Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Data-mining in games bill proposed in CA

A story appeared on Joystiq yesterday about a California Assemblywoman named Lori Saldana who is trying to introduce a bill into state legislature that would make it illegal for companies to embed spyware into their games. They write:
Battlefield 2142 has come under scrutiny for requiring players to install software that collects personal data from users' PCs and transfers it to foreign servers for advertising purposes. Consumers aren't warned of the adware application until opening the game box.

Read the short coverage on Joystiq here, or go to the original article on GamePolitics.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

TV Goes MMO

Corus Entertainment - parent company of Nelvana, YTV, etc. - is launching an MMOG (named "Constellation" for now) based around its various children's brands. According to KidScreen, the beta has already launched at this point, with the full game expected to become available in early 2007. From the KidScreen coverage:
The popularity of gaming on YTV's website - which hosted 17 million gameplays in the first 10 months of 2006 - along with YTV Tween Report research that reconfirmed tweens' love of on-line games, prompted the initiative. Corus has since set an ambitious course to create the largest MMOG network in North America for its kids audience.

The apparatus will include a number of on-line worlds where users will be able to play games, compete and chat with other users, collect information and interact with their surroundings. The plan is for the environments to be secure, monitored, and above all kid-friendly. Access to the game will be free for all users with revenue being derived from sponsorship and in-game advertising.

You can read the rest of the article here.
This news comes right on the heels of a similar project announcement by US-based Cartoon Network, which plans to launch an MMOG based around its programs and characters in 2008. It can also be seen as an attempt to reproduce some of Disney's massive success in transforming its theme park areas/brand franchises into MMOGs, such as Toontown and the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean MMOGs. With these large commercial media companies jumping onto the MMOG bandwagon, I think that issues around commercialization and data-mining in online games--especially when minors are involved--are only going to rise to the forefront in the next couple of years, as ventures such as these produce online environments that serve primarily as marketing initiatives. While it's nice to see a Canadian initiative of this size and significance, I can't help but cringe at the idea that it will be entirely ad-supported. I can't wait to read their EULA!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mission in Snowdriftland

Another quick note (and evidence of procrastination) on something I found through Joystiq...this awesome online advent calendar by Nintendo: Mission in Snowdriftland. You're allowed one level a day, as per the advent calendar rules, although since it's the 11th, we get to play a few extras as catch-up. Check it out!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Happy International Children's Day of Broadcasting!!!

I'm emerging briefly from end-of-semester paper-writing mayhem to post a short appreciation of UNICEF's International Children's Day of Broadcasting, which is today! Broadcasters around the world, including Canada's own YTV, participate by showing special programming for kids, and invite child participation in the production and presentation of the broadcasts. UNICEF will also be giving out awards to broadcasters who "capture the spirit" of the day. You can read more info about International Children's Day of Broadcasting on the UNICEF website, as well as on the website of this awesome initiative (that I am proud to belong to) called MAGIC: Media Activities and Good Ideas by, with and for Children.
I celebrated by watching a wonderful short film which aired on YTV this afternoon called If the World Were a Village, based on David Smith's children's book (of the same name) on the global population. The film presents a wonderful overview of what the world's population looks like - in terms of geography, ethnicity, religious beliefs, languages spoken - before getting into major issues such as poverty, hunger, gender, and a child-friendly discussion of global inequalities. A great resource for parents, teachers and especially kids. Ask your library to order it if they don't have it already.

Monday, December 04, 2006

McDonald's Kiddie Gyms! Ha!

From USAToday, a disturbing and hilarious story about McDonald's new attempt to pacify the mounting uproar over childhood obesity (and their contribution to the problem) by replacing its famous PlayPlaces with "R Gyms" ("R" for Ronald of course). They're currently being tested in seven outlets across the US and, if successful, may soon become available nationwide. From the article:

Some typical R Gym gear:
- Video bikes. The stationary bikes are hooked to video games kids can only play while peddling.

- Electronic hoops. T he mini-basketball court gives electronic feedback like cheers and broadcasts "Great Shot!" when a kid makes a basket.

- Climbing equipment. Think rocks of molded plastic. Monkey bars. And some have climbing ropes.

- Video dance pads. Kids dance on electronic pads that signal video screens to show the moves.

It looks like a strong focus is being placed on hybrid fitness/video game technologies...Which of course opens the door for all kinds of corporate "synergy" including, most obviously, the use of advergames and other forms of "sponsored" games (that would coordinate with Happy Meals campaigns, for example). What I really don't get is, isn't playing on play structures pretty active already? This is ultimately just lipservice--come and eat unhealthy fast food and we'll let you play in our "high-tech" gym to burn off some of the calories we've sold you.

Anyway, if you're interested in childhood obesity, I just found a great site for resources on media and childhood obesity at Common Sense Media.

Kids Love Reality...TV!?!

Media Life Magazine reports on findings from a recent study into the television preferences of 2-11 year olds, and found that reality television shows rank highest among this age group. From the article:
As falling numbers for CBS's "Survivor," NBC's "The Apprentice" and ABC's "The Bachelor" indicate, the reality TV craze seems to have faded among most TV viewers. Except among kids. For those ages 2-11, reality remains the hottest thing on TV, occupying the top five spots in that demo on broadcast this season.

Some of the results are really surprising. I was expecting to see So You Think You Can Dance, The Amazing Race or even America's Next Top Model, but no--although these shows seem skewed younger, none appear in the top five. Topping the list? A home improvement show! How weird is that!?!

1: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
2: Survivor
3: Dancing with the Stars
4: Dancing with the Stars (another version) *tied with* America's Funniest Home Videos

The article gives a few reasons why reality shows are such a hit with kids, including that they are family-friendly (parents and kids can watch them together), they're on during prime time, and that they are currently filling a gap left by the lack of family sitcoms. They point out that the jokes in shows like The Office, while popular among adults, are a little too sophisticated for younger kids. Makes sense!
Looks like a good time to come up with some new show ideas, networks!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Regulating the Media Suddenly Becomes a Costly Affair

From Gamasutra, a disturbing story of greed and corruption:
The video game industry's trade body, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) has announced that US District Court Judge George Caram Steeh has ordered the state of Michigan to pay $182,349 to the ESA, for attorney's fees and costs derived from the legal battle that found the state's anti-violent game law unconstitutional.

So, let's recap here: The State of Michigan, like many other states (who are also being sued by ESA, by the way, to an overall tune of $1.5 million) tried to pass a law making the video game industry's own (ESRB) ratings system mandatory and enforceable, which would stop kids from being able to legally purchase games rated for teens or adults. The ESA opposed the law, and launched a lawsuit that eventually saw the bill shot down in April on grounds of "freedom of speech" infringement. And now the ESA is suing the state for the legal fees it incurred because it decided to oppose the law in the first place--the one that would make its own ratings system mandatory. ESA President Douglas Lowenstein had this to say:
"States that pass laws regulating video game sales might as well just tell voters they have a new way to throw away their tax dollars on wasteful and pointless political exercises that do nothing to improve the quality of life in the state. In nine out of nine cases in the past six years, judges have struck down these clearly unconstitutional laws, and in each instance ESA has or will recover its legal fees from the states.”

