Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Moon Gets a Make-Over

Via Ypulse's anastasia (who is on the magazine's advisory board), a head's up about a couple of upcoming online initiatives by New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams, the ad-free magazine by and for 8-12 year old girls. The magazine is now operating under the larger umbrella New Moon Girls Media, and has started calling itself the "original social network publication." In the coming year, the organization plans to launch two new online communities -- one for teens (girls aged 13-15) called orb28, and one for younger girls (8-12 years) called Luna Vida Club. There isn't much information about the sites yet, apart from the announcement and some discussion of how the sites will tie into the magazine/company's original mission of providing girls with an ad-free space to share their thoughts, opinions and dreams. For example, here's a little blurb from their website:
Our mission is to bring girls’ voices to the world. Eighty percent of our content is written by girls; adult content is researched and recommended by girls. Because our magazine and internet experiences for girls ages 8 to 15 remain free of advertising, we are especially grateful for coverage from supportive media organizations.

Anyway, it sounds like a very promising project - I look forward to seeing the results in the new year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ofcom's New Guidelines for Kids' TV

From the December 13th edition of Cynopsis! Kids, a story about Ofcom's new guidelines for children's television programming, which will apply to programs produced for both kids and teens (i.e. viewers under 18 years). According to Cynopsis!, the guidelines reflect a growing concern about game shows (and reality shows?) that involve / star child participants, following a series of "high-profile game-related debacles in kids programming in the UK this year." She writes, "Ofcom wants producers to make clear to kids and their families that they might lose, as well as explaining they should pay close attention to the related emotional angst and stresses of performing and the various issues that go with that." The organization recommends that it might be useful for producers to consult with a child psychologist for advice in dealing with the potential negative outcomes / experiences that kids might encounter. Sounds like a good place to start, anyway. Along with these recommendations, the Ofcom guidelines ask producers and broadcasters of kids' programming to comply with existing rules set forth by the Broadcasting Code, including (as cited in Cynopsis! Kids):
* Development of clear guidelines for production staff working with those under eighteen;
* Appropriate background checks on a participant's social, family, health and educational circumstances and a thorough risk assessment if necessary;
* Where practicable, ensuring there is a single, consistent point of contact with whom the participant is able to liaise throughout the production to oversee the child's welfare; and
* Careful consideration of the program format and its likely impact on the participant is recommended. For instance, springing high impact surprises on under eighteens in 'live' or 'as live' programs where conflict or highly emotional situations may be involved, could cause harm and/or distress. Similarly, in genres which involve young children in competition with others, performance anxieties and pressure to succeed may be issues.

Now I'm quite curious to find out whether Canada's Code has similar stipulations in place for game shows, reality-type competition shows and kids.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

New Feature: Kids and Mobile Play

For the next three months, I will be conducting research for one my professors on mobile technologies and kids in the UK. As part of this project, I will be posting relevant news items, reports / articles of interest and (eventually) some of my research findings in the form of two new regular features -- one that will explore Kids and Mobile Play, and one that will discuss issues around Families and Surveillance.

This inaugural installment of Kids and Mobile Play links to news articles about two new mobile technologies for kids. The first, as reported by Warren Buckleitner in the New York Times, is a fascinating attempt to link a number of contemporary trends within kids culture...virtual pets (in this case, Moshi Monsters), online worlds (MoshiMonsters.com) and mobile phones (MoPods cellphone charms). Here's an excerpt from Buckleitner's article:
In a twist on the Webkinz model — pairing a password-tagged toy with an online world — Moshi Monsters (www.moshimonsters.com) are a family of six monsters that live in a light-up cellphone charm and, virtually, in an online home you create. The charms, called MoPods, were marketed last year in Britain. They contain a receiver that detects the faint signal emitted when cellphones send or receive messages, even when the ringer is silenced. They respond with a 15-second burst of L.E.D. fireworks, while the monster spins inside the plastic bubble.

According to the article, the companion online world is pretty limited. Players are required to visit the site and solve puzzles in order to feed their monsters and buy them furniture for the monster's online home. There's also an interesting surveillance dimension...in that the MoPods detect each other's presence. Buckleitner suggests that "Teachers may also find an unexpected use for the MoPods: monitoring illicit in-class cellphone use."

The second news item of interest comes from Textually.org
and reports on NTT DoCoMo's new kid-friendly 3G phone and bracelet set. The product is being marketed primarily for its "safety and convenience" features, but also appears to provide a number of play opportunities. Still, it's hard to tell if this one should go in play or surveillance...I suppose there will be a lot of overlap between these two categories, as the same features can often be used for both. Here's the description from Textually.org:
In an emergency, the child can quickly switch on the phone's 100-decibel alarm, which produces two types of noise alternately. When the alarm is activated, the phone also emits a bright light (high-intensity LED) that is easily visible to people in the surrounding area. The phone can be set to automatically notify loved ones when the alarm is activated, and provide the handset's current location as well.

... Another neat feature, if the phone's power is switched off, a presetting can enable the handset to automatically turn back on (in as little as five minutes) and message the incident and the phone's location to a registered DoCoMo phone visible to people in the surrounding area.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kabillion Puts Child-Generated Content onto DVD

Via Gary Rusak at Kidscreen, news about a new child-generated content venture called Little Director. Rusak writes:
Riding that UGC wave, Taffy Entertainment's multiplatform VOD and broadband channel Kabillion has partnered with Little Director to enable kids to create drawings that can than be transformed into short animated movies. Little Director's proprietary technology takes children's drawings and stories and produces 90-second animated movies that can be screened on Kabillion and then copied to a DVD for home viewing. Kabillion is charging US$19.95 per DVD, a 50% discount on the same service offered on the Little Director site.

Sounds kind of neat, although my first question is what happens to the submitted content, in terms of intellectual property claims and authorship rights. I've checked out the Little Director site and can't find a terms of use...which is odd, considering the gray area of co-authorship within which this service seems to operate. Worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

New CCFC Campaign - Webkinz Incorporates Third-Party Ads

The Uber-popular, toy-based, virtual environment for kids, Webkinz, has begun incorporating third-party ads into their content, causing a bit of an uproar among parents and launching a new campaign led by child advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to convince the site to remove the extra ads. I say extra because the Webkinz site, as the CCFC points out, is in itself already an advertisement, of the "transmedia intertext" variety. Here are some of the details about the CCFC's campaign, from the organization's website:
Webkinz.com, the most visited virtual world for children in the United States, has quietly begun targeting its users with outside advertising.

The site is already commercial – in order to subscribe to it, children must buy a Webkinz toy that comes with a special code. But apparently using the site to sell millions of Webkinz stuffed animals wasn’t enough for Ganz (the makers of Webkinz) and now they’re selling their young users to advertisers. To make matters worse, Ganz didn’t bother to inform parents, many of whom purchase Webkinz toys for their children expecting that the website will be free of outside advertising and links. By opening the site to advertisers, Ganz is choosing to maximize profits at the expense of parents’ trust and children’s wellbeing.

Please take a moment to tell CEO Howard Ganz to stop advertising on Webkinz.

Is anyone else frustrated at the typical timeline for this particular breed of kids' sites? They start off seemingly unbranded...until you realize that they already have numerous licensing agreements in place, and that a whack of ancillary products are actually being referenced in the site and throughout kids' culture. As soon as the site becomes popular - third-party advertisers and market research (for sale, anyway, as it's surely been going on behind the scenes all along) are introduced. At this point the site either crosses into media-brand territory (films, comic books, videogames, action figures), or becomes yesterday's news, as kids seek out the "next big thing". I wonder, however, if the kids' motivation is really that of finding the "next" big fad (as marketing discourse would have us believe), or whether they might, inadvertently or not, be trying to escape the ads and other changes that take place within their favorite sites once the emphasis has shifted away from attracting a large population base, and onto ways of selling that population to advertisers. How much does the integration of advertising alter the activities, community and overall experience? Once kids are no longer the main focus -- from a business perspective at least -- are they (and their needs) treated any differently?

