Thursday, April 26, 2007

CCFC Launches Campaign Against Shrek

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has just launched a protest/campaign against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (in conjunction with Dreamworks and the Ad Council's Coalition for Healthy Children) plan to launch a "series of Shrek-themed public service announcements (PSAs) as part of HHS' "Small Step" Childhood Obesity Prevention campaign." The stated goal of the campaign is to use the overweight Shrek to encourage kids to exercise, but really this may just be a Dreamworks attempt to do some damage control around the enormous cross-promotional Shrekstravaganza that will be unfolding over the next couple of months...including a huge number of Shrek-endorsed unhealthy food ads targeted at kids. With all the current hoopla around kids and food advertising, the CCFC's objection to Shrek's strategy of appeasing parents and governments with its right hand, while peddling sugar cereals and Happy Meals to children with its left hand, is somewhat understandable. It not only makes the Department of Health initiative seem like a well-timed corporate image booster, but might also be kind of confusing to the kids being targeted. From the CCFC press release:

A review by CCFC found seventeen food promotions for the upcoming movie Shrek the Third featuring seventy-five different products, including McDonald's Happy Meals, Kellogg's Marshmallow Froot Loops cereal, Keebler E.L. FudgeDouble Stuffed cookies, "ogre-sized" Peanut Butter M&M's, Cheetos, and Kellogg's Frosted S'Mores Pop Tarts. Many of the promotions are targeted directly to preschoolers and children as young as two. The Institute of Medicine has recommended that the food industry stop using media characters to promote junk food to young children. Why would young children follow Shrek's advice about healthy living and ignore his entreaties to eat Happy Meals and Pop Tarts?


Check out the full list of Shrek-endorsed food promotions here...a pretty impressive assortment of sugar cereals, candy and junk food. Read more about the "Fire Shrek" campaign here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Kids Love Sequels! Pokemon NYC Launch Party Draws Crowds

As the experts predicted, with this week's dual-version launch of Diamond and Pearl, Pokémon is back on the charts (at least for a little while). The NYC launch party, covered here in today's Joystiq drew in kids and Pokéfans by the truck-fulls. According to the Joystiq article:
Thousands of Pokémon fans stormed the Nintendo World Store for their incredible Pokémon Diamond & Pearl launch party. Getting into the event was no easy task, as the line stretched across a New York avenue. Once inside, fans were treated to equally long lines to purchase the game, and a myriad of activities to partake in. A scavenger hunt had Pokémaniacs survive the heat and go through all the stations set up for fans.

Prepare for many more such displays of fandom this summer, which has been dubbed the Summer of Sequels. As NPR film critic Bob Mondello explains, of the 46 films being released this summer, 17 are either sequels or remakes...25 if you include cross-media initiatives like The Simpsons and Transformers movies. For kids, this list includes likely blockbusters Spiderman 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Add to this list the final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it's pretty safe to say we should expect many more long line-ups of youngsters in the months ahead.

Friday, April 20, 2007

BarbieGirls MMOG Launches

This past Tuesday, Mattel launched the BETA site for its new MMOG-environment, BarbieGirls.com, with plans to unveil the entire "Barbie Girls™" platform later this month (April 26). In its current form, the site/game/community reminds me quite a bit of Habbo Hotel: players customize avatars (a bit of a game in itself considering the large amount of options available...a bit like doll play in and of itself), decorate their rooms, and occupy space with other players, enabling chat (though likely in a controlled form), collaboration and (potentially) role-play. Here's the description from the Mattel press release:
Designed to be a safe place for girls to play and interact online, the beta version of BarbieGirls.comSM gives girls the creative power to customize their own virtual character, design their own "room," shop at the mall, play games, hang out and chat live with other girls. Later this month, the entire Barbie Girls™ platform and the full range of the BarbieGirls.comSM Web site features will be revealed at a global launch event.

Mattel has had a long, and somewhat underreported, success in the creation of "girls games," particularly online. It's previous portal site, Everythinggirl.com (launched in 2000) has consistently ranked among the highest rated/most frequented websites among girls aged 2 to 11 years (Nielsen/Netratings, 2002; Nielsen/Netratings, 2003a) as well as among children aged 2 to 12 (Oser, 2005). By 2004, Everythinggirl and its sub-sites were attracting over 36 million visits a month (The NPD Group, 2004), a number that has since grown to 65 million monthly visitors--mostly young girls. And years ago, Mattel held the record for fastest selling game, Barbie Fashion Designer, which sold more than 500,000 copies its first two months, out-stripping the records then-established by more recognized titles like Doom and Quake. While certainly problematic in its gender representation, I find it fascinating that the Barbie games have received so little academic and public attention...particularly given the ongoing focus within both realms on the alleged lack of female interest in digital gaming, etc.