To track these and other developments, I recommend Game Politics.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

MediaWise Video Game Report 2006

Correction: It seems that many of these initial reports were actually referring to LAST year's report, as THIS year's report is actually much harsher on parents than on many retailers. In the intro to the report, NIMF states:
This year we acknowledge the strides taken by both sectors of the industry. For example, the major retailers have made real progress in fulfilling their commitment to restrict the sale of mature-themed games. [...] This report suggests that the solutions to the problems presented by video games lie in eradicating ignorance on both the scientific-technical and the parental knowledge levels. Simply put, parents need to step up to the plate and the experts need to conduct more and better research. The research and anecdotal findings we already have portray the present rating system is broken and can't be fixed. Growing health crisis on multiple levels, each of which shows an important link to video games. [...] As the world of video games continues to evolve, parents are falling behind. As we found last year, this year’s parental survey uncovered an alarming gap between what kids say about the role of video games in their lives and what parents are willing to admit.

The report goes on to outline several areas of research in need of deeper study, as well as strategies for parents to assume more control over their kids video game consumption. Sounds a bit like my own thoughts below - apologies for the erroneous info, however, as I certainly jumped blindly onto the bandwagon on this one.


Original Post:
Joystiq and 1Up have both published sneak peaks of the centre-to-right-wing National Institute on Media and the Family's annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card, which will be released today. According to these sources, they give the video game industry an overall grade of "D+" and call it "beyond repair." Read the Joystiq coverage here and here. For the 1Up coverage, click here.
Why the National Institute on Media and the Family chooses to single out the titles it does remains a mystery. All of the games listed above already carry M-ratings, as do countless others not on the list. Wanna protect your kids? Just go with the rating on the box.
[...]
The report calls the ESRB's rating system "beyond repair," and questions why so few games receive an Adults Only (AO) rating. It is wise to read the report, even if you do not agree with it, because these are the kind of sentiments that mainstream media will pick up.

The selection of "blacklisted" games does seem pretty arbitrary, and I agree with Joystiq that the best way to ensure that kids aren't playing inappropriate games is to take the ESRB ratings seriously. Kids shouldn't be playing an M-rated game any more than they should be watching R-rated movies. The ratings themselves may need to be tweaked - and I definitely think that Canada should branch out on its own in this regard, seeing as American sensibilities are so divergent when it comes to violence and sexual content. On the other hand, I can also see the usefulness of a media watchdog providing parents with guidelines (assuming their priorities are in tune with those of the organization providing the advice). But the best first line of "defense" here really does seem to be parents taking on a greater role in their kids' media choices/allowances. I think that the best way to accomplish this, mandatory ESRB ratings aside, is media education for families...both kids AND parents...so that they can better understand the issues and research, and become better equipped to make well-informed media decisions, as a family.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Viva Pinata Strikes At Last!

Microsoft is finally (officially) launching its attempt at breaking into the kids market, Viva Pinata. From the Joystiq website:
Historically, Xbox has failed to penetrate the Japanese market. Microsoft has also been slow to make Xbox appealing to another important market: kids. But Rare's Viva Pinata looks to change this, becoming Microsoft's first big attempt at reaching out to the younger folk -- heck, it's even got a Saturday morning TV tie-in on Fox.

This weekend, Microsoft is hosting a Viva Pinata party for the entire family, complete with life-size Pinata characters, Viva Pinata dance lessons, a carousel, and of course, gameplay stations. So is the Pinata craze catching on? Does Microsoft have a killer one-two punch for the holidays? That is, Viva Pinata for your kids, Gears of War for yourself?

Read more coverage of Microsoft's big party plans at Gamerscore Blog.
I will be acquiring a copy of the game (which was released in Canada earlier this month) for the Games Lab asap, though my initial feeling about the brand = lame! The thirty-minute commercial, I mean Saturday morning cartoon designed to promote the show, is terrible and although I've heard a lot of buzz around the brand from industry watchers (who wouldn't be interested in Microsoft putting out a direct challenge to Nintendo's domination over the kids?) I haven't heard anything about kids actually getting into the characters...so far. Since the nexus of the Viva Pinata franchise will certainly be the 360 game, we'll have to see how the game does before writing the brand off entirely.

In other news, Microsoft has furthered its use of every old trick in the "targeting-the-kids-market" book, in the form of fast food-themed advergames featuring the Burger King. *Sigh*

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Media Panic Kills Rule of Rose

The UK release date for Rule of Rose has now come and gone, in the midst of a Europe-wide (media-produced?) controversy that has effectively killed any plans to release the game in the EU. Online news publication Ars Technica has a great article on the controversy and ultimate "canning" of the game, as does Matteo Bittani's Videoludica, with backgrounders here and here. The Ars Technica article has some particularly good stuff to say about the press' misrepresentation of the game's content, including exaggerations and all-out-inaccuracies:
This is starting to become something of a standard by which games with odd or questionable content are talked about. Bully was described as a "Columbine Simulator," and many groups used the title as a talking point against games as a whole, even though the game was rated Teen and has very light scenes of violence, and in fact can be seen as being anti-bullying. The truth of the game, which came out when the press and the ESRB played the game, did nothing to stop the bad and exaggerated press from saying surprisingly inaccurate things about it. When the mainstream press gets a hold of a story about the game with the possibility of sensationalism, truth seems to get thrown away very quickly, as does the value of actually sitting down and playing the game.

The end result of all the bad press? 505 Games has made the decision to cancel the game’s release. So far, no news has been released concerning any other publishing houses being interested in releasing the game in the UK or Italy. This isn't a big loss for gamers on the surface—the game simply isn’t worth all the talk it has inspired—but it does create a bad precedent. With a few talking points and by misreporting the content in a game, it is possible to exert enough pressure to block the game from being released. This is the strange case of the sensationalist press being able to sell a story that anyone could prove was wrong by simply playing the game—and no one listened.

So, I finally got what I was anticipating - a big "hoopla" around Rule of Rose - though to pretty dismal results, unfortunately, as the game has been banned and pulled in European markets. In terms of my study, however, this development has further significance, because it just highlights even more the lack of any such attention in the US.

p.s. For some historical context on this, read this awesome Gamasutra interview with the creator of Night Trap, one of the first games along with Mortal Kombat to attract massive political controversy.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Debunking Media Effects Debates

One of the major criticisms of media effects research, particularly in regards to the linkage between viewing/playing violent content and actual violent behaviour, is that the studies showing causality/correlations aren't longitudinal, and therefore lack in validity or generalizability. This was certainly brought up in the Amici Curiae brief used to challenge evidence presented during early court cases around video game violence. As it turns out, however, that's not exactly true. In 2003, Huesmann et al. published findings from a 15-year longitudinal study into the impact of children's exposure to television violence on their behaviour and attitudes as adults. Here's a link to the press release on apa.org, and here's a copy of the abstract:
Although the relation between TV-violence viewing and aggression in childhood has been clearly demonstrated, only a few studies have examined this relation from childhood to adulthood, and these studies of children growing up in the 1960s reported significant relations only for boys. The current study examines the longitudinal relations between TV-violence viewing at ages 6 to 10 and adult aggressive behavior about 15 years later for a sample growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Follow-up archival data and interview data reveal that childhood exposure to media violence predicts young adult aggressive behavior for both males and females. Identification with aggressive TV characters and perceived realism of TV violence also predict later aggression. These relations persist even when the effects of socioeconomic status, intellectual ability, and a variety of parenting factors are controlled.

