DVD Screen Culture for Children: Theories of Play and Young Viewers

The viewing practices of film audiences have undergone some significant changes over the last few decades, particularly since the release of films in DVD format. DVDs, as John Thornton Caldwell has argued, allow viewers to forge “new relationships with film and television” (2008, 306). Bonus or special features figure prominently in many DVDs marketed to the adult market, but even more so for DVDs geared towards children. In addition to (and sometimes instead of) the usual interviews with actors, directors and producers that are found on films aimed primarily at adults, children’s DVDs come bundled with a number of simple games that can be played with the basic buttons available on a TV remote. In fact, young children may often initially bypass the film or television episodes and opt to watch or interact with a DVD’s special features before watching the film itself.

This disregard for what adults might consider to be the main feature of the DVD (the film) is typical of the way children in today’s videogame, DVD saturated age engage in play. As David Cohen argues in The Development of Play, children live in a changing world in which “rules are being questioned more than in the past” (1987, 173-174). Not surprisingly, the way children engage with the material on a DVD is highly dependent on the concept of play, which allows for flexible approaches to experiencing the film environment. DVDs marketed at children therefore seem to offer an opportunity to develop new ways of theorizing viewing practices and other kinds of screen or media experiences for children. While historically theories of film spectatorship have developed from adult oriented theories of visual pleasure, a screen theory focused on children’s DVD culture might emphasize the importance of play in how a child viewer engages with the subject matter of films marketed to children.

Film theory, which has been focused on the screen in a cinema setting, must now take into account viewing practices and the importance of play in different screen environments, such as television/DVD systems or the computer Nintendo game or ipod environments. As Henry Jenkins has pointed out, there has been a “cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (2006, location 186/7959). The work of various play theorists (Lev Vgotsky, Walter Benjamin, Irina Verenikina, Catherine Garvey, Gene Myers, Jerome Singer, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Vivian Paley) can serve as a useful point of departure for reconceptualizing the film experience for younger audiences, who are a key segment of the kind of “participatory culture” that Jenkins describes (2006, location 189/7959).

While Walter Benjamin’s work on film, especially his essay on  “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” has been cited by media and film theorists (including Henry Jenkins and Francesco Casetti), his writing on play has generated little critical attention among film studies scholars.[1] The work of other play theorists has not figured prominently in film studies criticism either. This is a shame because applying play theory to DVD films for children can expand our understanding of how, as Casetti puts it, “the conquest of new spaces and new platforms” such as the domestic space, the video recorder and DVDs can open up “new forms of filmic experience” (2009, 63).

Play theory, as applied to the film experience of children, also reinforces Barbara Klinger’s analysis of “nontheatrical cinemas”(3) in Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Klinger’s chapter on teen audiences and the pleasures of “repeat viewing” (136) and “familiarity” (2006, 138), which are key elements of play, has applicability to films for younger children. Play theorists often emphasize how repetition forms a key component in the experience of children’s play, and repetition is certainly a key component of the games and extras linked to films on DVDs for children. An analysis of several DVD sets will also demonstrate how such special features expand “the storytelling experience” (Jenkins 2006, location 287/7959) of the film for the child viewer.

Screen Culture and Children as Viewers

In those theories that have articulated the relationship between the spectator and the screen, the viewer has typically been understood as the adult spectator. Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay on visual pleasure (1975) focused specifically on the gaze of the adult male viewer. Mulvey revisited her earlier work in ‘Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ to address the woman spectator’s “phantasy of masculinization” (Mulvey in Kaplan 1990, 35) and others have extended or critiqued her analysis of film.[2] However, what these kinds of discussions have in common is that according to Francesco Casetti they are based on “a model which has been dominant for a long time: the model which thought of the spectator as attending a film” (Casetti 2011, 6). The centrality of the theatrical film release and the perception of the rather limited control that an audience has in this context have defined the “filmic experience” (2011, 6).

