Friday, August 31, 2007

Chief Barbie Girl Needs Some Schooling in "Advertising" Terms and Definitions

A few days ago the Boston Globe ran a story on Be-Bratz and BarbieGirls.com, among others, commenting on the recent success of branded virtual worlds for kids. Although the article features some of critiques of the Be-Bratz site (via an interview with Peggy Meszaros, director of the Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth, and Families at Virginia Tech University), its coverage of BarbieGirls reads more like a promo piece. Specifically, the interview with Rosie O'Neill, "chief Barbie Girl" at Mattel, paints a highly celebratory and shockingly inaccurate picture of the site and its contents. For example:
O'Neill...said the online service is designed to expand and enhance the experience of playing with Barbie dolls. Every feature of the online Barbie Girl can be customized, including eye and skin color, hair style, and the design and color of shoes, jewelry, and clothing. "On other sites you're simply picking a fashion to wear, O'Neill said. "On Barbie Girls, you design it."

Anyone who has visited the site knows very well that the "design features" are not at all different from the customizing features found on other sites of this kind -- the only potential difference (and again this is found on many other sites) is that you can choose both clothing items AND colours from a standardized, set palette. So, players have a choice of bottoms, from say a dozen or so pants and skirts, and a choice of tops, from less than a dozen options, along with shoes and some accessories. Furthermore they can pick the colours -- not quite a design feature if you ask me. The last time I checked, putting together an outfit at a store (virtual or otherwise) and picking out which colours I preferred from those available is pretty much exactly what "picking a fashion to wear" means...styling, perhaps, but certainly not fashion design. But what really got to me was this follow-up quote about in-game ads and marketing on the site:
O'Neill rejects the idea that Barbie Girls is little more than a marketing tool. "In the site we don't actually show any other products," she said. "There's no advertisement on the site."

Shocking! One of the only ways to earn "B Bucks" is to watch trailers for Barbie DVDs -- Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus, etc. In every set of guidelines I've read, trailers count as ads, and I really don't see how this is any different. Since when are DVDs for Barbie movies not "products"? Furthermore, the site heavily promotes the accompanying BarbieGirl mp3 player -- without it, players are extremely limited in terms of what they can do and (most importantly, since it's probably THE main activity on the site) "buy". Since when is focusing primarily on one particular product -- in this case the BarbieGirl mp3 player -- synonymous with "no advertisement"...repeatedly during gameplay, the mp3-less player is confronted with a pop-up window informing them that the item or action is only available with the mp3. From this window, three clicks of a mouse bring the player to an actual online store where they can buy the mp3 itself..that's hardly "no advertisement."

Meszaros, who is quoted later on in regards to Be-Bratz makes an important point that the sites themselves are "pure consumerism" -- creating a branded environment where every act, image and event provided by the site are either explicitly or implicitly promotional in nature (of course, players can add new elements or subvert the structure, but the promotional features remain front and centre in the site/game design). The BarbieGirls site is an exercise in consumer values, where the only thing you can do easily is shop. Chatting -- the only other primary activity -- is made extremely difficult as a result of the "safety" restrictions a large number of words and/or word combinations, including words like "difficult", any numbers, punctuation, etc. Most of the time, all there is to do is shop -- for your avatar, for your room, for your pet -- and then integrate your purchases into your room decor or wardrobe. The main products on offer are clothes, furniture, pet supplies -- which, by the way, are all common accoutrement in Barbie World, featured in the accessories and booster packs that you can buy for Barbie dolls, the Dream House and now the BarbieGirl mp3. The overall promotional aspect of BarbieGirls and other sites of this type should not be underestimated. I think that immersive advertising and branded MMOGs can best be understood in terms of Buckingham and Sefton-Green's concept of a "pedagogy" of consumerism.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wii Like to Party!!!



Cute story by Beth Snyder Bulik in today's Advertising Age about the surge in "video-game parties" since the introduction of the Nintendo Wii, and group-friendly games like Guitar Hero. The practice of inviting people over to play some Wii has become so common that Evite began making Wii Party e-vites in March, and is now partnering up with Nintendo to feature actual Wii Miis (avatars), characters and brand imagery (as seen above). As Bulik writes:
The Wii party popularity is part of a growing phenomenon that's overhauling the video-gaming industry. That is, video gaming is beginning to transcend the solitary boy-in-the-basement stereotype with a new generation of gamers including women, older people and younger children who want to play in a more social atmosphere.

Nintendo is getting really creative about how it integrates itself into social and community events. For example, as Bulik describes:
Nintendo already is striking up partnerships such as the Evite one. Beth Llewelyn, senior director-corporate communications at Nintendo, said the company has partnered with Norwegian Cruise Lines to put Wii and Wii parties onboard cruises, as well as the Erickson Retirement Communities to place Wiis in those group homes. They're also in discussions with local libraries about how to use Wiis for community-building.

