Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hogwarts Theme Park Announced (for 2009)


With the last installment of the Harry Potter series only weeks from publication--and the final film slated for release in 2008--fans are starting to wonder what they're going to do with their lives without their yearly dosage of Harry, Hermione and Hogwarts. Perhaps aimed at filling this anticipated void, or perhaps simply to extend the brand's profit margins well into the next decade, Warner Brothers Entertainment and Universal Orlando Resort have announced plans for a Harry Potter/Hogwarts theme park. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, described in the hyper-enthusiastic press release as "the world's first immersive Harry Potter themed environment," will be a "theme park within a theme park" (Universal’s oft forgotten Islands of Adventure) and is set to open in Orlando (Florida) in 2009. According to the Reuters article, the project has J.K. Rowling's stamp of approval, who stated, "The plans I have seen look incredibly exciting and I don't think fans of the books or films will be disappointed." Here's a description of the theme park, taken directly from the WB press release:
Inspired by J.K. Rowling’s compelling stories and characters – and faithful to the visual landscapes of the films – “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” will provide a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience the magical world of Harry and his friends. The fully immersive, themed land will enable guests to visit some of the most iconic locations found in the books and the films including the village of Hogsmeade, the mysterious Forbidden Forest, and even Hogwarts castle itself.
[...]
Expected to open in late 2009, the new environment will feature immersive rides and interactive attractions, as well as experiential shops and restaurants that will enable guests to sample fare from the wizarding world’s best known establishments. Also debuting will be a state-of-the-art attraction that will bring the magic, characters and stories of Harry Potter to life in an exciting way that guests have never before experienced.

Thanks to KidScreen's Emily Claire Afan for breaking this story.


********Updated September 15, 2009!!!!!************
Today, Universal Orlando Resort and Warner Bros. Consumer Products finally revealed the first-ever details about the upcoming Harry Potter theme part, which they have confirmed will be called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. They also announced that the park will open in spring 2010. As reported by Nikki Finke on Deadline Hollywood:
Inspired by J.K. Rowling’s compelling stories and characters – and faithful to the visual landscapes of the films – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure will provide visitors with a one-of-a-kind experience complete with multiple attractions, shops and a signature eating establishment. This completely immersive environment will transcend generations and bring the wonder and magic of the amazingly detailed Harry Potter books and films to life.
[...]
The Harry Potter films’ production designer, Stuart Craig and art director, Alan Gilmore, in cooperation with a corps of artisans from Universal Creative are working daily to construct the most authentic Harry Potter experience possible. Guests will be able to sip Butterbeer in Three Broomsticks, buy Extendable Ears at Zonko’s and experience a state-of-the-art attraction that brings the stories of Harry Potter to life in a way never before imagined.

I expect that much more info (and pics) will be available soon, but in the meantime the press release includes a pretty detailed run-down of what will be included in the experience, including an immense Hogwarts castle, a full "re"production of Hogsmeade, an "Owlery", lots and lots of shops (hmmmm) , along with the usual roller coasters and other theme park rides. Notice how much of the press release is focused on the various merchandise that will be available for purchase.

It really is incredible, and it will be fascinating to see how it does. In the meantime, the last step in the total commercialization of Harry Potter is only months away. I really hope that Janet Wasko writes some sort of analysis or commentary. There are SO many issues around this development, not only in terms of the commercialization of the Harry Potter narrative, but also in relation to theme parks and control more generally.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New Article by Leslie Regan Shade

My longtime mentor and past collaborator Leslie Regan Shade has just published a new article on mobile phones and gender called "Feminizing the Mobile: Gender Scripting of Mobiles in North America. Part of a special issue of Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies (vol.21, no.2) on Mobile Phone Cultures, edited by Gerard Goggin, the article includes an analysis of the tween-oriented Bratz Mobile Cell Phone. Here's the abstract:
This paper discusses the gendering of the design and marketing of mobile phones, using the concept of the gender script (Rommes, 2002; van Oost, 2003. It first provides a brief overview of recent international scholarship exploring gendered uses and development of mobiles. The next section explicates the gender script and examines some print ads for mobile phones appearing in North American women’s and teen magazines. How can we go beyond gender scripts that essentialize women and their uses of mobiles? The paper concludes with reflections towards this end.