Read more coverage at the New York Times and at Common Dreams.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Imagine [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]

There's a great post on Bonnie Ruberg's Heroine Sheik this week about the new Imagine line of girl games by Ubisoft for the Nintendo DS. I've been seeing (and cringing at) ads for these games during Saturday morning cartoon blocks lately, and have been interested in finding out more about them, so this is great timing. You can also check out this post on Ypulse. Rather than chime in on the issues these games raise in terms of gender representation and how "girl games" are consistently defined by the games industry in the same stereotypical terms, I want to post an excerpt from a paper I'm working on that links this trend to a much deeper historical tradition of utilitarianism in the social shaping of "girls play". Adults have long sought to contain children's play, but girls' play in particular, for more "useful" and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers. Not that girls didn't love their dolls and Easy-Bake ovens (I know I did!), but there's a lot going on here relating to the social construction of girls play that it is impossible to really separate out from the experience itself. The following excerpt is part of a larger exploration of how western thinking about play tends to approach it in very "rational" and instrumental terms (for example, the construction of work/play as analytic categories), and how this approach influences what games and activities are deemed "appropriate" or idealized at a particular point in history.
Another important entry point for understanding how the rationalization of play occurs beyond the boundaries of the work/play binary is through a deeper exploration of the role of the domestic sphere in the construction and regulation of modern play practices. In reviewing the foundational literature on play, the male-centricity of the work/play dichotomy and the omission of female players from these debates are immediately apparent. The omission of the female experience of leisure within modernity challenges the notion that industrialization ever truly led to a separation of the spheres as reflected in the work/play binary, and calls into question the ways in which play and work have thus far been defined within the play literature. Throughout history, as Calvert (1998: 76) writes, “[L]ife was often very different for boys and girls at any given time. Boys and girls in America were dressed differently, treated differently, given different amounts of time for play, work, and study, and taught to handle all three activities differently.” Women and girls have historically enjoyed fewer leisure opportunities (Vallone 1995) and been steered toward much more limited and restrictive play practices than their male counterparts (Hendershot 1996). Indeed, productive or functional play has been a prominent feature of girls’ leisure time throughout the industrial era. In the nineteenth-century, as Formanek-Brunell (1998: 364) describes, “Girls were urged toward usefulness in their play as natural training in the republican values they would need as future wives and mothers of citizens.” Historical studies of girls’ and women’s leisure thus suggest that the modern rationalization of play does not necessarily represent the incorporation of “work” into play, as much as a continued extension of domesticization—-the rationalizing system of the “private” sphere of the home.

Not that girls just accepted the roles and limitations that were placed on them. In parallel with the tradition of containing girls' play is a tradition of little girls using play to subvert gender norms and expectations:
Although dolls are often seen as obvious "vehicle[s] of feminine socialization," recent ethnographic research, as well as historical analysis of memoirs, diaries and oral histories, reveal a long-standing tradition of gender role subversion and rejection of adult authority within girls’ doll play (Formanek-Brunell, 1998; Gussin Paley, 2004). This emerging research reveals the familiar, but academically neglected, practices of brutal doll torture, doll-body modification, doll bashing and doll funerals. As Formanek-Brunell (1998: 374), describes, although many girls (and boys) played with dolls in prescribed ways, “[E]vidence reveals that doll players pushed at the margins of acceptable feminine and genteel behaviour." For some girls, dolls became a valuable tool for thwarting social norms and undermining restrictions. For example, during the nineteenth-century “doll parties” were often promoted as a beneficial and appropriate activity for girls. Designed as a primarily aesthetic activity (girls were meant to show off their dolls and look at each others’ doll clothes), “doll parties” were regulated by a complex set of rules and etiquette which were circulated in advice books and women’s magazines. In practice, however, the events often transformed into active play dates that involved sliding down the stairs on tea trays and “smashing their unsuspecting dolls to bits” (Formanek-Brunell 1998: 375).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Link to: Rob Garner's Post on Webkinz

No time for a long post today, but thought this story would be of interest to Gamine Expedition readers. As Rob Garner writes in today's MediaPost blog, Google Zeitgeist 2007 (by Marissa Mayer) has ranked Webkinz as the 2nd most popular search item, and the most searched social networking site...above Facebook, YouTube and MySpace. Here's an excerpt from Garner's post:
Marissa Mayer’s Google Zeitgeist 2007 / Trends announcement yesterday makes a strong case that kids have already inherited the Web. Five social media portals and networks made the list of the top ten fastest-rising search terms. But the fastest-rising social media network isn’t Facebook, YouTube, or MySpace. It’s a social networking site for beanie-baby-like plush toys, and their respective preschool-to-preteen owners, called Webkinz (it’s at no. 2, just behind “iPhone”). If you’re not familiar with Webkinz, it’s a sort of technically primitive (and safe) Second Life for kids, and the price for entry is buying one of the plushes, then logging in and socializing with other online animals in their own virtual world that also includes their own little rooms and a variety of games.

Not sure what it all means, if anything, but there you have it. And I disagree with Garner's conclusion that this particular finding is evidence that "kids have already inherited the web"... I mean, every kid interested in Webkinz likely comes with a parent who then has to find out more about it. Anyway, you can read the rest of the post here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Writing a Dissertation Proposal

At some point over the next two weeks I have to finish writing my dissertation proposal, so that my committee has time to read it before I leave for London. Despite the fair amount of work I've already done in this area (and towards my actual dissertation research), I'm finding it quite difficult to summarize the whole thing as a 20 page document. This is compounded somewhat by the fact that our school does not provide any clear template or guidelines about what a proposal should include (apparently the proposal requirement is fairly new, and none of us are completely sure that it's actually required, though certain that it will be helpful in the long run). When in doubt, my tendency is usually to hit the books, and this time is no different. I've been reading through Glatthorn and Joyner's Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation for some general advice and parameters. While oriented towards more quantitative / science-esque research projects, they offer the following handy template for what they call "working proposals" (vs. "comprehensive proposals", which are 75 pages long!):
Introduction to the Study = 5 pages
- One or two paragraphs that get the reader "into" the proposal (e.g. "This proposal describes a proposed research study that will examine...")
- Background of the study (sets the context and what external factors might influence the study)
- The problem or thesis statement, hypothesis and research question(s)
- General purpose and/or significance of the study

Review of the literature = 5 pages
- Review the theoretical literature, by reviewing theories and developing a conceptual framework (derived from theory, i.e. identify key concepts and trace their relationships)
- Review the empirical literature (past research on the topic, key findings)
- Link the two
- Relate the review to your own study

Methodology = 15 pages
- Type of research
- Context and access
- Participants (and selection process)
- Data collection
- Data analysis
[****And here I would add chapter outline****]

Appendix: Proposed time line = 1 page

Total = 26 pages + Bibliography

They also remind us to write in the future tense. I'm thinking that I might separate out the "Theoretical/Conceptual Framework" component into its own section...I'll probably still compare the two, but my logic tells me that it should go after the review of past research, to situate my own study and describe how it will contribute/diverge/address past oversights, etc. I might also overlap this with the methodology section a bit, seeing as I'm combining a couple of different theoretical approaches, which in a sense determines my methodology as well.

Another extremely useful resource was one recommended to me by Anil: a whole page full of Sample Dissertation Proposals offered on the University of Texas website. This afternoon, I'm putting aside some time to read through some of these past proposals, see how previous doctoral candidates have put these documents together. According to Anil, the proposals come complete with comments that the authors made years afterwards, pointing out things that they didn't end up doing, or changes made during the research process, what they would do differently, etc. He's also checked on the authority of the authors themselves, and confirms that each proposal was written by a successful PhD (who graduated and is now gainfully employed). Awesome!

Writing a Dissertation - Updated in Nov. 2009:
Here's a graph I made about how to structure the thesis itself, which I put together a few months after my thesis proposal was accepted. It's a summary of key guidelines and advice given in a workshop on "meta-structure" that I took in spring/lent 2008 with Patrick Dunleavy, author of Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation and professor at the LSE. You can also find many of the handouts and presentations Dunleavy uses in his regular workshops, along with various other highly useful resources, on the LSE website. I hope this helps! It's been very useful for me, esp. in keeping an eye on the "big picture" stuff throughout the writing process.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sneak Peak at "Kids on the Go" (New Nielsen Report)

*****Oops, forgot to post this yesterday (Sara, Dec.5, 2007)*****

The Nielsen Company is getting set to release a new report on young people and mobile devices, called Kids on the Go: Mobile Usage by U.S. Teens and Tweens. According to the press release, the report will include a number of new findings about "tweens" (kids aged 8-12 years), such as:
* 35% of tweens own a mobile phone.
* 20% of tweens have used text messaging.
* 21% of tweens have used ring & answer tones.
* 5% of tweens access the Internet over their phone each month.

