Critically discuss Kinder's attempt to identify harmful consequences of Post-modern television and video games

Nicola Wraight

Post-modernism is not just a term used in media. It is used to describe cultural and social changes in work and leisure. Post-modern life means more choice, freedom, and liberation. Postmodernism rejects all of the rigid conventions that came before it, things such as narrative and genre, which breakdown, and the barriers between them dissolve. This is shown in the fact that most of the programmes are collaborations between America and Japan or Korea. This way, Western and Eastern cultures mix together, coming up with something different: with aspects from both cultures, naturally there are dissolves between other conventions. There is a playfulness in this theory that involves intertextuality and superfluidity. As with any theory, Post-modernism has its share of critics. This essay examines Marsha Kinder's responses predominantly to Post-modern television and also to video games, using her book, "Playing With Power" as a basis. As outlined above, Postmodernism has a great number of elements to it, all contributing strengths and weaknesses to Kinder's argument. Although these pieces will be discussed, the breakdown of narrative will be examined in particular detail. A number of programmes will be used in order to illustrate specific examples; these include; Muppet Babies, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Thundercats and an example of Anomie; The Bubblegum Crisis.

One of the major features of Post-modern television is the breakdown of the narrative convention. Programmes such as Muppet Babies are fractured-narrative pieces, appearing as mere episodes within the format of children's television. There are sequences of events, but none of them particularly rely upon each other as part of a necessary storyline. In addition to this, video games, have no narrative at all. The problem with this, in Kinder's view, is that narrative is essential to a child's development.

"Narrative maps the world and its inhabitants, including one's own position within that grid." (Kinder 1993: 2)
In this respect, children need a strong, rigid narrative structure and predictability, otherwise they become vulnerable to the outside world. Kinder reduces children exposed to Post-modern television as becoming narcissists: as being rootless and incompetent when it comes to dealing with real life. Kinder develops Piaget's ideas on cognitive development through assimilation and accommodation, whereby children identify things with similar characteristics and can then order them in to compartments in their minds.
"In acquiring the ability to understand stories, the child is situated as a perceiving, thinking, feeling, acting, speaking subject..." (Kinder 1993: 2)
Whilst it is a positive aspect that television provides a means of supplying children with lots of examples to sort out in to their own categories, Post-modern programmes are said to harm this basic development. Without a rigid structure, and due to intertexuality, children hardly ever get a full picture of a story and are only treated to snippets of information. They also get conflicting messages when they are shown characters who are part human and part machine, for which they have no category in their mind, as they have never before experienced this, via their senses in their immediate surroundings. Kinder also criticises the use of repetition in narrative. Although repetition is good in the fact that it is used as a way of teaching basic cognitive skills to children, Kinder sees the negative impact it may have on a child. Repetition equals constant assurance, due to infantile anxiety and vulnerability. This extension of a Freudian theme, is examined at great length in the extensive use of sleep-bargaining rituals which are linked to a fear of death. Kinder feels that narrative ought to go beyond mere repetition which could harm a child's progress by not challenging them enough. However this begins to enter the realms of educational television which, in the confines of this essay, is deemed separate to Postmodernism.

As well as cognitive development coming under scrutiny from Kinder, she also says that Post-modern television harms imagination. Patricia Greenfield argues that because fractured-narrative and cross-generic pieces are so diverse and flexible, video games in particular, actually increase imaginative ability and, by offering cognitive skills such as parallel processing, develops superior minds at an early age:

"...curricula organised around television can give children a more sophisticated and critical approach to viewing." (Greenfield 1984:143)
 Kinder, however, feels that the imagination developed is feeble: that children are able to elaborate on television characters, but that is all, nothing broader. It is unrealistic to think that children only gain imaginative skills via television, as children very rarely spend every minute in front of a screen, being spoon-fed images. They see so much more of life than that, and gain imaginative input from all aspects of their lives.

The narrative is broken down by means of intertextuality: constant references to other media forms such as film or famous people. Kinder uses Muppet Babies to illustrate this, and it is a very good example. The opening titles refer to Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the Oscars Ceremony. The characters in Muppet Babies are shown in animated form taking part in actual film footage, they also watch this action on a TV screen, and then address the viewer. Kinder says that by this method of showing part of a film, children will not fully appreciate the whole film and will only know of it within the context of another programme. In this respect it is not only the importance of another film that is devalued, it is also history itself. The past becomes nothing more than a source of imagery. Because of  the playfulness of Postmodernism, and because these pieces do not speak for the masses, it appears to trivialise peoples' experiences (through images of war, for example) and serves only to exploit them. Although there may be a certain validity in Kinder's claim, at least children are exposed to the past which can initiate a wider interest and raise questions in order to develop a full picture, which may not have occurred if they had not been introduced to it through television. This problem is also found in the fact that Post-modern television tends to be "timeless" in the sense that it is almost impossible to pinpoint the time in which programmes are set. Thundercats is a cross between gothic and futuristic, with genre taken from sci-fi as well as the historic element of martial arts. Past mixes with future, resulting in a new, different, otherworldly time.

It can be said that some Post-modern programmes have a breakdown in their narrative structure, but this is not always the case: Kinder has just picked a particularly harsh example in Muppet Babies. For instance, Thundercats has a strong narrative and therefore rejects Kinders criticisms. This programme does however include a dissolve of genre barriers, another common feature of postmodernism. It is true that video games do not provide a narrative, just an opportunity to shoot or hit other people. But that is one of the joys of playing. The player is in control and can therefore become the author, making up his or her own narrative. Anything can happen and it is ordinary children that make it happen. This results in liberation and a sense of empowerment for children who may never experience that in their real lives. 