Some other noteworthy articles in the issue include one on "third screen" media convergence, "Mobiles into Media: Premium Rate SMS and the Adaptation of Television to Interactive Communication Cultures" by Christina Spurgeon and Gerard Goggin (whose excellent book Mobile Phone Culture I just finished reading yesterday), and an examination of mobile phone advertising, "The Construction of the Mobile Experience: the Role of Advertising Campaigns in the Appropriation of Mobile Phone Technologies" by Juan Miguel Aguado and Inmaculada J. Martínez.

Shade's article and the special issue in general have appeared at a most opportune time for me, as I am currently working on revising a paper on kids' mobile phones (originally written for Richard Smith's cmns 815 course last year, and now in submission). I'm really looking forward to reading it and seeing how Shade has applied her unique insight and approach to new media research to mobile phones. Yay!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

One Laptop Per Child Game Jam


This story about a new One Laptop Per Chlid (OLPC) initiative came through quite the conduit of blog posts--including Wonderland blog and the Serious Games Source. The group that coordinates OLPC recently announced that it will be holding a 3-day long "game jam" in June, bringing together developers, educators and artists to create a series of open source edugames for its XO, hand-cranked laptop (designed to give kids in developing countries access to computer and internet technologies). According to the Serious Games Source:
The weekend game jam will gather game developers, educators, authors, musicians, artists, and writers from around the US to work around the clock to create the games that will then be released under an open license, and featured at San Francisco's Experimental Gameplay Workshop. The winning team will receive a production model XO laptop and free passes to 2008's Game Developers Conference.

I'm not sure what the different areas of expertise of those involved will be, but I immediately wonder if (and hope) they will include play/games scholars, anthropologists, folklorists or others with an understanding of intercultural, not-merely-Western approaches to play. The US-centricity of this project has always been problematic, as demonstrated by its critics, and it would be a shame to overlook important cultural differences in play and games when the team designs these first games. Caillois' hierarchical notions of ludus vs. paidia play also spring to mind--as does the possibility of a sort of cultural determinism that could see highly rationalized games privileged under the guise that these are necessarily more "educational" or "better" than other, non-rational forms of play. (Even though open source could/would then allow a more malleable trajectory)

I'm also quite surprised that there is no mention of child-participants in the OLPC game jam. Perhaps they have already done some participant design research or user-centered design with kids, but it nonetheless seems important that children--particularly children from different backgrounds and with different skill sets--be somehow involved in the creative process. This would seem to be in accord with their own statement of principles, which includes the following:

Our commitment to software freedom gives children the opportunity to use their laptop computers on their own terms. While we do not expect every child to become a programmer, we do not want any ceiling imposed on those children who choose to modify their machines. We are using open-document formats for much the same reason: transparency is empowering. The children—and their teachers—will have the freedom to reshape, reinvent, and reapply their software, hardware, and content.


Either way, I'll be keeping an eye on what comes out of the project and what kind of games are ultimately selected. In the meantime, you can read a summary of the critiques against the OLPC project on Lee Felsenstein's blog here.

Friday, May 25, 2007

User-Generated Star Wars

(Forgot to post this yesterday)
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the very first, original Star Wars, Lucas has revamped and relaunched www.starwars.com, to heavily feature user-generated content, including homemade videos, mash-ups, fanfic, etc. You can read a short preview blurb written by Kidscreen's Emily Claire Afan here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Flurry" of (US) Legislation Aimed at Restricticting Kids from SNSs (MMOGs, etc.)

The KidAdLaw blog reports today on a "flurry" of new US state and federal legislation aimed at "protecting" kids from predators by banning or restricting their access to social-networking sites. Dubbed the "Deleting Online Predators Act of 2007", federal bill H.R. 1120 (introduced by Congressman Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.))"[W]ould require schools and libraries that receive federal funds to prohibit access to commercial networking sites and chat rooms unless they were used for educational purposes with adult supervision." Meanwhile, Connecticut, Georgia and North Carolina are all considering bills "nearly identically worded, that would require parental consent for minors to create profiles on social networking sites" (KidAdLaw, 2007). You can read these bills by following the links below:

Connecticut House Bill No. 6981: "An Act Concerning Social Networking Internet Sites and Enforcement of Electronic Mail Phishing and Identity Theft Laws."

Georgia's SB 59: "Social Networking Website; illegal for owner to allow minor to create/maintain profile; provide for penalties."

North Carolina SB 132: "Protect Children From Sexual Predators Act."

As with the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, or the more recent Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act (pdf), these bills offer a promise of protection through containment. Instead of attempting enhanced regulation of what goes on in SNS/online, and instead of trying to better police adult users (in terms of what they do or say to child users), these bills localize the problem onto the children themselves (in terms of their access, their presence online, etc.). Even though minors are at the vanguard of social networking, communicating online, generating content, etc., they always seem to be the first to have their access (to the tools they helped create/propagate) threatened.