As mentioned above, the site launches on April 26th, but as of April 17th, you can check out the site in BETA form here.

You can also read the full Mattel press release here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Global Kids Food Ads Revolution

Philip M. Stone, of FollowTheMedia.com, reports on a recent announcement by Canadian food and beverage companies "that 15 of its biggest companies will devote at least 50% of their ads directed to children under 12 to promote healthy food choices and how to live an active life." A series of PSAs will also be produced under the umbrella brand "Long Live Kids"...think "Participaction" for a new generation. Stone's article goes on to discuss regulatory developments worldwide (stating "Junk food has replaced tobacco as the young’s Public Enemy #1"), focusing in on the UK (obviously) and US in particular, but also mentions Chile, which I haven't really heard much about until now. The article also links to a number of background documents, which may be useful if you're interested in following the kids' food ads "revolution".

Meanwhile, the FTC is preparing to serve food and beverages companies in the US with "compulsory requests for information" on their children's marketing and advertising practices. Said
FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, in a speech to the Food and Drug Law Institute given last week (cited in the AdAge article):
"We hope to get a more complete picture of marketing techniques for which publicly available data have so far been lacking. This effort is exploring not only traditional TV, print and radio advertising, but will provide an analysis of all of the many other ways that the industry reaches children -- through in-store promotions, events, packaging, the internet and product placement in video games, movies and television programs."

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Kidzania Brand Experience

Martin Lindstrom, co-author of BrandChild, has been producing a weekly video blog for AdAge.com highlighting new trends in branding from around the world. This week's installment (to paraphrase the AdAge description) focuses on "Kidzania" a Japanese theme park aimed at "edutaining" kids all about the "real world", which also just so happens to be the real world of consumer brands. For $30, kids can experience a day of "working" in one of 70 different "jobs" in a highly stylized, miniature urban environment. While some of the "jobs" seem to remain generic--such as "firefighter"--many more incorporate a form of interactive branding. The branded jobs or areas of the park range from Coca-Cola bottling plant worker to Johnson and Johnson hospital staff. The kids are outfitted in all the proper attire, and the park has now sold out for months in advance. Schools are sending classes in for the "edutainment" value, which Lindstrom claims to be "an emerging role for brands". Eek! You can watch the vlog entry here (not compatible with Safari, I think), but keep in mind this is told firmly from a pro-branding-to-kids perspective.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

FTC and CRTC Make Some Regulatory "Moves"

The FTC released it's fifth review of the media industries' marketing of violent (and age restricted) content to children and teens this week, revealing a continued failure among the media industries' self-regulatory systems when it comes to marketing and content restrictions. Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Fifth Follow-UP Review of Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic Game Industries supports academic research (as well as previous FTC studies) that shows how R-rated films, M-rated games and explicit music is consistently advertised during children's television programs and on websites targeted to (or frequented by) kids and teens. In an overview of the report published by AdWeek, FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majoras is quoted as saying:
"Self-regulation, long a critical underpinning of U.S. advertising, is weakened if the industry markets products in ways inconsistent with their ratings and parental advisories. This latest FTC report shows improvement, but also indicates that the entertainment industry has more work to do."

And then some...Among the reports' key findings:
- The film industry continues to advertise R-rated movies on TV shows popular with underage (17 years) audiences, including programs where over 35% of the audience is under the required age (in violation of the industry standard).
- 90 percent of R-rated movie ads appear on websites where children under 17 made up at least one-third of the audience.
- A tendency within the videogame industry to place ads for M-rated games on sites where teens represent 45 percent of the audience (a violation of the industry's own standard).
While the FTC is calling for tighter restrictions, it is unclear if this report will make any more impact than the previous four of its kind. As always, when it comes to US media regulation, the best prediction always seems to be "and the saga continues".

In other news, it looks like the CRTC is ready to revisit its 1999 decision not to create new regulation specific to the Internet and other new media, and finally consider expanding its mandate to include these media forms. According to the CBC website:
"Canada's federal broadcast regulator will be considering extending its jurisdiction over new media in public hearings into cross-ownership of broadcasting companies to begin in September. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission released terms of its planned review on Friday.

In the wake of three large media takeovers in the past year, the CRTC announced in March it would conduct a review to ensure "a diversity of voices" in Canadian broadcast media. The commission intends to adopt a holistic approach that will include all components of the broadcasting industry," Konrad von Finckenstein, chairman of the CRTC, said in a statement.