[...]

Nintendo is trying to cast the net even wider by giving consumers in certain influencer groups -- mother/daughter, couples and active 50-plus leaders -- Wiis for them to hold parties for family and friends.

It's all contributing to a booming video-game industry. NPD Group reported overall hardware sales are up 34% with consoles alone up 69% during the first half of 2007 vs. the same time period during 2006. NPD also said the industry is on track to ring up $16 billion to $18 billion in sales this year. The rise of this social gaming is definitely visible in the numbers. Of the top-10-selling video-game items in June, seven were Wii software or accessories. "Guitar Hero 2" for PS2 and Wii ranked Nos. 6 and 7 respectively, selling almost 400,000 guitars (and software) at average prices of $80 to $90, according to NPD.

The author predicts that the phenomenon will probably continue to spread as more people manage to get their hands on a Wii, and as new fun games like Boogie, and SingStar for the PS3 (and Rock Band???) are released. That said, I have yet to receive one of these Wii-vites and encourage my own friends and family to jump on this bandwagon post haste.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Leigh Alexander Explores Little Girls in Horror

You simply must check out this new blog post on GameSetWatch by fellow "Escapee" and widely published games journalist Leigh Alexander. In it, she discusses BioShock, little girls and horror gaming. The relationship between little girls and horror is an issue I've been meaning to think more about for some time, ever since I played Rule of Rose last year while reading Sharon Lamb's book The Secret Lives of Girls. Alexander does a great job drawing comparisons between current hot topic game BioShock and more general themes in horror gaming, focusing on the recurring image and ambivalent role of the creepy and/or vulnerable "little girl". Here's an excerpt:
It’s not unusual to see small, saucer-eyed children as conventions in the horror genre; in fact, it’s common. Young girls in particular make very good devices in survival-horror video games, either as archetypes of feminine vulnerability (for who needs you more than a damsel-in-distress except a little damsel?) or as strange aggressors, all the more fearsome for their innocuous appearance. The genre of BioShock is already the subject of much debate, but for the topics discussed here, it cleaves rather closely alongside survival-horror story elements.

The Little Sisters are preceded by a long list of girl-children in that genre. The desperate circumstances of Resident Evil 2 were accentuated with the pivotal appearance of Sherry Birkin, whose helplessness served to heighten the fear – and emotionalize the stakes. Of note was her child-like physicality when under the player’s control, the juvenile, vulnerable unease with which she climbed over too-tall obstacles and scrabbled through the dark.

The Silent Hill series, too, couldn’t do without its children – Cheryl Mason and Alessa Gillespie were the catalysts of the entire series’ events, and even in the canonically divergent Silent Hill 2, the mysteriously antagonistic Laura taunts the protagonist, unaffected neither by his guilt, his shame, nor the ghosts of the world. In another survival-horror title, Fatal Frame 2, a pair of twins are drawn into a nightmarish plot as they investigate the brutal religious sacrifice of orphan twin children before them.

Rule of Rose drew fire (and was prohibited from a UK release) for its use of children as aggressors – juvenile perpetrators of near-sociopathic crimes on one another, as well as some faint strains of sexualizing them. In all of the above examples, though, it was the appearance of the children that made the game truly frightening. Sherry, Laura, Alessa, Diana – all of them are both powerful -- because they motivate all of the game’s action, and appear to know things the protagonists do not -- and ambiguous, because their presence is as dangerous as it is useful. The same can be said for the Little Sisters.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

For more on BioShock, click here to watch a trailer, or here to read some first impressions of the game by The Escapist editor Russ Pitts.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Issue: Journal of Children and Media

With my comprehensive exams a mere couple of weeks away, I have less than no time for any additional reading...of course, now would have to be the time when all these great journals are coming out with their most recent issues. Anyway, that's my problem. For the rest of you, make sure to check out the most recent issue of the Journal of Children and Media, for lots of good stuff of girls' culture and child-TV-family dynamics. Here's the table of contents:
Sharon R. Mazzarella and Norma Pecora: "Revisiting Girls' Studies: Girls creating sites for connection and action."

Mary Celeste Kearney: "Productive Spaces: Girls' bedrooms as sites of cultural production."

Mark A. Callister, Tom Robinson and Bradley R. Clark: "Media Portrayals of the Family in Children's Television Programming During the 2005-2006 Season in the US."

Dina L. G. Borzekowski and Thomas N. Robinson: "Conversations, Control, adn Couch-Time: The assessment and stability of parental mediation styles and children's TV and video viewing."

Moniek Buijzen and Claartje Mens: "Adults Mediation of Television Advertising Effects: A comparison of factual, evaluative, and combined strategies."

Milton Chen: "Training the Eye: Expanding the "language arts" with the grammar of film."

