Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ESRB Ratings System Revamp

Having recently watched the wonderful documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (a behind-the-scenes look at the American movie ratings system, the MPAA), I can't help but be skeptical of the ESRB's (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) recent announcement that they are revamping their own ratings process to better address, well, content. The big news here is that they've decided to hire full-time raters, which will allow them to now play the games themselves instead of relying on game companies to self-report potentially objectionable content. Both GamePolitics.com and Joystiq have been following this development closely, and you can read some of their articles here and here.

Obviously, it's high time that this switch was made. It's hard to believe that the Board was able to claim objective and accurate ratings based solely on a few clips and game companies' varied (and, yes, subjective) understandings of what the Board would qualify as violent, sexual, etc. content. It made me think about the MPAA, however, and the types of people that make up THEIR ratings team - in This Film is Not Yet Rated, they discovered that the vast majority were middle-aged parents of adult children (and not parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17, as the MPAA suggests), and typically quite middle/upper-middle class (they didn't explore this in too much detail, but the size of their houses and the small salary attached to the position of 'rater' strongly suggests supplementary income). They sit around watching movies all day, taking notes, discussing content, and then vote on a rating.

I just don't think that this same approach is going to work with video games, namely because of the demographics and nature of gameplay. While the average age of a digital game player is 29, the average age of console players and players of games that would require the more-thorough playthrough in the first place (i.e. NOT casual games or online Solitaire, etc.), is surely much lower. And the pool of qualified people - assuming they're looking for raters who are already know how to play videogames (and hopefully are good enough to get through long games and learn the various different control configurations) and not planning on sending new raters to some sort of video game boot camp (which I doubt would really work that well) - is much smaller (and male dominated, which is another issue altogether). I guess what I'm trying to say is that I just don't think it's likely that the same type of people that currently decide on film ratings would be willing or able to play 20+ hours of a game in order to rate it. This could mean a much different set of criteria and demographics for the ESRB raters, and I really wonder if this will change the general tone of the ESRB or its resultant ratings in the future.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New Articles in The Escapist...& Feminist Media Studies

The new issue of The Escapist is out today, featuring a selection of "editor's picks" (articles that didn't play well with the other issues) including an article written by me (yay!) about the topic of my MA research, datamining in kids' advergames. This article is the culmination of quite a bit of hard work - I contacted the magazine's editors last spring to see if they'd be interested in publishing me (and sort of kept pestering them until they agreed), while the article itself is quite a divergence from the style and voice that you become used to as an academic. It was a long road, but one that I'm immensely happy and proud to have taken, as this represents my first professional publication outside of academia. A big thanks to Russ Pitts and the editorial team at The Escapist for giving me this unique opportunity.
Check it out yourself by clicking here.

In a second item of good news (shesh!), the online discussion on Digital Games and Gender I participated in last fall with Helen Kennedy and Mia Consalvo has been published as the "Commentary and Criticism" section of the latest issue of Feminist Media Studies journal. (Subscription is probably required to access the article online)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Child-Generated Content Gets Televised

This news item appeared in KidScreen Daily last week, written by Gary Rusak:

February 19, 1007: Nickelodeon is launching a new TV block...that draws from online counterpart Nick.com. For two hours every weekday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Nickelodeon's Me:TV will feature content uploaded by audience members to its main website.

Hosted by Alexandra Gizela and Jordan Carlos, the block features four kids live on-air via webcam, online voting, gaming, giveaways and celebrity guests. It takes cues from current Nick shows U-Pick Live and Slimetime Live, using a live studio audience and kid participation through instant messaging, phone calls and internet message boards to up the interactive quotient. Kids are encouraged to submit their videos to www.nick.com/metv, where they will be rated and shared by the community, à la YouTube. Unlike the adult-oriented site, however, Me:TV is being heavily monitored and moderated, and the net requires parental permission before it will put any user-generated content on air.

On a related note, YTV will once again hold its Spring Break Show-down, allowing kids to pick what programs will air over their spring break and getting them to vote for favourite shows, etc.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Angelina Ballerina and Barbie Hit the Stage

This is a pretty cute story about a co-venture in the UK between HIT Entertainment and the English National Ballet to bring popular children's character-brand Angelina Ballerina to the real life stage. From the ballet troupe's press release:
Angelina’s Star Performance brings the magic of Angelina Ballerina to life in her first live performance on stage. The production features a cast of eight dancers from English National Ballet with over 100 performances over three weeks in 20 venues across the UK. [...] Angelina’s Star Performance will be a special introduction to ballet for children from the age of 3+ and the tour will be complemented by an education programmed designed to give children the opportunity to experience ballet. The performances will also feature fun activities and workshops in the venues including the opportunity to take part in Angelina Ballerina Dance Academy™ classes.