Along with Casetti, recent theorizations of film take into account a “participatory culture” (Jenkins 2006, location 189/7959). These latter studies consider the importance of recognizing the changing platforms for the transmission of film and the importance of repeated interruptions that characterize the play of today’s film viewer. Such studies also consider the centrality of what Jenkins has referred to as “transmedia stories” (2006, location 2349/7959) which may unfold across film, television, novels, comics, or games. When considering the film experience for children in a DVD environment, transmedia stories become an important concept, since children engage in play across the boundaries of different narratives, features or screen attachments in this particular delivery technology.[3]

Recognizing the importance of repetition for the child viewer is one way of assessing what it means for children to experience film today. But first, explaining what constitutes a children’s film can be a challenge (Wojcik-Andrews, 2000, 19), especially since many films today target both children and adults. As Ian Wojcik-Andrews indicates in his book Children’s Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory, “most children’s films have child protagonists embarking upon a journey” (9). But the presence of characters who are children is not necessarily a determining factor since films like Bicycle Thieves (1948) and The Exorcist (1973) may actually target adult viewers. Conversely, films with primarily adult characters, especially animated films with superhero themes (Megamind, 2010) may appeal to children. In the context of films on DVD, the packaging of the DVD product and advertising for toys and other children’s films often dictate the audience for the film. Many of the films happen to be animated, (although this would not exclude an adult audience) and include games that rely on repetition and familiarity with other game environments (e.g. Nintendo games or online colouring pages).

Barbara Klinger’s comments on repeated viewing provide a way of re-examining the importance of viewing for a new generation of film viewers, especially young adults. Although her questionnaires about repeat viewings of film target teens or “young adults at a midwestern university” in the United States (2006, 137), the first question in her survey also reveals the importance of viewing for young children. She asks her survey participants, “When you were a child (ages 3-12), do you remember watching the same films over and over again?” (2006, 188). Klinger writes that her results indicated that “repeated encounters with films seem an almost inevitable part of life, given the omnipresence of VCRS and cable TV” for her particular survey participants (2006, 142).

Because today children may first encounter a particular film in DVD format instead of at the cinema, it is important to investigate how the media content and the delivery technology of a DVD shape a younger audience’s viewing practices. Play theory, the scholarship of researchers in a range of disciplines such as education, psychology, anthropology, sociology, animal studies, can therefore contribute to an understanding of how the film experience in the DVD environment is informed by the child viewer’s interaction with the narrative worlds, characters and various screen features presented in a DVD.

As the list of disciplines above shows, play theorists borrow from different perspectives (psychoanalytic theories, cognitive-developmental, cultural-ecological, and evolutionary and comparative theories); therefore inevitably a comprehensive study of each of these theories is beyond the scope of this paper.[4] Instead, the focus will be on several key ideas that cross a number of different play theories. These include the concepts of unstructured and structured play and repetition and repetition with variation; the issues of control and choice/spontaneity, and a child viewer’s identification with roles or with characters from films.

By introducing a few salient concepts from various play theorists and by applying these to the ways in which DVDs for children are packaged with bonus features and various menu options, this essay will provide another dimension to discussions of how to approach what Casetti calls the filmic experience and what Henry Jenkins has labeled convergence culture.

Control, Repetition and Choice: Structured / Unstructured Play

Play theory identifies the issues of control and choice as key elements in the ways in which children play. In “Child’s Play” Irina Verenikina and her co-authors rely on Lev Vgotsky’s cognitive-developmental view of play. It is worth noting that Vgotsky “actually participated in brainstorming sessions” (Smolucha 2003, 165) with the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and that, according to Smolucha, his theoretical framework “could very well include the influence of movies, television, music, literature, and videogames” (Smolucha 2003, 165).