Also, be sure to peruse the issue's two reviews, one on the recent Fifth World Summit on Media for Children (which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in March), and one on David Williamson Shaffer's book How Computer Games Help Children Learn.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Marketing Research in Habbo Hotel

This story is from a couple of weeks ago, about a "new" (is it new? The Sulake website seems to imply otherwise, as in that the study is more than a year old) market research study conducted in Habbo Hotel. Business Week's Reena Jana has written a good overview of the study, linking it to larger trends within in-game market research and providing a run-down of the study's major findings and demographic data. From Jana's article:
Sulake, the Helsinki (Finland) company that created Habbo, a popular eight-year-old virtual world aimed at teens, found a way to survey more than 42,000 such consumers in 22 countries, by soliciting responses to questions about real-world global shopping preferences from Habbo avatars. Its first Global Habbo Youth Survey, conducted in association with Finnish market researcher 15/30, was published in the form of a 200-plus page report earlier this year, and it's now available to curious corporations for $5,000.

In September, Sulake will conduct a second survey, this time without an outside partner. The process of surveying teens on this massive, global scale via their avatars was so efficient, Habbo decided that there is no need for external help. "We found we could gather this data in about a week," says Emmi Kuusikko, director of user and market insight at Sulake. "It is extremely rewarding to carry out this quantitative research. The [teens] were so eager to participate. They were in their own environment, an environment they can trust."

The site solicited respondents from all across Europe, North America, and Asia by sending a message to Habbo avatars which linked to an external online questionnaire. According to the article, respondents spent an average of 33 minutes answering a variety of questions about their "backgrounds, tastes, and their shopping and media consumption habits." In exchange for their participation, respondents were "given a reward" in Habbo credits (which usually cost real money). Overall, respondents were predominantly based in the UK, but the survey managed to draw participants from around the world:
Most (8,852) came from Britain, followed by the U.S. (3,747), and Norway (3,244). The fewest responses were from Venezuela (197), Portugal (175), and Austria (90). And responses was split pretty equally between genders: 51% of survey takers were female, 49% male. Most respondents were in the 13- to 15-year-old age group (60%), followed by 16- to 18-year-olds (19%). Only 12% were 12 and under [which is odd since players are supposed to be at least 13 to play], and 10% were 19 and older.

Although these practices appear to have been going on in other environments for some time now, the article seems to treat the phenomenon as a new development in online market research:
Some trend watchers think mining virtual worlds for teen-trend data is a logical and timely market-research strategy. "The membrane between our real and our virtual worlds has become very thin, especially for teens today. Most of their social interaction takes place with a screen, whether it's on social-networking sites, instant messaging, using a cell phone to take photos or watch TV, or even just plain e-mailing," observes Robyn Waters, former vice-president of trend, design, and product development at Target and now the head of an eponymous trend-watching firm. "For this generation, interacting in the virtual world isn't just a trend. It's their life," Waters continues. "Trend watching in virtual worlds makes sense for any business in today's environment that wants to be around for the next generation."

Weird - is it just me or does this article seem preposterously out of date? Anyway, of course, there are also marketers and critics who question the validity of the data. AdAge claims that the industry is currently experiencing an "Online Market Research Crisis," and the issues around online surveys will be the focus of an upcoming conference of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). For example, check out this video on AdAge to hear editor-at-large Jack Neff discussing the controversy around "scientific flaws" in online survey research. Others, such as myself, have deep and ongoing concerns about the ethical standards applied in these types of studies. Is consent "informed consent"? Is the site exploiting teens' "trust" by approaching them in their "own environments"? Is parental consent addressed? What about the implications of renumeration?

You can also check out the slide show here, as well as the Sulake website for more details on their marketing and advertising activities and future plans for brand expansion.

New issue of Games and Culture Journal

Issue 3, volume 2, of Games and Culture journal is finally out and available through subscription/library access. Here's a run down of the table to contents:
Bart Simon -- "Geek Chic: Machine Aesthetics, Digital Gaming, and the Cultural Politics of the Case Mod."

Maaike Lauwaert -- "Challenge Everything?: Construction Play in Will Wright's SIMCITY."

Kevin Schut -- "Strategic Simulations and Our Past: The Bias of Computer Games in the Presentation of History."

Gordon Calleja -- "Digital Game Involvement: A Conceptual Model."