This certainly seems to debunk the argument that there is no conclusive evidence that media affects behaviour and challenges the reliance of media effects critics on the supposed lack of longitudinal studies. I'm surprised, however, that this study has not come up before now in my research into the debates and court cases around video game violence (though included in lit reviews and the APA's meta-analysis). The initial reliance on Anderson's early studies has certainly hindered the quality and accuracy of the discourse around these issues.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Top Ten Most Wanted

Christmas toys (among US kids) that is! The new stats on what kids (allegedly) want this Christmas are now out, courtesy of The National Retail Federation. Note: they do not specify age range, which might explain some of the inconsistencies. For the most part, girls' and boys' choices continue to divide on traditionally gendered 'pink vs. blue' lines, but I found a couple of nice surprises on the girls' list, including Nintendo DS and Playstation 3. Way to go gamer girls! Here are the lists in full:

Top Toys for Girls, 2006
1. Barbie
2. Dolls (generic)
3. Bratz
4. TMX Elmo (Tickle-Me Extreme Elmo - here we go again?)
5. Dora the Explorer
6. Disney Princess
7. Ipod/MP3 Players
8. Nintendo DS
9. PlayStation 3

10. The Little Mermaid (DVD? Toys? They don't specify)

Top Toys for Boys, 2006
1. TMX Elmo (Tickle-Me Extreme Elmo)
2. Cars (generic)
3. PlayStation 3
4. Video games

5. Legos
6. Nintendo DS
7. Hot Wheels
8. XBOX 360
9. Remote Controlled Cars
10. Trucks

Play as Work: Chinese Gold Farmers

We hear a lot about Chinese Gold Farmers in MMOGs, but it's oftentimes hard to picture exactly what this emerging form of labour would look like. Is it fun? Exploitative? Co-operative? I happened upon this project-in-progress through YouTube, where you can catch previews of burgeoning filmmaker Ge Jin a.k.a. Jingle's new documentary Chinese Gold Farmers. Here's an excerpt from the synopsis on the film's website:

Multiplayer online games have given rise to a virtual economy, in which all kinds of virtual assets from in-game currency, magic shield to whole characters are traded against real world currency. In China, there are tens of thousands of gaming sweatshops that hire people to play games like World of Warcraft and Lineage. The gaming workers kill monsters and loot treasures for 10-12 hours a day to produce virtual assets that are exported all over the world. They are called Chinese gold farmers by western gamers and many myths about them are circulated in the game universe.

This documentary leads you into several different Chinese gold farms. Who opened those gold farms? How did this industry emerge? What international connections do the gold farm owners have? How do they manage the virtual transactions? Who are these gaming workers? What is it like to play games for a living? Why don't they do something else? You will hear several gold farmers tell their own stories and see their everyday struggles to live at the border of the virtual and the real.

Sounds awesome. Here's the link to the director's vlog on YouTube, where you can watch previews of the film.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Not So Happy Campers

MTV International (yes, that MTV) has just released a major study into global youth culture to reveal...That there isn't one! Well, not exactly, but their findings do highlight persistent differences in the way that young people from developed and developing countries experience the world, culture, how they feel about personal safety and above all their sense of wellbeing. The TV giant surveyed kids and teens from 14 countries, supplemented by in-depth interviews and other qualitative research methods. One of the main goals of the study was to test their newly developed "Wellbeing Index," which seeks to measure "perceived overall wellbeing" based on a variety of interrelated factors. Their general conclusion? Kids in the developed world have a lower perceived sense of wellbeing that kids in developing nations. I really don't see that kind of clear-cut pattern in the reported results, however, which seem to show the opposite - 5 of the top 6 are developed nations after all. Anyway, they state:
"The country where young people had the greatest perceived sense of wellbeing was India, followed by Sweden with the USA coming third. The full list runs in the following order: 1) India, 2) Sweden, 3) USA, 4) Denmark 5) France 6) UK 7) Argentina 8) Indonesia 9) Germany 10) Japan 11) South Africa 12) Mexico and 13) Brazil (China was not included in the Index as not all questions were able to be asked)."

The Wellbeing Study's other main findings include:

The Future
"Kids in developing countries were more positive about their future than those in developed nations. A majority of 16-34 year-olds in developing nations expected their lives to be more enjoyable in the future, led by China with 84%. [...] In contrast to developing nations, a majority in every developed country expected to earn less than their parents."

Happiness
Globally, only 43% of 16-34 year-olds said they were "happy with the way things were." Younger children aged 8-15 were slightly happier (57% on average). It is important to note, however, that "developed nations dragged down the averages. Young people in developing countries were at least twice as likely to feel happy as their counterparts in developed nations."

Religion
"Young people in the developing world were more religious, and there was a correlation between youth who were actively religious and happiness levels."

Stress
Youth across age groups and in every country report feeling pressure to succeed. "More than half of 8-15 year-olds worry about getting a job. By comparison, only 34% were concerned about fitting in at school and only 25% worried about looking cool." Furthermore, many kids are handling their stress through media consumption: "65% of 16-34 year-olds chose listening to music as their main form of stress relief, with television (48%) their second choice. For younger children, watching television (59%) was slightly more popular than music (58%)."

Terror and safety
Kids and teens are much more afraid of parents dying, cancer, AIDS and being robbed than they are of terrorism (which came in 10th in the list of fears among 8-15 year-olds). The report goes on to note that "Personal safety is a major issue for young people in the developing world," though they don't really clarify what "major issue" means. However, they also found that "the more news media young people watched, the less safe they felt."

School and bullying
In 12 out of the 14 countries, over two-thirds of 8-15 year-olds reported "getting good grades in school" as their top priority.
The study also found that bullying happens everywhere, especially in Argentina (where 72% of kids had been bullied), the USA and the UK (where 56% of kids had been bullied).

They also asked questions about new technology, which they are obviously hoarding for their own projects, as their key reported finding was simply that "Digital technology and media is changing kids behavior." No kidding!

Check out a press release of the study here.

The findings are interesting, but hardly ground breaking, and seem to be interpreted (in the press release at least) with just a tad bit of bias. The company is planning to use the findings to develop new "initiatives," i.e. commercial programming and advertising. Oh well.

Monday, November 20, 2006

CFP: Women in Games 2007

This just came in through the Games Research Network:

Women in Games Conference 2007
Aesthetics in play: new platforms, new perspectives, new players
University of Wales, Newport
19-21st April 2007

Over the past 3 years, The Women in Games conference has become the European forum for women working in and around the computer games industry. The event is characterised by its mix of women from industry, the academy and other sectors of society united in their passion for games. WIG 2007 is interested in continuing this tradition and broadening the dialogue on games to a wider context by seeking contributions from more traditional media disciplines, gender studies and the ICT sector.

Games combine visually led, screen-based arts with performance media to create a gaming experience. The art of gaming is one of action; it is about the player and their performance within the game context. Further than this it is of interest to deepen our exploration of what the unique characteristics of the game experience are in order to celebrate and expose new form, WIG is in a unique position to express a feminine perspective on these possibilities.

Key Dates:
20/11/06: Call for Abstracts released
26/01/07: Submission deadline
16/03/07: Notification

Themes and details can be found at: http://www.womeningames.com. Head's up: there are publication opportunities attached to conference participation!