Those who rely on Vgotsky’s theory of play indicate, as Verenikina puts it that: “play has been characterised as a spontaneous, self-initiated and self-regulated activity of young children” (2003, section 2) and that children “are in control” of their play (2003, section 2). If one applies these notions to the DVD environment, one can see how spontaneity and control are facilitated by DVD features that accompany a film (similar to the menus set up for computer games). The medium of the DVD facilitates this kind of control and choice of visual content for children in a tactile, hands-on manner that the traditional cinema experience does not offer. The DVD configuration gives the child who knows how to use a remote (or even in the case of a child who can enlist the aid of an older sibling or knowledgeable adult) the opportunity to bypass the “PLAY ALL” function, which would play the film in a single long, uninterrupted sequence. Thus, children may choose to explore their favourite scenes or musical segments and replay these scenes innumerable times. As most parents, observers and researchers of child behaviour will confirm, children thrive on repetition and as Catherine Garvey points out: “Repetition and repetition-with-variation have long been recognized as characteristics of early play” (1990, 120).

Walter Benjamin’s own discussions of children and play in his essay “Toys and Play” offer the potential to examine the play of children, especially in the context of  repetition of unstructured and structured play. Benjamin says, “We know that for a child repetition is the soul of play, that nothing gives him greater pleasure than to ‘Do it again!’. . . ” (1999, 120) For Benjamin, it is this activity that distinguishes the play of children from the experience of an adult who tends not to act on Goethe’s proverb: “All things would be resolved in a trice / If we could only do them twice” (cited in Benjamin 1999, 120).

This repetition can result in a greater experience of pleasure and mastery for the child viewer, whose shorter attention span may be more suited to this kind of activity. Benjamin describes the act of play as the act of “enjoying one’s victories and triumphs over and over again, with total intensity” (1999, 120). This is the kind of interaction that is also evident in how children play in the DVD film environment. In other words, the child can control a shorter narrative sequence or select a favourite scene from a film, by spontaneously skipping to a completely different scene that is out of sequence in terms of the film’s complete narrative. The experience of a film is thus transformed and heightened through an act of deliberate selection, which at the same time suggests certain randomness.[5]

One could argue that this unstructured, even undisciplined method of watching a film or this kind of unstructured play can distort the organization of the film’s story. An older generation of viewers might find this way of experiencing a film rather alienating, since viewers accustomed to watching a film in the cinema prefer to do so without interruptions. However, it is possible to consider this random viewing in the DVD film experience in the context of a child’s unstructured play. Annica Löfdahl who has addressed play and cognitive development indicates that for children, play “hovers between chaos and harmony” (2005, 197). While chaotic play may be associated with danger in the context of wild playground play where other children are present, in the realm of DVD screen culture, this kind of randomness or haphazard play can prove liberating for the solo player of a DVD game who does not run the risk of being injured physically by others.

The haphazard arrangement of film segments in a DVD environment, along with the overwriting/revising of text and image is a technique that has become quite common in a number of media geared towards children. For example, the Nintendo DS handheld game console includes a game that permits children to act out scenarios as if they were in a film or a play, including the re-recording of voice segments, the drawing, deletion and re-creation/re-vision of images. These games may be viewed as the technological expression of the ‘repetition-with-variation’ aspect of play described by Garvey. They also highlight how play is often a combination of unstructured and structured play. Similarly, in a DVD special features disc that accompanies a particular film, children can change the costumes/dress of various characters that appear in a film.

Walter Benjamin has argued that  “[a] child creates the entire event anew and starts again right from the beginning” (1999, 120) as part of a play experience, and this statement can easily be applied to a child playing with DVD features. For example, in a game that accompanies a special edition of the animated Disney film Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s (Sleeping Beauty’s) dress can be changed from Pink to Blue and back again. This transformation, activated by the children, allows them to directly experience and implement a theme or concept that is articulated in the film itself (the back and forth argument between two good fairies who battle over whether the dress colour should be pink or blue). This is a kind of versatile feature that the manufacturer of the Sleeping Beauty Doll with Magic Fairy Light links to the Sleeping Beauty film in its product description of the doll: “Girls can play out the iconic scene from Sleeping Beauty and change the colors of Sleeping Beauty’s dress” (amazon.com ad; Manufacturer’s note). Thus, the demonstration/presence of randomness in the film is reinforced through the products (DVD game and toys) associated with this medium.