Television organises information in such a way that it is commercial, so that viewers are encouraged to desire related merchandise. Children can not, and therefore do not, organise details themselves and hence become reliant on others, such as salesmen and advertisers, to explain the world to them. Through these means, they will be addressed as a mass of consumers, not as individuals:

"[Television positions]...its spectator both as a unique individual with distinctive tastes, like Garfield... and as part of a mass audience with common appetites. This opposition is reflected in the program's title, which pairs the unique Garfield with his anonymous friends." (Kinder 1993: 72)
Kinder sees that television has taken over from books and films as the Mastertext and that, in time, television will be superseded by video games as the dominant Mastertext. This theory is similar to Althusser's Ideological State Apparatus [see link], where Ideology comes from religion, education and the family. For Kinder, the "self" is constructed by the media and, worse still, in the commercial interest of the mass media itself, by constructing consumers.

Through programmes children are addressed as consumers, but it does not end there. The superfluidity of Post-modern television means, for Kinder, that there is no escape from commercialisation. For any given programme, in any toy store, viewers are able to purchase the video, clothing, magazine, toy, computer game, and so on. The list is endless. Add to this the fact that most programmes have a number of collectable characters, not just one, and Kinder is quite justified to be worried about this kind of mass consumption, not just endorsed, but also initiated by Post-modern television.

Kinder observes that within Post-modern television and all of its dissolves, gender roles remain strictly conventional. To a certain extent this is true: in Inspector Gadget, the only female, Penny, manages to solve all of the clues but never gets credit for it; In Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, April is more like a "groupie" than of any actual use or importance. Even in Anomie, where women are portrayed literally as fighting machines and strong characters, they are then shown naked and under the male gaze, resulting in an emphasis in their vulnerability. However, in video games the player has a choice of characters to play and this does include females. As an extension to this, many games are based upon monsters and aliens and are therefore genderless. Video games are said to improve hand-eye co-ordination in children, which Kinder cynically says may not be quite the positive aspect it was once thought to be. Although, she says that this skill could enable children to master playing an instrument or excelling at sport, she goes on to suggest that succeeding at these hobbies may be perceived to be:

" more important or difficult than winning at video games- a perspective compatible with the post-modernist erasure of boundaries between high art and mass culture." (Kinder 1993:119)
Though surely this could be a positive thing: so that children are encouraged to pursue these past-times, and not feel that they are only open to the elitist few. 

The level of violence in many Post-modern pieces is heightened, which is a worry for a lot of theorists. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles gave rise to an increase in Ninjitsu fighting in most playgrounds, though admittedly, under the guise of self-defence. Violence is worse in Anime: witnessing bodies being cut, complete with blood and shooting peoples' heads off. However, this violence is dehumanised by the fact that these programmes include characters that are not entirely human. They are fused with animals or machines or have superhuman, god-like powers. In this way, it could be assumed that children will realise the limitations of this violence: they are not part machine and are therefore incapable of demonstrating (or getting away with) such violence.

Marsha Kinder has a lot of opinions on Post-modern television and video games, none of them very positive. In her book, she has based these opinions upon assumptions made whilst observing her child, Victor, as he watches programmes imposed upon him. This is where the first major flaw in Kinder's argument can be identified. Research samples are usually supposed to be representative. One child out of a possible audience of thousands surely can not be classed as representative. Kinder is, as most mothers are, going to show bias towards her child and therefore unlikely to be totally impartial. This can hardly be a damning sample to prove the possibility of a nation full of narcissist children with feeble imaginations and underdeveloped cognitive skills. For her investigation in to video games, Kinder used a bigger sample of children, sixteen. However, the ages of these range from six years to teenagers, which seems a large range for a relatively small group. The interviews are included in the Appendix, in full, in order for the reader to understand the context in which they are used, which is a positive aspect of Kinder's research. 

It is true that the superfluidity of programmes may make children bigger consumers, but it can be seen as positive, not just for the manufacturers and economy, but in the art of compromise: "No, you can not have the computer game at £39.99, but you can have the video at £12.99." Though, perhaps this is naive, coming from someone who is not a parent.

As mentioned, Thundercats amongst others does have a strong narrative. Kinder has picked programmes to support her claim and used it to generalise about all Post-modern television. Also, creating their own narrative can actually benefit children.

It is hard to see how this one theory can explain or justify all of the influences of Postmodernism. Postmodernism has been criticised for being too light-hearted. It could be that too much is read in to this playfulness. Many adults watch television and even play video games purely for their ability to provide escapism. Surely children can derive the same pleasure. Not everything in the world makes sense. This gives no reason as to why all narratives should make perfect sense through their structure. If a child receives schooling and an education, perhaps this just might make sure that cognitive skills are adopted and expanded.

Kinder feels that Post-modern television and video games are harmful in a number of ways, in particular, the effect the fractured narrative has on cognitive and imaginative development; as well as the trivialization of the past, the vulnerability of children leading to narcissism and the consumer culture associated with Postmodernism. This is a fairly new theory: being decades, rather than centuries, old and of course invites criticism from those who 

"Feel the shock of the new." (Hadley 1991)
Kinder is a worried parent who, although it is commendable and, to an extent, understandable, may be suffering from an over-active imagination. Perhaps Victor should sit his mother in front of a few Post-modern programmes. According to her own theory, that would soon solve this problem.


Greenfield, P. (1984) Mind and Media: the effect of television, video games and computers. London: Fontana.
Kinder, M. (1991) Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games. Oxford: University of Calafornia Press, Ltd.


Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture. London: Routledge
Harris, D (undated) Postmodernism and Modernity. Cassette tape and leaflet.
Simato, A. and Spencer, K. (1992) Children and Media: Learning from Television. Liverpool: Manutius Press.

Other references

Hadley, T. (1990) Handful of Dust. Chrysalis Records.

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