A similar kind of venture was recently attempted in the US, where you can now catch the Columbus Symphony Orchestra playing live renditions of famous songs included in the Barbie ballet movies, while scenes from the films are projected overhead. The idea behind both projects is to introduce a new generation of youngsters to traditional cultural forms, in this case the symphony and the ballet. Of course, the idea is also to introduce a new level of commercialization to yet another aspect of cultural life. I suppose both parties are getting something out of it - but for the kids watching these productions (or participating in a media-branded ballet class - eek!), it's above all just another case of brand expansion.

To find out about Barbie/Mattel's ongoing relationship with the New York City Ballet, read this!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sexualization of Girls in the Media

The American Psychological Association (APA) released a new report earlier this week about the on-going sexualization of young girls in advertising, merchandising and the media. In a press release on the reports' findings, Dr. Eileen L. Zurbriggen, a representative of the APA Task Force on Sexualization, states:
“The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development. We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.”

The Task Force has defined sexualization "as occurring when a person’s value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another’s sexual use." Their study included an extensive review of published articles examining the contents and effects of a variety of media and marketing, as well as family and peer influence. As with other APA literature reviews into media effects, the report does not argue causality, but does conclude that a link (correlation) is likely and therefore supports reduced exposure and increased parental intervention (such as media education).

I particularly like the way the APA has included products and marketing discourse in its review, as seen in this article about inappropriately sexy children's toys (such as Bratz dolls). They seem to be approaching the issue in a comprehensive way, demonstrating how a coherent and near-ubiquitous message of sexualization can be found across the gamut of children's (and particularly girls') culture--from toys and clothing, to media and public discourse, to peer groups and how the issues are addressed at home. It's much more convincing than a mere media effects model (which sometimes tries to isolate influence), primarily because it tries to take into account the way in which we experience the media as (more or less) integrated elements of our particular cultural environment...instead of as a series of somewhat distinct relationships.

Anyway, there seems to be a lot going on around this topic these days, with a high profile lawsuit in Australia involving a left-wing think tank's claims that retailer David Jones sexually exploits children in its ads. This will be the first time the issue of sexualization in advertising has been considered by a court, so it will be interesting to see how it all turns out. There are also a number of books coming out, both academic and general interest, including one co-authored by Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin (planned title: So Sexy, So Soon), as well as one by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown entitled Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers' schemes (available now). For a great look at the history of eroticization and sexualization of young girls in Western popular culture, I recommend Valerie Walkerdine's wonderfully provocative book Daddy's Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Trend Watch: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Merchandising Bonanza

The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles computer-animated movie is coming out on March 23, amidst a stunningly comprehensive cross-promotion/merchandising bonanza that will attempt to revive the brand to its glory days of yore. One of my most vivid memories of the original TMNT toy fad from the 80s and early 90s involves the release of the second feature film, green popcorn at the cinema (even Maniwaki did not escape THAT grosserific promotional stunt), and an extended period of wearing our karate gui at inappropriate times to make sure everyone knew that we, too, were Ninjas. Everyone had a favourite Turtle (Donatello!), and there was a unique kind of frenzy around the brand that I do not remember really ever experiencing before TMNT.

While a television show based on the original hit series has aired on Saturday Mornings over the past couple of years with some success, the brand has yet to reproduce that same level of frenzy among today's youth. As with many of these retro-80s brands, however, the secret ingredient is parents' nostalgia - the hope is that as parents watch the show or film with their kids, their warm and fuzzy memories (of the brands they themselves enjoyed as kids) will compell them to try to relive the experience through their children...by buying them the products, bringing them to see the film, etc. This strategy has been gradually building momentum, as 80s kids (the first generation to experience a hyper-commercialized children's culture) have now reached adulthood and are starting to have kids of their own. And I suspect we'll see a lot more of it in the next 5-7 years (as more of us start having families).

Here's the full list of cross-promo initiatives that we can look forward to in the coming months, as provided by KidScreen:
McDonald's: TMNT Happy Meals with eight different premiums will be available and promoted through TV, radio and online campaigns.

Airheads: A special lime-flavored Airhead will be included in 12 million packs of the candies. Each package will also contain a TMNT temporary tattoo. TV spots will tag the promotion.

Time Warner Cable: Time Warner's many media outlets are going to promote a sweepstakes that offers the chance to win a trip to Warner Bros. Studios. Additionally, the company is holding advance screenings in three major US markets and mall events in Dallas and L.A. The TMNT Ubisoft video game is slated to sit at the center of the promos.