And among the 5% of tweens who access the Internet over their mobile phones:
* 41% do so while commuting or traveling.
* 26% do so while at a friend's house.
* 17% do so while at social events.

The press release goes on to describe that although text-messaging and ringtones (?) "remain the most pervasive non-voice functions on the phone, other content such as downloaded wallpapers, music, games and Internet access also rank highly among tweens." I'm a bit confused about the ringtones thing -- do they mean downloading ringtones, or creating them, or both? [This also reminds me of something else I read this week, about a study in Whales that found that as girls age, they engage in fewer creative activities than guys do...including creating ring tones.] Anyway, the press release doesn't provide stats on how many tweens download content, but they do give some info about those that do:
* 58% of tweens who download or watch TV on their phone do so at home.
* 64% of tweens who download or play music on their phone do so at home.
* 56% of tweens who access the Internet on their phone do so at home.

That's kind of unexpected, isn't it? That most downloads happen at home, and not "on the go"?

The report also provides some comparative analysis, looking across age groups and across media. For example, Nielsen found that tweens are spending less time surfing the internet than teens (e.g. 48% of tweens say they spend "less than one hour per day online" vs. 81% of teens who say they spend one hour or more). When they are online, "70% of tweens use the Internet for gaming" (whereas teens use the Internet mostly for e-mail...again contrary to all the hype that young people don't use email). Again, I find the phrasing a bit confusing (perhaps purposefully) - do they mean that 70% of tweens do game (as in, at all...to whatever extent and for however long), or that gaming is the most popular activity among tweens?

Check out Gary Rusak's coverage of the report on Kidscreen, or Tanya Irwin's coverage on MediaPost

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Vancouver Olympics Woos Kids with the Cutest Mascots Ever!


So, last week the 2010 Vancouver Olympics committee unveiled its team of official mascots (seen above - picture courtesy of canada.com, which you should also check out for a hilarious short article about them entitled "Why do our mascots all look like Hello Kitty?"). Each one is based on West Coast Native legend, and represents a key component of the BC landscape. For example, check out the "bio" for "Miga":
The sea bear is inspired by the legends of the Pacific Northwest First Nations, tales of orca whales that transform into bears when they arrive on land. The Kermode bear is a rare white or cream-coloured sub-species of the black bear that is unique to the central West Coast of British Columbia. According to First Nations’ legend, Kermode bears — also known as Spirit Bears — were turned white by Raven to remind people of the Ice Age. Orcas are also honoured in the art and stories of West Coast First Nations, as travellers and guardians of the sea.

They're also super cute, anthropomorphic Pokemon-types, that do look like Japanese animation-style (e.g. Hello Kitty) characters, and surely not by accident. On the other hand, the mascots and their branding are also obviously targeted to kids, and in that regard are pretty on the pulse in terms of what's aesthetically and thematically popular right now. Think of the huge popularity of Chinese and Japanese legends in kids' culture over the past few years, which forms the basis of a number of media brands. This includes Xiaolin Showdown and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even things like Magi-Nation and Pokemon that incorporate the same mythical themes and elemental magic. In this respect, I think Miga the Sea-Bear, Quatchi the Sasquatch, and Sumi the Animal Spirit might have a lot to offer, adding Native legends to kids' repertoire and possibly opening the door for a more diverse kids' cultural landscape.

I can't help but notice, however, that the Olympics committee seems to have taken a much larger cue from the commercial kids' industries (not just style and themes). Branded toys, books and other mascot-imprinted accessories are already available for sale on the website. Hmmmmmm. Is this an example of making a big important public event more relevant for kids through the incorporation of themes/interests drawn from kids culture, or is it simply yet another case of rampant commercialization (increasingly associated with the Olympic games in general) reaching into the child demographic? I suppose we'll have to wait and see, but my fingers are tightly crossed for option number one.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Everybody's Talking About: Magi-Nation

This week, everyone's been talking about a new kids' MMOG project in the works that will tie into an up-and-coming (and Canadian-based) property called Magi-Nation. The property was first introduced as a collectible card game (CCG), Magi-Nation: Duel, which was heavily inspired by Pokémon and other collectible kids' properties. It had a few incarnations as a videogame, mostly aiming for the same type of CCG-Gameboy crossover success enjoyed by Pokémon (hmmm...I think I see a pattern emerging ;). This past year, Canadian-based Cookie Jar Entertainment launched an animated series to tie-into the CCG (and remaining digital games, I suppose, which includes a cell phone game) -- appearing as part of the CW's Kids' WB Saturday morning cartoon block, as well as on Canadian public broadcaster CBC -- along with a first, smaller online game, Magi-Nation Arena, as well as various ancillary toys and product lines (including a new CCG). The new MMOG will foster and supplement the emerging Magi-Nation media brand, and will surely have some pretty close links to the tie-in card game (I'm guessing that "secret codes" with every purchase will be somehow involved). Here's the description from the company press release:
Magi-Nation: Battle for the Moonlands is based on the popular children's animated television series Magi-Nation, which follows the adventures of 15-year-old Tony Jones, an average teen from Earth who finds himself mysteriously transported to the magical world of Magi-Nation. In these Moonlands Tony befriends two young Magi heroes-in-training who join him on a journey to defeat the evil Shadow Magi who are out to rule their world. Along with their trusty collection of Dream Creatures these new friends must solve riddles, battle evil and discover the secrets hidden in each region on the Moonlands. During their adventures, they just might discover some secrets about themselves.

According to Cynopsis Kids!, the game will be beta-testing this December (unfortunately it's a closed beta, but you can apply here to become a tester). What makes this web-based branded game unique is that while much of the game will be free (i.e. ad-based), it will also incorporate a micro-payment or microtransactions model, in which players will pay small fees to upgrade characters, etc. As Next Generation reports, while this strategy isn't all that new, it is not that common among kids' sites/properties. As Kris Graft writes:
Battle for the Moonlands will be a browser-based game that is supported by advertising as well as microtransactions, an increasingly common business model. What makes Moonlands more unique is that it will be putting microtransactions in the hands of kids. Finding a chunk of charges for virtual clothing and spells on a credit card bill would likely irk some parents, but [Cookie Jar senior VP of digital media Ken Locker] insists there will be restrictions set in place.

"We want to make sure that parents are in control of any online spending, so we are developing a number of ways for parents to be involved in Magi-Nation purchasing activity," Locker says. [Notably, however]"We are also working on implementing a number of payment options so that we do not rely solely on credit cards as heavily as many online games."

Hmmm....perhaps this is where the "secret code included with every purchase" will come in. Either way, it certainly seems like Cookie Jar is casting the widest net possible in its bid to become the next Pokémon. In Virtual Worlds News, Locker is quoted describing Cookie Jar's goal to:
"[R]each kids wherever they are, be it via through television, consumer products or online worlds. [...] We are thrilled to be working on such an ambitious undertaking as Magi-Nation: Battle for the Moonlands and can’t wait to bring the Magi-Nation online entertainment package to our fans. Our young viewers are extremely Internet savvy and routinely monitor their TV shows online. With this project we will extend that connection and enable players to have a fully interactive experience with their favorite characters in one of their favorite worlds."

Indeed! Find out more by following the various links above, or follow the ongoing developments firsthand by visiting the Magi-Nation website.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Children's Rights in Teen Second Life

By way of the MAGIC network, another cool example of gamers using machinima for political expression, this time through a 5-week-long initiative led by Global Kids (with support from UNICEF) and taking place entirely within Teen Second Life. Teens from three different countries (Finland, UK and US) participated in the second annual "Camp Global Kids", a virtual summer camp geared towards producing short videos about children's rights, in order to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The initiative also had an obvious educational imperative, which appears to have hit home with the teens involved. According to one project volunteer, quoted in the UNICEF press release:
"Although the campers knew that children have rights," said Global Kids volunteer Nafiza Akter, 17, "they didn't know what was in the document specifically. After the camp, they really learned about what different rights the document guaranteed children around the world. And I think it made them compassionate, because you realize that children should be having these rights and yet they’re violated."

