“Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”
As I posted earlier, my friend Jen Schradie, a sociology graduate student and mother of two young children, recently pointed me to a book that she said had resonated deeply with her, especially after a magical family stay in the seaside town of Bolinas, California (a far cry from their usual haunts in Oakland). This book turned out to be Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2005), which has apparently sparked a number of “No Child Left Inside” legislative movements and other efforts to reclaim wild and natural land for the education and spiritual growth of children across the world. In short, I found myself at once sympathetic to and troubled by Louv’s claims, which leave little room for forms of media to be productive agents for social and environmental change. The biggest culprit behind recent generations’ growing alienation from nature, he argues, is television, as well as all of the electronic devices that have come to occupy a disproportionate amount of our time—computers and video games bear particular mention.
Though according to Louv’s chronology, I belong to a generation born after the dramatic shift away from nature as a daily companion (from the 1970s onward), I should note that my parents were both trained as scientists, and what’s more, not the kind of scientists that spent all day puttering around indoors under fluorescent lights. As a doctoral student, my father studied with Eugenie Clark, popularly known as “the shark lady,” famous for her ichthyological dives in the 1950s and 1960s, and though he never became a full-fledged fisheries biologist, he’s probably the reason why, as kids, my older brother and I were constantly surrounded by fish. I distinctly remember years when almost a dozen fish tanks of various sizes occupied our garage, housing a variety of freshwater and salt water fish, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. As children, we fished at local ponds for bluegills, caught frogs and turtles, and happily traipsed around the extensive undeveloped forest, meadowlands, and creeks surrounding our otherwise generic suburban development. I used to come home with my tube socks full of creek silt, which I emptied in the bathtub (my poor parents!).
Meanwhile, my mother was an avid and talented gardener, trained as a zoologist, who went on to work in medicine. From her, I learned to distinguish between crocuses, hyacinths, and gladioli, how to prune chrysanthemums (by mercilessly lopping their heads off, which used to upset me before I realized it actually encouraged their growth), and how to save strawberries from slugs and roses from Japanese beetles. Because of her, we ate fresh garden greens and vegetables long before it was truly fashionable to eat über-locally, and I was that embarrassed-looking kid that came into school with arms full of Italian squash (too much for us to eat!) to give to my friends and teachers.
So from a young age, you could say that I was delighted by and enamored with the natural world. I loved to sit still and just watch animals, landscapes, for minutes, hours at a time (this habit to this day annoys Brian when we’re out on hikes, as I get fixated on a bird or a cloud while he’s intent on getting from point A to point B). Once, in middle school, I even turned our downstairs bathroom into a makeshift bird still, putting a piece of flat plywood outside the window and strewing different kinds of seeds and nuts and fruit on it, then crouching inside behind drawn curtains, spying on the takers. For my senior project in high school, I inveigled myself a summer internship at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., in the Reptile House. Needless to say, scaly, slimy things didn’t really repulse me, and the creatures I chose to work on were the zoo’s captive pair of Indonesian Komodo Dragons, the largest lizards in the world. Along with the San Diego Zoo and a handful of other American zoos, the National Zoo was attempting to increase the captive population of these endangered lizards by breeding them, and I will never forget the experience of watching the hatching of a baby Komodo, as it gently pipped its way out of one of the carefully incubated, meatloaf-sized eggs. Life in the Reptile House quickly saw to it that I was no stranger to nature’s nastier side, as one of the gruff male keepers showed me how they mercifully dispatched tiny “pinkies” (newborn mice) by cracking their necks swiftly over one knee, using their tiny tails as handles, before feeding them to snakes. I myself offered giant, dead rats to the adult Komodos in scent tests, but for most of my research, I simply sat outside the Komodos’ carefully heated enclosures every day and watched and marked their every movement for three hours at a time. That kind of attention and stillness, Louv argues, is practically unheard of in today’s age of mingled anxieties over Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Internet and game addiction, and abysmal test scores.
But now for the flip side: I also consider myself a knowledgeable consumer of electronic goods and services. In fact, I think film, video, and digital media are so interesting that they have lured me away from my roots in studying literature and become the primary subject of my research. I spend more time playing computer and video games than I do watching television. Immediately, some might object that these two impulses, one toward nature, the other toward technology, cannot sit well with each other—they appear to be mutually exclusive. But without glossing over the huge environmental and social impact that consumer electronics have had (for instance, the exporting of much of our electronic, or “e-waste” to China), I bristle at the suggestion that I should have to choose between one or the other, that there is no way to reconcile a deep connection to nature and the nonhuman world with as important a connection to technology and the virtual. One might even say that this is the very dilemma of our times, or at least of the generations raised with a joystick in one hand and a merit badge in the other.
