Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pokémon and on and on

It's amazing to think that our little yellow friend Pikachu and his Pokémon horde have now been dominating the kids' culture scene for over a decade. Keeping track of games sales and best-seller lists reminds me almost every year that out there, somewhere, there are still a lot of kids playing Pokémon games, watching Pokémon programming, and consuming Pokémon branded goods. Pokémon is the second best-selling video game franchise ever (after Mario Bros.), the show still pulls in good ratings on Cartoon Network and elsewhere, and the toys still generate a regular income flow. This year, it seems that Pokémon might be in for a bit of a "re"-vival (even though it's hardly gone anywhere to revive from), with the introduction of two new Pokémon video games, Diamond and Pearl, due to ship later this month. I've had a long time to think about Pokémon and have almost too much to say on the topic to condense it in any meaningful way here. Instead, I'll refer you to two excellent publications: Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokemon by Joseph Tobin et al., and Gotta Catch'em all: Structure, agency and pedagogy in children’s media culture by David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green. If after reading these you don't think Pokémon may in fact eventually take over the world, then you are a much bigger optimist than I.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Fight Against TV Food Advertising to Children Continues: with New KFF Report

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a new report on child-targeted TV food advertising yesterday, lending even more support to the various organizations and US politicians currently pushing for increased regulation of children's television and marketing (within the context of the fight against childhood obesity). Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States represents the largest study ever conducted on kids' TV food advertising. It also includes a bunch of useful new statistics on kids' viewing habits, such as top ten network by age category, and amount of television consumed by the different age groups. Some of the study's key findings include:

- Children's exposure to food ads is substantial and varies by age. Children aged 8-12, for example, watch more television than any other group, and therefore see more food ads than other age groups. The authors and literature show that this group is also the most likely to be affected because this is an age where personal food habits start to develop, as kids in this age group begin to spend more time (and meals) away from home, increasingly buy food/snacks with their own money, etc.

- Ads for food and beverages (continue to) dominate US children's television advertising. According to the report, "Food is the most widely advertised product on the networks in the study, and among children’s shows, fully half (50%) of all ad time is for food. Furthermore, most of these food ads promote foods that are unhealthy--fast food, junk food, candy and sugar cereal. None of the ads reviewed were for fruits and vegetables.

- Only 15% of child-directed food ads depict a physically active lifestyle.

- 19% of child-directed food ads try to entice young viewers with incentives, such as free gifts or prizes (a practice that was recently prohibited in the UK).

- Only 10% of child-directed food ads feature a known children's media-character (from TV, film, etc.).

- Low priority ad space for public-service announcements means that children under 8 years see about one PSA promoting fitness or nutrition for every 26 commercial food ads. For tweens, it's one PSA per 48 food ads. For teens, it's one PSA for every 130 food ads.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mobile Play and More Cells for Tweens

The market for cell phones for kids has had quite a few false starts in the past couple of years, but that's not stopping the industry from trying again this spring with two new product lines aimed squarely at tweens/kids. Gary Rusak, of KidScreen has recently covered announcements by two cell phone companies--PlayPhone and kajeet--that are attempting to finally break through parental and lack-of-interest barriers by combining cell phones with pre-established games and play activities. The most recent, by PlayPhone, intends to combine a pay-as-you-go phone service with popular virtual pet game Tamagotchi. As Rusak writes:
Due out before the summer, the line of brightly colored Tamagotchi handsets are programmed with a digital pet that users hatch, feed, clean and play with in a mobile game environment. Wallpaper, custom ring tones and a bevy of related casual games are also part of the package, and kids can customize their phones even more with content credits and downloadable features available on www.TamaPhone.com.

This follows on the heels of a similar announcement last week by cell phone manufacturer kajeet, who has now secured deals with Limited Too, Best Buy, Nickelodeon and Gameloft to produce a line of pay-as-you-go phones for kids that will also combine phone service with (media-branded) "casual games" and other entertainment-focused downloads (www.kajeet.com). Although Rusak doesn't mention it in his article, the kajeet line will also employ a character-based strategy, combining virtual characters and narrative elements into an interface called "Dudeworld".