The end products were screened as part of a "red-carpet affair" that took place on the Global Kids Island (in Teen Second Life), which included a selection of "real-world" short films made by teens involved in UNICEF's "One Minute Jrs" project (in conjunction with the Sandberg Institute). The filmmakers introduced their machinima and answered questions to an audience of nearly 100, each of whom received free virtual popcorn and a child rights t-shirt for participating. The short films covered a variety of topics, from drug use and health care, to media and play, to child soldiers. On using machinima as an educational, political and creative tool, Global Kids' Second Life Education Specialist, Tabitha Tsai, was quoted saying:
"We feel that making machinima is an excellent way to share the kids' work with the public because you don't need to know Second Life to watch a movie or to understand what their message is. [...] [The participants] learned a lot of transferable skills in this camp. They were able to learn how to capture angles, tell a story and raise awareness on a right, while at the same time having fun with it."

The organization hopes to expand the camp next summer, to "include more children from around the world." For more info, you can check out the Global Kids' Digital Media Initiatives project website, Holy Meatballs, or the One Minute Jrs project site. Prepare to be impressed!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Children's Studies at York University

Cool news on the academic front. York University (in Toronto) has launched a new undergrad program and Children's Studies department dedicated to exploring "global childhood experiences in philosophical and social terms and their personal, societal and human consequences." The program currently maintains a small full-time faculty, with a much larger number of associated faculty drawn from different York University departments. According to the press release and program description, students will learn about the various dimensions of children's culture -- "distinguishing between culture created by adults for children and the culture of children themselves" -- as well as practical skills needed for working with and researching children. It sounds absolutely, positively awesome, and is the first of its kind in Canada. Here's an excerpt from the press release:
The Children's Studies program is truly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, incorporating expertise and courses from programs such as sociology and psychology. Courses include The World of Childhood, Listening to Children: Ethics and Methodology of Child-Centered Studies and Contemporary Children's Culture Internships/Practicums. You are required to participate in community-based programs involving local schools and are encouraged to take part in advocacy work. Graduates of this program can pursue a wide-range of careers including counsellors, social workers, lawyers, teachers, librarians and international development workers.

It also sounds like the program is hitting the ground running: the school has a massive archive of "child-related materials" called the Canadian Children's Culture Collection, which includes data from a number of previous studies conducted out of York University, as well as unique toy collections, including toys designed by kids themselves. Very cool indeed. No news about job opportunities, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye out.

Here's a link to the Children's Studies department website.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Coolest Girl In School, or Bully w/ a Pink Bow

Another great article from YPulse this week, this time around a new Australian mobile game that's being promoted as "GTA for Girls". Here's an excerpt from anastasia's post:
Do girls need their own GTA? A female Australian mobile game developer thinks they do, which is why she created "The Coolest Girl In School." The game is provoking parental outcry Down Under. [...] [It also] Sounds like the game is full of mixed messages -- being a "mean girl" wins the game, i. e. "lie, bitch and flirt your way to the top of the high school ladder," but according to the article about the game in The Daily Telegraph, risky behaviors, i.e. drinking, drugs, etc. do have consequences. So if the argument is that Grand Theft Auto allows boys to live out their fantasies of mass murder and beating up prostitutes, than the Coolest Girl in School lets "good girls" live out their fantasies of being "bad" and popular?

For more coverage, check out Tweenage Wasteland and this article in The Ottawa Citizen by Misty Harris.

Reading the game's description and taking a step back from the controversy a little, it seems to me that we've seen all of this before...last year, in fact, when Rockstar's identically-themed Bully was released and everyone was up in arms about how it promoted bullying by "rewarding" bullying behaviours. In Bully, the player advances by spreading rumours, rebelling against teachers, pitting cliques against each other, trying to impress the cool kids, fending off constant attacks from larger bullies, dressing to impress the cool kids, going on dates with and/or merely smooching with the right people (girl or boy). If you got caught, you would get punished. Actions had repercussions -- every move you made to fit in with one group put you at odds with the others. Etc. Etc. Now, replace some of the more overt forms of physical violence with emotional or psychological violence, and what you've got sounds a heck of a lot like The Coolest Girl in School.

I played a big chunk of Bully last year for my thesis, along with another controversial game called Rule of Rose. Like Bully, Rule of Rose dealt with bullying, although the fact that it was girls doing and receiving it seemed to be enough to send that game out of the realm of public debate and into the realm of censorship. The game was banned in Europe, and had late releases in the US and Australia because of the controversy around it. Meanwhile, although Bully had originally attracted more public attention, it ultimately sort of came and went without a hitch (well, a Jack Thompson court case, but that was par for the course last year). My own opinion about both games is that not only are they not nearly as violent as most, but that they address violence in a way that could actually be much more meaningful and value-laden for young people (not children, but teens and young adults) than, say, some gangland fantasy or alien killing spree. Both games are attempts -- albeit flawed -- to delve into an enormously significant and serious issue...far from merely "promoting" bullying, they each explore bullying in complex ways that have not been discussed in the ensuing debates, which instead seem to limit themselves to whether or not the games should exist. Which brings me back to The Coolest Girl in School, which finds itself as the newest focus of this same essentializing discourse about whether games are "good" or "bad", and questions of how we can make these bad games disappear.

I'm not saying that The Coolest Girl in School will contain the same depth and intelligence as Rule of Rose, or that it will bring the player through the many layers of moral ambiguity that underlie high-school social hierarchies the way Bully did. All I'm saying is that we can't write a game off outright just because it deals with "unpleasant" issues, or addresses them in an exaggerated or unconventional way. That sort of reactionary attitude is what leads to censorship, and places dangerous pressure on the industry to limit itself to "family friendly" fare, even when designing games for adults or older kids and teens. Let's play the game first, and then have an informed discussion about it afterward.

Update: I just heard about another new game that fits this genre, called Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. Check out Leigh Alexander's review on Playthisthing.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

From No Cells to "Edu"Cells...Hmmmm

This story from AdAge about the continuing saga of kids and cells in NYC gave me serious pause. Last year, NYC put a ban on mobile phones in schools, causing quite an uproar among students and their parents. Now, the New York City Department of Education is working with advertising agency Droga5 on a new program (termed "The Million" in reference to the number of kids in the NYC public school system), that would see the distribution of free mobile phones to NYC students. The twist? The phones would come equipped with "educational" content, and would be plugged into a learning reward system. The real twist? Content would be sponsored, incorporate ads and other forms of cross-promotion, and the reward system limited to a bunch of "discounts," undoubtedly for sponsored products. Yikes! Here's the description from the AdAge article:
"[T]he program involves giving away free mobile phones packed with learning tools such as a thesaurus, spell checks and an extra-help tip line to each student. The more a student uses these learning applications, the more rewards -- discounts for movies, sneakers, clothes and music downloads, as well as air-time minutes and text messages -- are unlocked. Additional incentives for achievement and attendance, including congratulatory voice-mail messages from, say, Derek Jeter or a wake-up call from Jay-Z, are also planned.

"What's cooler than the iPhone is something that has almost as many applications but is free," Mr. Droga [founder of Droga5] said. In addition, the phone's exclusive nature -- only public-school students will be able to reap the benefits of it -- may drive up the "badge factor," adding to its appeal.

Naturally, there'll be room for brands to latch onto the cause. The hardware provider, based on the video Mr. Droga showed at the conference, appears to be Motorola, though he wouldn't confirm it. He also declined to name the service provider that's been chosen. There'll also be some room for advertising on the phone. After all, the phones, while provided for free to the students, won't be completely without cost. As such, marketers will be able to infiltrate the students' world through "responsible" sponsorships."

This sounds like corporate monopoly to me...ban kids from bringing in their own cell phones, and then enforce this "free" system that essentially grants Droga5 and their sponsors exclusive reign over kids' mobile use outside of school? It looks like I'm not the only one who smells a rat. Anastasia from YPulse had this to say:
So we're replacing students phones that they can't bring to school with new phones (that they still may not be able to bring to school) packed with branded content.

What about incentivizing students with innovative new ways of learning in the classroom using blogs, wikis, iPods and cellphones? How about integrating the technology they already have or use into existing lesson plans? If students aren't engaged or interested in learning, bribing them with phone bling feels like a Band Aid solution and another opportunity for marketers to reach kids in class.

I agree...this really does just seem like another case of commercialization in (or in this case via) the classroom. Check out Commercial Alert's ongoing campaign for a discouraging number of comparison cases, as well as Jill Sharpe's new documentary Corporations in the Classroom (or here) for more info.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Noteworthy Blogs Alert: Parental Guidance Please

I came across two awesome blogs this weekend that I want to let everyone know about, both dealing with kids and media/marketing, both written from (and for) a parent's perspective. The first, Outside the (Toy) Box, is written by a mother of two/media studies professor, and focuses on various aspects of kids' consumer culture, kids' media and gender issues...as well as news from the front lines of the ongoing battle against the encroaching commercialization of kids' social environments (for example, how her child's preschool is dealing with Scholastic's adverbooks and the branded book fairs issue). I love the first line of her bio: "Like many of you, I’m a parent with a brain and a critical eye." The blog is new but already quite extensive, with a variety of issues, thoughts, links, and news items to delve into.