Celia Pearce, Tracy Fullerton, Janine Fron, and Jacquelyn Ford Morie -- "Sustainable Play: Toward a New Games Movement for the Digital Age."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New Article in This Week's Escapist

I have a new article out in this week's "Generation Why"-themed issue of The Escapist. It's a snapshot of some of the work I've been doing this spring/summer on TV- and toy-themed kids' MMOGs. The Escapist is probably my all-time favourite non-academic games publication, and the other articles in this week's issue are, as always, all pretty awesome. They touch upon generational themes in gaming, from "Growing up Gamer" (by Leigh Alexander) to teen-boy stereotypes of gamers and fanboys (by Charles Wheeler), to shifts in gaming patterns among new parents (by Aaron Griffith), to the construction of socio-cultural norms among M-ature gamers (by Roger Travis). Enjoy!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Kid Nation Puts CBS in the Hot Seat

A quick post today to draw your attention to the latest YPulse Daily, wherein anastasia relays some troubling news about new reality show Kid Nation. From anastasia's "YPulse WTF Files":
I've blogged earlier about how CBS's new reality show "Kid Nation" seems like a recipe for child exploitation (and calling out the parents for letting them participate). Now the show is drawing claims of possible child abuse. From the New York Times article, reg. required:

Several children required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle, according to both the parent and CBS. One 11-year-old girl burned her face with splattered grease while cooking.

The L.A. Times piece, reg. required, reported:

On July 16, Television Week revealed that sources in the New Mexico Department of Labor claimed the children worked as many as 14 hours a day and were taken advantage of because of statutes on the books that protected theatrical and film productions from child labor restrictions.

But what's really unnerving is this quote from a CBS executive (Ghen Maynard) in the L.A. Times about how the show was greenlit with the hope of creating buzz:

"I thought it could be a way to try to get some attention on a broadcast level for a new kind of show, one that really put young kids to the test," he tells the Los Angeles Times. He also says that criticism from media scholars (who the paper talks to) and others is "reasonable."

Of course they're already planning the second season....WTF?

For more info, you should also read an earlier post about the show by Izzy Neis, this article from freep.com, the LA Times article, and some of activist/child advocacy activities going on at Ethics Scoreboard and A Minor Consideration.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Cooking Mama On the DS


Yay! Cooking Mama is now available on the Nintendo DS! According to Joystiq:
It's the story of the little franchise that could as Majesco announced Cooking Mama on the DS has shipped a half million units. The DS game, and its Wii counterpart, have been responsible for significantly boosting Majesco's bottom line. Despite control issues with the Wii version, which Majesco addressed soon after, the DS version is definitely a shining example of solid DS control design.

Can't wait to try it, though I probably won't have time until after my comps.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Toy Recalls and Globalization

Mattel has issued another toy recall, putting its total for recalled toys somewhere between 18 and 19 million (including the magnet-toy recall and the lead-paint recall from earlier this summer. Although no injuries have been linked to the latest batch of recalled toys, an earlier line of recalled toys (CBC says Polly Pocket playsets) caused serious injury to at least three kids who swallowed magnets. According to today's CBC coverage:
The bulk of Tuesday's recall covered magnetic toys manufactured between 2002 and January 2007, and expanded on a similar recall made in November 2006. Also included in Tuesday's recall were 436,000 Sarge brand cars, because the surface paint could contain lead levels in excess of U.S. federal standards.

Under current U.S. regulations, children's products found to have more than 0.06 per cent lead accessible to users are subject to a recall.

"There is no excuse for lead to be found in toys entering this country," Nord said. "It's totally unacceptable and it needs to stop."

The blame, it seems, is being squarely placed on quality control, as well as Chinese contractors in violation of corporate standards. But perhaps a better way to think about all this is in terms of larger trends within globalization, such as the increased reliance of transnational corporations on offshore labour and the subsequent throttling of production costs (and therefore production budgets). The $22 billion toy market [$71 billion globally] makes up a large portion of our imported consumer goods and 60 percent of all toys sold in Canada are made in China (Jones, 2004). Behind the current string of recalls lie the pressures and disparities created by the kind of labour conditions that arise from so much "offshore" production...labour that is displaced onto developing countries and regions in order to shrink production costs by creating an underpaid and undervalued labour force that is often comprised of women and children.

Political economic theorists point to the global issues that are often left ignored when large, mostly US-based, conglomerates control the majority of resources in a transnational industry, as is the case with the toy market. Langer (2004) argues that the toy industry’s association of “childhood with play, fun and toys situates toyshops and toy makers as part of the enchanted landscape of childhood” (p.253), naturalizing the current state of the children’s market while the more problematic aspects of global toy production remain obscured. NGO and human rights discourse on global toy production emphasizes the young age of toy factory workers, who Langer argues are often “constructed as ‘little more than children themselves’” (p.259), as well as the low wages, high levels of occupational hazard, and long work hours endured by a largely rural, largely migrant labour force. While the average North American toy maker earns $11 an hour, in 2000 Chinese toy workers were earning an average of 30 cents an hour. While it wasn't specified in the article, I suspect that stat applies to adults and that things might be much different for child "employees."