Film scholar Tom Brown has argued that many films for children self-consciously incorporate this kind of haphazard quality into the very film itself. For example, The Lion King 1 ½ (released after The Lion King as a prequel) features the characters of Timon, a Meerkat and Pumbaa, a warthog, watching the original Lion King movie. Timon, as a viewer, holds a remote and fast-forwards the film, despite Pumbaa’s objections that they can’t watch the film “out of order; we’ve got to go back to the beginning.” Timon can be seen as an extension of the subversive child viewer, who may also resist watching the film in the established order now that DVD menus allow viewers to choose specific scenes or episodes at random. These characters simultaneously serve as characters in the film and as extensions of the child (Timon) and adult viewer (Pumbaa) who may also get into arguments over how to watch a particular film. But because children readily identify with animals in films, these characters may also function as two children engaging in the kind of conversation that takes place between young people who are trying to establish or defy the rules of a game in any play context.

Much of the pleasure for child viewers who watch this sequence from Lion King 1 ½ would be their ability to observe characters who engage in the playful or unstructured manipulation of the film’s content. This is an action that could reflect the child viewer’s own haphazard DVD viewing experience, or it is an act that children could mimic after watching the film by selecting unrelated scenes on the DVD. Children may start viewing part of a film, become intrigued by a particular scene that is also used in the special features disc, and interrupt their linear viewing of the film to play or watch a special features game.

The interruption of the normal film viewing experience may represent how today’s multimedia children play with what has traditionally been perceived as interruptions to the flow of a narrative. As Henry Jenkins states, the use of various media can help us rewrite “the core stories our culture has given us”(2006, location 5501/7959) This idea is not just being introduced into the DVD experience, but has also worked its way into children’s literature perhaps through the influence of a film like Shrek, which subverts the telling of a traditional fairy tale with “the image of an ogre’s hand ripping out a page of the book that is being read” (Beeler, 2011, 442). The ogre utters words that dispute the likelihood of this kind of story taking place. Viewers then hear the sound of a flushing toilet, which accompanies the spectacle of Shrek’s outhouse. Both sound and image serve as a combined way of resisting the previous fairy tale narrative.

Mélanie Watt’s children’s books Chester (2007) and Chester’s Back! (2008) also incorporate this element of a reworking of a particular narrative. Her books feature a cat who has a habit of crossing out segments of the author’s story and changing the course of the story by adding his own text and images to dismantle the established structure of the book. Like many animals in film, (and like Timon and Pumba) he serves as an extension of the child, who interrupts an adult or resists certain conventions. For example, an interruption occurs in Chester’s Back! when Chester finishes the author/narrator’s sentence in an unconventional way. The author/narrator Mélanie Watt begins with the phrase “A long time ago, in a faraway land lived a . . .” (n.p.) and Chester interrupts or finishes the line with the words “stinky dinosaur in need of a major breath mint!” (n.p.) It is worth noting that on this page of the book there is an illustration of a mouse holding a clapperboard with the words ‘Take 4’ thus suggesting that this story will have multiple takes or beginnings because of the various interruptions. Similarly, in a DVD film environment, a child can view different scenes in no particular order, or go back to the beginning and play the film, or a particular game, again.

While there are many opportunities for children to engage in the unstructured viewing of a DVD film and its special features, it is still important to note that unstructured or spontaneous choices are often difficult to disengage from aspects of structured play. A theory of screen culture that considers the child viewer/player-participant in the context of the DVD medium must recognize structured play, since the DVD environment is still an organized delivery technology with a particular structure, or menu.

In many DVDs marketed to children, the concept of choice in the narrative building of the DVD game intersects with a specific narrative segment from the film proper. For example, in the Shrek 2 game called Save Fiona a child can help Shrek save Princess Fiona. He or she must successfully answer several questions based on the film. This results in the sequential removal of all the barriers before Shrek can save Fiona. Each question has three choices. If the child answers a question correctly a barrier is removed. If the question is answered incorrectly, a clip from the film can be played to give the child clues and the opportunity to guess again. This interaction between a game environment and a clip from the film elevates the child’s role from viewer of the film to that of viewer/agent through his or her active play in another narrative context, the story of the game.