Read this awesome interview with "online youth" experts danah boyd and Henry Jenkins to learn more about the surrounding controversy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Anastasia's "Valley of the Virtual Dolls"

Anastasia Goodstein, of YPulse fame, has written a new article for BusinessWeek exploring the growing popularity of virtual doll sites among girls and teens. Contrasting startups like Stardoll, GirlSense and Gaia Online with newer entries by established children's brands, like BarbieGirls, Disney Fairies (a site I've been researching since February with my 8-year-old sister) and Trollz.com, Goodstein offers a good introduction of the commercial/marketing dimensions of these sites. She writes:

[M]ost important for the business-minded, the sites create a space for building a brand and advertising a product. Most offer some sort of virtual currency, whether it's Trollz "Trollars" or Gaia "Gold," to buy virtual goods, often distributed as a reward or incentive for participation. Some of them also sell virtual items for real money. According to the blog Tech Crunch, Stardoll sells between 60,000 to 180,000 items a day. In addition to virtual goods, many of these sites want their users to buy real-world products. Mattel hopes to sell Barbie-inspired handheld music players to interact with the Barbie Girls site. Gaia Online sells all manner of physical garb.


For the startups and smaller brands, Goodstein explains, the strategy is to integrate ads and branding into the site, a form of advergame or "adverplay". She writes, "For established brands like Barbie, Trollz, and Disney, it's all about getting girls to convince their parents to go from virtual fun and games to real-world purchases. For the startup companies without strong brands or established products, the financial model is more about sponsorships and brand integration." Examples of the later include WeeWorld's Skittles campaign, and Gaia's The Last Mimzy in-game treasure hunt.

The sites themselves are attracting crowds. Tech Crunch reports monthly unique visitor rates in the millions for established sites like Stardoll (5.5 million) Gaia Online (2 million) and GirlSense (1 million). My own research into this area is only slowly starting (it'll be a low priority until I finish my comp readings), but I'm becoming increasingly intrigued by the popularity and significance of these sites within girls' online culture. With the focus on commercialization/marketing, potentially market research as well, I'm eager to apply some of the theories and discussion from my previous paper on MMOGs to virtual paper dolls as another (perhaps even more overt) instance of the commodification of digital play.

Friday, May 18, 2007

CNET Covers BarbieGirls and kids' MMOGs

CNET has just published an article on kids MMOGs written by Stefanie Olsen, and entitled Barbie's Last Online Stand?. In it, Olsen discusses the new BarbieGirls.com site, in light of Barbie's past success at attracting girls ages 2 and 11 to their websites (Barbie.com and Everythinggirl.com), as well as continued declines in sales of their dolls and products. She talks about the plans to incorporate an MP3 player into the BarbieGirls experience, which will allow players to unlock certain areas of the site, select special clothing options and accessories, adopt a virtual pet and become "best friends" with other players (players will have to physically attach their MP3 to another person's computer to become their "best friend" and share personal info through the site). Olsen also includes a bunch of very useful Nielsen/Netratings stats, some of which don't appear to be avialable on the Nielsen site. She writes:
The overall audience for Barbie sites has declined slightly over the last year, and has failed to grow over the last three years. According to Nielsen NetRatings, the Barbie site attracted about 1.9 million unique visitors from home and work in April 2007, down from 2.1 million in April 2006. Those numbers are in line with about 2 million visitors in the same month in 2004.

In contrast, Webkinz--plush pets with corresponding virtual homes on the Web--have exploded in popularity over the last year. In April, Webkinz attracted 3.6 million unique visitors from home and work, up from just 285,000 a year before. Webkinz has even usurped the long-reigning virtual pets site of the Web--Neopets, which went from 2.6 million unique visitors in April 2006 to 3.2 million in 2007.

Another major contender in the kids category, ages 2 to 11, is Club Penguin, a virtual community of penguin avatars for children. It drew more than 4 million unique visitors in April. And Disney.com, the generalist playground of Mickey Mouse and other characters, attracted more than 11 million visitors that month.