In an open letter written in December 2003, (Can.) Senator Consiglio Di Nino had this to say about child labour in the toy industry:
More often than not, this is the reality behind the manufacture of children’s toys. Toys are not manufactured by diminutive elves in workshops, but by diminutive beings of another kind… children. China is a popular choice for North American manufacturers because labour is cheap and plentiful. International news reports hint that child labour is prevalent in China, and factory managers go to great lengths to conceal the epidemic. United Press International cites a provincial labour official who confided that, “factory managers are routinely tipped off about inspections and will send child workers home.”

China is by no means the only country in which child labour is widespread; indeed, it is a global issue. Human Rights Watch is particularly critical of bonded labour practices in India and Pakistan, where an estimated 15 million children are being exploited, primarily in the manufacture of textiles. The International Right to Know Campaign, a movement supported by international organizations such as Amnesty International USA, Global Exchange, and Oxfam America, estimates that there are 211 million child labourers worldwide, over half of whom work in China [In 2004, UNICEF increased that estimate to 246 million].

The vast majority of North American multinationals have corporate codes of conduct that apply to their global suppliers. Evidence suggests, however, that these codes are poorly enforced and egregious labour rights violations are the norm. These violations have been documented extensively by the International Right to Know Campaign and by human rights groups across Asia. These organizations indicate that the ineffectiveness of corporate codes of conduct stems from the fact that independent third parties do not conduct the factory audits mandated by these codes and we are told that factory owners are usually notified of the audits in advance.

Of course, this doesn't 100% prove that Mattel -- the world's largest toy company -- has indirectly employed child labour, or that the recalled toys are directly linked to impoverished manufacturing conditions. And I'm certain they didn't know that lead paint was being used by their suppliers, and that the damage control they now face will be a burden that far outweighs any advantage that could have ever been accrued from cutting costs in safety measures. But the fact is, it's unreasonable to expect that costs and work conditions can be continuously cut, threatened and squeezed without any kind of trade off or consequence. The lack of accountability and transparency within the toy industry, combined with known statistics of child labour in the toy manufacturing industry and of the impoverished working conditions in China and other production zones, demands a more thorough consideration of the complicity of North American toy companies (and the toy market!) in creating the substandard conditions from which substandard products have spawned.

These issues got a lot of press coverage a few years ago, when anti-globalization was "hot" and transnational trade was being put under the microscope. At that time, a woman from Victoria, BC, named Sarah Cox wrote a scathing expose of the toy manufacture industry in various parts of Asia called The Secret Life of Toys, which I unfortunately can no longer track down online. Cox did field work in various toy factories that manufactured toys sold in the West, and found rampant workers' rights violations and poor working conditions. But attention to these issues has died down today, and although all of the big toy corporations (Hasbro, Mattel, Irwin) manufacture a large portion of their toys in China, it's been difficult for researchers and journalists to make direct links between specific toy companies and specific toy factories. The transnational conglomerates don't commonly release details about their overseas partners. According to Chelsea Jones, writing for Briarpatch magazine in 2004,
Toy companies such as Mattel hold back names of their suppliers. This means that any toy made by Mattel could have been manufactured by any one of about 50 Chinese factories contracted by the company, or in a factory Mattel may own with private investors. Or it could be that parts of the toy, including it’s packaging, have been made in one of many factories jointly owned by the company and contractors small enough not to be named or legally acknowledged.

In 1998, George Irwin, the president of Irwin Toy Ltd. said that the reason for the strict confidentiality surrounding toy factories is due to the competitiveness within the industry. “We guard very jealously our vendors,” Irwin says, “because we don’t want any of our competitors to get an advantage by knowing who they are.” Sixty percent of Irwin’s toys are produced overseas, primarily in China and Malaysia.

For more up to date info on working conditions and child labour in China, with a healthy amount of focus placed on the toy industry in particular, check out this new report conducted by the Hong Kong Liaison Office.

Langer, B. (2004). “The Business of Branded Enchantment: Ambivalence and disjuncture in the global children’s culture industry”, Journal of Consumer Culture, 4(2), pp.251-277.

Monday, August 13, 2007

GoPets Avatar Bill of Rights

Via GamePolitics.com, an uplifting story of corporate responsibility to counteract yesterday's exploration of corporate neglect. Erik Bethke, CEO of a virtual pet MMO-environment called GoPets, has announced that their site wants the game community's help (academic and practitioner, as well as players, I would assume) in drafting an "Avatar Bill of Rights" that will allow players to retain IP rights and foster user-generated content...as well as create a much more level and democratic playing field wherever political, ethical and legal issues arise. Here's an excerpt of the announcement from Bethke's personal blog:
I am offering a bounty of $5,000 for help in creating a new EULA, TOS, Codes of Conduct, and Privacy Policies for GoPets.

I seeking everyone’s help in drafting a set of instruments (iconic, human bullet points, and legal code). Our mission is to continue to develop the virtual world of GoPets into a platform of living expression and friendship with global reach.