In other news, Wired magazine has published an article on Lonelygirl...Remember her?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Super Princess Peach

Gonzalo Frasca has written up an interesting analysis of Super Princess Peach for Nintendo DS, entitled "Playing with Fire: Trouble in Super Macho World". It's a great, though brief, examination of the gender stereotypes that continue to pervade the Mushroom Kingdom. He highlights some of the most obvious, such as the blond, pink-dressed Princess Peach's limited arsenal of "emotional" powers in lieu of more traditional fighting or magical powers, but also more subtle aspects, such as how this compares to Mario's new "gigantic" ability in New Super Mario Bros. As Frasca writes,
I never thought about this until I wrote this article but Nintendo's choice of female and male superpowers for both games in nothing short of hilarious. One game defines women as emotionally unstable while the other one presents boys as being obsessed with their size.

Contrary to one of Frasca's arguments, however, Super Princess Peach actually does not mark the first time the Princess has been featured in a protagonist role. She was also a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario RPG and Super Smash Bros. Melee. She has also enjoyed a fair amount of popularity among girl gamers, as evidenced in Sharon R. Sherman's 1997 article "Perils of the Princess", wherein she found that every girl she asked preferred to play as the Princess in Super Mario Bros. 2. I distinctly remember this being the case in my own family, where both me and my sister definitely preferred playing as the Princess, and would fight over who got to "be" her. This obsession with "getting to be" THE Princess (and there was often only one) easily transferred over from other realms of our play, where role-play games often included Princess Lea or Princess Adora/She-Ra, and toy boxes were populated by dolls wearing "princess dresses," princess costumes (fairy-princess, princess ballerina), and other princess-themed toys and media. In many ways, Super Princess Peach may very well represent a legitimate attempt to cater to existing female fans of the Super Mario franchise - by finally featuring girls' favourite character in her own adventure - as well as draw in new girl gamers through a tried-and-true motif within "pink culture."

In this respect, the Super Princess Peach website is obviously designed with girls in mind, with printable Princess Peach-themed mad libs, a DIY Super Princess Peach "magazine," a T-shirt maker and an introductory "how to" guide to playing platform games. The site also features an online "mood ring" (reflecting the moods or "vibes" from which Princess Peach draws her powers) and links/ads to other games that girls might (and do!) like, such as Animal Kingdom, Kirby, Yoshi and Nintendogs. The site is simple, and I'm not sure that it's actually attracting many hits, but it's part of a larger advertising campaign that obviously has girls in mind...a refreshing change from the norm.

I find myself conflicted about this game and its position within the "pink games" debate. The incessant perpetuation of gender stereotypes in mass culture and particularly kids' culture is troubling to say the least. And yet, despite my feminist sensibilities, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Super Princess Peach earlier this semester. I thought it was kind of cool that Princess Peach draws power from "emotions," which are so often seen as negative and used to denote weakness and inappropriateness. I found many redeeming qualities to the game, not the least of which were the quality of the game design and ease of the gameplay (it was my first time playing a Nintendo DS, and I found it a great baby-step into the design/mechanics of the system) - two things that are sorely lacking from other "girl-oriented" video games, which usually consist of a popular girl-branded character solving mundane puzzles amid buggy game mechanics and sub-par graphics and sound design. Girls' games, or "pink games," are rarely played by girls, it would seem, though a few hours spent trying to get through one clearly reveals the systematic deficiencies that continue to plague the genre.

How can we promote more and better games that girls will actually enjoy playing? How do we end the perpetuation of harmful male and female gender stereotypes (including the pervasive hyper-sexualization of female characters) within video games and other media? Focus within game studies seems to be shifting back to these issues once again, with a new book coming out soon that revisits the discussions of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, along with upcoming articles in Feminist Media Studies Journal (including my own co-authored "discussion" of gender and games with Mia Consalvo and Helen Kennedy). I look forward to seeing how the debate has matured since its first incarnation in the mid-1990s, and hope that it will result in a revival of interest in gender issues in gaming. My big question after reading Frasca's article: are girls playing it?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

US Government Seeks to Revive COPA

The Children's Online Protection Act (COPA) is back in the news today, as new findings were presented to the Justice Department in the ongoing and erratic saga of US children's Internet regulation. COPA represents a sort of revised version of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was first introduced in 1996 in an attempt by US Congress to ban online pornography. In 1997, the Supreme Court decided that major components of the law were unconstitutional (mainly around freedom of speech rights), because it would have made it essentially illegal to put "adult-only" material where children could access it (so, pretty much anywhere on the Internet). The legislation was narrowed in 1998, as COPA, to apply only to commercial websites, and provided a more specific definition of "indecency" (they also included requirements for credit-card info to access porn sites, and proposed a $50K fine and 6-month prison term for commercial website owners who allowed children to view sexually explicit materials).

But the law has yet to be enforced: the US Supreme Court blocked COPA in 2004, again on free speech grounds, though they seem to have focused primarily on the rights of adults. At the same time, however, in 2000, Congress also passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which forces schools and libraries to use filters on their public Internet terminals to block porn and kids' exposure (i.e. access) to dubiously-defined-as-indecent materials. CIPA was upheld in 2003. Note: COPA is different from COPPA, which I talk about a lot in my work.

At the centre of the new trial are findings from a recent study conducted by Philip Stark, a stats professor at University of California, Berkeley, who conducted an analysis of Internet content filtering. With the aim of supporting a revival of COPA, Stark's findings show how relying on filtering software to restrict children's exposure to sexually explicit content is ineffective and does more to restrict children's access to information than protect them from perceived harm.

Thomas Claburn at InformationWeek offers the following overview of key findings from the study:
- Only 1.1% of the webpages indexed by Google and MSN are sexually explicit
- Content filtering software will miss between 8.8% and 60.2% of sexually explicit sites
- Meanwhile, content filtering software will block between 0.4% and 23.6% of "clean" (non-explicit) Web pages

While Stark is using these stats to make a case for governmental regulation of content (instead of relying on biased and sweeping filtering technologies), he also addresses jurisdictional issues.
- About half of Internet content is posted "overseas...making them beyond the reach of U.S. law."
- Nonetheless, Stark agrees (and so do I!) that the most popular sites (especially among children and teens, I would add) originate from within the US.

This new development highlights issues around children's rights to access and participation that need to be balanced with society's right to protect its children from potentially detrimental knowledge and experiences. Though I'm not so sure that COPA would really ensure this, it's good to see regulation being debated at this level, with a plurality of interests on the table (quite different from the proposed "Rule of Rose" ban, for example...See below!).

Rule of Rose causing European controversy

The mayor of Rome has announced that he intends to have Rule of Rose banned across Italy, stating "this game must not enter Italian homes." Coverage of his recent statements can be found on Gamespot, as well as Joystiq, which writes:
Apparently Rome's mayor doesn't think there's any more room on the market for another mediocre horror game; that, or Rule of Rose's erotic themes bugged him too. Either way, Mayor Walter Veltroni is outraged, declaring "There is no way that a violent video game should be sold and distributed in our country."