Like other kids' phones before them, the TamaPhone and Kajeet line both promise to alleviate parents' fears about excessive access and spending by allowing them to set limits on web functions and downloads, as well as control incoming and outgoing calls. The major difference here seems to be the focus on pay-as-you-go...which makes it easier to get into on a trial basis I think...as well as the pre-programmed integration of games and activities kids actually like (as opposed to just talking on the phone with your parents). I think that older kids' cell models, such as the Firefly, failed in part because they didn't include games and other special features...the phones were much too "dumbed down" to be cool among the (ahem) "tech-savvy" tween market. On the other hand, the prospect of using Tamagotchi to peddle cell phone service to kids is particularly troubling--you would kind of have to have your cell on to feed and interact with your pet, which seems much too manipulative of children's emotions to truly constitute as fair marketing. (For my overall stance on kids' cell phones, you can check out my previous blog post here.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

New Book Alert: Craig Anderson on Video Game Violence, Kids, Policy and Other Items of Interest

I found the following announcement on Game Politics today, about a new book co-authored by Craig Anderson. Anderson is most famous (to me at least) for his high-profile testimonies on the relationship between playing violent video games and exhibiting real-life aggressive behaviours, in two landmark video game cases: Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County and American Amusement Machines Association v. Kendrick. His findings (and testimony) were contested in an Amici Curiae brief signed by 33 media scholars (many from cultural studies) and eventually dismissed by the Courts, but he continues to produce research in this area and to play a key role in the push for video game regulation. You can access the Amici Curiae brief here, and/or read a great critique of it (by SFU's Steve Kline) here. Anyway, it looks like this new book will attempt to tackle some of the issues raised by the whole legislative process that Anderson became involved in, and explore the strange and inconsistent ways policy and research interact when it comes to US media regulation. No matter what side of the debate you fall on, I think this will be an important text to keep track of in the coming months of political/legislative discussions around violent media.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon.ca (not yet released in N.America), and a copy of the publisher's description:
Violent video games are successfully marketed to and easily obtained by children and adolescents. Even the U.S. government distributes one such game, America's Army, through both the internet and its recruiting offices. Is there any scientific evidence to support the claims that violent games contribute to aggressive and violent behavior? Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley first present an overview of empirical research on the effects of violent video games, and then add to this literature three new studies that fill the most important gaps. They update the traditional General Aggression Model to focus on both developmental processes and how media-violence exposure can increase the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both short- and long-term contexts. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents also reviews the history of these games' explosive growth, and explores the public policy options for controlling their distribution. Anderson et al. describe the reaction of the games industry to scientific findings that exposure to violent video games and other forms of media violence constitutes a significant risk factor for later aggressive and violent behavior. They argue that society should begin a more productive debate about whether to reduce the high rates of exposure to media violence, and delineate the public policy options that are likely be most effective. As the first book to unite empirical research on and public policy options for violent video games, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents will be an invaluable resource for student and professional researchers in social and developmental psychology and media studies.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

World Summit on Media for Children 2007

Yesterday marked the start of the 5th World Summit on Media for Children, which is being held in South Africa this year. The summit runs until March 28th, and brings together various media practitioners, NGOs, educators, government officials and children and young people who share a goal in ameliorating the quality of children's media around the world, as well as increasing opportunities for children to participate in media production. Here's a snippet from the press release:
The theme of the summit is "Media as a Tool for Global Peace and Democracy." It's organised by the Children and Broadcasting Foundation for Africa, in partnership with SABC, ICASA, and The Department of Communications and with support from Telkom and the Media Diversity and Development Agency. The summit will bring together 1,000 local and international media professionals, government and NGOs working in the area of quality media for children with a specific aim of developing a comprehensive children's media policy framework, to highlight sustainable solutions for high quality content.

These summits usually produce a variety of good resources and mission statements for use in media democratization projects and initiatives aimed at enhancing children's cultural participation. For more information visit the www.5wsmc.com website.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Girls, Games and Sheri Graner Ray

Game-news site Joystiq has posted coverage of a panel on "Getting Girls into Gaming" which took place recently at the unfolding SXSW conference. Among others, the panel featured game design guru and author Sheri Graner Ray, whose book Gender Inclusive Game Design is next on my comps reading list (just as soon as I finish Allison Druin's The Design of Children's Technology. They discussed a number of issues relating to gender and games, including a thoughtful revisiting of the age old "how do we get girls to play video games" conundrum. From the Joystiq article:
"The panel first asked the question, "What constitutes a female gamer?" Jame Pinckard said, "Women aren't just this monolithic block of 'gamers', they all want different types of games. Just because a Barbie video is made for a 12 year old girl, doesn't mean a 26 year woman has to play it." Sheri Graner Ray took it a step further, adding "There is no definition of a female gamer, and trying to tack a label to them does a disservice. The female gamer is simply a female who plays games. She's just a diverse as any other market out there.""

The panel (and article) also pointed out that although 42% of online gamers are female, the fact that this stat includes casual games obscures significant under-representation of female players in areas like online console gaming (where they make up only 2%). They also discussed the trickier aspects of approaching "girl games" and the desire to attract the female demographic as a problem that can be solved through focus groups and statistics. As Pinkard highlights:
"The majority of game publishers and developers are male, and when they try to make games for female gamers, they use things like focus groups and research numbers. As a result, they usually miss the target and develop games for them that suck. Then the games don't sell, so the publishers say, "Well, women don't play games."

Of course, the same problem doesn't usually exist for "boy games", since the developers probably approach these in a more open, "let's make an awesome game" kind of way.