As someone who studies both games and environmentalism, I have spent countless hours preaching the cultural construction of notions of “nature.” I urge my students to regard recourse to the “natural” with as much suspicion as the technoutopianism of the early digital pioneers, because both tend to leave behind those people and things deemed either “non-natural” or obsolescent. As many environmental justice advocates and some enlightened urban designers have argued, our fetishization of wild, supposedly pure natural spaces has led to comparative disregard for the urban and suburban spaces most of us live in. At the same time, those who have trumpeted the virtues of the networked society, online anonymity, and computer-assisted anything, have consistently underestimated or overlooked continuing economic and social disparities. And yet. And yet.
It is simply too easy to fall into a valorization of the natural as the solution to all our problems, just as it is too easy to cast stones at all things digital. While Louv admittedly attacks the problem of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder” from many angles—child developmental psychology, urban planning, architecture and landscape design, curriculum design, and more—the sense remains that if we can just find a way to get our children and ourselves out of doors, in direct communion with the natural world, everything—from attention span, sensory awareness, mood, social bonding, confidence level, physical agility, academic performance—will get better. Louv acknowledges the concerns of parents afraid of strangers snatching their kids, violence and drugs in the streets, accidental injury, and liability in an ever-litigious society, but at the same time downplays these fears. In the lyrical world of Last Child, every underprivileged kid from the hood gets a chance at a transformative experience in an Outward Bound type program, and a meeting with restorative nature is as close and as free as that overgrown ditch at the end of the road (though, confusingly, he himself acknowledges that one reason for the decline in national park attendance may be the increase in park entrance fees, and many of the redemptive experiences in nature that he describes come at the other end of a fishing pole, under a tent or cabin roof, or on a boat).
As much as some might like, computer and video games are not going to magically disappear once the nation comes to its senses and sends its kids marching into the woods. Neither will nature, as Louv describes it, be a practically feasible option for many parents struggling to raise their kids in urban environments, under tight time and budget constraints. In my mind, many of the benefits of the natural experiences Louv details could be found in games—free, unstructured play without adult supervision; a chance to learn about natural processes and life cycles, or how people, animals, and plants are connected; educated mentorship, as in a guiding presence knowledgeable enough to provide more information about what one is experiencing; and hands-on activity with actual consequences. Of course, video games cannot offer stimulation for all the senses, and Louv rightfully accuses most media of being hopelessly bimodal, bludgeoning our visual and auditory circuitry with a surfeit of signals, but here again is another contradictory framing: games and television are at once both too stimulating, overdetermining the player’s or viewer’s experience, and not stimulating enough, in that they do not allow us to smell, taste, and touch. My gut reaction is that 1) not all games and television shows are crazily intense; in fact, many games are deliberately open-ended and encourage measured exploration; and 2) the recent trend in motion-sensitive control and even controller-less gameplay points to the possibility of games moving beyond simple audiovisual feedback toward greater interaction with the virtual environment based on proprioception and touch. Moreover, my own experiences and research suggest that while game graphics and sound are highly developed in some respects, they are still hopelessly primitive in others, namely environmentally and ecologically realistic detail (e.g. using the same generic tree-form to populate a landscape, rather than a range of species that fit the contours and resources of the landscape, or using a stock sound byte of some unidentified bird rather than the appropriate birdcall with the right timbre, reverberation, etc. given the situation). Current games overlook these opportunities to become rich in environmental information that need not be didactically delivered. If one of Louv’s criticisms is that today’s children know nature in an abstract, often frightened way that creates a harmful separation, e.g. doing a unit on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest instead of studying the flora, fauna, and rock formations in their own area, we should recognize that rich game environments have the potential to be experientially informative, not just informative, and though they may not offer the same range of sensory input, they do avoid one of the major obstacles Louv cites: risk of injury and personal liability. I am not foolish enough to suggest that game environments, no matter how lovingly realized, should substitute for direct experience of the real world—but as many studies have shown, more and more people are turning to virtual worlds not only for entertainment but also for challenge, companionship, and even civic participation, and there seems to be no good reason not to embrace and encourage game design and gameplay in forms that recall our favorite modes of natural play.