The game is also causing a stir within EU discussions around a proposed video games "Code of Conduct," which would implement a Europe-wide rating system (possibly the PEGI system???). EU justice minister Franco Frattini has been particularly vocal around the inappropriateness of certain video game content for children, as reported by Adnkronos International:
Frattini said he been particularly shocked a new psychological horror game, Japanese-designed 'Rule of Rose' for Sony Corp.'s Playstation 2 console. In the game, a young girl, Jennifer, is subjected to mental and physical torture by a gang of sadistic female teenagers, whose ringleader also turns lesbian attentions on the hapless Jennifer before she is buried alive.
[...]
"One of the latest games recently available on the European market, relates to a young girl who becomes submitted to psychological and physical violence. This has shocked me profoundly for its obscene cruelty and brutality," Frattini said about 'Rule of Rose' in his letter [to the EU bloc's 25 interior ministers]."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dawson College Talk and Gamer Ethics

A recent survey by Evolution Research found that most parents are familiar with ESRB ratings (71%, versus the industry's reported 83%), and that people who don't play games are much more likely to think that some games should be banned based on content. As Kris Graft reports:
"Of these non-gamers, 77 percent said that they "really agree" or "agree" that some games should never see the light of day because of material deemed unfit for the general public."

The survey shows that 60% of consumers believe that video games have more influence on children's behaviour than other media forms. At the same time, however, the findings also reveal that, "Despite the heed paid to ESRB ratings, individuals from all age groups felt that video games do not and could not have a negative effect on them." Read full-coverage of the survey findings here at Next Generation.

These types of contradictions came up quite a bit in my talk at Dawson College last Wednesday (Nov. 8, 2006), where we discussed how conflicting beliefs and research around video game violence contributes to seemingly irresolvable debates within the press, public sphere and legal system. Thanks again to Sean Elliott and the awesome students of his Knowledge: States of Nature class for iniviting me to participate in last week's seminar, and for their lively discussion and thoughtful comments around this sensitive and controversial topic. I was deeply impressed by the sophistication and insight of all the students who participated in the exchange.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Social Networking Is Hot, but Research Is Hotter"

I'm right in the throes of conferencing, so I won't elaborate too much on this news item, but I thought this report from Advertising Age presents a particularly ominous and interesting (especially to my thesis) summary of what market researchers are into these days. Social networking sites (think YouTube, MySpace, etc.) continue to be all the buzz amongst the e-Marketer crowd. Experts had this to say at the recent Ad Tech conference in NYC:

As Roy deSouza, CEO, Zedo, pointed out during a panel that afternoon focusing on the ubiquitous topic of Web 2.0, smaller online communities that didn't exist at this time last year are already making major impact. Social-networking hubs such as the consumer-written restaurant reviews of Yelp, and Dogster, a canine-centric version of Friendster, are helping define the new movement by staying out of their users way and letting them provide editorial content.
"It's not about the technology. It's about making the kind of site that allows users to talk with friends," Mr. deSouza said.

What will keep the sites relevant, said co-panelist Charles Buchwalter, senior VP-industry solutions at Nielsen/NetRatings, is continuously surveying users.

Read the coverage here (free for now, subscription req'd later).

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

2006 Conference Tour - Part II

After a very successful conference double-hitter with Anil Narine last April--where we presented at both the PCA in Atlanta and at the CSA in Arlington, VA over a two week period--I'm attempting a solo-mission of back-to-back conference presentations in Montreal, Quebec.

My first stop will be the Converging in Parallel: Linking Communications Research and Policy in Emerging Canadian Scholarship, from Nov. 9-10 at McGill University. The conference is organized by the The Montreal Media Policy Group, with support from the Beaverbrook Fund for Media@McGill (Mark Raboy) and the SSHRC Strategic Research Cluster on Media Governance. Here, I'll be talking about the use of interdisciplinary research in child-specific communications policy, and participating on a panel about "reconfiguring regulation" in the age of media convergence.

The second (overlapping) is the Trials and Tribulations: Negotiating research methods in cyberspace conference, from Nov. 10-11 at Concordia. I've written about this conference in a previous post, but you can now access the program online. Here, I'll have a chance to meet two of the other participants of the Feminist Media Studies "Gender and Games" debate I participated in earlier this month!

I'm also in discussions to present a guest lecture about video game violence and the surrounding debates at Dawson College...Details to follow.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

More Bully "Controversy"

Another excellent story from Joystiq, this time about the Bully game-clips going around the net showing the main character kissing other boys. As part of the gameplay, your (male) character can romance (give flowers, smooch) various schoolmates, including a small number of male characters--giving the player the freedom to break out of the hetero-normative limitations found in most digital games. This option is also available in The Sims. Although the characters can't do anything more than kiss, Jack Thompson, anti-video games lawyer extraordinaire, is blasting the game for being sexually explicit (!), and blasting the ESRB for giving the game a T for Teen rating. The ESRB, however, has responded that they were aware of the content when they rated the game. The underlying issue here is, of course, why does Jack Thompson think that homosexual content warrants a higher ESRB rating than heterosexual content. The mainstream press has picked up the story, and Joystiq predicts a media frenzy on the issue in the coming weeks.

Link to the full story here.
For the original coverage, click here.
To see one of the videos in question, click here.

Having a homosexual option is awesomely progressive and the impending "controversy" silly to say the least. And yet, I must point out that once again a double-standard is arising within the right-wing American reaction to video game content. The other bully game, Rule of Rose, which deals with girls' bullying and has flown silently under the radar despite all the hoopla around the male-centric Bully, also has homosexual themes, and yet somehow these are not deemed worthy of any controversy or moral panic.

Update: Lots more coverage of this can be found at Game Politics

Thursday, October 26, 2006

VFlash and Edutainment

From today's Joystiq, a story about educational game system VFlash (by VTech) and the winner of a recent "kids-only" competition the company held to find the best new game idea.
In a marketing stunt to attract attention to their new educational game system, VTech has named nine-year-old Jonathan Fisher their first Chief V.Flash Officer, a position that carries a $10,000 scholarship as compensation. Fisher won the competition for the position with an idea for a game called Mission Possible, which utilizes players' skills in foreign language, geography, social studies and math.

The system itself is quite inexpensive and seems to play only "edutainment" games. Although I haven't seen this system before, it's a safe guess that its technical capabilities are far below those of the "big three" console systems (Nintendo, XBox and Playstation). I'm quite suspicious of "educational games"--like television and software, the standards for categorizing content as "educational" are quite inconsistent (although Beth Dillon tells me that many game companies follow standards set by various school boards and parent-teacher associations). This is probably due to the fact that the research establishing causality is equally contestable when it comes to educational/learning effects as it is for violence/aggressiveness. These games are often poor quality, and while they generate quite a bit of money, they are among the least played games. I also take issue with the idea that children's play needs to be limited to some sort of predefined "educational" pursuit in the first place. Anil Narine and I are exploring the ideological underpinnings of "educational" games in a paper we're writing for Cultural Politics, where we explore how kids' game play is either framed as "productive leisure" or "wasted time" within the public discourses on digital games.