Just to recap here, according to Olsen, Neilsen/Netratings measured the following web traffic in April 2007:
- Disney.com sites = 11 million (visitors)
- Club Penguin = 4 million
- Webkinz = 3.6 million
- Neopets = 3.2 million
- Barbie/Everythinggirl = 1.9 million

While these numbers don't specify what percentage of these visitors actually belongs to the 2-11 year old demographic (all?), I'm guessing that they're assuming that a large or majority percentage do. As for BarbieGirls, the site is claiming to have registered half a million kids since April 26. Of particular note is the growing excitement for real world/virtual world crossover play (a la Webkinz and this new MP3/BarbieGirls play), which appears to be developing quite quickly from the "premium"-model that Neopets was applying a couple of years ago (where purchase of a Neopets toy came with a special activation code that allowed you to get into a special area of the site), to a more integrated and ongoing approach (watch for Viva Pinata's toy/avatar venture later this year). Another promising aspect is how Mattel has integrated this real/virtual crossover into its safety features, via the special access players can obtain for "best friends".

Update (May 26, 2007). Check out Izzy Neis' response here. Though I feel I should point out that when I say "promising aspect", I'm speaking from a research approach...that this could be a promising development of study for my thesis.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

LEGO goes Batty

Allan Varney has a great article on LEGO in this week's issue of The Escapist. He provides an overview of the history and development of LEGO--both as a company and as a toy brand--which then segues nicely into an exploration of the transformation of the brand/toy/game as it adapts to new cultural and technological trends. Varney writes:
To an extent, LEGO has always mirrored society. In the 1950s, the blocks were identical and interchangeable; in the '70s, you could buy mechanized kits to repurpose those blocks for many functions. Starting in the '90s, you could buy customized sets; now, there are online LEGO networks. We can imagine more innovation ahead, such as smart, networked, globally aware LEGOs with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking tags.

The article briefly mentions LEGO's most recent initiative to reproduce the success it has had with its Star Wars collaborations with Warner Brothers' Batman franchise. You can see the beginnings of this venture here, on the LEGO Batman mini-site. There, you can watch "webisodes" (ahem, ads) of particular LEGO kits in action...including The Batwing (TM), The Batboat (TM), and The Batmobile (TM); watch the TV commercials for kits available now; or catch up on your LEGO-ized Batman lore (the PG version). The LEGO Batman kits and mini-site have been up and running since 2006, but according to Varney, LEGO has much bigger plans in store for its Batman product line, including at least one video game to be made by the same people who created the popular Lego Star Wars games. In the meantime, you can check out their webcomics here to get a sense of their branding.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Portrait of a Gamer

Last week, market research firm NPD released its Online Gaming 2007 report on the current climate of online gaming (you can read coverage of the report at GameDaily and at Next Generation). Today, AdAge released it's own analysis of the report findings, creating a series of demographic profiles of particular interest to advertisers. Here's an overview of some of their categories:
40% = VIRTUAL SHOPPERS
"More than 40% of online gamers indicated they were likely to download content onto next-generation consoles, while 25% said they were likely to do the same on their computers."

44% = CASUAL GAMERS
The most played games are card, puzzle and arcade games. 44% of respondents list "casual" as their favorite game genre, followed by family-entertainment (25%) and MMOG (19%).

17% = GAMBLERS
Approx. 17% of gamers listed gambling and casino games as their favorite genre.


20% = LITTLE KIDS
Elementary-school aged children make up the biggest group of online players. "[K]ids ages 6 to 12 account for 20% of all online gamers, more than any other demographic."

54% = CONSOLE OWNERS
"Xbox 360 owners are more likely to play online than any other console owners -- 54% -- and, at 7.1 hours a week, they also spend more time doing it."
"Wii owners come in last in time spent online, but they're actually more inclined to do it. More than 75% of Wii owners have tried online games."

41% = MOVERS AND SHAKERS
41% of portable/mobile players are between the ages of 13 and 17.

42% = WOMEN
"42% of the total online gaming audience today is female" who mostly play on PCs.

80% = THE MIDDLE CLASS
The average household income of online players is between $35,000 and $75,000.

