspects as a narrative construction, and judgments concerning reality versus fantasy. We posit that these are weak and almost irrelevant in TV, stronger in video games and predominant in virtual worlds, as the user becomes more and more immersed in the medium, and more and more of the material is supplied for the user by the medium. This is the key theoretical advance that we propose in this chapter. Accordingly, we propose to rename this phenomenon the ‘displacement hypothesis’ in order to capture these new cognitive and sensory dimensions that are being displaced by the immersive virtual environment, and to emphasize that, when manufactured content is supplied ready-made to the individual, it displaces the creative imaginative processes that the individual would otherwise supply for him or herself. In children whose creative imagination is still developing, such continuous displacement could have permanent effects on the creative imagination. It is no longer the visual only that is displacing the images that could have been created by the imagination; time, space, interaction and narrative, even presence and being, are now being projected onto us and consumed from the artificial medium, where they are replacing the natural pace and creation of these mental processes within the person. This has much more significant effects on the individual than when only the visual sense is being displaced. The most internal object, the mind, is becoming externalized, nourishing itself falsely from the artificial medium dimensions, and leaving little space for the flourishing of the imagination.


This chapter has reviewed some of the extant literature on virtual worlds, particularly those aimed at children, as well as the imagination and its development. We have noted that there is a great potential for the use of virtual worlds to harm the development of the creative imagination in the child’s developing mind. Furthermore, ← 49 | 50 → we posit that the likely pathway of this harm is that virtual worlds, like television, displace the imagination with ready-made images and narratives. Unlike television, however, virtual worlds further displace the child’s imaginary universe, their sense of reality versus fantasy, and their creative and symbolic play. They do this while mimicking the imaginary world that children need to create on their own terms, displacing this experience as well. For this reason, children experience the virtual world not as a construct of their imagination, over which they have control, but as an external reality like any other. This can give rise to serious distortions of normal developing cognitive processes.

We are aware that there is little empirical research to date on the effects of virtual worlds on children’s cognitive development, let alone the development of the creative imagination. With this review of the extant literature, and our proposed mechanisms for how virtual worlds disrupt children’s normal development, it is our hope to suggest a testable hypothesis, and generate interest in further research. The displacement hypothesis that we herein propose has a long provenance in the literature and is an extension to new media theories for which there is already much empirical support. Healy (1998: 17) reminds us that “[t]echnology shapes the growing mind. The younger the mind, the more malleable it is. The younger the technology, the more unproven it is”. The rapid development of new and untested technologies operating on younger and younger minds for longer and longer periods of time is in many ways itself a great experiment, and there seem to be good reasons to believe that it is an ill-conceived one, with potentially serious consequences. Until further research has been done, we conclude that children’s storytelling through the use of virtual worlds should not replace more traditional methods of storytelling that more fully engage the child’s creative, imaginative, and cognitive processes.


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Biographical notes

Matteo Stocchetti (Volume editor)

Matteo Stocchetti is Docent in Political Communication at Åbo Academy, Docent in Media and Communication at the University of Helsinki and Principal Lecturer in Critical Media Analysis at Arcada University of Applied Sciences. He is the initiator and main coordinator of the programme Media and Education in the Digital Age (MEDA).


Title: Storytelling and Education in the Digital Age