The article theorizes that girls and guys like the same kinds of games (which is certainly the case for some and certainly not the case for others) and narrow it down to a marketing problem...though I think that what they're pointing at is actually problems with the way that gaming is framed within society. Which could certainly be a contributing factor, though I can't say that I agree with this as a conclusion.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Assembly Bill 1392 and In-Game Spyware

Short entry today for a change. I just found out that California assemblywoman Lori Saldaña went ahead and introduced a bill last month (introduced on the 23rd, and first read on the 26th of February 2007) aimed at strengthening existing online privacy laws, which would potentially include new rules about the use of spyware in online games. Assembly Bill 1392 is scheduled to be heard in committee on March 27th. As it stands, the bill is exceedingly vague - read it here - but it will be interesting to see what develops during the committee hearing next week.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Publishing and The Peer Review

Our grad secretary sent out a link today to a pretty cool online resource for (Canadian) grad students called The Peer Review, that includes an excellent article on publishing as a grad student called The Ultimate Guide to Scholarly Publishing. Here are some highlights/key points from the article that I think are of particular importance to grad students trying to get their work published:

When to Publish:
"[T]he most important thing is to start the process early as possible. One thing many students don’t get their head around, Freeman explains, is that when you are admitted to graduate studies, it is because of your potential, but your ongoing progress is based on your accomplishment."

Picking a Journal 1:
"When choosing where to publish, the key is to match the publication and the quality of your work. [...] It’s great if you can get into the most prestigious journal in your field, but the main goal should be to work progressively to a goal: "stay productive, be out there, be putting your work out in places that people can see it and often that means in a variety of places.""

Picking a Journal 2:
"The easiest way to know if your work will fit in a particular journal is to read the journal. "Why on earth would you submit to a journal you don’t read?" asks Freeman. If you read a journal, it is likely that you not only have a sense of the type of research it publishes, but also some of the finer points of its style."

The Three Keys to Editing your Submission:
- Quality: "It’s amazing the number of articles that get tossed out at the beginning because the quality is just so poor,"" [...] "The less editors need to work on your piece, the more likely it is to get selected for publication."

- Clarity: ""What did you do? Why did you do it? What does your study or idea contribute to what we already know about the subject? State this clearly in the abstract, introduction and cover letter...""

- Context: ""If there is one mistake authors make, it is not to describe the big picture," says Dhand. "What is known, what this piece of work is adding to the field and how this can be applied or take the field further.""

Making Sense of Peer Review Comments:
"[F]eedback is sometimes totally tactless because reviewers are in a hurry. And note that ‘revise and resubmit’ does not mean ‘reject.’ It’s very common for a paper to be accepted contingent on minor changes. Or, they may just say revise and resubmit, and then you will need to find out if it has been accepted, provided the changes are made, or if it must enter the review process again."

Publishing as a Process:
"There is no great mystery to the process, it just seems mysterious because it is drawn out, and can be derailed by any number of very tiny mistakes, errors that are not just technical, like poor editing, but also mental mistakes — assuming, for instance, that harsh comments mean there is little hope for your work..."

The Process of Publishing:
"...journals are picky, reviewers are overworked, publication schedules are slow, and competition is plentiful. If your work is of relevance and importance, you can be assured that there is a journal that will publish it."

To all this I would add that getting involved in the peer review process directly is also a great way to dispel some of your more primal fears about the whole thing. Seeing how it all works from the perspective of a peer reviewer can really help you to identify areas in your own work that might need tweaking/development, to understand the context from which comments and revisions are drawn, and to develop more sympathy/patience for the length of time it can take for the reviewers and editors to get back to you.

On a personal note, I want to wish the best of luck to my partner and colleague Anil Narine who is commencing his week-long comprehensive exams today!!!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Life Lessons from the Pussycat Dolls

I've been trying to ignore this new reality show called Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll which premiered on CW earlier this month...hopefully for obvious reasons. It seems, however, that I was one of the few of my demographic who did - MediaLife magazine reports that the show has averaged a 3.2 rating among women aged 18-34. More importantly (to me anyway), is the fact that it averaged 4.3 among teenage girls ages 12-17. The article offers a few theories about why that might be--aside from the obvious, that the Pussycat Dolls are a pretty wildly popular group right now, especially among teen demos. Or the enumerable similarities this new show shares with teen/cult favourite America's Next Top Model--it even repeated directly following ANTM a couple of weeks ago. No, MediaLife thinks that the show is popular because of its "empowering" qualities - an absolutely chilling possibility. They write [and I've inserted my own comments in brackets like this one]:
"There are several likely reasons [why the show is so popular among teen girls], and the first is that the show is aspirational, in the way that magazines like Fitness and Seventeen are [!]. They see in the group and the wannabes fit bodies [the majority of the contestants have professional dance training] and the latest look [more on this later]. They see the latest dance steps [hmmm - for strippers perhaps]. And they see their self-confidence, which is hugely impressive for girls at an age when self-doubt is the norm [see below]. They see role models."