Monday, October 23, 2006

New Article by Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter

Yay - the new issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication features an article on labour issues in the video game industry (with a special focus on EA), by two of the authors of the much beloved (by me at least) Digital Play, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter. Here's the abstract:
The blog postings of "EA Spouse," partner of an exhausted video game programmer, have catalyzed discussion of epidemic overwork in the digital play industry. This paper analyzes the crisis of labour in this glamorous new medium. After a brief overview of the industry and its production process, we discuss its labour conditions under four headings. "Enjoyment" examines the real pleasures game workers find at their jobs. "Exclusion" discusses the gendering of game work. "Exploitation" investigates the corporate processes that drive toward a work culture of extreme hours and the consequences game workers suffer. "Exodus" looks at current attempts by workers to escape this predicament: attempts including legal action, educational efforts, entrepreneurial flight, and union organizing.

I'll add in some comments once I've had a chance to read it. The article can be accessed here, but suscription to the journal is required.
In the meantime, here are some other articles of theirs:
A Playful Multitude?
Games of Empire

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Apparently, playing is not safe for kids.

From today's Joystiq: an article about an elementary school in Boston that has banned a number of common recess games for fear that kids will "get hurt." Here's an excerpt:
Citing fear that students will get hurt and sue, an elementary school south of Boston has banned tag, touch football, and all other "chase games" from the playground. Students should also be advised to take caution when racing one another; should one student take the lead it might be observed that the other students are merely "chasing" first place. To alleviate confusion, all students should run in straight lines and finish each race in a virtual tie.

The post goes on to explain that this is just part of a growing trend, as seen in this linked article from USA today. So, now "playing" is just generally too dangerous for kids. Wow. Joystiq makes the link to how video games are taking the heat for rises in childhood obesity. It seems to me that a much more important influence is the sedentary lifestyle being promoted by the school systems/governments (and sometimes parents themselves), through enormous cut-backs in phys ed and the elimination of after school activities--and now trying to ban kids from the spontaneous physical activity of recess games--along with an increasing emphasis on "productive leisure" activities that contribute directly to kids' learning how to be good workers/consumers as adults.

Monday, October 16, 2006

call4ally



Finally, some irrefutable proof that market researchers are pillaging kids' blogs for valuable (i.e. consumer-relevant), yet non-personally identifiable, info!! This company doesn't seem TOO prominent, but it does offer insight into the marketer relationships that I suspect are going on behind the scenes of many commercially-run sites for kids. The site offers a service - in this case a type of kiddie consierge, with travel tips and related news/info for young girls and their parents who are visiting a new city - to attract users to its site. It also offers free blog space and forums, encouraging girls to build up their own travel profiles and share their thoughts, ideas, etc. The site claims to have access to 2 million such blogs - blogs that can then be data-mined for product-specific information (no doubt facilitated by strategically placed prompts), or general trend and opinion research. Their tagline is "Call4Ally is the only SAFE, 100% monitored blogging site for girls ages 9-15"...though I suppose this doesn't include commercial exploitation.

Check out their sales info here.

Or browse the site itself here.

Disney's cellphones for kids

USAToday recently reviewed Disney's new cellphones for kids ad campaign. The ads, which are available for viewing and download here, are aimed at parents and focus primarily on the so-called "safety" features of the phones--GPS locator systems, limited air time, and parental control over calls and features. Now that a third of 11-14 year-olds have their own cell, the market is opening for the 6-10 year-old crowd (according to the Yankee Group, cell phone use among the 8-12 group is expected to double in the next 4 years). The privacy and surveillance issues abound, but so do more immediate issues about the design and technology of the phones themselves.

I'm going to be presenting a brief overview of Langdon Winner's famous article Do Artifacts Have Politics? in tomorrow's Communication Technology (cmns 815) seminar, and thought I'd talk a little about kids' phones as an example of a "political" technology (since that will be the topic of my course paper this semester). In researching the Migo phone, I was intrigued to find the following blurb in the Parents' User Guide:
The available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with using wireless phones. There is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe. [...] Many studies of low level RF exposures have not found any biological effects. Some studies have suggested that some biological effects may occur, but such findings have not been confirmed by additional research. In some cases, other researchers have had difficulty in reproducing those studies, or in determining the reasons for inconsistent results.

In terms of the research that has been done, the guide includes the following well-"spinned" summary:
The research done thus far has produced conflicting results, and many studies have suffered from flaws in their research methods. Animal experiments investigating the effects of radiofrequency energy (RF) exposures characteristic of wireless phones have yielded conflicting results that often cannot be repeated in other laboratories. A few animal studies, however, have suggested that low levels of RF could accelerate the development of cancer in laboratory animals. However, many of the studies that showed increased tumor development used animals that had been genetically engineered or treated with cancer-causing chemicals so as to be pre-disposed to develop cancer in the absence of RF exposure. Other studies exposed the animals to RF for up to 22 hours per day. These conditions are not similar to the conditions under which people use wireless phones, so we don’t know with certainty what the results of such studies mean for human health.

They then go on to describe how none of these studies answer questions about long-term exposure, as the average period of phone use among the subjects studied was 3 years. My interest in including this info is to examine the political and ethical implications involved in the phone and toy companies' (including Disney, Bratz, Mattel, LG, etc.) decision to start producing cell phones for kids, despite inconclusive evidence that the phones are 100% safe. They sound like the tobacco industry!
More coverage of kids' mobiles:

From CNet News.com here and here.
From Consumer Reports
From SFGate
From info4cellphones
From PC World
From KidScreen
From Commercial Alert

Friday, October 13, 2006

Teen puts sibs through college playing MMOGs

There's a short but cute news piece on a teen in Colorado who, along with his mom, has made $35K playing a MMOG called Entropia Universe (formerly Project Entropia), which you can read here. From the article:
Mike Everest, a home-schooled high school senior from Durango, Colo., has put two of his siblings through college by selling virtual goods for real dollars on Entropia. And he's not the only one involved. His mother also plays the game. Along with his mother, Everest, better-known within the virtual game as Ogulak Da Basher on the planet Calypso, has raked in more than $35,000. Of that profit, $12,000 will be used to help his two siblings attend college.

What is unique about this game is that it works on a "Real Cash Economy," and items are bought and sold regularly for real money - unlike other games that restrict or try to control real life exchange, which they see as a threat to corporate intellectual property (IP) claims over in-game items and content. According to Wikipedia, $160 million USD was exchanged through Entropia last year. I'll have to read the EULA to find out where the company stands on IP...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Playing Bully

Clive Thompson has a new review out on Bully - the highly, perhaps prematurely, controversial new game by Rockstar ("banned-a-year-before-its-release-by-US-school-boards" controversial) - on the Wired website. I find the political and social implications of the Bully controversy infinitely fascinating in terms of what it says about public perception of video games, kids, bullying and freedom of expression. Bully will be released on Oct.17 (2006) for the PS2. Oddly enough, Rule of Rose seems to have sailed under the moral panic radar since its August 30th release, despite the fact that it was originally deemed too "controversial" for a US release, for both its eroticization of little girls as well as its portrayal of bullying between and among young girls. Is there perhaps evidence of a gender bias here?

Mr. Meaty

Canadian children's media production company, The Grogs, lands huge deal with Nickelodeon using the web and the public broadcasting system! Mr. Meaty is set to become the "new" "new" thing, apparently, with the games, podcasts and a bunch of other cross-media tie-ins to prove it. From Kidscreen magazine:
Not only does the company have Mr. Meaty set to debut on Nickelodeon in the U.S. this month, the tween-skewing puppet show is a linchpin in the broadcast giant's aggressive multi-platform strategy, currently airing on broadband site Turbonick and via podcasts powered by iTunes.
[...]
While the series is aimed at the eight to 14 set (not your typical puppet fans), its arch take on the experiences of two buddies as they work at a somewhat unusual fastfood restaurant in a suburban mall should resonate with the group. Episodes involve monsters, vampires, frequent trouble with the deep fryer and run-ins with the oppressive owner of the company.