The second, Corporate Babysitter is part of a larger, newly-launched non-profit organization called Parents for Ethical Marketing (PEM). The author/founder, Lisa Ray, is also a mother of two, a writer, and a stay-at-home mom who previously ran a blog called Two Knives. At Corporate Babysitter, you will find a variety of useful links -- to reports, papers, interviews with scholars/activists in the field -- and a small (but growing) selection of critical posts on marketing to kids (and what parents can do about it). Here's an excerpt from the PEM mission statement:
Of course, parents are ultimately responsible for raising healthy children. But corporate marketers would have us believe that combating their damaging commercial messages is exclusively our problem. Parents for Ethical Marketing thinks it’s about time that corporations take some of the responsibility. Through parental awareness, public pressure, and legislative initiatives, Parents for Ethical Marketing encourages corporations to adopt responsible marketing standards and practices that sustain the health of children and families.

I'll be adding both blogs to my links list. Thanks to both authors for sharing their insight, thoughts and experiences...I suspect their posts will be quite valuable to my own work, and look forward to reading them more thoroughly.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reforming Copyright Law: A Six-Step Strategy

Head's up on a great article by Anders Bylund posted on Ars Tehnica last week, on Public Knowledge's six-step plan for reforming copyright law to better protect citizen (as opposed to solely corporate) interests. The plan was presented at a New Media conference that took place recently at Boston University, and seeks to address the growing "'disconnect between the law and the technology' of media production and distribution." Said Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn,
"For the past 35 years, the trend has been nearly unmitigated expansion of the scope and duration of copyright, resulting in a clear mismatch between the technology and the law." ...Advances in technology keep making it easier to copy and distribute songs, movies, books, and so on. Meanwhile, the kind of legislation that gets big-money lobby support from content producers makes it increasingly illegal—but not necessarily harder—to use these new powers of information and entertainment.

The article goes on to describe the six solutions that Sohn proposes could be used to establish a more balanced (US) copyright system. Here's a brief overview of her key points:

1) Make fair use reform a top priority: "The US must allow for more incidental and non-commercial media uses; it is currently far too easy to break the law without knowing it."

2) Elevate the landmark 1984 Betamax decision (which acknowledged the consumer's right to record and timeshift media content for personal use at home) from mere "legal precedent" into actual law.

3) Implement and enforce limitations on the DMCA, to keep the number of takedown notices and SLAPP suits to a minimum. Included in this is the recommendation that the DMCA be reprimanded "for "knowingly or recklessly" demanding takedowns without a real case."

4) Clean up the existing music licensing system and create a clear and simple legal framework. This would include equalizing royalty rates (traditional radio currently pays lower royalties than new media channels), and making it easier to find copyright owners and obtain clearance.

5) Relax the rules around orphaned works: "You should be able to sing a song or use a picture if a "good faith copyright search" can't turn up the owner."

6) Simplify and clarify license notices to a clear and concise set of instructions, that use everyday language (not legalese) and do not misrepresent or exaggerate copyright claims.

You can read more about the organization's copyright reform campaign on their website, where you can also access a full transcript of Sohn's speech.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pigs Fly! Also, FTC Leaning Toward New Regulation!

More repercussions from the FTC's Privacy Townhall, as the evidence and testimonies -- and their potential implications -- continue to reverberate throughout the advertising industry (and amongst policy makers!). From today's Online Media Daily digest, an article by Thomas Claburn at Information Week on the (dare we say growing?) likelihood that the FTC might actually introduce some new online ad regulation. The industry is all abuzz today about a shift in the US governmental body's hitherto corporate-friendly attitude toward new media goings-on. The tipping point was apparently Facebook's and MySpace's increasingly invasive ad strategies, and their respective announcements over the past couple of weeks that they plan to significantly enhance their invasion(s) of users' privacy -- and, of course, advertise to them even more. As the Online Media Daily post describes,
Consumer privacy groups have been complaining to the Federal Trade Commission about the enhanced targeting practices of marketers. They want stricter regulation of online data tracking-referred to more broadly as "behavioral targeting" these days. And the FTC is starting to listen, as the prospect of enhanced data targeting increases.

Mergers like Google-DoubleClick and Microsoft-aQuantive have consumer groups particularly worried. One of their chief complaints is that ad networks can no longer contend that they don't collect personally identifiable information, as the increase in data collection leads to more distinct user profiles. Moreover, the ways that networks collect user information are expanding: content tracking, browser toolbars, promotions, sweepstakes, discounts, online purchases, search and declared user information. Advertisers aim to take the latter to the next level via social networking. So, how much is too much? Unfortunately, it looks like the FTC no longer trusts the industry to decide.

Claburn's own coverage is certainly a little industry-biased, but he nonetheless makes a number of good connections and tackles the nuances of "personally -identifiable information" in a way that has been lacking in the other articles I've read so far. He writes (albeit with a hint of sarcasm):
The Center for Digital Democracy and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group laid these and other social ills such as racial profiling at the feet of online marketers at a Federal Trade Commission meeting two weeks ago and urged the FTC to investigate and regulate online marketing. The advocacy groups singled out Pepsi, General Mills, and MasterFoods USA, part of Mars, for targeting the youth market with online ads in a complaint filed with the FTC. They also documented the extent to which some of the lenders caught up in the mortgage meltdown were among the biggest online advertisers.

And...
One person's relevant ad apparently is another's manipulative marketing technique that makes use of personal data in ways that compromise privacy. "The right hand of online marketing continues to hide behind the myth of anonymity, even while the left hand of Web analytics constructs remarkably detailed mosaics out of innumerable shards of purportedly 'non-personally identifiable' information," the groups said in their complaint.

The first three pages of the article are a pretty good read, before Claburn's analysis dissolves into a series of pats-on-the-back for industry self-regulation. You might also want to read Claburn's earlier article on how social networking sites makes money.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Media Action Pre-Launch

A new media watchdog network, focused on gender representations in the media, pre-launched its site today to coincide with the release of a new report on young women's responses to media portrayals. Media Action, a reincarnation of Media Watch, is a Canada-wide initiative led by some pretty amazing people, including its director -- well-known (a.k.a. Governor General award-winning) social activist and media critic Shari Graydon. The new report, conducted by EKOS Research, found that young women in Canada are frustrated by what they see as a double standard when it comes to gender representation. Here's the press release and description:
In conjunction with National Media Education Week, Media Action (formerly MediaWatch) has released an EKOS research study looking at young women's responses to dominant media portrayals. Young women in several Canadian cities expressed almost universal frustration with pervasive images of "flawless" female bodies, and the disproportionate media attention paid to women as sex objects and "those who mess up."

The report reveals the conflicted relationship young women have with pop culture, simultaneously engaging with many forms of traditional and emerging media, while rejecting and resenting many dominant messages about female sexuality and appearance. They were particularly quick to note the double standard that exists regarding the greater diversity of male body types and portrayals.

Young women noted that "society worships guys who come across as good or bad, tough, responsible, independent and even weird," and "They don't have to conform to one specific image."

According to director Shari Graydon, "This research reminds us that despite the enormous gains women have made in recent decades, many media practices continue to reinforce limiting and destructive stereotypes. Media Action's investment in improving the picture and giving women a voice on these issues remains timely and relevant."

While the site doesn't go live until January, it already provides a number of downloadable goodies, including a PDF of the report itself, and some background documents: "It Just Sucks You In": Young Women's Use of Facebook by Leslie Regan Shade, and Popular Culture and Female Sexuality: Consuming the ‘Representations'.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Notes from the FTC Townhall on Privacy

While coverage of last week's FTC Townhall on Privacy issues is still pouring in, I thought I'd take some time today to link to a few articles published by MediaPost that I've found particularly interesting in terms of what they say about the industry response to the testimony and issues raised. Firstly, I was quite surprised to see our old friend "proof of harm" pop up in this discussion, since I really didn't think that infringing upon citizens' rights could ever be defended as "unharmful". The "proof of harm"/media effects debate -- so often used by the press to dismiss public concerns about its media by creating polarity and confusion -- is surprisingly out of place within this debate, but as you can see from the excerpt below, has nonetheless somehow wiggled its way in. From MediaPost:
IT'S NOT HARD FOR CONSUMERS to say why they dislike intrusive ads, pop-ups served via spyware, in-box-cluttering spam, or a telephone ringing during dinner. But whatever damage is caused by targeting, or serving ads to people based on the Web sites they visit, is harder to pinpoint--which is leading some Internet industry executives to question whether the FTC even has the authority to call for the regulation of the practice.

