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).