Cool Cuts 4 Kids: The salon chain is offering TMNT coloring books, card games and other items, as well as a sweepstakes to win a private screening of the movie. The chain will also distribute advance movie passes in Dallas.

Kmart: Customers who purchase US$10 worth of TMNT movie toys from Playmates Toys will receive an exclusive pack of four collectible trading cards.

Wal-Mart: 1,000 of the chain's top stores are giving away movie posters to every customer who buys a TMNT movie toy.

Toys 'R' Us: Customers who spend US$20 on Playmates Toys' TMNT movie merch will receive a US$5 movie-branded gift card from the chain.

Licensee count: 35 manufacturers are onboard with products ranging from video games (Ubisoft) to apparel (Hot Topic).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Global Internet Penetration 2006

eMarketer.com has published the most recent statistics on Internet penetration by population (in both millions and %) for a number of countries around the world. While the US still represents the world's largest Internet market (181.9 million), the article predicts that China is likely to "take the lead" within the next couple of years. The world's largest country currently holds the world's second largest market, with 133.5 million online, but at a mere 10.2% penetration rate (compared to the US at 63.6%) China still has a lot of room to grow as Internet access eventually expands into the bulk of its population. Canada continues to rank among the "most connected" countries in the world with a 63.4% penetration rate, just behind the US, Australia (64.5%) and Japan (68.4%). These statistics seem a little low to me (esp. for Canada), so proceed with caution when using them.

There are currently over 1 billion Internet users worldwide, representing 16.6% of the global population.

Speaking Engagement: ACT Book Workshop

Update: You can now access the full program, abstracts as well as (coming soon) audio and video files of the presentations (including mine) on the ACT Lab website. Enjoy!

Next week I will be presenting an overview of the work I've been doing with Andrew Feenberg on expanding instrumentalization theory to the study of digital games, as part of a one-day workshop for the upcoming Applied Communication Technology (ACT) Lab book. Here's the official announcement:

Graduate students in the ACT Lab have been working for a year with Dr. Andrew Feenberg and several of his colleagues on a forthcoming book entitled (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. This workshop is a report on the progress of their research. The presentations correspond to chapters that explore the social construction of the Internet in a variety of settings, from video games to online education, civic participation to music sharing. The theme is the shaping of the Internet by the practices of users who attempt to influence its design and impact. The Internet appears in these presentations not just as a functional device but also as a field of struggle within which a variety of social and technical factors meet, contend, and converge to produce new forms.

Presenters include noted philosopher of technology Dr. Andrew Feenberg, communication scholar and author of Internet Society Dr. Maria Bakardjieva and Dr. Norm Friesen (Canada Research Chair at Thompson River University). Other panelists include: Ted Hamilton, Cindy Xin, Michael Felczak, Florence Chee, Sara Grimes, Darryl Cressman and Kate Milberry.

Friday, February 23, 2007
Segal Graduate School of Business (500 Granville St.)
4800 Policy Room
10am-4pm

The workshop is co-sponsored by SFU’s School of Communication and the Institute for the Humanities.
Admission is FREE but reservations are required. Call 604-268-7845 to reserve seats.


My presentation will focus on a chapter I'm co-authoring with Andrew called "Rationalizing Play: A critical theory of digital gaming." Here's the abstract:
Despite the rapidly growing body of research and theoretical discussion of digital games and gaming communities, few serious attempts have thus far been made to establish a critical theory of digital game technologies. Yet games exhibit rational features in all societies by their very logic, which implies equality of players whose moves constitute equivalents exchanged under strict classifications and rules according to strategies of optimization with precisely calculable results. In this way, games appear as a realm of rational behaviour long before rationalization overtakes society as a whole. As long as they were limited to individual activities practiced within traditional contexts, however, they did not represent a form of social rationality. With the spread of new forms and practices in digital gaming, particularly the growing participation in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) on the Internet, the rational features of games become the basis for the production of a form of social rationality analyzable on terms similar to those employed in the study of technology.

This paper attempts to construct a new framework for the study of games as sites of social rationalization, applying Feenberg's critical theory of technology through an expansion and modification of his concepts of primary and secondary instrumentalization. We begin by making the case for a consideration of games as systems of social rationalization, akin to other modern systems such as capitalist markets and bureaucratic organizations. We then propose a differentiated conceptualization of play that allows us to understand play as a process through which the player focuses attention away from the undifferentiated action of everyday life. This approach also enables us to see how the experience of play changes as it becomes increasingly rationalized through the technological mediation and widespread standardization that occurs as a game becomes a large-scale social practice. Our theoretical framework culminates in the construction of a theory of the rationalization of play, which we have called ludification, which outlines the key components found in all socially rationalizing games. Finally, we will test our theory by applying our framework to the specific example of MMOGs.