"What we haven't seen is that real harm," Mike Zaneis, Interactive Advertising Bureau vice president of public policy, told the FTC Friday, on the second day of a meeting to address behavioral targeting. He dismissed as "speculative" advocates' concerns that companies would misuse information gleaned from monitoring Web-surfing behavior.

Consumer and privacy advocates like the World Privacy Forum say they worry that companies could make assumptions based on Web users' online activity and then use that information to consumers' disadvantage. For instance, a health insurance company might decline coverage to people whose online behavior indicates they suffer from AIDS or other costly medical conditions.

But Zaneis and other Internet executives appearing in Washington last week say that the prospect of that type of scenario shouldn't lead to broad curbs on targeted advertising. They also argue that governmental attempts to regulate behavioral targeting will hurt the online ad industry's ability to grow and innovate.

Yowza! Isn't privacy invasion in itself reason enough to call these practices into question. I'm quite shocked by this position, and very glad that we already have even minor policies in place that establish privacy rights as citizen/consumer/human rights, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

If market research doesn't qualify as arbitrary, I don't know what does. And as for attacks upon one's reputation, I think that the scenario outlined by the World Privacy Forum certainly represents a likely and quite apt example. But what about other, less obvious instances of social sorting and categorization that occurs during web-tracking and data-mining?

A second typical industry response can be found in a thought piece ("Just an Online Minute") the publication sent out on Friday (Nov. 2), discussing Esther Dyson's call for enhanced disclosure around online marketing / data-collection practices. Here, the emphasis is on how difficult it would be to put the power back into consumers' hands, blaming the fact that many users don't read privacy policies:
Call it "Disclosure 2.0." That's the term Internet guru Esther Dyson used today to describe a new type of privacy notice that might be coming to the online marketing world. Speaking at the second day of a Federal Trade Commission conference about privacy and Web ads, Dyson proposed that social networking sites will drive new types of interaction between marketers and consumers. She said that consumers -- now trained in some aspects of the art of profile creation and maintenance via sites like Facebook -- will want to wield similar control over their marketing profiles.

Dyson predicts that users will soon ask, "If I curate my profile... and if I can decide which of my friends can see which part of my profile, why can't I do that for marketers?"

It's an intriguing idea, but executing it will be another matter. There appears to be widespread agreement that very few consumers currently read privacy notices. Of course, it's not surprising that people don't interrupt their Web surfing to click on privacy links and then read policies written in page after page of dense legalese. But, Dyson said, that doesn't mean that people don't want answers to the basic questions, "Why are you showing me this ad? What is it you know?"

Of course, the position that users are to blame for the lack of privacy protection online directly contradicts a concurrent (and also typical) industry position that companies "already fully protect users' privacy interests" and that "additional regulations could harm the online advertising industry," -- a position that was expressed in another MediaPost article which appeared on the same day. Stay tuned for some links and discussion of alternative perspectives...however, I thought it would be useful to first point out how stagnant the debate about users' rights becomes when this approach is taken by industry representatives and press...repeating the same arguments over and over, taking the same (albeit contradictory) positions time and time again, even as business practices and the technologies themselves are changing and intensifying at light speed.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Guest Commentary on Children's Media Consultant

A couple of weeks ago, Ashley from Children's Media Consultant blog invited me to write a Guest Commentary, in response to a posting she had written about Edgar & Ellen back in August. The focus of my short commentary is on child-generated content and intellectual property issues, and is entitled Who Owns the Content When Kids Produce It Online. Thanks again to Ashley for this opportunity to contribute to her site - I hope we get to do it again someday!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Jobs Galore @ Grand Text Auto

Academic gaming blog Grand Text Auto has started a thread posting the many, many communications/media/visual and digital culture positions and postdocs searching for candidates right now. While the thread is focused somewhat on jobs that would be suitable for scholars researching digital games, the calls themselves are often quite broad and relevant for new/upcoming PhDs in a variety of related fields. Job postings (all courtesy of Grand Text Auto and its thread contributors) include:

- Two new faculty positions in Game Design Studies at UC Santa Cruz

- Two new faculty positions in Digital Humanities and Media Studies at UCLA (deadlines Nov. 10 and 20), along with a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Digital Humanities (deadline Feb. 2008).

- New assistant prof. position in Television Studies at UCSD (deadline Nov. 15)

- A games-related faculty position with the Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media Department at Michigan State (upcoming)

- A tenure-track interactive visual media position with the Arts, Media and Engineering program at Arizona State University. (deadline Nov. 25 and every 4 wks until position is filled)

- An Associate or Assistant Professor in Media Studies with The Department of English at Rutgers University (New Brunswick-Piscataway) (deadline passed)

- Assistant Professor in Digital Media Studies with The Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University (reviews begin Nov. 16)

- A Tenure Track Junior Faculty Position in Communication and Technology at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Department of Language, Literature and Communication.

- A Tenure-track assistant professor position in Creative Writing program at the University of Eastern Michigan (deadline Nov. 5)

- A Tenure-Track Assistant Professor, MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (review begins December 2007)

- An Assistant Professor in New Media and Digital Culture, with the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, The Netherlands

- Assistant or Associate Professor in Game Design and Development at Michigan State University, Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media (deadline Dec. 1)

- Assistant Professor in Visual Culture/Media Studies, with the Department of Cinema and Photography, College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (deadline November 30 until filled)

- A tenure-track Assistant Professor of New Media Studies, with the Department of Communication at the University of Utah (deadline Nov.1)

- Multiple faculty positions in media studies with the Communications and New Media Programme at the National University of Singapore.

And numerous others that have been circulating in my Inbox of late, including:

- Three tenure track positions (assistant or associate prof) at Northwestern University with the Department of Communication Studies in the School of Communication: A position in Media, Technology, and Society; a position in Rhetoric, and Public Culture; and a position in New Media/Interactive Artsv(cross-appointed with the department of Radio/TV/Film) (deadline Dec. 1)

- Two positions in Cinema and Media Studies with the Department of Film at York University (deadline Dec. 1 and Jan.4 respectively)

- A tenure-track position in New Media Studies with the department of English, Linguistics, and Speech at The University of Mary Washington (deadline has passed)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Uruguay Places First Official Order of OLPC's $100 Laptops

Courtesy of the MAGIC Network, BBC News reports that Uruguay has first become the first country to place an order for 100,000 of the One Laptop per Child's (OLPC) controversial $100-laptops for kids. If all goes well, the country will purchase another 300,000 to "provide a machine for every child" in the country between the ages of 6 and 12 by 2009. According to the BBC article:
The order will be a boost for the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organisation behind the project which has admitted difficulties getting concrete orders.

"I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a cheque written," Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the organisation, recently told the New York Times.

However, he said he was "delighted" with the first deal.

"We commend Uruguay for being the first country to take concrete actions to provide laptops to all its children and teachers and look forward to other countries following this example," he said.

Some of the problems that the organization has had include the steadily rising cost of the machines, which are supposed to sell for $100 or less, but have now (according to the BBC) increased to $188. Governments were also initially limited to purchasing batches or lots of 250,000 units, in green or white...a stipulation that has now been removed. In addition to making lower lot quantities available, starting November 12, individual members of the public will also be able to buy a machine "for themselves as well as one for a child in a developing country" (an initiative called "The Give 1 Get 1 (G1G1) program). Prices for individual machines start at $299. This last part is great news for researchers interested in exploring the technology first hand, and I'm now seriously considering including a design analysis of the computer in my thesis.

Along with the OLPC laptops, the Government of Uruguay will also provide internet access to all of the schools involved.

Check out the BBC's "Clickable guide to the key features of the "$100" laptop".