See where it all began on the CBC website.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Wish Lists as Market Research

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is currently launching a campaign against Wal-Mart for encouraging kids to "nag" their parents electronically for toys. At issue is Wal-Mart's Toyland site, which includes a feature that enables kids to first create a Christmas wish list, and then enter their parents' email address so that the site can send it to them. While electronic, commercially-mediated nagging does represent a new low even for Wal-Mart, the very concept of the "wish list" recalls similar initiatives in the past, put forth by corporations and market researchers in order to find out what was "hot" among an otherwise hard to research demographic, to better enable retailers to "prepare" for a new season of Christmas shopping. Using kids' Christmas wish lists as market research goes back several decades, but when the practice is placed within a digital context it becomes much more meaningful and efficient. Depending on the user base of the Wal-Mart site, the wish list feature could give the company insight into the secret hopes and desires of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of kids - as individual wish lists are aggregated and made sense of through data mining technologies and statistical analysis.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Wii Mii Me

One of the features on Nintendo's upcoming new console system (the "Wii," pronounced "We") will be the Mii (pronounced "Me") Channel, which lets you create customized avatars that you can then import into other areas of the system, into specific "Mii-compatible" games, as well as to other console systems through your Wii remote. It's all very cute and clever, tapping into the social networking craze that continues to dominate digital culture. Here's a description of the feature from the Nintendo website:
"Fun 3-D caricatured portraits of users, or Miis, created in this channel can be used on characters across a variety of Wii software. In addition to storing Miis on the Wii, several Miis can be stored in a user’s Wii Remote and taken to a friend’s house to play on another Wii console. Each member of the family can have his or her Wii Remote personalized with their own Mii."

You can read some news coverage of Mii's at Joystiq or watch a demo of the feature here.

  • BTW: The Mii's look a little bit like Wee's, don't they?
  • Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    Feminist Media Studies

    Next week, I'll be participating in an online discussion on games and gender, that will later be edited and published in the Commentary and Criticism section of the international journal, Feminist Media Studies. A small number of female games researchers were initially invited (including my colleague Flo Chee), and four of us will be participating: myself, Helen Kennedy, Mia Consalvo and Marinka Copier. The main topic is an upcoming article by Valerie Walkerdine on girls and gaming, and we're each providing a list of issues, points and arguments we'd like to explore in our discussion. So far, the list is quite challenging, but also extremely timely and relevant to the current debates going on in games research (as well as my own intellectual struggles with some these concepts), so I'm pretty excited about the opportunity to contribute. I'll post a link to whatever the public/published outcome of the discussion is once it becomes available.

    Monday, October 02, 2006

    Play Between Worlds (2006)

    I just finished reading TL Taylor's comprehensive analysis of popular MMOG EverQuest, entitled Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. She presents a well-rounded and cogent mapping of the various issues that are currently being debated within and around virtual worlds, combining ethnography, political economic analysis, and technology studies to show how MMOGs are best understood as participatory sites of culture. Her chapter on women and gaming ("Where the Women Are") is particularly thoughtful and useful for anyone studying (or playing) digital games, revealing at once the biases and oversights that continue to haunt both game design and scholarship. While I don't agree with all of her conclusions, the book as a whole represents an enormous contribution to games studies, and it's wonderful to see all of her fabulous work on EQ finally compiled and concerted in one place. Highly recommended.

    Thursday, September 28, 2006

    Thin Pills and Junkfood

    The cover of the October issue of Wired magazine and accompanying cover story on thin pills has interesting associations with the boom of activity and controversy going on around childhood obesity and it's link to fastfood and junkfood advertising. The campaign to ban advertising unhealthy foods to kids - through television and advergames - is making headlines in the US, and policy waves in the UK. Of course, the children's industries are way ahead of the game, launching new branded products that reflect real concerns as well as hyped-up fears about bad foods. Check out this story on Disney's new line of healthy foods for kids, this press release for Sesame Street/Sunkist berries, and coverage of Nickelodeon's new "fruits and veggies" product launch. What I find particularly interesting is how both of these reactions - thin pills and advertising bans - place the focus on consumer culture to provide the solution to such a significant social problem.

    Sunday, September 24, 2006

    Comp Trading Cards

    I'm currently in the process of defining my comp areas and accompanying reading lists, and as a result have been thinking a lot about different ways I might visually map out or organize the various theories and theorists I'll be reviewing over the coming months. I've considered diagrams and timelines - visual aids always really help me to work out theories and major debates - and today remembered a website I came across as an undergrad that might provide a fun and useful template for working through at least one of my areas. The site is David Gauntlett's Theory.org.uk Trading Cards, which provides a hilarious but potentially quite helpful way to keep track of your media theorists. I think this particular set was designed with 1st-year communication or media studies undergrads in mind, but I'm tempted to try it out on "social construction of technology theorists" or "play theorists", and make cards for whatever theorists fall into my comp areas. I could further colour code them according to field, school of thought, time period, theoretical position, whether I agree with their theory or not....hmmmm.

    Saturday, September 23, 2006

    Fairies - The new "big thing"

    About a year ago KidScreen Magazine predicted a big boom in "fairies" within girls' commercial culture. With the rise in popularity of Winx Club, and Barbie Fairytopia, it was just a matter of time before Disney got on board and really turned out a fad. Afterall, Disney owns the most famous fairy of all, Tinkerbell. After an initial foray into the market with a successful line of kids' books (think "Harry Potter" strategy) - designed to introduce the new line of branded fairy characters, er, I mean, Tinkerbell's "friends" - it looks as though Disney is set to replace it's successful "Princesses" brand with a fresh multimedia merchandising bonanza staring the Disney Fairies. They have of course already built an online branded environment/advergame called Pixie Hollow, that looks like a bit of a rip-off of Barbie's Everythinggirl.com, where kids can interact with the brand, get to know the characters, and register to become the unknowing subjects of market research and data-mining. On the bright side, however, I've found a new case study for my ongoing research on children's advergames.

    Tuesday, September 19, 2006

    Advergaming? Try in-game brand-reps...

    I just came across this job posting in a YPulse newsletter (a marketing-to-youth industry newsletter) for a virtual world "brand manager". Yet another indication of the continuing encroachment of "advergaming" in MMOGs.

    ****
    Manager of Virtual World Avatar

    Fleishman-Hillard Youth has an immediate opening for someone to oversee an avatar on behalf of one of our clients. If you or someone you know has strong experience in virtual worlds and RPGs, and is interested in youth marketing, we want to hear from you.

    Description:

    - Manage an avatar in a virtual world on behalf of a corporate client
    - Interact with players, answering various questions and disseminating information
    - Sending email blasts to members
    - Staying in continual contact with the Fleishman-Hillard team, providing updates and status reports

    Qualifications:

    - Excellent experience using RPGs and virtual worlds
    - Ability to effectively handle in-game requests with the interests of the client in mind
    - Responsible and easy to reach
    - Strong communication skills
    - Work schedule: 7 pm - 11 pm EST/EDT, Mon-Fri
    - 3 month contract starting ASAP
    - Can work remotely

    Please pass this on to anyone you think would be interested.