The interesting negotiation between control and choice (structured and unstructured play) cannot be overrated when considering the child as viewer of DVD games. While watching a film, the child cannot change the outcome of the film’s narrative; however, the accompanying games can allow the child to relive portions of narratives and experience new narrative possibilities. For example, when my six year old daughter played an American Idol style game on Shrek 2, she did not like one outcome when an animated version of Simon Cowell, one of the judges, declared himself the winner. She promptly wanted to interrupt this outcome and start the game again to generate a different conclusion more to her liking, or perhaps more in keeping with what she perceived to be the way this game show normally works. This response to this particular game demonstrates that resisting the rules (or chaos/disorder) may not always be considered acceptable to the child viewer/participant, especially when the individual resisting is a certain kind of unpleasant, adult character rather than a child who wants to transgress boundaries.

Children, Pretend Play and Identification with the Characters of Film

The above examples of a child’s structured and unstructured interactions with DVD technology may be linked to how the child viewer can be encouraged to collaborate or identify with characters, no matter how unrealistic they initially appear. As Gene Myers indicates, “the children’s entertainment industry regularly dishes up new cartoon creatures … In pretend play children recount and act out memorable scenes they have thus learned” (2006, 119). Children are quite adept at engaging in play that incorporates fantastic characters, including animals or monsters who can speak. Films marketed to children function in this capacity, and the games included with the feature presentation facilitate the expression of this relationship, even though the characters may possess fantastic qualities.

One obvious example of an animal/character who may be taken up by children for play is the playful character of the talking Donkey (who is later transformed into a horse), in Shrek. In the film he frequently serves as a child substitute. His behaviour is often spontaneous, unregulated and quite dependent on excessive repetition (e.g. he sings songs that annoy the ogre Shrek). In Shrek 2 during the carriage ride to Fiona’s homeland, Far Far Away, Donkey is constructed as a child when he continually asks “Are we there yet?”  in the manner characteristic of so many children who travel on long car trips. While Shrek’s Donkey is based on the reality of children asking this question, it is not unusual to hear of children now pretending to be Donkey while they are uttering this familiar phrase. And in pretending to be the Other (Donkey), they are engaging in a curious hybrid form of both being and not being themselves. Thus, the experience of viewing and the concept of fantasy play enter into the realm of ordinary reality.

A child viewer’s identification with characters in a film can also be reinforced through the kinds of games available on many DVD films marketed to children. The identification that occurs in the game environment may be viewed in the context of pretence — a practice which is so important in studies of children’s play. As Vgotsky, Verenikina and other play theorists have observed, “the pretend situation of play creates an imaginative dimension in which children use substitutions of things and acts”(Verenikina 2003, section 2.3, 6). These elements of substitution in films and certain aspects of games in DVDs may include the characters and the setting and might encourage child viewers to imagine themselves in certain roles.

One dimension of pretence, or a kind of role playing game which becomes possible in various DVD games [is] when the child is asked to become an active viewer by assisting the protagonist; at the same time, in a sense, the child may also feel that he or she identifies with the hero because of the action oriented aspect of the game and various POV (point of view) shots. In the case of the Shrek 2 game Saving Fiona the child player is engaged in an act of substitution which can make the child feel like a hero, if not THE hero[6] from the film; in the Saving Fiona game, the point of view is reinforced through a shot or still image of barriers that disappear every time the child answers a question correctly. In the Lion King 1 ½ game Timon & Pumbaa’s Virtual Safari 1.5 the child experiences a virtual roller coaster style ride; the point of view of the viewer/participant meshes with that of the animated occupants, Timon, Pumbaa, and two other meerkats. The fact that none of these characters are human beings does not seem to deter most children from relating to these animated creations. Children can either pretend that these animals are like human beings and anthropomorphize them, or delight in their otherness as nonhuman animals. As Gene Myers has pointed out, during play children often love pretending to be other when this otherness is an animal, since many children are attracted to the fact that real animals do not speak a human language (2006, 131).