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two New Films About Video Game Controversies

Courtesy of Game Politics, news about two new documentary films examining videogame controversies (and specifically focused on the videogame violence debate) that are slowly circulating through the festival circuit. The first, directed by Danny Ledonne -- the maker of the controversial game Super Columbine Massacre RPG -- follows the controversy surrounding the game, in the wake of the Columbine massacre and the ensuing anti-game political climate. The film, Playing Columbine: A True Story of a Video Game Controversy, was screened at the GameCity festival in Nottingham. You can check out Ian Bogost's coverage of the film at Water Cooler Games, or an early review at Kotaku here. As Bogost writes:
The terrific irony is that Playing Columbine has an infinitely greater chance of getting picked up for broader distribution of some kind at a festival compared to the game. Of course, it also has an infinitely greater chance of actually getting shown at a festival in which it is accepted as a selection.

Meanwhile, the Kotaku posting questions the film's seeming self-centeredness:
In his latest work, Ledonne has created a documentary about the aftermath of his game about the aftermath of the massacre. Judging by the rather short trailer, it feels like the documentary is a little too much about Ledonne and not enough about the very real and complicated issues involving both the shooting and the idea of tacking serious subject matters with video games.

You can judge for yourself if/when the film comes your way. In the meantime, you can check out the trailer on Youtube.

The second film, Mortal Kombat by Spencer Halpin, is a much more inclusive look at the history and scope of videogame controversies. As Ledonne himself describes:
It seamlessly blends together the history of the medium, highlighting the colors and textures of early videogames, the controversy-sparking 16-bit era, and the graphical sophistication of the modern platforms… The film is a visual treat from first frame to last…

While the trailer for Mortal Kombat appears to build a case against videogame violence, Ledonne maintains that the film actually supplies a "summarily decisive blow to the anti-game critics of the world." You can also read a very early review by Bija Gutoff at Apple, and/or watch the very spiffy trailer on Youtube, while you wait for a screening/copy to make its way to your area. Note: When the trailer was originally launched online last year, it was met with a lot of criticism from the games community, for its apparent sensationalizing of the issues and anti-game stance. Ledonne's comments are thus important, as it indicates that the film paints quite a different portrait than what is seen in the trailer.

p.s. Those of you with an interest in finding good documentaries about videogame culture and issues might want to check out King of Kong.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Human Values and Virtual Worlds

The Virtual Worlds Forum, which took place in London last week, started off with a bit of a bang, as keynote speaker and industry veteran Lord Puttnam gave an opening speech bemoaning the growing number of toy-based virtual worlds aimed at kids, calling them a "threat" to basic human values. According to the BBC coverage, Puttnam fears that the only thing "children will learn from these virtual spaces is that they are first and foremost consumers. He urged creators to build more moral virtual worlds that instill in children the values that societies need." Puttnam, an Oscar award winning movie producer, pointed specifically to games like Webkinz, BarbieGirls and UBFunkeys, stating:
"Are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people?" he asked. "Do we really want them to think of themselves as not much more than consumers?"

He said: "Might we not prefer to build worlds that encourage those same values and skills we wish them to exercise in the real world?"

"The challenge ahead is this - to ensure that virtual worlds are increasingly places that offer real meaning to their lives and in the real world to learn from the sense of community and collaboration that's been experienced in virtual worlds," he said.

Following these comments, the article quotes a number of CEO-types running toy-based games for kids in defense of the practice, many of whom say that using virtual worlds to communicate with children is simply "natural" since they're already so familiar with online culture, virtuality, etc. The article quotes Matthias Mikshe (founder of Stardoll), Alice Taylor (editor for education at Channel 4) and Marc Goodchild (head of interactive at BBC Children's), but these comments all focus on the popularity of virtual spaces/games among kids (and even parents), without addressing the more important aspects of Puttnam's remarks [***Update: See Comments section for Alice's clarification about her own "response," which was taken somewhat out of context, and check out some of her own postings about the Forum, BarbieGirls, etc.***]. The only game-maker to even marginally address the issue of consumer discourses within branded games was Mark Hansen, director of business development for Lego Universe. Relying on the old "chicken and egg" defense of consumer culture, Hansen had this to say:
"Is it positioned to sell more product or as an extended experience with the product they have already bought?" he asked. "Kids are very smart and will spot that really quickly."

Wow. I'm quite impressed with Puttnam's speech and his attempts to open up the discussion to something a little more complex and meaningful than we usually see in the public debates around a) kids and technology, and b) commercialization. While it's unfortunate that none of the game-makers were able/allowed to really construct an adequate response (and didn't their parents ever tell them that 'popularity' isn't everything?), at least the notions of consumer socialization, and of commercialized play as a pedagogy of consumerism have been brought to the industry's table.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Advergaming Defined

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has just published the first in a series of papers that will review the current (and future) state of advergaming -- its platforms, demographics, player behaviours and best practices. In addition to summarizing the most recent data on advergaming and usage statistics (financial, PC/console ownership rates, etc.), this first paper also provides a detailed overview (and very useful categorization) of the various forms of advergaming currently in circulation, as follows:
Advergames: Custom-made games specifically designed around a product or service (e.g. Burger King - Sneak King);

Dynamic In-game: Advertising elements within a connected game itself, that can be dynamically changed depending on location, day of week and time of day (e.g. vending machine fronts, billboards and posters);

Inter-level Ads: Display or digital video ads shown during natural breaks in gameplay, such as between levels ("inter-level") or between rounds of play;

Game Skinning: Includes game sponsorship of display units around the game, and/or custom branding integration into the game;

Product Placement: Integrated brand messaging, sponsorship and/or products into a game (e.g. beverages, mobile phones and cars);

Sponsorships: Advertiser owns 100% share-of-voice in and around an existing game, such as sponsorship of a tournament, zone (level), or session of gameplay. Advertiser might also sponsor the release of new exclusive content associated with a game;

Static In-game: Advertising elements within a game that may not be changed. These may reside within game play itself or on menus, leader boards, etc. This type of ad format is also referred to as "Hard-Coded" advertising;

Post-Game: Ads shown following completion of the game;

Pre-Game: Display or digital video advertisements shown before gameplay begins as the game is loading.

Read the full report here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Okami Lives!

Great news on the gaming front: Eurogamer, Slashdot and Joystiq are all reporting that last year's critically-acclaimed yet sadly commercially-ignored Okami will get a second crack at the big leagues, when it is transported to the Wii this coming spring (2008). You might remember me going on and on about this game when I played it early this year. And given the unique forms of gameplay enabled by Wii technology, I'm pretty excited to play the remake. Here's an excerpt from the Eurogamer article:
Celebrated on PS2 for its absorbing puzzle and action adventure mechanics, gripping narrative inspired by Japanese folklore and beautiful watercolour visuals, its rebirth on Wii has been much hyped.

The game also lends itself rather well to the potential of Nintendo's Wiimote for control. Amaterasu's Celestial Brush - a paintbrush used in combat and for solving puzzles - is a perfect fit for the Wiimote, and so it proves, while combat will also include various "motion-controlled physical attacks".

I completely agree that this game is pretty much the perfect candidate for adaptation to the Wii - even though the original PS2 version was amazing and groundbreaking, the opportunity to draw with the Wiimote is going to be something else entirely. Since playing Okami, I often find myself wishing I could pause whatever game I'm playing to draw in a Slash or Lightening Bolt. I also wonder if the Wii version will retain the original T rating...there's was really no reason for it. Other than a couple of subversive jokes, there's nothing "crude" or suggestive or particularly violent about it. Anyway, keep your eyes peeled for a Wii trailer.

Massively Preschooler Online Games

David Kaplan has written a piece on PaidContent.org about Nickelodeon's MyNoggin (which launched yesterday) and Disney's upcoming Bunnytown (to be launched later this week[???] -- the article says yes, but I can't find confirmation). Both are virtual worlds, and both are aimed squarely at preschoolers.

Nick's MyNoggin, which launched yesterday, is described by Kaplan as:
[A] casual game that is the main feature of a subscription-based, ad-free service for preschoolers and their parents. The game is described as “curriculum-based learning through game play.” The game also serves to promote Nick Jr. and Noggin characters, which game players use as icons.

The site itself advertises games that "progress with child's achievement", and reports that will let parents monitor their child's in-game learning. Meanwhile, Disney is expected to release further details about its Bunnytown site, which will tie into a new Saturday morning Disney Channel puppet show premiering next month (check out the trailer here).