MMOGs present a particularly compelling case study, for their players hold a high level of situated knowledge that enables them to engage with digital games technology in a number of ambiguous and unanticipated ways, and as such continue to have tremendous impact on the development, content and function of games within digital culture. Through these unplanned aspects of technical relations the "margin of manoeuvre" of digital games is uncovered, through which, we will argue, players have the potential to truly revolutionize this new medium. As sites of ongoing struggle between players and programmers over the design of the games and usage of the game elements, MMOGs allow for an exploration of ludification that also considers the potential for democratic rationalization inherent within all socially rationalizing systems.

If any of you are in the Vancouver area and would like to attend, I advise reserving asap, as it would seem spaces are quickly filling up. And if any anonymous readers are able to make it, please do introduce yourself to me after the talk!


Updated: Press Coverage of (Re)Inventing the Internet:
"Commerce 'a threat' to democracy of Internet" in the National Post
Same story in the Vancouver Sun
TRU Press Release

UNICEF's Annual Report on Children's Well-Being: Canada Ranks 12

The UN released its annual report on children's well-being in the world's 21 richest (OECD) countries yesterday, showing a continued negligence on the part of powerful nations when it comes to the care of their youngest citizens. While Canada came in 2nd for Education and 6th for Material Well-Being, we scored 12 overall, tied with Greece. This is particularly surprising given that Canada is consistently placed at the top of the UN's Human Development Index (the Quality of Life Survey). With low scores in young people's sense of well-being (15th), risky behaviours (17th), peer/family relationships (18th), and health and safety (13th), Canada will have some work to do before its kids catch up with its adults. We also have a disproportionately large number of families living below the poverty line, a large percentage of which are single-parent households.

Meanwhile, the US and the UK occupied the lowest overall scores, coming in 20th and 21st respectively, with low scores in all six of the measured categories. I can't help but think of the soaring childhood obesity rates in both of these countries, and wonder how much all of these things might be linked. For example, the US scored last in health and safety, which measures things like low birth weight and infant mortality (both of which are often associated with developing countries and low-income groups), but also very low (20th) in peer/family relationships and risky behaviour.

Here's the full list:
1. The Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada (tie)
12. Greece (tie)
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom


And here are the top scorers for each of the six categories measured:
Material Well-Being: Sweden
Health and Safety: Sweden
Educational Well-Being: Belgium
Family and Peer Relationahips: Italy
Behaviours and Risks: Sweden
Subjective Well-Being: The Netherlands


You can download the report, read the UNICEF press release, or check out this article in yesterday's Globe and Mail (registration may be required after 7 days) for more information.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lucas, from Star Wars to Lego


(Image reproduced from Gizmondo)

In recognition of his massive contributions to media-driven toy mechandising and the invention of the contemporary action figure, George Lucas was inducted into the toy industry Hall of Fame this weekend. The event both launched the American International Toy Fair and set the tone for the fair's (and the industry's) ongoing emphasis on movie-toy crossovers. Lucas has played a key role in the evolution of children's play culture, primarily by way of his numerous and highly innovative forays into the licensing and merchandising of the Star Wars franchise. The films have supplied a seemingly endless array of characters, creatures, vehicles and starships upon which toys, action figures, LEGO building sets and now video games continue to be based. More importantly, Star Wars was the basis for a new level of cross-media, cross-product, transnational synergy that soon re-set the bar for what a successful kids' media brand could hope to achieve. As Dan Fleming (1996: 96), author of Powerplay: Toys as Popular Culture (one of my comp readings) writes, "[I]nternational merchandising of this kind is a ten-times more lucrative business now than it was before Star Wars...[The release of the first Star Wars film] marks an unmistakable watershed in terms of a much more densely interconnected and interdependent global popular culture of imagery and artifacts."

The bust that LEGO has created in honour of Lucas' induction (seen above) is a particularly apt symbol of Lucas' on-going role in shaping children's play, through both the spread of media-branding into an ever expanding diversity of children's playthings, as well as the close relationship this shares with digitization. LEGO and Star Wars currently enjoy an immensely lucrative partnership, that extends both brands from the physical (LEGO playsets and related merchandise) to the virtual realm (through the LEGO Star Wars video games and highly popular online community). Both incarnations promote a form of narrativised or branded play that in fact encourages kids to appropriate, subvert, and manipulate, but ultimately submit to the thematic motifs and narrative structures provided by the films and related media. Looking again to Fleming's (1996: 104) analysis, we can see how his description of Star Wars brand action figures and toys can easily apply to the LEGO sets and video games as well:
"The narrative elements, or derived 'play scenarios' as Kenner's Star Wars toy designers thought of them, marked a substantially new development in the way children were being encouraged to interact with toys."