The principal of pretence for the child viewer is applicable to the construction of the child in Disney’s Monsters, Inc film and DVD games as well, thus ensuring the simultaneous identification of the child with the child in the film, and with the monster who may be afraid of children. In one of the Monsters Inc games, Boo’s Door Game the narrator of the game proclaims that the child viewer/player is the hero: “You’re the boss, the kid, the hero of this story.” However, in another DVD game, the child may be encouraged to identify with a monster. The film’s hero is a blue fluffy male Monster by the name of Sully who protects the child he names “Boo” from harm. In the Monsters, Inc special features game called Orientation, the child viewer/player is constructed as a monster/employee. The words ‘You are a new employee’ appear on the screen, and since all of the employees in the Monsters, Inc power company are monsters, this direct form of address promotes further identification with a non-human creature.

If Monsters Inc conflates the child with the monstrous, then this process also occurs in the game environment when the screen, and by extension the child viewer, is sprayed with green goo. This effect occurs after the game player touches a monster by engaging one of the arrows on the menu/remote, and it thus reinforces this construction of the child viewer as something unpleasant for the monsters in the DVD game. This play environment echoes the film’s depiction of children as examples of monstrous creatures who the monsters fear. When playing the DVD game, the child participant therefore learns about the process of othering, a process that is also depicted in the film. And as they read the narrative scripts in the game environment, they also learn how a monster and a child become friends despite their differences.

Identification and an interactive dance game: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Through their play activities, children may play the roles of real life characters and this allows them to learn social rules (Vgotsky 1978, 95). This is evident when they choose to play the roles of mother or father or daughter/son. The DVD film experience and game culture, however, encourage children to engage with a fantasy world that includes strange beings that seem to have no resemblance to anything within their real life. Although this entry into an alternative world validates creativity and choice, it is important to note that the element of control is still present even in their engagement with a fantastic world.

One example of how the oscillation between autonomy and control works occurs in an Oompa-Loompa dance feature which is part of the DVD edition of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Children are given the opportunity to both imitate and identify with Oompa Loompas, the little people from a place called Loompaland who work in Willy Wonka’s factory. The feature offers the viewer choice through the LEARN or PLAY options. In the learn option, there are two dances from which to choose. The instructions read, ‘pick dance one or two and the Oompa Loompa will teach you the dance step by step’ or ‘pick the dance forever option for an endless loop of dancing fun.’ The Oompa-Loompa dance feature presents an Oompa Loompa who demonstrates the dance for children to imitate.

Inevitably, the playing of the Oompa-Loompa dance game is likely to affect a child’s viewing of the Oompa Loompas in the film. The special feature offers children a play environment to allow them to familiarize themselves with these unusual characters, who appear strange because of their name, their unusual hairdo and because of their rather odd, mechanical movements in the film. While children might watch the dance sequence of the Oompa Loompas in the film without necessarily wanting to imitate or identify with the characters, in the special dance feature, they are encouraged to actively imitate the Oompa Loompa through carefully orchestrated dance moves and to become part of the film spectacle, instead of remaining the passive film viewer who watches these characters dance.

Adult viewers of the film may take exception to the acts of imitation that DVD games often promote. Some may in fact criticize a child’s uncritical imitation of an Oompa Loompa dance sequence, maintaining that the musical interludes in the film serve as an ironic counterpoint to the experiences of the unpleasant children who find themselves in dangerous or unusual situations in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For child viewers, however, the imitation of the Oompa Loompa dance can allow them to immerse themselves more fully into the world of fantasy (by pretending to be like the Oompa Loompa) and to engage with a symbol of difference or Otherness.[7]