That approach includes determining whether the CRTC has a role to play in regulating new media, such as broadcasting over the internet. It will also look at cross-ownership of broadcasting companies and companies that are moving into broadcasting digitally over the internet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"Webby Nominated" Websites and Games

The nominees for the 11th Annual Webby Awards were announced today, giving us a listing of the best sites of the year (or at least "best out of sites that could afford to pay to enter", as YPulse author anastasia puts it). Here's an overview of the youth and games (and games-related!) categories:

YOUTH Nominees
Curious George (by WGBH Interactive)
Escape from Diab (by Archimage, Inc.)
Larklight, by Philip Reeve (by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)
Nick.com (by MTV Networks)
OwnYourC (by AgencyNet) (**This one's a fantastic anti-smoking site that's really worth checking out**)


GAMES Nominees
American Dad vs. Family Guy Kung Fu (by Fuel Industries)
Miniclip (by Miniclip Ltd)
Samorost2 (by Amanita Design)
SOAPnet's Fantasy Soap League (by SOAPnet)
ZWoK! (by Bloc)


GAMES-RELATED Nominees
Gamasutra.com (by CMP Game Group)
GameDaily.com (by AOL)
GameSpot (by CNET Networks)
LEGO Star Wars II (by Summit Projects)
Thrillville (by KNI)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Many Flows

Back to reading and thinking about comps stuff this weekend, I read an article by Matthew P. McAllister and J. Matt Giglio about "commodity flow" in children's television. They base this concept on a theory first proposed by Raymond Williams, which introduced the concept of television flow as a way to understand the technological and cultural experience of watching television. McAllister and Giglio further introduce a second term, "promotional flow" to the mix. With my head still firmly stuck in Csikszentmihalyi's definition of flow in play and immersing activities, I've decided to sketch out a brief taxonomy of these "flow" concepts to help keep them all straight (and perhaps trace their overlapping genealogy). Raymond's 1975 Television: Technology and cultural form appears on my technology comp, so I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunity to explore these distinctions further in the weeks to come.

Television Flow: Relates to television programming and the audience experience. "Flow" describes how channels and networks try to hold their audiences' attention to a single program (despite commercial breaks), from one program to the next. According to Raymond Williams, as McAllister and Giglio (2005) write, television as a technological and cultural experience "beings together discrete phenomena (events that occur outside of the medium in different locales and contexts) by framing them in a continuous stream of images and sound channeled through television" (p.27-8). The ease with which the audience can switch between channels, due to the homogeneity of program structures and uniform scheduling on nearly all stations (e.g. new shows start at the hour and half hour, commercials are often scheduled concurrently), Raymond (1975) emphasized, make flow an inter-channel as well as intra-channel experience...as well as "the defining characteristic of broadcasting" (p.86, 93). It is further enabled by techniques such as program promotions, cliffhangers in programs right before a commercial break, strategic scheduling to decrease incongruence between images and sounds on the screen (and increase their flow into one another).

Commodity Flow: McAllister and Giglio (2005) define this as "the often-seamless movement" and "embeddedness of promotional and commercial techniques throughout television generally but especially in children's television" (p.27). Budd, Craig and Steinman (1999) argue that television enables a "flow of commodities" that is characterised by a visual and thematic homogeneity, which is reproduced across programming, commercials and promotional spots to create a [somewhat] unified experience. This strategy not only works to keep the audience in front of the television, but also "uses all possible television forms to sell." To me, this evokes strategies like host-selling, product placements and program-length commercials.

Promotional Flow: McAllister and Giglio (2005) identify a second influence of "commercial product flow" on television, which arises as a result of the synergistic strategies employed by an increasingly concentrated media industry. They writes, "Corporations owning different media outlets often exploit promotional and licensing linkages between properties to create efficiencies. Television holdings, then, may be used to promote (and be promoted by) music, book, film, and other media subsidiaries" (p.29). The more common term for this is cross-media synergy, but Kinder (1991) has also called it the "children's media supersystem".


Budd, M., Craig, S. & Steinman, C. (1999). Consuming environments: Television and commercial culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kinder, M. (1991). Playing with power in movies, television and video games; From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: U of California Press.

McAllister, M.P., & Giglio, J.M. (2005). "The commodity flow of U.S. children's television." Critical Studies in Media Communication 22(1): 26-44.