Intrigued and disgusted, I sat down this afternoon to watch a repeat of last week's episode. This particular episode was, fittingly, all about confidence--how some girls have too much of it (and are therefore doomed to fail), and how some girls are seriously lacking in it (and therefore malleable to the show's objectives of "empowering female sexuality" - hmmm). The judges decided to teach the candidates about "confidence" during a night out at a Hollywood restaurant by giving them a surprise challenge after (perhaps during?) dinner--to put on lingerie and stripper dance (sans actually removing any clothing--not that there was much to remove) in boudoir-styled window boxes in front of the entire restaurant. Surprise! It looked like something out of a red light district in Amsterdam, and was particularly painful to watch after hearing the contestants' initial shock at even being IN a restaurant with, to paraphrase one of the girls, "half-naked ladies dancing above the bar".

The show ended with the elimination of the girl with "too much confidence"--it was getting in the way of her performance in that the judges thought she danced and looked "too much" like a stripper, and not enough like a sophisticated Pussycat Doll. Yikes! This show comes from the same IP that wanted to market Pussycat Dolls dolls to 6-year-olds (they backed off after major public outcry). And while MediaLife doesn't report on the tween demographic, these past initiatives make me seriously wonder how much spill-over there is into younger female audience segments. The show is a must-see, unfortunately, for those of you interested in girls' culture, though on the bright side it does provide PLENTY of fodder for academic analysis.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Exergaming in Texas

Jason Dobson has written a piece over at the Serious Games Source on a new partnership between Konami (makers of Dance Dance Revolution) and a new chain of "child focused" fitness clubs in Texas called NexGym. As part of the deal, Konami wil be installing Dance Dance Revolution games at all future NexGym locations. Dobson writes,
"As part of the agreement, children between the ages of 3-14 will be able to take advantage of the health and fitness benefits of Dance Dance Revolution at all Nexgym locations during interactive classes and open gym “exer-gaming” sessions. Konami will also promote DDR tournament events at existing Nexgym locations and in connection with future Nexgym grand openings.

NexGym, which opened its second location in Texas earlier this year, distinguishes itself by offering interactive classes and programs for children ages 3-14 and exergaming programs featuring video game and virtual exercise technology equipment designed specifically for kids 6-14. Nexgym also offers “Xtreme Birthday Parties” with a focus on fun and fitness, as well as programs for children with special needs, nutritional guidance and custom fitness programs for children."


The concept of gyms for kids is pretty intriguing, as is the idea of "exergaming" programs. Going to the gym IS pretty boring, not to mention the fact that most of the activities and machines there are oriented pretty purely towards adult physiology, so I definitely see why a new format--combining more aerobic activities and, well, fun--would be necessary. Less than a year old, NexGym (formerly Energym) represents the first official gyms-for-kids chain that I've heard of. While both existing branches were opened in Texas, the company plans to open 10 new locations over the coming year. The company is banking on a couple of things. First is the growing likelihood that parental concern about soaring child obesity rates will soon create a significant consumer demand (perhaps even in lieu of citizen demand) that options such as these be made available. The second is that the western focus on "rational" or instrumental play as ideal play will provide the illusion that regimented, technologically-enabled fun represents the surest way towards better health--both physical and mental. The website reflects this focus on its "About" page:
"Nexgym is the leader in the growing trend in kids fitness. With an ever-increasing population of children who are unfit expanding across North America, the time is right to provide a facility which has the right technology to engage children, a precise understanding of children and their needs, and an exclusive brand and image which brings the concept to life."

Now, I am NOT going to complain about a facility that provides kids with a greater number of exercise alternatives, particularly one that emphasizes kids' having fun as much as it does other health benefits, but there are a couple of things here that deserve noting. What concerns me most is that commercial entities are once again at the forefront in providing kids with the spaces and tools they are most lacking in other areas of life--in this case play spaces and pro-social technologies that at least initially seem responsive to (some of) kids' own needs when it comes to physical activity and exercise (it's missing cooperative play/team sports and fresh air, but it's a start). As citizens of a theoretically democratic and socially-responsive government, Texans and Americans should take one look at this initiative and wonder why the school systems (like the one in West Virginia) and health departments aren't offering similar kinds of programs for free (or at least at a subsidized cost). Knowing that obesity is tightly linked to class and socio-economic status, a highly specialized fitness center that charges a $49/month membership fee + additional fees for things like karate lessons and yoga might just be an indication of a new form of emerging social stratification based around access to health/fitness knowledge and opportunities.