Of course, the most interesting finding from my perspective is the one about "little kids" (6-to-12-years) representing the largest demographic of online players. But I'm also intrigued by the "middle class" dominance over online gaming. Insufficient research has been conducted on the "digital divide" of gaming, but preliminary studies show that lower-class families are more likely to own a console than middle- and upper-class families, and less likely to own a PC (not to mention one that is able to meet the technical requirements of online games apps and software). Now that online games are becoming such a big part of the gaming culture, I wonder if this won't aggravate existing access inequalities.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

SubEthaEdit is my Hero

I thought I'd post a little "shop talk" today, and sing the praises of a new program I've been working with called SubEthaEdit. Created by a small German developer called codingmonkeys, SubEthaEdit is an amazing collaborative text editor for Mac users, that lets two or more people work on the very same text at the very same time. It won an Apple Design Award in 2003, but they've continued fine-tuning it ever since, and are currently in version 2.6.3. The program is so much better than anything else I've seen--you can literally watch a collaborator's edits in real time, and he/she can see yours (each person is colour coded so you can keep track of "who's who"). It's almost like experiencing some sort of telepathic link with your co-author--it's so much easier to discuss ideas, edits, changes, corrections, etc. through the writing process itself, where you can show the person exactly what you mean and engage directly with the text. I was introduced to this little gem last fall by Richard Smith, but didn't get around to using it until this past spring. Anil Narine and I used it to write about 80% of a co-authored paper we just finished, and it saved us hours and hours, perhaps days, of time. Gone are the days of messy track changes and confusing multiple versions for me. The program is a little bare bones for now--you can't really import your formatting, and footnotes eerily disappear--but I got used to writing in text pretty quickly, and you can import it back into Word for post-writing formatting without a hitch. The people at codingmonkeys are very nice and quick to respond to email. They offer a free thirty day trial, after which you can buy it for the small sum of $35. Plus, students get a discount (email them to request a discount code)--mine only cost $20.

Here's another link to the official site.
You can also check out the Wikipedia entry here. And here's a Geek Patrol review of an earlier version of the program.
But the best way to understand the awesomeness that is SubEthaEdit is to download the free trial version with a buddy and try it out for yourself.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Strawberry Shortcake, I deserve a sweet treat

With Shrek at the centre of the kids food ad controversy (see here and here), I've been thinking about the many ways that food enters into kids culture, and the parallels with how advertisers and the media market food to women. Feminist critics of the advertising industry have pointed out the contradictory ways women's magazines promote both dieting/fitness and high calorie foods. In her book Can't Buy My Love, Jean Kilbourne (1999, pp.121-2) writes, "Here we are surrounded by all these tempting luscious ads for food. We are told, on the one hand, give in, reward yourself, indulge. But, on the other hand, we (especially women) are told that we must be thin, indeed that there is no greater sin than being fat." With the same beloved characters promoting both Happy Meals and exercise, I see a similar, and deeply troubling, trend emerging within kids culture.

Kilbourne also describes how ads and other media present food as a way for women to show (and experience) their love and caring for others, and as a way of comforting or rewarding themselves for efforts/achievements/, disappointments/loneliness, etc. Which brings me to Strawberry Shortcake. Both the characters and the programming (television and direct-to-video) for this recently revived girls' media-brand are centred explicitly around the affective functions of food...specifically desserts. The characters are named after desserts, and a large portion of their time is spent growing ingredients for desserts and treats, or baking them, or giving them to each other to mark celebrations, for cheering up a sad or sick friend, and most of all for teaching young viewers moral lessons about sharing and caring. In this light, we can perhaps approach Strawberry Shortcake as a sort of little girls' introduction into the strange gendered relationships that commercial culture fosters between women and food. Through the narratives and the characters, gendered notions of women's function as the preparers and providers of food (nourishment) are reproduced. Tight links are made between sweets and treats and love and happiness (not that kids really need these links to be made explicit - most already love candy and desserts, and our culture already socializes kids to associate cakes with birthdays, cookies with Christmas, candy with Halloween, junk food as a reward for difficult tasks, etc.). Most of all, the brand supports the notion of desserts and sweets as "treats" -- imbuing them with an aura of specialness, of reward, or as something earned/deserved by being a kind friend and "good girl".

If you're interested in exploring the gender politics of Strawberry Shortcake any further, see Heather Hendershot's amazing article on Strawberry Shortcake and "odour" in Pat Kirkham's The Gendered Object.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Self-expression, Surveillance, and BarbieGirls.com

The BarbieGirls MMOG is starting to get some critical attention from youth blogs around the web, with focus being placed on the "safety" features (that the site promotes to parents) and how these work to hinder girls' sense of privacy and freedom to express themselves online. At issue is the following statement in the site's "Message to Parents" section:

"We also monitor chat to help ensure it stays safe and appropriate. Barbie Girls™ administrators frequently review reports of chatting in the environment and adjust the word filters as needed to block or allow new words or phrases. This monitoring is strictly for the purpose of maintaining a safe chat environment — chat reports are not used in any other way, and we do not save or store any private information."