We have long recognized the importance private property in GoPets but so far we have not taken any formal steps to ensure property rights to our citizens and now believe that formal recognition and other tangible forms of human and property rights will accelerate our commercial goals.

The debate in our community of whether or not this or that clause of this or that EULA is of course fascinating to read in the blogs - but we are taking the stance that we will gladly charge ahead of what we are required by commercial law to perform - and instead we would like to reach as high as possible to achieve the natural rights as expressed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We believe that by doing so that we will attract the trust of more customers to invest more of their time, creativity and money into developing the world of GoPets to greater enjoyment of all.

That sounds both cool and promising. I especially like the emphasis on the UN Declaration of Human Rights as a template. Here are some more details about contributing to the initiative:

- The $5K will be divided up fairly among contributors (fair will be determined by Bethke based on the nature of individual contributions).

- The final product will be placed in a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

- The final format of the "GoPets Declaration of Rights and Obligations of Citizens" should be similar to that of the Creative Commons: icons, human readable bullet points and finally legal code.

- Deadline for final document will be November 1st, 2007 (to coincide with a new addition to the site).

You should also check out Bethke's more recent posting about his research into case law and the shareholder imperative - fascinating stuff, that makes me wonder about the possibility of creating a MMOG where players become shareholders (through game purchase, subscription, or other membership fee), in a players' cooperative of sorts (kind of like Mountain Equipment Co-Op).

I'd heard of GoPets before, but hadn't yet taken an opportunity to visit it or find out much about it until now. After so many months in Neopets, I think I was kind of avoiding the virtual pet scene. The site, though, is pretty interesting and seems unusually community responsive. It currently claims 400,000 subscribed members, and is available in BETA in North America, parts of Asia and Europe. It's also quite focused on media convergence and integration. Not only does it have upcoming companion game on the Nintendo DS coming out this year, but the "game" itself integrates onto your desktop. Here's the description from the site:
Each GoPet is a unique 3D companion that makes its home on its owner’s desktop. GoPets are not restricted to a single computer, however -- when they feel like wandering, they leave home and visit the desktops of other GoPets users. In their travels, GoPets visit their owners’ friends and families, as well as introducing their owners to other GoPets members who share similar interests. These traveling GoPets are messengers and ambassadors – they form the dynamic network of connections that comprises the GoPets social network.

Hmmm...strange isn't it? Sort of like Facebook meets Nintendogs. The game operates on a virtual/real world currency hybrid -- for example, players are awarded the mid-range currency type (pink shells) for contributing UGC to the site, but have to purchase high-range currency (gold shells) with real money (and, of course, "The coolest items can only be purchased using Gold Shells."). Also, despite the centrality of cutesy virtual pets, the site restricts children under 13 years (citing COPPA compliance). You can check out the site for yourselves by trying the free demo. If you do, let me know what you think.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kids and Moms Harrassed in XBox Live

An infuriating story is currently being covered by WomenGamers.com about the systematic verbal harassment of a clan of kids and moms in XBox Live. The clan, called "The GR8 Clan", or "The Greats" for short, is an after-school initiative for kids aged 8-16, moderated and led by a few of their gamer moms (by the way, how cool is that!?!). The plan is to create a kid-friendly space within the adult-dominated world of XBox Live, where kids and their parents can play competitively and learn "teamwork, loyalty and sportsmanship" (says their MySpace page). Recently, however, the clan has been subject to insults and inappropriate comments via the live voice feature of XBox Live, which is surprisingly not currently regulated by the phone harassment laws that regulate VOIP and cell phones. According to WomenGamers, this loop hole "has provided a lawless internet frontier where Microsoft has not put in safeguards for children on its own." One of the adult moderators, GR8 Anhialator, contributed the following to the discussion thread:
Yesterday, I asked the GR8 kids if it was my imagination, or, if it was true that more and more people online, in the multiplayer gaming community (specifically XBOX Live), were getting meaner and more hateful toward us. Each of them said that, "people are getting meaner."

Remember that The Gr8 Clan is a group of children known as The Greats, aged from 8 years to 16 years old, chaperoned by GR8 Anhialator (sic). And we play to have fun. Yet, there is an increasing number of foul-mouthed males (different ones each day--proving my theory that more and more people are slipping into "hate" mode) who take it upon themselves to hurl vile insults, and even threats, at a group of children and women.

I've telephoned XBOX Live regarding this matter, and they responded by telling me that there was nothing that could be done.

[...]

[M]y clan is a group of children, and that these jerks come in and call us names as soon as they hear the kids' voices over the headsets. They call us names when we lose, and they call us names when we win. I'm not talking about schoolyard names here, I'm talking about street-slang, gang-banging hateful names, usually referencing genitalia or degrading sex acts.

