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The Green Life: Movie Review: Play Again

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April 10, 2012

Movie Review: Play Again


In one scene of the movie Play Again (Ground Productions, dir. by Tonje Hessen Schei, 2010), the filmmakers present a group of children with the logos of major brands — McDonalds, Apple, XBox — and ask them to identify each one; then the children are presented with pictures of flowers and the task becomes complicated. This is a variation on a classic sociological experiment, one that is now often used to denigrate American culture and intelligence, a la Jay Leno's "On the Street" segments. I've always found it a dangerous suggestion, something that can, at best, tell us something we already know — and at worst, pit generations against each other.

Herein lies the problem with Play Again, a documentary with heart and purpose, but a flawed methodology. The filmmakers follow a group of young people from different backgrounds who participate in TrackersNW, a wilderness education program outside of Portland, Oregon., who — prior to the film — spent as much as 15 hours a day looking at "screens," i.e. computers, TV, cell phones. The filmmakers incorporate the story of the children's first major nature encounter with clips of prominent researchers in the education, psychology, and neuroscience fields discussing the modern adolescent's disconnection with reality.

It may simply have been that Play Again was aiming too high for its 80 minute running time: at some point, the filmmakers — and many of the interviewees — stop short of describing what it is exactly that is so worrying about "screen time." Instead, all we can hear is the frustration of experts who cannot figure out what it is that technology offers that nature cannot. Sometimes, the best lines of thought comes from the young participants themselves, who often mention a new form of connectedness. "I actually felt way more alone out [in the wilderness] than at home," says Kris, one of the more well-spoken campers. "When I'm at home I have, like, easily fifty people at any given time who I'm connected to within two minutes."

The best expert argument comes from Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA, who describes a study in which tech-connected kids were found to have less ability to recognize emotion after playing loads of violent video games. Charles Jordan of the Conservation Fund also adds rightly that "what they will not value, they will not protect. And what they will not protect, they will lose."

But even then, my worry is that Play Again only shores up the arguments on both sides without hoping to come to a reconciliation, or at least indicate wherein the problem may lie. In this way, it's hard to tell who the intended audience is for such an important message. If you come across Play Again, hoping to hear a solid answer about "the consequences of a childhood removed from nature," you might be disappointed. But it is a good place to start learning.

JRCJustin Cohn is a blogger for the Sierra Club. He is also a student at the University of California, Berkeley, an aspiring fiction writer, musician, and — occasionally — the guy who gets the mail. Twitter: @justinrcohn


Watch the Play Again trailer below.



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