As for the concept of "exergaming" and what it could mean in relation to theories around rationalized play, I definitely see a great opportunity for an extension of "ludification" theory, but will have to think it over a little more before making an approach.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The French Democracy

Very cool article in this week's Escapist by Allen Varney about last year's machinima hit The French Democracy, and the particular copyright issues raised by machinima as an emerging art form. He writes,
If you shoot a high-def film with a Canon camera, Canon doesn't own your movie. If you publish a book or magazine that uses fonts owned by Microsoft and images corrected in Adobe Photoshop, neither Microsoft nor Adobe owns your publication, because their licenses specifically grant you ownership. But if you make a machinima film using The Movies, Activision (the publisher) controls it. Activision controls everything.

This is a must-read for anyone interested in digital IP issues and/or user-generated content. It offers a great summary of the particular legal/ethical issues associated with machinima, concentrating on Activison's The Movies as a sort of case study. My law professor (and author of Video Game Law) Jon Festinger pointed out this game as a potential locus of future (digital) IP debates, and Varney seems to agree that a machinima-centred IP conflict may yet come to pass, although perhaps not for some time:
Copyright problems aside, it's hard to envision a machinima movement with political clout. What is the usual fate of a political work produced outside the existing power structure? Such works aren't inherently, inevitably marginalized, but history shows that's the way to bet. "The French Democracy" is to machinima as, say, Democracy Now is to American television. They are both commentators in the wilderness, exiled by systemic pressures that have no technical fix.

You can read the full article here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

300 and the Female Anomaly

Unless you've been sleeping under a rock for the past three days, you already know that Zack Snider's spectacular adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 is a massive success, earning more than $70 million on its first weekend (I saw it on Sunday!). What does this have to do with Gamine Expedition, you might ask? Well, while the film doesn't fall under my usual focus on kids' culture and videogames, 52% of those who saw it over the weekend WERE under the age of 25, which certainly makes it part of youth culture. But more significantly I've been really fascinated by the press and industry attempts to make sense of the film's success, which seem to reproduce those found within comparable analyses of the video game industry - namely, sticking to their stereotype-guns when it comes to notions of the gendered audience.

It seems that the audience for 300 this past weekend was both slightly younger and much more 'female' than the industry expected it to be. Surprisingly (well, not really) this isn't driving the "experts" to rethink their gender assumptions when it comes to highly-stylized action films (like 300, Sin City, Kill Bill, etc.) - instead, they've somehow found a way to make the numbers fit into the same old worn-out gendered templates of "fanboys on the Internet" and "girls remaining faithful to their heartthrob." Case in point, the LA Times reported today on the "fanboy" power behind the film's success, which was further enabled by those fountains of buzz "viral marketing" and "MySpace":
Fanboy buzz is not enough to sell a film -- "Snakes on a Plane," anyone? -- but Garabedian points out that while the online community was obsessively talking about "Snakes" they were ultimately making fun of it. The people who were driving the chatter around "300" were genuinely excited about the film, especially the way it looked. And after Comic-Con, Warner Bros. marketing department made sure that the fanboys got the usual dribs and drabs of movie art and trailers just to keep their excitement up.

The marketing folks also took full advantage of MySpace. There was of course the requisite MySpace page for the film (now standard for all movies) -- featuring a ferocious looking muscle man in a metal helmet plus tons of video clips, wallpapers and links to the film's official website. But the stroke of genius came when the studio sponsored a feature upgrade to the site that told users they could store 300 photos on their profile thanks to the movie "300." (Previously the limit had been 12). That started Jan. 2 and was incredibly popular with teens. The result was billions of ad impressions and 8 million viewings of the trailer. Is it any wonder that the 52% of the people who saw "300" were under 25?


Eek! Contrast this to this item from ScifiWire, which put forth its interpretation of the film's then-anticipated success among the female audience couple of days ago:
Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming graphic-novel adaptation 300, told SCI FI Wire that he was caught off guard by the number of women who want to see the film, which is an action-packed R-rated sword-and-sandals epic. The reason is simple: Gerard Butler.

Snyder said he was "surprised" by the strong following among women of Butler, who stars as Spartan King Leonidas. "I knew that there were these women [who] loved Gerry, but ... who could ever know?" he said in bewilderment in an interview at WonderCon in San Francisco last weekend.

Indeed, most of the questions addressed to the 300 panel at WonderCon came from female fans of Butler's, many of whom run Web sites devoted to the hunky Scottish actor. It also came as a surprise that fans will see Butler in any film, no matter the genre; Butler has appeared in films as diverse as Phantom of the Opera and Dear Frankie.