Not only are the Oompa Loompas one of the many examples of difference in Tim Burton’s film (and in the 1976 Mel Stuart film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as well as Roald Dahl’s novel), they also serve as an example of excess, since they are produced as multiple images of the same actor (Deep Roy) with the help of CGI technology and animatronics, thus facilitating what Maria Tatar has referred to as a child’s experience of surreal excess (1998, 72). Tatar analyzes Roald Dahl’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and notes that Dahl himself argued that children enjoy the fantasy or the surreal aspect of the story; yet they do not necessarily relate it to life (Tatar 1998, 81). According to Tatar children respond more to the “tale’s staging of surreal excess” than to the physical violence (1998, 72); also a divided kind of identification plays an interesting role in how children approach the book: “through identification, the reader comes to feel the agonies experienced by characters in the book, yet remains safely ensconced in a chair, experiencing the pleasures of the witness/survivor” (Tatar, 81). This statement could be modified to apply to the child viewer of Burton’s film in the DVD environment. I would add, that after imitating the Oompa Loompas in the Dance game, a child viewer is unlikely to remain “safely ensconced in a chair” (Tatar, 1998, 81) Instead, the game may promote identification with the Oompa Loompas because of the imitation involved in the dance game.

While the Oompa Loompas special feature has the potential to change a child viewer’s relation to these characters upon repeat viewing, the combined moralistic/dark humour of their songs will also become more apparent to children who engage in the repetition that is part of the DVD play/song/dance experiences. The Oompa Loompa Dance game also allows the child to experience pleasure through a combination of structured play and through the introduction of the absurd fantasy figure of the Oompa Loompa. As play theorists Brian Sutton-Smith (2001, 165) and Jerome L. Singer (1995, 212) have argued, children (e.g. seven or eight year olds) may try out absurdities or adopt new contrary roles, and the Oompa-Loompa dance feature certainly facilitates this role-playing or identification with the absurd. The child viewer of film and user of DVD features can adopt some of these examples of surreal excess by first imitating the actions of the Oompa Loompa in the dance feature. After playing the Oompa-Loompa dance game, the child viewer can then return to the film and engage with the Oompa Loompas’ dance sequences in that context, thus diminishing his or her experience of the initial strangeness of these characters. The DVD game feature therefore allows the child to move from the role of viewer/observer to that of viewer/participant, thus bridging the gap between the active fantasy figures (e.g. the Oompa Loompas) and what has been traditionally perceived as the physically passive film viewer; in other words, children’s re-experience of the fantasy film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may become more interactive, and, depending on the media literacy of the child, more analytical, as a result of their play experiences with the DVD features.

As Vivian Paley reveals in her work on fantasy play, “pretending enables us to ask ‘What if?” (2004, 92). Children often delight in the rapid movement from one state of pretend to another. Paley describes the kind of fantasy play situation that reveals a child’s creativity and identification with different creatures: “‘Pretend I’m your baby dinosaur and I’m lost,’ a child might say, ‘and then you call me but I don’t come because I have a different name now and then you hear a noise and you think it’s a wolf but you can’t call me because you don’t know my name now’” (2004, 16-17). DVD games can facilitate this element of fantasy play. They can also encourage a child’s further engagement with the DVD film experience, whether this interaction takes the form of identification with a hero figure or with characters who suggest Otherness (monsters; Oompa Loompas).

The idea that DVD extras allow for further engagement with the film itself has been discussed by Henry Jenkins in relation to the transmedia experience of The Matrix. Jenkins has argued that “the consumer who has played the game [Enter the Matrix] or watched the shorts will get a different experience of the movies than one who has simply had the theatrical film experience” (2006, location 2095/7959). He adds that,  “the new Hollywood demands … that we do research before we arrive at the theater” (2108). In the case of children experiencing film in a DVD environment at home or elsewhere, the research for a film may take place through a child’s interaction with the DVD extras, or even through familiarity with toys and online sites associated with a particular film.