Although Kaplan argues that the sites have different strategies in mind -- emphasizing that MyNoggin will be ad-free, while ignoring 'character branding' as its own highly effective ad strategy -- it's clear that both aim to cross-promote ancillary products and media (For a different incarnation of the same article and argument, check out Daisy Whitney's post at TV Week, which positions the sites as the "two different approaches" to creating virtual worlds for preschoolers). Nickelodeon might couch this in educational/participatory culture discourses, but Disney is much more upfront about their expectations around branded play. As the article explains:
Disney’s online offerings, on the other hand, are intended to drive viewership and product purchases. Mindy Stockfield, VP of digital media at Disney Channel and Jetix, tells TVWeek that the entertainment giant is giving kids exactly what they want. Stockfield pointed to research, commissioned by Disney, that showed viewers have a particular affinity for particular shows and brands, saying, “By playing our games and being part of the content, it engages them so much they want to watch the show more.”

What Kaplan and Whitney don't mention is that Nick and Disney are not alone in creating immersive online experiences for preschoolers. Just last week, Sesame Workshop launched its much anticipated Panwapa, a virtual world that seeks to teach 4-to-7 year olds about global citizenship, and introduce a new transnational team of Sesame muppets. For a great description of the site's contents, check out this posting at Children's Media Consultant. Similarly, if I heard correctly at last week's aoir conference, PBS Kids is also planning a virtual world or community for preschoolers. So far, all of these initiatives appear to emphasize "educational" content -- likely as a strategy to get parents on board with letting their 4-year-olds play online. And I'm sure we'll be hearing a LOT about "safety" as well, though how either of these dimensions are to be defined and implemented remains to be explored.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Child-Generated Content Gets Televised

I've been meaning to post on this since before my comps, but somehow didn't found the time until now. Following the success of Canadian Zimmer Twins and other (possibly less successful) attempts to integrate "child-generated content" into cross-media properties (check out my post on this from last March), Star Farm/Bardel Entertainment/YTV have announced their own plans to integrate kid-produced content into their co-venture, kiddie-goth property Edgar and Ellen. Here's an excerpt from the Star Farm press release, posted in August by Izzy Neis (who, by the way, also does work for Star Farm):
Viewers will finally see just how wildly creative the twins can be as fans inspire 10% of the content and receive full credit [***yay!!!***]. Every episode contains a short-form cartoon that is inspired by their global fans via www.edgarandellen.com. The twins, in the most startling trick of all, break through the screen barrier and address their fellow pranksters by name.

While many companies struggle to incorporate user-generated content, Edgar & Ellen is pioneering a multi-layered approach throughout its storytelling. The mischief-makers reach audiences through multiple platforms simultaneously. Avid fans in scores of countries read the books and create content online.

I haven't seen any of the resulting products, but I really appreciate the fact that kids will receive full credit for their contributions. This represents a pretty radical departure from the emerging norm among sites/companies soliciting UGC from kids (and adults), who much more often claim full copyrights over contributions and other submissions, even when kids' contributions are central to the goal and contents of the property. Take, for example, Lost the Plot Online, Inc. (LTPO)'s terms of use for Zimmer Twins, a site aimed at enabling kids to create and submit episodes for the brand's interstitial television programming:
Again, if your content is selected for broadcast through Teletoon Canada Inc., we will have you execute a release and contract relating to that broadcast. Those documents will indicate that you assign all rights in the content to LTPO and that you allow LTPO to license the use of the content to Teletoon Canada Inc. for broadcast.

While Zimmer Twins has so far been limited to Canada and to web/TV cross-overs, the brand shared Star Farm's plan to expand to a variety of formats over the coming months. According to an article appearing in KidScreen earlier this month:
The co-branded Zimmer Twins site will be featured on qubo.com beginning December 2007, and will include games, puzzles and tools for creating user-generated mini-movies. Cross promotion for the new web elements on qubo's broadcast and digital services is in the works and will feature story-starter clips that ask viewers how they would finish each story and then direct them to the website to make their own creations.

The best user-generated toons, and their creators, will get a nod on qubo's weekly NBC, ION and Telemundo networks broadcasts, and daily on the qubo 24/7 channel that's available in the US on on select digital, cable and satellite systems.

As a member of the MAGIC Network and a big supporter of children's rights, I am 100% supportive of involving kids in cultural production processes, and creating media and cultural products that reflect kids' own ideas and priorities. What troubles me about all this is that there are as yet no clear guidelines or rules about how kids' copyright/authorship fits into corporately-defined intellectual property regimes...and no formal mechanism in place to ensure that their potential rights are upheld. While properties like Edgar and Ellen appear to be taking a positive approach and enforcing their own ethics about how child producers should be treated, I suspect that unless this is implemented at a structural level (regulatory, legal, or at the very least through industry standards of practice) and/or unless some sort of challenge is put forth, the majority of media producers will maintain their existing stance vis-a-vis user submissions, and continue to claim full copyright/authorship over kids' ideas.

In the meantime, check out some of the other initiatives quietly involved in setting the standard -- iCarly and Me:TV -- both Nickelodeon properties, and both of which make sweeping IP claims over user submissions (forever, throughout the universe type claims).

And for some more discussion on this, you should check out this posting by Children's Media Consultant

Saturday, October 20, 2007

New NPD Report: The Small Child Gamer

Earlier this week, Beth Snyder Bulik at AdAge covered the new NPD Group report on children and videogames, identifying "6" as the new entry age into "serious" gaming. Here's an excerpt of Bulik's article:
NPD Group's annual survey on children and video games, released this week, found that while older kids still dominate in time spent per week on gaming, the most significant spike in hours played occurs between the 2-to-5-year-old and 6-to-8-year-old groups. First-, second- and third-graders spend 75% more time than they used to on gaming, adding an average of three hours per week to their playing time.

"When kids get to the 6-to-8-year-old age range is when we see them turn into more serious gamers. Not only does the amount of time they spend playing games increase the most dramatically, but they migrate from using 'kid' systems to using more portable and console systems as well," NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier said in a news release.

I think that this is the first study I've come across that considers the shift from "kid systems" to regular gaming devices. Fascinating stuff, and I'm surprised it's not something we hear about more often. The article also provides details about kids gaming habits:
The study also found that one-third of children ages 2 to 17 spend more time playing video games than they did a year ago. Half of the kids were classified as light users, at five or fewer hours played per week, while the other half were medium, heavy or "super" users, playing six to 16 hours or more every week.

"At 58%, personal computers have the highest percentage of personal use for gaming among kids age 2 to 17," NPD Group Director David Riley said. "Not only is the PC the most accessible, but because of the dynamic nature of the internet, it tends to be less expensive for marketers than console and portable platforms."

So, it seems that part of what we're talking about here are online casual games, like Club Penguin perhaps, or even BarbieGirls. Bulik, and her interviewees at Ubisoft, are optimistic that this will translate into revenue for the traditional game industry as well, as companies move into the small child market with new casual games for kids. However, she also considers some of the impact this move might have on the commercialization of kids' culture: "While more kiddie playtime does represent opportunity for marketers and game publishers, the increasingly younger demographic and time spent on gaming raises some eyebrows -- and concerns."

She gives some space to Robert Weissman of Commercial Alert, who raises the issue of child obesity and its potential links to gaming -- focusing on in-game advertising! He states:
Advertisers and marketers have penetrated deep into the video-gaming world across all demographics. They're delivering sophisticated, tailored and repeated messages to children that their parents don't even know about," he said.

Bulik's reply is a surprisingly ill-informed defense of the in-game ad industry, claiming:
That may have been true for some marketers -- the most often accused are food, beverage and kids' entertainment brands -- but ad-serving companies that deliver in-game marketing, such as Double Fusion, for instance, are staying out of kids' views.

If there is one area of gaming where ads have run completely rampant it's kids' online and casual gaming. Just because this one marketer "stays away" from kids' games (and adds that they also refuse to in-game advertise tobacco and porn...wow), hardly supports Bulik's implication that advergaming or in-game advertising to kids is limited in any significant way. The article ends with some lip service to how parents are the real gatekeepers, and that game producers should employ a double marketing strategy, one that targets kids, and another aimed at parents that "emphasize[s] the creative or educational aspects of the game". I wonder if these guys have read Sold Separately? Anyway, way to set up the one critical perspective of this issue as some sort of straw man argument to dismiss...why even bother including an opposing perspective if it's just to pretend that the concerns expressed are unfounded or irrelevant?

Read the complete article here.
Read the GameDaily BIZ coverage here.
Read the original NPD Group press release here.