So, despite the fact that this is Butler's first big film, we are to somehow believe that his female fan base is so dedicated that they will make sure to see him "in any film, no matter the genre", and large enough to make a significant dent in the boxoffice figures. What this basically amounts to is explaining away women's/girls' excitement for 300 as an anomaly - one that finds its true source in female fans' worship of Butler and their desire to maintain an audience "relationship" of sorts with this particular actor...no matter the genre (a.k.a. even genres that are otherwise "not for them"). Instead of trying to expand or dispel existing (narrow) notions that "what women want" out of films are romantic comedies and relationship dramas, they seem to have found a way to merely reproduce these notions within a slightly different context. Even though women are obviously watching horror and action movies in great numbers (just look at the success of LOTR and the superhero movies).

This immediately reminds me of T.L.Taylor's discussion of gender and games in her book Play Between Worlds, and how female gamers are viewed by industry and academics as "anomalies"--not representative of the larger female population, because they are drawn to media content that is also "not for them," and therefore not worthy of serious consideration if the object is to understand what would attract more female players to videogames. In their quest to maintain these categories, the media is truly missing out on opportunities to both create better quality content and reach a larger a.k.a. more diverse audience.

Friday, March 09, 2007

New Developments on the US Regulatory Front

As reported by the KidAdLaw.com website, two important reports pertaining to kids and media in the US were recently presented to Congress. The first consists of a five-year progress report on COPPA by the FTC, which maintains that (as reported by KidAdLaw) the COPPA rules:

[H]ave been effective in protecting the privacy and security of young children online without unduly burdening Web site operators. The report does not recommend any changes to COPPA or to the Commission’s Rule, but does note that, because widespread age verification technology is not available, age falsification remains a risk on general audience Web sites not intended for children’s use. The report also identifies social networking sites and mobile Internet access as new andemerging issues in children’s online privacy.

I love how the FTC both blames kids for existing inadequacies in the system ("age falsification"), all the while claiming that although social networking and wireless access present "new and emerging issues" the current rules somehow don't need updating. The FTC also seems kind of impressed that children's websites have come up with such innovative ways of making money off kids without collecting much "personally identifiable" data. *Sigh* They are the "Trade" commission after all, but this just goes to show that privacy and commerce aren't really issues that should fall under the authority of the same governing body.

The second report was presented by the FCC, who are continuing their campaign to tighten regulation on violent television content, in particular during family and child-heavy viewing times. They're now claiming that violent content can be regulated in a similar manner as sexual content (the old "violence as porn" argument - I'm having a bit of deja vu here), which would somehow mean it could occur without infringing upon First Amendment rights. I don't really understand how that works, but it keeps coming up in the video game cases as well so there must be SOME sort of logic behind it (though it would seem that in the states censorship is always censorship...only unless it involves sex). According to KidAdLaw:
The FCC report states that Congress could pass a law that would authorize the agency to regulate violent content during the hours that children watch TV, just as sexual content and profanity are restricted. The report concludes that there is “strong evidence” that violent media can impact children’s behavior, Chairman Martin told the AP.

The site also has a number of new and interesting articles (and links) discussing the massive impact of the UK's recent media ban on advertising unhealthy foods to kids. Check out some of the coverage here and here. I'm really liking this new resource, especially since you can sign up for email updates which they send every couple of weeks or so. It's certainly maintaining its industry focus, but it's nonetheless very thorough in keeping up-to-date on developments as well as public + press reactions to new laws and policies.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Further Thoughts on Okami

The winners of this year's Game Developers Choice Awards were announced today, with Gears of War picking up a number of awards, including Game of the Year. While Okami unfortunately wasn't picked for Game of the Year as I had hoped, it did win for Best Character Design (yay Amaterasu!), and received an award for Innovation (along with Wii Sports and a Flash game called Line Rider...what a great year this has been for the game industry!). And now that I'm about halfway through the game myself (it took my game-tester roommate over 40 hours to complete, and I'm only about 22 hours in), I can say with certainty that Okami deserved that and a lot more.

The experience of playing Okami is unique and strangely uplifting (to read an overview of the plot and some coverage of critical reception of the game, check out the Wikipedia entry). I never could have imagined how enjoyable it is to experience running around the countryside as a goddess in wolf-form, restoring life to dead trees and polluted pastures, freeing and feeding the wildlife (who fall in love with you as a result), leaving in my wake an endless stream of flowers and leaves instead of the usual piles of bloody corpses. While the emphasis is on creativity, there is certainly conflict and a large battle aspect to the gameplay - and Amaterasu is equipped with some handy weapons and excellent fight moves with which to conquer enemies. But much of the gameplay, including battles, relies on your skills with a paintbrush - with which you sort of "interrupt" the game, which then reveals itself as an ancient scroll. Once you've extracted yourself to this meta-level, you are then able to simply "draw in" desired narrative turns or devices based on a series of brush strokes you learn over the course of the game. Thus, you can use the brush to "slash" your enemies, or draw a stream of water from a nearby river to extinguish a fire-demon, or draw a sun in the sky to illuminate your path. As a result, you're constantly reminded of your concurrent roles as a character AND as an author of the game narrative and experience. As a goddess, you are both of the universe of the game but also above it - which is a great, reflexive subject position to provide for a video game player who is already occupying these concurrent roles, though not always this explicitly.