According to "GR8 Anhialator" one of the reasons the XBox Live support/complaint system can't (or won't) do anything to help them is that the clan itself has received numerous complaints from other payers for censoring speech in their room, kicking people out of their room for saying inappropriate things to the kids, and generally controlling who gets to play with the kids. Some of the harassment also comes from players who disagree that children should be allowed to play M-rated games (they're currently playing Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas (rated "M"), Ghost Recon (rated "T") and Gears of War (rated "M"), among others).

The GR8 Clan has taken the position that ESRB ratings are voluntary and that the kids are playing the games under adult supervision. I find this element of the phenomenon a bit of a contradiction - the gamer community is generally quite vocally against making ESRB ratings mandatory, and yet here the ratings seem to justify an all out assault on young (not to mention female) players. The harassers seem quite keen on establishing XBox Live as an adults-only place...making a kids' clan something akin to bringing a bunch of kids into a strip club. And perhaps certain games and areas should be adult only...these harasser-guys obviously need somewhere away from other people where they can be their horrifying selves. Boundaries can be good, if managed and established correctly -- without undue discrimination, for example. But there is no way that it's ever OK to establish these boundaries through abuse, bullying and threats. These players should take note that the ESRB ratings refer to game content, not the words and behaviour of the real-life people playing them.

This is yet another case of children becoming the locus of larger social tensions -- the disapproving adult-players take out their anger on the kids, and the kids have no legal or even quasi-legal (terms of service rules) recourse other than to remove themselves from M-rated games because adult players can't behave themselves. Where in this scenario do adults ever have to take on some of the responsibility or self-restraint? I really hope this story hits the games blogsphere and gets some attention from XBox, who are in this case failing miserably at making their system more "family friendly."

I also wonder how the kids themselves feel about it, and if there is any difference between girls' and boys' experiences of trash talk in XBox Live and other forums. There is a wonderful forthcoming article by Sonia Livingstone wherein she explores how kids use the Internet to experiment with taboo talk and roles, including sexual themes and flaming in chat rooms...I seem to remember that the boys were more likely to engage in trash talk and flame wars, and I wonder if this carries over into the XBox example. Is this something they engage in, and then it goes too far? Are girls participating in it, or are they merely subjected to it? I'm assuming that the GR8 moderator represents the children's position as well as the moms' on this one, but it would nonetheless be great to hear what these kids think about the whole thing, as well as how this experience differs from other games (maybe E-rated) and multiplayer forums they might also engage in.

This article comes at a pretty interesting time in my own research. Recently, I've been writing quite a bit about restrictions on interplayer communication in child-oriented MMOGs and how this limits opportunities for community-building and creativity. This case is a good counterpoint to keep in mind whenever I get carried away with participatory rights and freedom of expression issues...although I'm still not convinced that it's the kids who need the censoring.

*****Update: Please see Comment section for important corrections to this story from one of the members of the GR8 Clan.******

****Also, check out this recent announcement by Playstation about their plan to ban anyone who becomes overly "abusive" on their Playstation Home feature. From the
Escapist article: "He added that Sony was not looking to offer a kids-only environment, and that adult users would have access to products and brands that would be kept out of the reach of children. "A large portion of our demographic is over 18 so we will make a point of catering to that demographic - we certainly don't want to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator," he said."*****

Friday, August 10, 2007

McDonald's on the Hot Seat

The FTC issued a flurry of subpoenas to food, beverage and fast-food advertisers today demanding details about how they market their products to children. Included among the 44 major companies served are Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and McDonald's. This development comes right on the heels of a report and press coverage earlier this week about the effectiveness of McDonald's branding strategies on kids' food preferences. In a study conducted at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, led by Thomas Robinson, researchers studied the food taste preferences of 63 kids between 3 and 5 years, who were enrolled in Head Start programs across San Mateo County. The kids sampled three types of McDonald's fast food -- including chicken nuggets, french fries and hamburgers -- as well as two types of food purchased at a grocery store (carrots and milk). Kids were given two equal portions of each of the five food items, but with a small difference--one (of each) was wrapped in a McDonald's wrapper, or placed in a McDonald's bag, while the other (of each) was wrapped in similar wrapping, but without the McDonald's logo. The kids were then randomly asked to taste first one and then the other of the five "identical, differently packaged, pairs of food samples" and pick which one they thought tasted better (with the option of answering that they thought they tasted the same). According to the study press release:
With four out of the five foods - chicken nuggets, fries, carrots and milk - significantly more children pegged the McDonald's product as tastier, despite the fact that the foods were exactly the same.

"The branding effect is very strong, even by only 3 to 5 years of age," said Thomas Robinson, MD, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Packard Children's and associate professor of pediatrics and of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine.