While previous TV-based toys encouraged kids to play out scenes or scenarios from the texts themselves,
"these new narrative contexts had multiple narrative possibilities deliberately built into them from the beginning. With clearly established teams of characters and basic story structures..." kids were given the basic tools for the creation of endless plot derivatives, and encouraged to do so.

I'm not sure what exactly to make of all this, but I do like "narrativised play" as a concept. I find it much more suitable to the malleable, semi-empowering forms of branded play that are currently so popular among the children's industries--play that integrates real opportunities for agency and creativity (and user-generated content) within the overarching, oppressive authority of a well-defined media (or consumer) brand.

You can read the Lucas Film press release from back in May (when the announcement was first made) here.

Or click here for a fascinating story about LEGO Education Centers via KidScreen.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cyberkids at the Toy Fair

The American International Toy Fair starts next week (Feb. 11-14) and this year everyone is all "a buzz" about " high tech"...again! Part of this is a result of the ongoing celebratory discourse around tech-savvy "cyberkids" (which promotes the idea that if kids are encouraged to develop their innate technological skills they will be better prepared for a future as IT workers), but mostly the industry seems to be responding to consumer trends. The US toy industry grew for the first time in ages last year (to $22.3 billion), primarily due to a 22% increase in the "youth electronics" category--which grew from $871.5 million (2005) to $1.1 billion (2006). (Note: That's not including video games, which have their own category and represented an additional $12.5 billion last year in the US alone). The Toy Fair (as it's called) is a big deal for toy manufacturers and retailers, who are now dealing with a $60 billion global industry which remains dominated by US toy companies (Mattel and Hasbro are the biggest in the world, with Japanese companies Bandai and Sanrio, and Denmark's Lego rounding out the top five), and by US retailers (Wal-Mart and Toys'R'US are the top two toy sellers in the world (in that order)).

As toy trend specialist Reyne Rice describes, "About four to five years ago we saw that kids were starting to leave the toy industry for four main areas: music, fashion, electronics and entertainment. So by bringing those play patterns into products that are suitable and accessible for kids -- and priced for families' wallets -- the youth electronics aisle has exploded with those types of products."

While tech toys are seemingly nothing new, it appears that their dominance over this year's Toy Fair is worthy of note. I also noticed two key themes in the press and corporate discourse around the event so far that I think are worth exploring:

1. Toying with Technology
The first key theme is a sort of dumbing down or "toy-ification" of existing technologies that are believed to be popular among kids. This is immediately apparent in Gelfand's Wired coverage, wherein he states: "[T]oy manufacturers will be introducing a host of adult technologies aimed at small children -- including kid-friendly laptops, graphics tablets, digital cameras and a host of other high-tech items." A good example is the ClickStart laptop for kids, which consists of a toy computer that plugs into the TV instead of into real computer applications or the internet. According to Chris Byrne (the "Toy Guy"), "Kids insist on being on the computer, and giving them one that satisfies that desire to be like mom and dad, and have a computer, but one that connects to the TV, is really good" (cited in MarketWatch).

I see here a fascinating contradiction - on the one hand, there's this urge to have the child play with technology, but on the other hand the implication is that real technologies are for adults. Instead of really engaging with the technologies themselves, these toys encourage kids to "play" at or role-play using the computer. A sort of Easy-Bake Oven for the digital age. Of course, the idea to have kids "play" at computers is an attempt to safely replicate the widespread reality of kids playing on computers. By transforming a new and perhaps threatening relationship, that of children-and-technology, into the more traditionally understood relationship of "children and toy", the notion of the cyberchild is reconstituted in familiar terms--where the parent retains authority over technology, and the child's activities are redirected towards the contained space of the playroom.

2. Enclosure
The second trend involves toys and software aimed at constraining existing technologies to give parents a sense of control over their children’s technologically-mediated activities. Three new toys in particular stand out in this regard, Mattel/Fisher-Price’s Easy-Link Internet Launchpad (which plugs into your PC’s USB, and acts as a portal and internet filter to ensure kids can only access certain age-appropriate websites…perhaps primarily those created by Mattel???), Vtech’s V.Space online (an educational desktop application), and Hasbro/Tiger Games’ Net Jet (an online gaming system for pre-teens). Again, the emphasis is on control, though in this case the toy/software integrates existing technologies (such as the internet) but in a highly limited way. Thus, kids can go on the internet, but can only visit certain websites and engage in certain types of activities. As with the previous batch, however, I fear that the social construction of these new technological artefacts positions children in a very specific and highly ideological way. While the celebratory discourse around kids and technology remains an underlying factor here (it is, after all, the aura), the relationship is perceived as something that must be contained, enclosed, stopped and modified. The creative aspects seem to be left out almost completely (although there are some art/graphics games that encourage creativity with digital art), as are the social and cultural aspects of going online to play with other kids or to participate in a new form of cultural production. Instead, kids’ digital play is re-interpreted as a highly purposeful and primarily commercialized form of play. The emphasis on education is no coincidence—the desire to transform children’s online play, as Ellen Seiter describes, into a productive pursuit is obvious within these toys which seek to appropriate the relationship by selling parents the magic beans of the digital age: safety and education.