The game itself is quite immense, with many areas to explore and revisit again once new skills (i.e. brush strokes) are acquired. The first half of the game revolves around the return of an old enemy that (according to the ancient myth, in all its ambiguity and contradicting versions) Amaterasu helped to vanquish 100 years ago, who is now back to re-attempt domination of medieval Nippon. The surprising thing is, while the plot leads up to an eventual re-match that at first seems to signify the end of the game, you soon find out that the "end" is not the end, but simply the first albeit major step in a much larger quest. Now presented with an overarching quest of undefined scope and even content, you are reassured by several characters that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, your best bet is to tackle it one component at a time...much like a PhD, or a comprehensive exam reading list. The gender representation is a bit tongue in check - our travel companion is a bug-sized "lady's man" who incessantly hits on the beautiful sprites and big-breasted priestesses we encounter throughout our journey. Amaterasu herself is apparently quite beautiful - you occasionally encounter someone who can see your true form - although the avatar is (so far) solely represented as a stately white wolf...though I'm sure there will be some kind of "reveal" by the end of the game. Overall, though, I've found that these elements are treated with humor and again with reflexivity, this time on the genre conventions of fantasy/adventure video games (well, video games in general).

More to come once I've completed the game in full. So far, though, Okami is headed to my list of favourite games of all time for its innovative and unique gameplay experience, stunning graphics, and engaging gender-inclusive narrative.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

LEGO MMOG (that's a lot of capital letters) Announced

From The Escapist Daily, an announcement from LEGO that they have selected NetDevil to assist in the building of their upcoming MMOG/persistent environment. From The Escapist blurb:

"The LEGO brand represents construction, creativity, and problem solving, and the LEGO Group would like to develop new and engaging ways for fans to interact with the LEGO brand as children around the world spend more time online," said Lisbeth Valther Pallesen, the Executive Vice President, Community, Education, and Direct Division LEGO Group.

She went on to remark that the massively multiplayer online market can merge online social interaction and physical play which will provide new experiences for children and LEGO enthusiasts alike.

As LEGO already runs a highly successful family of websites/online games/online communities, not to mention the highly popular LEGO Star Wars games, they seem well suited to this particular type of endeavour. I'm pretty interested in the said "merging" of social interaction and physical play--presumably with real LEGO sets, which necessarily implies purchase. The LEGO games already represent a somewhat abstracted example of advergaming--while there is no doubt that there is massive branding and even UGC appropriation going on, it's been difficult to define how this is different from any other media-branded game or cross-media initiative. Is it enough that certain characters are present in a game to argue that it works to promote other products featuring those same characters or narratives? (I say yes!) Must there be a link to a specific set of products? (No, but it's easier to get other people on board when there is!) Branding is such a difficult issue in kids' media - it sometimes seems like there is little else out other than (cross-)branding.

In other news, the Corus/YTV MMOG is up and running, under the name GalaxSeeds, which you can check out here. I haven't played it yet, but will surely be blogging about it within the next few days.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Child-Generated Content as Media Fad or Technologized Play?

There's a provocative think-piece in today's KidScreen Daily written by John Marley (a series producer at UK-based Talent Kids, creators of Best of Friends) on child-generated content and Nickelodeon's recent ME:TV announcement. His main argument is that although children are early adopters, they are also early abandoners when it comes to new media fads, which (according to him) makes it unlikely that user-generated content will be all that successful as a media strategy targeted toward the younger demographics. Marley lists several previous attempts to use UGC-television programming in the past, and describes the fickleness of the "multiplatform" generation. He then goes on to conclude:

I can understand why commissioners can get dazzled by the idea of getting kids to provide editorial content. It's cheaper, you can own the rights in every format in perpetuity [**SMG winces**] and, if they film it, it must - as I mentioned earlier - resonate with them, right?
[...]
[W]hile there is still a certain cachet for those kids lucky enough to actually see themselves on TV, the rise of home video and webcam has slightly dulled this as a motivator. In a kid's mind these days, it's only exciting to be seen on TV arriving somewhere swish in a limo, being chased by the paparazzi!

Now if, as a producer, you package that thing correctly for them, then you could have a hit on your hands. The user-generated prospect that will work best for the kids' audience, I believe, is one that springs from a larger back concept that will already have some appeal in the minds of children. Get them hooked into a back story, and then you can shape the content with which they start to provide you. That way you are more likely to get footage that will be genuinely "on message" for your audience and hopefully make for good content.