Annalee Newitz at The Underwire writes ("MySpace + SecondLife / Ponies!1 = BarbieGirls"): "This feels a little creepy, since girls are told they can engage in "private" chat with "best friends only" in their rooms, and yet somebody is probably reading and editing what they're saying. I want to get more girls online as much as the next female geek, but there has to be a more privacy-respecting way to do it."

Similarily, Danah Boyd asks: "What does it mean that an entire generation is growing up to believe that the only way to be safe is to be constantly surveilled? ::shudder:: I'm rather concerned about the longterm implications of all of this monitoring and control. Aren't we supposed to be raising a generation of creatives? Le sigh."

When it comes to designing "safe" or "educational" technologies for kids, many companies adopt a dual-target approach that tries to appease parents' fears while appealing to kids' sense of fun (and desire to be cool). Like the Disney PC and many of the "child-friendly" mobile phones to come out in recent years, what seems to result is a streamlined version of the technology that has removed many of its most potentially empowering features, whilst maintaining high degrees of commercialization and marketing exploitation (through ongoing market research and/or corporate IP claims over kids' ideas and content). I see many of these issues boiling down to the media-constructed irreconcilability of parents' and children's, conflicting and converging, hopes and fears for these new technological forms.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hackety Hack - Coding for Kids

There's been a bit of buzz lately about a new program called Hackety Hack, which some say may be to programming what Harry Potter was to literature...an appealing and easy "way in" for kids and non-expert adults to learn some basic programming skills and perhaps begin to participate in computing at a more fundamental level than "web 2.0". After reading about it on Terra Nova and then BuzzWord Compliant, I check out the official Hackety Hack site to see what all the fuss was about. Here's an excerpt from the product description:

"In the 1980s, a language called BASIC swept the countryside. It was a language beginners could use to make their computer speak, play music. You could easily draw a big smiley face or a panda or whatever you like! But not just BASIC. Other languages like: LOGO and Pascal were right there on many computers.

In this century, you may have dozens of programming languages lurking on your machine. But how to use them?? A fundamental secret! Well, no more. We cannot stand for that. Hackety Hack will not stand to have you in the dark!!"

Nate Combs has linked the program to two background documents that can give you a better idea of where all this kids coding concern is coming from. The first is a short piece written by one of the program's creators, called The Little Coders Predicament, which mourns the inaccessibility of computer code in today's world of pre-packaged, WYSIWYG. The second is a much cited article called "Why Johnny can't code", which appeared on Salon.com last year. Here, David Brin describes how,
"[Q]uietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago."

Both documents seem inspired by Seymour Papert's early visions of assuring kids first-class entry into the information age through LOGO. The program seems well-intended, and I appreciate its emphasis on how blogging, emailing and MSNing alone do not a computer programmer make. Computer literacy is a shaky concept when it comes to kids, particularly "cyberkids" whose skills are seen far exceeding those of their parents and adults, even while their understanding of the underlying technologies and business mechanisms might actually be quite superficial. The program's entry (or potential entry, I should say) into kids' digital culture is also quite timely, given the current, massive interest in child-generated content and "web 2.0".

Monday, May 07, 2007

Virtual Paper Dolls

A popular form of girls' online play that has not yet received much academic attention is the dress-up and role-play games that go on in virtual paper doll sites. I'm not sure what the difference really is between paper dolls and avatars, except that the former seem to be played primarily by girls and younger teens, with a strong emphasis on fashion. Girls may have one or several virtual paper dolls that they style and primp, entering them into beauty and fashion competitions. The focus on fashion has excited marketers, of course, who see this as a great opportunity to market their clothes and brands as virtual paper doll clothing items to young demographics. Some of the sites have pretty sophisticated currency systems, which could potentially lend themselves to real world revenue...assuming the girls are willing to fork over real money. For now, the sites seem to generate profits through integrated advertising and data-mining site forums and webpages.


YPulse's anastasia recently interviewed the CEO of a popular virtual paper doll site, StarDolls, with some interesting results. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Ypulse: Why do you think "virtual paper dolls" or avatars you can dress up have become so popular with teen girls? Are there boys on your site, too? If so, do they use it differently?

Mattias Miksche: For me it is really simple: kids and girls especially have always played role playing games, pretending to be someone else, a rock star or a celebrity. What we have now is a new generation that has grown up with the internet and are playing the same games as the generations before them - but now on the computer, interacting with others. There are boys on the site, but honestly, they do not get the world of Stardoll. 93% of our members are girls and we're proud of that. There are more than enough places on the web developed for and by boys.