Williams, R. (1975). Television: Technology and cultural form, New York: Shocken.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

New Book Alert: The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming

While I wouldn't usually post two book alerts in a row, when I found out that this one had finally been released, I just couldn't resist...as it includes a chapter written by yours truly! After a few delays due to copyright vs. fair use issues, The Player's Realm, edited by J. Patrick Williams and Jonas Heide Smith, is finally available at a bookstore near you. It includes chapters by many of my own favourite games authors, including Jonas Heide Smith, Mia Consalvo, Helen Kennedy and Torill Mortensen, though I'm really stoked to read everyone else's too, especially after hearing so much about these chapters over the past two years. Here's the Table of Contents (oddly, the publisher's page hasn't linked up the author names to their respective chapters, so I've inserted them myself...hope I got it right):
Introduction: From Moral Panics to Mature Games Research in Action (J. Patrick Williams, Jonas Heide Smith) 1

Section 1: Control versus Authorship 17
1. Who Governs the Gamers? (Jonas Heide Smith) 17
2. Terms of Service and Terms of Play in Children’s Online Gaming (Sara M. Grimes) 33
3. Narrative Power in Online Game Worlds: The Story of Cybertown (Nadezhda Kaneva) 56
4. Law and Disorder in Cyberspace: How Systems of Justice Developed in Online Text-Based Gaming Communities (Mel White) 74

Section 2: Discourse and Ideology 91
5. From The Green Berets to America’s Army: Video Games as a Vehicle for Political Propaganda (Aaron Delwiche) 91
6. Rhetorics of Computer and Video Game Research (Lars Konzack) 110
7. From Margin to Center: Biographies of Technicity and the Construction of Hegemonic Games Culture (Jon Dovey & Helen W. Kennedy) 131
8. Ghost Recon: Island Thunder: Cuba in the Virtual Battlescape (Rafael Miguel Montes) 154

Section 3: Experience and Identity 171
9. The Player’s Journey (Mirjam Eladhari) 171
10. Mutual Fantasy Online: Playing with People (Torill Mortensen) 188
11. From Dollhouse to Metaverse: What Happened When The Sims Went Online (Mia Consalvo) 203
12. Platform Dependent: Console and Computer Cultures (Laurie Taylor) 223

Section 4: Consumption and Community 239
13. Mapping Independent Game Design (Jason Wilson) 239
14. Desire for Commodities and Fantastic Consumption in Digital Games (Mike Molesworth & Janice Denegri-Knott) 255
15. Reading and Playing: What Makes Interactive Fiction Unique (Dan Keller) 276

I'll try to post any links to reviews of the book if there ever are any.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New Book Alert: Totally Wired:What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online

A new book on teen/tween online culture just came out, written by the creator of Ypulse blog, Anastasia Goodstein. The book, Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online, provides a journalistic-toned investigation of contemporary Internet usage trends among young people (SNS!!!), focused on dispelling some of the common myths/media panics about youth online. From the publisher's book description:
With headlines like Online Danger Zone and Are Teens Saying Too Much Online? appearing in publications like The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek everyday adults are becoming increasingly worried about what kids are really doing on the Internet and with technology today. What are MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, Live Journal? What exactly are teens doing on them? Totally Wired is the first inside guide to explore what teens are doing on the Internet and with technology. Speaking with a cross section of industry professionals and teenagers, Anastasia Goodstein gets to the bottom of how teens use technology as well as the benefits and draw backs of this use.

The author is also maintaining a blog that follows-up on a number of issues discussed in the book, which you can find here.

I found out about this book through Goodstein's Ypulse blog, which I read daily and consider to be an invaluable resource for keeping up on youth/kid culture. The blog focuses on kids and marketing, and while it is certainly written from an industry perspective, it also includes a lot of very thoughtful, academic-like analyses of many of the marketing campaigns and youth trends it reports on. I expect the book to be similar, which leads me to the issue of "why academics should make a point of reading non-academic books". I find this is particularly the case with anything involving youth, technology and new media, as it can take academia years to process, analyze and churn stuff out on these (and any) topics, by which time the technology/social-networking site/MMOG is usually long gone. While this is perfectly wonderful for building knowledge of the field, these texts can usually only provide you with a somewhat indirect form of inspiration: You can see what holes in the research need filling, what research questions should be tackled next, how you could apply the same methodology or theoretical framework to an emerging technological form. But in terms of providing you with specific ideas for case studies, emerging issues that need tackling, etc., nothing beats a well-researched marketing or journalism-based book about current trends. While you always need to read these with a grain, nay a heavy tablespoon, of salt to keep from getting pulled onto the bandwagon, they're always shock full of interesting stats, examples and emerging sub-cultures, the newest youth fads, etc., i.e. lots of ideas that can now be researched and analyzed in depth by you, from an academic perspective, before anyone else in your field even hears about them.