Here are the full articles for the Wired, and MarketWatch coverage.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"S" is for Sesame Street


The Kidscreen Summit is going on right now, providing an endless stream of children's media related news items. In particular, two announcements from the Sesame Workshop have caught my eye. For a number of years now, Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) has had full-run of the Sesame Street franchise, using it to propel research, educational curriculum, and a staggeringly significant global kids' media brand. The show itself has had some ups and downs over the years, but continues to be both a critical success and a huge audience draw. For example, as of 2005, it had won over 100 Emmy Awards, the most awards given to any one show in the US (and last year, it won 8 more). It's also won awards and praise from a variety of organizations, governments and NGOs, both domestically and abroad (even Kofi Anon digs it!). It's the most-watched children's television program in the world (though I can't find the stats on total audience reach, which is too bad) and airs in over 140 countries.

(BTW: It was just nominated again for several Emmys, including Outstanding Pre-School Children's Series, Outstanding Directing in a Children's Series, 2 nominations for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series (one for Caroll Spinney, as Oscar the Grouch, and one for Kevin Clash, as Elmo), and Outstanding Writing in a Children's Series.).

The first announcement is that Sesame Workshop, in conjunction with German networks NDR and Ki.Ka as well as Five's Milkshake in the UK, will be launching a new claymation spin-off series called The Adventures of Bert and Ernie, set to air in 2008. The show represents something of a jump for Sesame Street into a new genre, but the company fully intends to maintain its brand identity. As KidScreen magazine describes:
"We want to bring Sesame Street into the 21st Century, but, we're not ready to make huge changes to the overall show and brand," says Jennifer Monier-Williams,VP of global television distribution for Sesame Workshop. Accompanying the German and UK deals, presales have been made to ABC (Australia), Cartoon Network India, DBC (Denmark), Disney Asia, Disney Spain, HOP (Israel), NPS/Zeppelin (Netherlands), NRK (Norway), and SVT (Sweden). Interestingly, there is no US broadcast deal in the works, but look for the segments to pop up on DVD releases and in special promotions.

The second announcement (also courtesy of KidScreen) deals more directly with Sesame Street's global media project, in particular a community-focused website called Panwapa (and accompanying DVD) that aims to teach kids about globalization and their roles as global citizens. The site will consist of a portal, hosted by six new Muppets created specifically for the program, and will emphasize social issues and responsibilities. As KidScreen describes:
The site's users will be encouraged to set up their own "Me Page" that will include a personalized avatar, a home-country setting, and a list of interest topics to choose from, including favorite food, animal and musical instrument. Interactive games, such as treasure hunts where participants will be asked to search out citizens who like peanut butter sandwiches, for example, will also be part of the site. The end goal is to get kids thinking about the world as a diverse place, full of different languages, cultures and economic circumstances.


These new international projects got me thinking about how problematic Sesame Street is as a case study in media globalization. Here is a cross-media, totally synergized children's media brand, that exports its programming around the world, oftentimes with state or NGO assistance as a result of its promise that television can be used to teach young children basic literacy and academic skills. As a media megabrand, Sesame Street traverses into other media forms (from direct-to-video, to computer software, to books and in-school programming), and is heavily involved in merchandising and licensing (just think of the massive success of the Tickle-Me Elmo dolls, or all the products, toys and accessories that bear the images of the Sesame Street characters). In 2005 alone, the Sesame Workshop made $96 million, 68% of which was generated by licensing and merchandising spin-offs. When analyzed from a political economic perspective, the Sesame Workshop is every bit as commercial and imperialistic as Disney or Pokemon.

Yet, Sesame Workshop's particular brand of globalization often involves localized versions of Sesame Street that are co-produced with local creative teams. In so doing, they have often succeeded in creating locally sustainable and culturally-inclusive children's programming. They're also at the forefront of promoting awareness of social issues using child-friendly language and themes, taking on HIV/AIDS in South Africa and ethnic tensions in Kosovo. The contents of the show/brand itself represent children's television at its finest--its fun storylines and engaging characters, age-appropriate themes, probably educational emphasis on language, letters and math (although this is one of the issues under debate), and its commitment to children's own cultural experience and concerns. From this perspective, it suddenly becomes very difficult to clump the Sesame Workshop in with those other global media brands. This is truly an example of corporate identity clashing with financial reality, and (I think) a particularly clear example of the tension between cultural studies and political economy.