YP: What do girls do on Stardoll after they create their dolls? What's the most popular community feature?

MM: Dressing up the doll and decorating the suite/room are the first things they do - over and over again. On Stardoll, you can be whoever you want to be and change your appearance and looks every day - and a lot of our members do. Writing personal profile text is also very important since it adds to the graphical presentation of yourself as displayed with the MeDoll and the Suite. Most popular is definitely trying to become "Cover Girl" of our online magazine. In order to win, you need several thousand votes per day and there are campaigns and entourages in order to win that coveted spot.

YP: Who are the most popular celebrity Stardolls?

MM: This changes constantly - all we do is to listen to our members. If there's a new album, TV-series or movie out that is generating traction in our target demographic, we'll know about it in days.

Check out these popular virtual doll sites to get a feel for how it operates as a play opportunity, as a marketing (and market research) tactic, as an online cultural space for girls:
Stardolls
Gaia
GirlSense
Meez
Zwinky

Update: I just found out about an article by Rebecca Willett, which will come out this summer in a new edited book about kids digital culture. Her chapter is called "Consuming Fashion And Producing Meaning Through Online Paper-Doll Sites". Check out the publisher's page for Growing Up Online, edited by Sandra Weber and Shanly Dixon (who has presented papers on girls and virtual paper dolls herself, though I can't find any links). Great line up of authors and subjects, I'm looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I Love Coraline

A couple of months ago, between the madness of revisions and the madness of co-authoring a paper, I picked up and read Coraline, a young readers' book by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel/scifi/fantasy author of Sandman, MirrorMask, and Stardust). I absolutely loved it, and have been haunted by its ambiance and themes, particular moments and phrases, ever since. The book's been out for awhile (2002), and I remember it receiving quite a bit of publicity after it won a string of awards in 2003, including the Hugo Award for Best Novella, the Nebula Award for Best Novella, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers.

The story is something of a scary fairy tale, or fantasy/horror for kids, and has been compared to Alice in Wonderland and Gaiman's own MirrorMask. I really appreciate it for its originality, however, and think that it might represent an emerging "girls' horror" genre within kids' culture. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the under-12 set. Coraline reminded me quite a bit of another wonderful find from a couple of years ago, Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin graphic novel series. Both feature creepy, neo-Gothic narratives with a supernatural twist, and both feature strong, smart and believable little girls as heroines.

Interestingly, both of Coraline and the first installment of the Courtney Crumrin series, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, are currently being adapted into feature films, both of which are set for a 2008 release. I can see a connection between these film projects and the recent entry of the "girls horror" genre onto kids' TV, like Ruby Gloom, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (which has a large female following), Pretty Freakin Scary, Frankenstein's Cat, AOL's Scary Fairies, etc. We can also find the genre popping up in digital games, most notably in Rule of Rose. And we shouldn't forget consumer brand Emily the Strange, which was perhaps the first real effort to capitalize on girls' love of gothic horror themes.

You can read chapter one of Coraline here.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Kid Communities on Izzy Neis

I found a new blog/site this week that I'm really enjoying reading, called Izzy Neis: Online Communities, Entertainment, Kid Empowerment, and Media Safety. The blog's creator is a children's author and 'online community manager' at Star Farm Productions, with degrees in elementary education and creative writing. Her blog keep tracks of research she is conducting, to be used to create a new online community for kids and/or teens, and it's very thorough and "on the pulse", which is awesome. Check out her entry on "Worthy Tween/Kid Communities" from a couple of weeks ago, and you'll see what I mean. She's keeping track of many of the same sites/phenomena that I plan to examine in my thesis, which makes this an extra special juicy find for me.

Friday, May 04, 2007

World Without Oil

Jane McGonigal, of I Love Bees fame, sent this email today:

I have some exciting news:

Earlier this week, World Without Oil launched. It’s the first alternate reality game to address a real-world problem: oil dependency. The official motto: “Play it – before you live it.” And you can play right now!

It takes literally less than 30 seconds to sign up as a game hero. I hope you’ll go sign up right now! Here’s the link: http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/addhero.aspx

(Signing up just gives you a unique identity in the alternate reality. It means the game will know who you are if you come back and play. Unlike other ARGs, the game won’t start emailing you or burying things in your backyard.)

Once you’re signed up, there’s lots of fun stuff to check out. The game launched on Monday, and already there are hundreds of player created documents to browse—-not to mention the official “backstory” created by the game’s puppet masters. The latest game updates include video footage of an underground car vandalism effort, instructions for how to throw fuel-free parties, and an eyebrow-raising transcript of the new secretary of state’s address to the nation.

