Monday, October 15, 2007

aoir 8.0: Let's Play, October 17-20 2007

This week, I'll be presenting my work on television-themed MMOGs for kids at the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (aoir). The theme this year, "Let's Play", explores the "(playful) blurring of boundaries online". Here's an excerpt from the official conference description:
Our conference theme of play invites empirical research and theoretical reflection on how human beings "seriously play" with one another on, via and through internet/s, on local, regional, and global scales. We call for papers that explore the intersection of the serious and the playful, the sacred and the profane, the revolutionary and the mundane, and fantasy and the reality.

Highlights (i.e. things I'm especially looking forward to) include a keynote address by Henry Jenkins, and presentations by Hector Postigo, Tarleton Gillespie, and Dan Burk, Mia Consalvo, danah boyd, Sal Humphreys, Bryan-Mitchell Young, and various others. Here's the abstract for the paper I'm presenting:
Saturday Morning Cartoons Go MMOG: Cross-media integration, branded play and the migration of children’s television to massively multiplayer online gaming

Since the 1980s, children's television has established itself as the nexus of cross-media integration within North American children's culture, both in terms of its frequent expansion across a variety of media forms, as well as its extension to a vast array of consumer products through merchandizing tie-ins. Today's successful children's television programs consistently adopt a cross-media strategy that transports their characters and themes into film (both feature and direct-to-video), print (books, comic books and magazines), and the digital realm (websites, video games, mobile content)—- each of which works to cross-promote the others, and all of which promote related merchandise. From action figures and play-sets, clothing items and school supplies, children's television and its companion media provide characters and narratives that act as a type of media-brand for innumerable "tie-in" toys and commodities. These products allow children to "play" with elements and characters from the shows, wear their images, and use quotidian objects that bare their imprint. Through the coordination of media content and branded toys, children’s television promotes a form of narrativized or "branded" play which sees children loosely conforming to the scripts and parameters predetermined by these media texts during both fantasy play and when playing with the branded objects (Kinder 1991; Seiter 1993; Kline 1995; Fleming 1996). When children "play television" they are not only often engaging with specific tie-in products, but they are also building more intimate relationships with particular media-brands.

The quest to get children "playing television" has been most recently achieved through a number of highly successful, television-themed online destinations for kids, often produced by networks carrying large amounts of children's programming. Websites or "online communities" such as Cartoonnetwork.com (in the US) and YTV.com (in Canada) consistently rank among the most frequented and top-rated by their relevant target markets. Here, networks are able to offer users information, games and content related to popular shows, direct-market their tie-in products and merchandise, and build brand loyalty. While these sites may feature a variety of cool applications and engaging activities, including discussion forums, mini-games, and exclusive "webisodes," they are ultimately promotional vehicles for the television network, its programs, and cross-media/merchandizing initiatives. More recently, the children’s television industry has once again sought to expand its scope, this time setting its sights on an emerging form of digital gaming that has already proven immensely popular amongst older market segments—the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

This paper will explore the migration of the children's television networks to the realm of MMOGs, the issues these new games raise in terms of the commercialization and rationalization of children's (online) play, and their significance within the larger context of the gaming industry. Tracing the development of three television-themed MMOGs targeted directly at children, I will examine how this new form of cross-media integration both extends and diverges from previous instances of "branded play." I will discuss the ethical implications of enhancing the immersive qualities of child-targeted branded play spaces, considering the ways in which children's special needs and vulnerabilities make them particularly susceptible to certain forms of manipulation inherent within "immersive branding" of this kind. At the same time, however, I will consider how the unique properties of existing, adult-oriented MMOGs—including an emphasis on collaboration, creativity and open-ended narratives—have enabled compelling instances of player-empowerment that could easily be reproduced within child-specific virtual worlds. In this sense, television-themed MMOGs and other "branded" play-spaces could in fact provide children with "narrative openings" instead of enclosures, allowing them to break-down, appropriate, subvert and re-write the very scripts and parameters that have traditionally constrained other forms of branded play. This analysis applies a critical approach to the study of technology (Feenberg 1999), drawing forth the political and ethical dimensions of specific design features and choices found within the three case studies examined, while utilizing a user-centered approach in the accompanying discussion of their meaning and potential impact on the experience of the child player.


New/Additional Resources:
Virtual Worlds, Real Ad Dollars in eMarketer Daily.
Are Kids Ready for Ads in Virtual Worlds? in C|Net News.com.
Virtual-world Makers Aim To Hook Kids, also in C|Net News.com and also written by Stefanie Olsen.

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