I can't help but agree to some extent with Marley's valuation of "UGC" (or CGC as I like to call it when the users are children) as quite the hype-magnet right now. Reading the industry literature on the "vast potential" of UGC, where potential always means either profits or branding or market research data (these last two in the hopes of eventual profits), it's often puzzled me where and how exactly the industry thinks they can make any real money off the common vlog or machinima. Of course, television, magazines and newspapers all make their real profits from selling advertising space, so perhaps this can translate into the YouTubes and XNA Game Studio Expresses, but doesn't THAT sound a bit like the net-bubble of the late-1990s? I agree with Marley's conclusion that Nickelodeon is going to need more than just a toolset for kids to upload home-videos to draw in an audience of any significance or shelf life. His notion of providing the "back story" or a narrative umbrella is one currently used by Zimmer Twins, and provides the rationale for the new TV-themed MMOGs I've been blogging about. This could certainly be one way of harnessing kids' (well, users generally) propensity for appropriating and playing with media-brands.

In this respect, perhaps Marley is looking at this from the wrong perspective. Can we really compare UGC/CGC to the more "passive" forms of media consumption of yesteryear? Why try to integrate these experiences? There is an audience aspect to CGC (well, the possibility of one anyway), but perhaps Marley's focus should remain on the production angle and on understanding what this is really an extension of. Is it an extension of television watching (consumption)? Or is it perhaps better understood as a digital networking of creative activities (production) like and including fan-fiction and branded play? And from this perspective, nothing is more effective or engrossing for kids than playing and creating with others - CGC may not "replace" television watching, but it may very well extend and technologize (and eventually mediatize) the creative play practices that make up a big part of their everyday lives. The problem is that television profits necessarily derive from the "audience commodity," to the point that even UGC/CGC must somehow (for the current business models to continue working and generating profit) come down to audiences and consumption. The shift to the "prosumer" and the "audience/user as producer" shakes this up at such a fundamental level--it's fascinating to see how the media industries scramble to adapt, even while failing to shift their own mode of thought away from traditional models.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

It was Theodor Geisel's (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) birthday yesterday, and the 50th anniversary of The Cat in the Hat the day before that. Like so many people with an interest in children's media, Dr. Seuss holds a special place in my heart as one of those rare beacons of light (along with Jim Henson, Fred Rogers, Ernie Coombs and Judy Bloom) in what can often seem like a veritable quagmire of low-quality production and exploitative commercialization. His interest in speaking to children on their own terms, in teaching even very small kids about human rights, self-respect and sustainable living--all the while making us laugh and exploding our imaginations wide open with new words, sounds and insights--continues to inspire and set a high standard for what a children's media professional can and should be.

Resources:
Philip Nel (2005) Dr. Seuss: American Icon. Continuum.

Phillip Nel (2003). "The Disneyfication of Dr Seuss: faithful to profit, one hundred percent?" Cultural Studies 17(5): 579-614.

Richard H.F. Lindemann (2005). The Dr. Seuss Catalog: An Annotated Guide to Works by Theodor Geisel in All Media, Writings about Him, and Appearances of Characters and Places in the Books, Stories and Films. McFarland Company.

Seussville.com

Or listen to this awesome mashup, Dylan Hears A Who

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tools of the Trade: Databases and Style Guides

Just a quick post today about some new research tools that I find exciting these days. The first is a new style guide coming out this year called Wired Style: The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual, written by David Thomas, Kyle Orland (of Joystiq) and Scott Steinberg, that promises to offer guidance on "spelling conventions and game criticism, plus company information and historical timelines" for the videogames industry. According to Orland, the manual will provide:
[S]ome consistent answers for those niggling copy editing questions that constantly come up when writing about games -- questions like whether videogame should be one word or two (the guide says one, you say two), whether to capitalize the B in Xbox (no) and whether the term "Wiimote" should be excised from the English language forever (yes, yes, a thousand times yes).

You can read some preview coverage of the manual at Joystiq here, and at GamesIndustry.biz here.

In other news, I've been hearing a lot about a new web-based reference database called Zotero that I'm pretty excited to try out and possibly integrate into my data-collection for my thesis research. Here's a brief description from the website:
Zotero is a free, easy-to-use research tool that helps you gather and organize resources (whether bibliography or the full text of articles), and then lets you to annotate, organize, and share the results of your research. It includes the best parts of older reference manager software (like EndNote)—the ability to store full reference information in author, title, and publication fields and to export that as formatted references—and the best parts of modern software such as del.icio.us or iTunes, like the ability to sort, tag, and search in advanced ways. Using its unique ability to sense when you are viewing a book, article, or other resource on the web, Zotero will—on many major research sites—find and automatically save the full reference information for you in the correct fields.

It's currently in the Beta stage, but already looks very impressive, as you can see from this online demo. Plus it's compatible with EndNote, the program that I'm currently using to organize and manage my references and comp notes, so this might be just the ticket to integrating online sources into my existing system.