A child’s play or engagement with the different kinds of media content in a DVD film package can enhance the initial viewing of a film. What is more, these bonus features and other screen attachments can in fact subvert the notion that the experience of viewing the film is the main goal. The film no longer maintains the centre; the extras may in fact take over and displace the dominant presence that film viewing once commanded. By considering elements of unstructured and structured play, as well as the concepts of pretend play and point of view (POV) shots in the context of DVD viewing by children, scholars of film studies may also find themselves devoting greater attention to the kinds of media content that have previously been called mere add-ons. This reconfiguration of the film experience will undoubtedly influence the way many academics watch, teach and write about film in the future.


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[1]  Miriam Bratu Hansen addresses Benjamin’s work on play. (Hansen, 2004). She demonstrates how Benjamin was “able to imagine that the cinema, as a site of collective reception, constituted a sensory reflexive horizon in which the liberating as well as pathological effects of technological modernity could be articulated and engaged. This is to say that, despite the fact that he was not exactly a moviegoer (unlike Kracauer, for instance), Benjamin understood that cinema as a play-form of technology crucially entailed the interaction between films and audience in the public theater space, the aesthetic mobilization of affective and cognitive processes that both depend upon and shape the viewer’s memory, imagination, and mimetic capacity” (43).

[2] A substantial body of writing has been devoted to the subject of the gaze. Others who have added to the discussion include E. Ann Kaplan (1983) and Kaja Silverman (1980) who indicated that the gaze was not exclusively male. Teresa de Lauretis (1984) argued that the female spectator was involved in a double identification with the active masculine gaze and with passive femininity. Steve Neale emphasized the heterosexual aspect of the gaze in Hollywood film, and offered a queer reading of the cinematic gaze (1992). Race and class factors were considered by Jane Gaines (1988) and by Lutz and Collins (1994).

[3] Jenkins defines a media technology as “the tools we use to access media content – the 8 track, the Beta tape” (2006, location 373/7959).

[4] W. George Scarlett and co-authors categorize play theories into these four main groups. Children’s play 2005, pp. 7-12.

[5] This kind of dual targeted/random scene selection practiced by a generation of children raised on DVDs may explain the popularity of youtube film clips posted on the web. In other words, short film clips or videoclips that can be played over and over again online may draw a larger number of spectators than a film shown in a movie theatre.

[6] The identification of a child spectator with a male hero may be the norm for many male viewers if the child is socially conditioned within a heteronormative universe (Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze suggests that the male viewer identifies with the male hero) Girls may transcend gender boundaries by entering into a game of pretend and also identifying with the male hero. After reading the first Harry Potter novel and watching the first film, my six year old daughter chose to identify with Harry Potter rather than Hermione by drawing a scar on her face and wearing glasses in order to become the male hero. In a predominantly heteronormative society, it could still be easier for girls to transgress their gender roles than for men to do the same, in part because many films still privilege the male hero whether the character is human or not (Harry Potter films, The Lion King, Shrek, Monsters Inc,)

[7] The element of control continues to play a role in the child’s interaction with the individual Oompa Loompa instructor in the dance number and counterbalances the  Oompa Loompa’s “surreal excess” (Tatar 1998, p.76) in the film. In one particular mode of playing the dance game, the child can control the Oompa Loompa’s dance sequence. In this context, complete identification with the Oompa Loompa may or may not occur when the child’s incorrect use of the cursor key can cause the Oompa Loompa to fall. While some children may pretend to be an Oompa Loompa and imitate this fall, others may choose not to imitate this aspect of the Oompa Loompa’s performance.

About the Author

Karin Beeler

About the Author

Karin Beeler

Karin Beeler is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada. She has published in the areas of film and television studies and in the field of Canadian literature. Her books include Tattoos, Desire and Violence: Marks of Resistance in Literature Film and Television and a co-edited volume on the television series Charmed (Investigating Charmed: The Magic Power of TV). Her fascination with telefantasy and the representation of the fantastic in film is evident in her book, Seers, Witches and Psychics on Screen: An Analysis of Women Visionary Characters in Recent Television and Film.View all posts by Karin Beeler →