A great way to explore this further is to watch The World According to Sesame Street, a documentary film released last year by Participant Productions (the same peeps who brought us Syriana and An Inconvenient Truth). While the film, an official selection at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, is certainly not an overly critical examination of Sesame Street's own felt-coated brand of cultural imperialism, it does provide a nice counterbalance when juxtaposed with the literature on (evil) globalization and political economy. I fully intend to use this film once I start teaching, as a way of demonstrating the grey areas of globalization...that not everyone involved is doing so for the sole dark purpose of exploitation...and yet that this can nontheless be the consequence of even the best intended projects.

Here are some additional academic sources on the issue:
Moran, Kristin (2006). The global expansion of children’s television: a case study of the adaptation of Sesame Street in Spain. Learning, Media & Technology 31(3): 287-300.

Fisch, Shalom M. and Rosemarie T. Truglio (eds.) (2000). "G" Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hendershot, Heather (2000)Sesame Street: Cognition and Communications Imperialism, pp.139-176 in Kinder, Marsha (ed.) Kids Media Culture. Duke University Press.

And here's an article on Sesame Workshop'snew distribution deal with Genius Products/The Weinstein Company, as well as an article on how to submit shorts for inclusion in the series.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Okami Nominated for Best Game 2006

Second posting today, I know, but the GDC nominations are out! Yay! I am SO excited about this nomination for Okami. Although I embarassingly haven't had a chance to play it yet, it looks and sounds absolutely amazing, as you can tell from the WomenGamers review. But most importantly, it's a stark departure from the usual testosterone-fueled war and/or sports games that usually get all the props. In fact, the Game Developer Choice Awards nominees are fairly well-rounded this year, with Gears of War, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Wii Sports rounding out the list for best game, Bully getting a nom for writing, and Viva Pinata earning itself 3 design-related noms (character design, game design and visual arts).

Children and Media Risk

A number of articles and reports have come out this week focusing on the many ways that children are "under threat," a couple of which offer both interesting findings and some good insight into adults' ongoing worries about kids and technology. The first is a report by market research group Insight Media, on the things parents worry about the most when it comes to their kids. The article from Associated Content reads:
Modern day parents are more worried about their kids' consumption of TV and the Internet than they are about their their kids' involvement with sex or drugs according to a recent studied conducted by Insight Media Group.

Specifically, parents are worried about their kids' "overuse of media" including social networking, downloading music, playing video games, and and of course, watching TV.

Overuse of TV, not the Internet, is still TV that made the top list of parental concerns in regard to media overuse, according to the study.

Percentages attributed to each type of media, and parental concern of its overuse:

29% Television
24% Internet
18% Video Games

I suppose that television's near ubiquitous presence in children's homes is what puts it at the top of the list here, although there's also been continued rumblings about high levels of violence and commercialization on TV, which may relate to this "concern." As always, video games are up there in the top 3, though didn't score quite as high as I would have expected.

The second report hails from the EU, where mobile phone manufacturers have banded together to make phones "safer" for kids. No, they're not implementing some new protective shielding to protect kids brains from potentially harmful radiofrequency energy (RF) exposure. Instead they're tackling issues related to access - namely other people's access to kids through mobile phone technologies. From the MAGIC mailing list:
A group of more than a dozen European mobile phone companies signed an agreement to help make mobile phones safer for children. The Framework on Safer Mobile Use was developed in response to a European Commission study on child safety and mobile phones. Threats to children via mobile phones include bullying, sexual grooming for abuse, access to pornographic and violent content and privacy risks.
[...]
By signing the European Framework on Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children, the mobile phone companies agreed to support access control for adult content, awareness-raising campaigns for parents and children, the classification of commercial content according to national standards of decency and appropriateness, and the fight against illegal content on mobile phones. The agreement, brokered by the European Commission, calls on the companies to develop national self-regulatory codes by February 2008.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Kids' Media Synergy Gets a Little Slap in the Face

My fixation on the newly proposed FCC requirements for kids' websites has resulted in one heck of an oversight, missing the boat on this new rule banning kids' television channels from promoting websites with commercial content (ads). Here's the CNET News story, courtesy of Chris Schuepp from the Young People's Media Network at UNICEF:
Kids' TV faces new Net restrictions
Feds want to keep commercial Web site references out of children's programming, but some say the rules don't go far enough.