But most importantly – please take 1 minute today to sign up to play and help make this experimental game project a success!

More information about the project below; email me if you want to hear more. J

Best,

Jane McGonigal
Resident Game Designer, Institute for the Future
www.avantgame.com

The game is being heralded as the first alternate reality game to deal with a major social issue, allowing people to experiment/simulate/fantasize about how the West would/will deal with a worldwide oil shortage. Here's the description from the news release:

Beginning April 30, the nerve center for the realistic oil crisis is at worldwithoutoil.org, with links to citizen stories in blogs, videos, photos, audio and phone messages posted all over the Internet. At the grassroots website, people will learn the broad brushstrokes of the crisis, such as the current price of a gallon of gas or how widespread shortages are. Players will fill in the details, by creating Web documents that express their own perspectives from within the crisis.

“The ‘alternate reality’ of WORLD WITHOUT OIL is not fantasy, it’s a very real possibility,” says Writerguy Creative Director Ken Eklund. “And the game challenge is one of imagination. No one person or small group can hope to figure out the complex rippling effects of an oil shock, but the collective imagination can. And understanding it is a serious, positive step toward preventing it.”


Here are some pages/projects/playspaces that have already formed around the game:
Official game blog: community.livejournal.com/worldwithoutoil
Player wiki: http://www.oilless.info
Player Forum: http://forums.unfiction.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=18592
MySpace page: http://myspace.com/worldwithoutoil
Teaching Tools: http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/teach

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Disney XD - Social Network for Kids

Disney has now launched the BETA for their social-networking-site (SNS) for kids, called Disney Xtreme Digital (DXD). Heavily laden with ads and advergames, the site claims to be a "MySpace for kids", along with the parental controls to appeal to parents' fears of letting their kids post personal info online. This ranges from restricting importing or exporting any info to/from the site, limiting profile pics to those provided by Disney, and generally reducing the number of activities and networking opportunities down to interacting with products.

Check out this little ditty from the Terms of Use...after explaining that they do not accept or consider any unsolicited creative ideas, suggestions or materials of any kind ("Unsolicited Submissions"), the company states:
If, despite our request, you intentionally or unintentionally send us Unsolicited Submissions, or through features or activities on any WDIG site (including, without limitation, games, sweepstakes, contests, promotions and Public Forums...) you submit, post or otherwise send us any information, content or materials including, without limitation, data, text, messages, files, images, photographs, videos, audiovisual works, musical compositions (including lyrics), sound recordings, postings, your and/or other persons' names, likenesses, voices, usernames, profiles, actions, appearances, performances and/or other biographical information or material, and any other materials, as well as links to data, text, files, images, photographs, videos, audiovisual works, musical compositions (including lyrics)....(collectively, User-Generated Content) through such features or activities (such User-Generated Content, together with Unsolicited Submissions, the Submissions), we (and our licensees, distributors, agents, representatives, and other authorized users) shall be entitled to unrestricted use of such Submissions for any purpose whatsoever, commercial or otherwise, without the requirement of any permission from or payment to you or to any other person or entity. If there exists any doubt or ambiguity about whether any User-Generated Content constitutes a Submission, such User-Generated Content shall be conclusively deemed to be a Submission.

The terms go on and on, about irrevocable, expansive rights to do whatever the heck they want with any and all things that are posted within their sites, in any form to any extent, and claim that the user agrees to give up moral rights, that previous contracts (such as actors unions, etc.) are not applicable, and a bunch of other totally dubious stuff. Way to encourage kids creativity by co-opting their copyright, Disney! As always, however, contracts with minors are void/voidable, unenforceable, so all of this is a pretty moot point for the kids that will (possibly) use the site. Still, a good warning that extra privacy features do not translate to better IP policies.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

New Report on Cyberbullying

Harris Interactive and the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) (of McGruff the Crime Dog fame) have just released their newest stats on cyberbullying among 13-to-17 year-olds, which they define as the "use of the Internet, cell phones, or other technology to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarass another person." You can read a summary of the report on Totally Wired, or access the Harris Interactive newsletter here. Among the report's highlights, 43% of teens report having experienced cyberbullying in the last year, girls continue to "cyberbully" more than boys, and 15- and 16-year-olds experience more cyberbullying than any other group (over half).

You can read more about the NCPC's anti-cyberbullying initiative here and at McGruff the Crime Dog's Blog.