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.