By Anne Broache - Staff Writer, CNET News.com - Published: January 24, 2007, 9:51 AM PST

CNN can promote its advertisement-laced online presence however it likes during broadcasts, but new federal rules mean TV channels like Nickelodeon that cater to children no longer enjoy the same freedom. The Federal Communications Commission decreed that during shows geared toward children age 12 and under, cable and broadcast operators may not display addresses for Web sites that contain any links to commercial content. The rules took effect on January 2.

Never mind that recent visits to NickJr.com and Noggin.com, online properties of kid networks, turned up more advertisements for Tylenol cold medicine and Nissan minivans than for anything youth-targeted. And some child advocacy groups would argue that many kids' television shows amount to program-length commercials for the toys and edible goodies endorsed by their stars.

You can access the full article here. Notice how the age range for media regulation is getting smaller and younger...interesting. I wonder what this will mean for all those kidnet MMOG projects, but then again these new initiatives might even be strategically designed to compensate for this new rule. If the site is big and fun enough, they may not need to rely as much on traditional forms of advertising to lure kids in.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Takes Over my DS

If you've ever seen Japanese import Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Show, starring J-pop duo Puffy (Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura) and their cartoon selves, taking on bad guys while rocking the house, you'll understand my excitement to play Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: The Genie and the Amp (for Nintendo DS) when I came across it last week in the discount bin at Superstore. Not because I thought it would be especially well-designed or particularly challenging, but because--having seen the show--I knew this would be one heck of a bizarro game. And boy am I ever not disappointed.

Switching between Ami and Yumi, and with the aid of a watch-your-copyright-infringement genie, you set out on a time travelling adventure to find musical inspiration by wacking creatures and musical geniuses with an electric guitar. You accomplish said wacks by churning out tunes on 5 guitar strings, which you can also "strum" into chords using your stylus. The "bad guys" are a motley crew, following in the theme of each location and time period. So, for Japan circa "the day before yesterday", I had to fend off 2D arcade karate dudes...how very postmodern....and in 1994 Slovenia, it's all skeletons and vampires. Another level features garden gnomes, but I don't really get why. There's a LOT I don't get about this game, which is what makes it so fun. Each level has special guitars for the girls and millieu-appropriate outfits you can buy in vending machines dispersed throughout the game. But even better than that is collecting ingredients for sushi, which you then get to roll yourself between levels. I can now see why Cooking Mama is such a massive hit - cutting virtual fish to make sushi rolls is surprisingly satisfying.

You can check out the trailer here or read the Gamespot reviews here.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dance Dance Revolution

There was a lot of hoopla last year when, following a successful pilot project conducted the previous year, West Virginia decided the use popular dance game Dance Dance Revolution to supplement underfunded gym programs across its public school system, and respond to the state's massive child obesity problem. The West Virginia Games For Health project has now released the results of a year-long study into the outcome of this initiative, which you can find here, courtesy of Gamasutra. From the article:
The researchers have found that although not all of the children lost weight, the majority did not gain weight while experiencing improvements in their aerobic capacity, blood vessel function and overall fitness level. Just as significantly, their attitudes towards exercise improved as did their self esteem. Murphy pointed out that, "Most of our subjects had historically felt awkward about participating in gym and physical activity at school. After the program, they demonstrated a new sense of confidence and desired to maintain their new found skills."

Dr. Murphy was also quoted as saying:
"This Institutional Review Board approved study has now provided evidence that consistent playing of DDR improves arterial function in overweight children."

Good for West Virginia for finding a fun way to get kids more active, though it's kind of sad to think of the state of affairs that has led to the necessity of such a project. For those of you that are still skeptical about using a video game to increase kids' physical activity (instead of promoting more traditional forms of sport and exercise), I should point out that it is the opinion of one of the project's primary sponsors (the Public Employees Insurance Agency - kinda creepy but predictable that the insurance industry is getting in on this issue) that children in West Virginia do not currently have the same opportunities for healthy eating and exercise as children from more advantaged areas.

The shrinking space for children's play (and mere presence) in public places and urban areas is often ignored as a possible contributor to childhood obesity, but if kids have nowhere to run around and be active, how are they supposed to get any exercise? Opportunities for children's physical activity are often limited to structured activities, such as soccer practice and ballet--which are usually pretty expensive--and gym class, which is severely underfunded in the majority of public schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas. The correlation between socio-economic status and obesity is no coincidence. Not only are unhealthy foods more accessible to lower-income families than the healthy alternatives, but opportunities for exercise, especially in urban areas, are often positively linked with income. Besides which, I'm a big supporter of the "kids' play should be fun" approach.

On the other hand, if you doubt that a video game can be sufficiently active to have any health benefits, check out this kid!