    Please contact Vanessa Lane by email (Vanessa.Lane@flei shman.com) or phone (212-453-2390)

    Posted by anastasia

    Kid Gamers Dominate

    Matteo Bittani sent this out to the Gamesnetwork email list this morning:

    "The NPD Group has created a massive 100-plus page report that finds the most serious gamers aren't in the 18 to 34-year-old age range, as many believe. Anita Frazier with NPD detailed the study for Next-Gen…
    The study, whose sample is comprised of 16,670 participants between ages six and 44, found that 45 percent of the study's "heavy gamer" segment and nearly one-third of its "avid console gamer" segment (the largest group in the study) were between the youthful ages of 6 and 17. The findings contradict the wide belief that the most committed gamers fall in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic." (Next Generation)

    Link to the story

    Saturday, September 16, 2006

    fatality666

    Upon reviewing the news coverage of the Dawson's College killer yesterday (it took them approximately 18 hours to make a link to video games - yay predictable new media!), I realized that the vast majority of news outlets are using the images the killer posted himself, of himself, on his online journal. The constructed nature of these pictures disturbs me - he obviously spent a lot of time posing and dressing for these pics, creating a gallery within vampirefreaks.com that he thought his peers would respond to. But more than that, with the knowledge of what he was planning to do in mind, I'm sure that the picture gallery on his site represented a sort of press kit for him. The fact that the news media are now using those exact pictures - him holding a gun, looking all goth, being all serious and "menacing" - plays right into the premeditated infamy he was trying to achieve in the first place.

    Related to this is the entire issue of his space on vampirefreaks.com, which was removed in the early hours of sept. 14, but remains available in cache form from a variety of sources. I've made copies of the journal, the gallery and the pages and pages of comments people posted after his online identity had been revealed. Fake sites have cropped up (of course) and the media are really running with aspects Gill's journal posts. Anything to do with video games is highly reported upon, even though the guy obviously spent much more time chatting online, drinking whiskey, and listening to metal...or so he says. A lot about his online persona rings false - like a last-ditch attempt at a personality that he was trying on in a desperate attempt to find the sense of belonging and community that he was obviously never able to attain. I posted a question out to the aoir list (association of internet researchers) as to how and by whom the journal was actually removed. It seems standard procedure in these cases now to remove any online website, journal, etc. that the killer(s) maintained before their murderous rampage, but I wonder how exactly this decision is made - and whether it's done in an official capacity (of a police investigation) or for corporate reasons (too much traffic, or the site not wanting to be associated with the event). I've received some helpful suggestions from my fellow internet researchers, but would appreciate further tips and comments.

    Tuesday, September 12, 2006

    LonelyGirl15

    Ok - I am so slow on the punch with this one, but it's still worth mentioning even if it DID make the media/web rounds LAST week. The subject involves the LonelyGirl15 series of video blogs on YouTube and the surrounding fan frenzy that arose in an attempt to solve the mystery of the origins and motives of its creators (which seemed suspicious from the outset). A number of amateur detectives tracked the site creators and linked it back to a talent agency in California. It now seems that the posts were either all part of an elaborate marketing campaign, or else an experimental art project, though if it's the former the product being advertised (a new movie? a new brand of pink boas and hand puppets?) has not yet revealed itself. What interests me the most about this story is how it was brought to my attention by such a wide variety of sources, all within a few hours of one another (one of which was a youth trend/marketing blog newsletter). Here's some coverage of the story:
    Boing Boing, LA Times, New York Magazine, Wikipedia, Apophenia Blog
    And here's a link to the lonelygirl15 posts on YouTube

    Update: Looks like it's an ad afterall :(

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    Trials & Tribulations Conference: Update

    I will be presenting a paper on my misadventures in securing ethical clearance for my Master's research on online kids games at an upcoming conference in Montreal. From the conference website:

    Trials and tribulations: negotiating research methods in cyberspace is a two-day, single stream, interdisciplinary symposium. We aim to raise questions and inspire debate in order to broaden awareness of the various methodologies employed in researching digital spaces across disciplines. In order to facilitate dialogue, there are a limited number of presentation spaces available.

    The goal of the symposium is to encourage informal discussion, amongst both presenters and attendees regarding the challenges and solutions present in research surrounding digital culture. By opening the floor to both works in progress and completed papers, we hope to encourage an environment of collaboration.


    They've now posted a preliminary program, and it looks like a stellar line up, with quite a strong emphasis on both digital games AND kids/youth online (which just so happen to be my main areas of research, and I therefore couldn't be more pleased).

    Thursday, August 24, 2006

    CARU takes on Superman

    Although the film was rated PG-13, WB somehow thought it would be a good idea to advertise Superman Returns to the under thirteen set on the Cartoon Network this summer (both companies are owned by Time Warner)...A common practice among film and video game makers that is sometimes disturbingly wrong (aren't the ratings there for a reason?). The US-based Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), the industry's self-regulatory body, is pressing charges, announcing:

    "CARU was concerned that airing a commercial for a film rated PG-13 during children's programming with a substantial audience of children under 13 would create an interest in the film by the child audience and send an implicit message that the film is appropriate for all children."

    Check out the press release on the CARU website
    Read the story on AdAge here.
    (Registration may be required to access the article once archived).

    In other news, I've finally completed a position paper on play theories that I was writing for a directed reading on play and games with Richard Gruneau this summer. The paper and course readings will lead directly into a comprehensive exam on play, which I will be preparing for this fall. After feedback is received, I'll post it and my comp bibliography.

    Wednesday, August 23, 2006

    Suzanne Vega in Second Life

    I haven't spent much time in the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) Second Life, but I am becoming increasingly interested in the research that's being done there. I first became aware of the game when researching intellectual property issues in MMOGs, as Linden Lab (the game's creator) was one of the first high-profile game manufacturers to announce that the player, and not the company, would retain all IP rights over her/his in-game creations, avatars, communications, etc. (Link to press release). More recently, I found out that real-life teen clothier American Apparel was establishing a huge presence within the game, just one of many many marketing initiatives to take place within Second Life since its inception (Link to story from MIT ad lab). As advergaming is a research interest of mine, this was particularly interesting - more than There.com, Second Life is integrating important new forms of immersive or interactive advertising into the game environment and game play. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Second Life was the site of another first for MMOGs - when folk star Suzanne Vega performed "live" at an in-game "studio session"...She sat in her studio and played, and streamed the audio live into and through the game. Other players watched a virtual Suzanne Vega play a virtual guitar, all the while listening to what was in essence a live performance (both in terms of the music as well as the avatar's movements. They've posted the whole event on YouTube - check it out:
    SL Suzanne Vega Concert on YouTube

    Thanks to Terra Nova Blog for bringing this link to my attention

    Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    Blog Launch

    At the request of my supervisor and the suggestion of Richard Smith, I'm attempting to start an academic blog, to keep track of my work and hopefully to share resources with other games and/or children's media researchers. I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with the frequent updates that these things seem to demand, but I'll do my best to post relevant info, sources, etc. as they become available and whenever I have some extra time. Stay tuned!