The researchers also revealed that they selected McDonald's because it was a brand that kids were most likely to be familiar with. And they certainly found indications of a link between preference and exposure:
"We found that kids with more TVs in their homes and those who eat at McDonald's more frequently were even more likely to prefer the food in the McDonald's wrapper," said Robinson. "This is a company that knows what they're doing. Nobody else spends as much to advertise their fast-food products to children." McDonald's is estimated to spend more than $1 billion dollars per year on U.S. advertising.

You can read more coverage of the report here via Yahoo News, and here via AdAge. You can also watch a clip of Sussan Linn talking about the study on The Today Show. If you click on all three of these links, you'll see something pretty interesting...a slight, but important deviation in how the study's research design is represented. While the Stanford press release and Yahoo News both describe that the second, non-McDonald's sample was wrapped in "unbranded packages in the same color and style", the AdAge and Today Show coverage states that the second sample was "wrapped in plain paper." The Today Show includes a clip of some kids with food choices in front of them chowing down on McD's --not the study itself-- with fast food alongside tupperware containers and other variously packaged foods. The report I watched on Tuesday (Monday?) night, which aired on Global News, also reproduced the study but had the kids picking between McDonald's foods and foods wrapped in plain brown paper wrapping. I think that this inaccuracy is pretty significant, given that it implies that the study asked kids to pick between colorfully-packaged "restaurant food", which carries all the associations of "treats" "special occasions" and "price" (which can be confused with quality even by adults), and paper-bag food, with all of its associations with "generic", "school lunch" and "knock off". I think it's important that parents see that kids were choosing between two equally appealing, similarly-coded samples and that McDonald's still won out because the kids had specific feelings about that specific brand.

Another issue is whether this study is all that groundbreaking, considering the vast amounts of research that already establish fairly solid links between brand exposure (through media and advertising and culture) and kids' product preferences. What's so different about this study? The news media seems to think it has to do with the research methodology. According to Yahoo News, "While prior studies have looked at the impact of individual ads on kids, Robinson and colleagues set out to study the overall influence of a company's brand -- based on everything from advertising to toy premiums and word of mouth." Well, obviously this isn't exactly the case (there have definitely been studies of branding and branding campaigns, as well as studies of children's whole media environments), but applying such a comprehensive approach does represent something of a departure from the research to date. It's strange how much (on certain topics/methods) and how little (on other topics/methods) research exists on kids and advertising, considering how big an issue it appears to be within public consciousness. Anyway, I feel that there are links here to longer trends among the media in terms of how they represent the media effects debate, which you can read more about in this article by Steve Kline if you're interested.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

BarbieGirls Blurs the Boundaries

More news this week about Mattel's smash hit MMOG BarbieGirls.com, which the company claims has now reached the 4 million mark population-wise. Izzy Neis has compiled a bunch of interesting tidbits on the site, including an article from Virtual Worlds News, which points out:
The MP3 player toys that unlock content on the virtual world, though, are now available at retail stores. The most interesting bit of information that no one has commented on here is that “Accessory Packs are sold separately for $9.99 and include various fashions, accessories and pets, as well as additional, exclusive content that comes to life online.” It’s worth noting these as an alternative to platforms like Habbo’s prepaid cards that are available at retailers like Target. For $12.95, this fashion pack gets you the physical goods, but it also provides a matching outfit online along with 100 B Bucks. The Deco Pack provides a virtual pet and 100 B Bucks.

The author goes on to suggest that these kinds of "real-world micro-transactions" could provide a viable way for sites to offload some of the costs (or generate profits) onto players without the need for a credit card or monthly subscription. Very interesting - and perhaps quite a clever way to tap into kids and parents' existing purchasing habits re: collectibles (such as Barbie clothes, Pokemon cards or Beanie Baby toys).

What's got me really interested is how the Mp3 attachment seems to want to be treated like a doll of sorts - with different outfits and accessories, sort of a mix between a mobile phone and a Barbie doll. The blurring of boundaries between physical and virtual play is also fascinating - we see the same thing with Webkinz and (blech) Be-Bratz, and I suspect a similar strategy will come out of the LEGO MMOG. As Izzy points out:
Yes we can all poo-poo these initiatives as ways to manipulate kids into marketing schemes and purchasing power and becoming materialistic. I get that. But– the ability to play with the toys you love online? That has to have some sort of cash backing it. At least barbiegirls gives kids the opportunity to play FOR FREE online– and roam and love the brand and love their dolls and make new “friends” etc. There are other sites (*ahem*) that such luxuries are banned from the start– making the tater tots shell out 30+ dollars to even have a GLIMPSE of the world online created for their favorite toy.

I've been reading a lot of Brian Sutton-Smith lately, which has been a good follow-up to a series of readings I did on the limiting effects that licensed toys can have on children's play (as well as critiques of this stance, such as Ellen Seiter's Sold Separately). I like these virtual toy world initiatives in that much about MMOG technology seems to suggest that these sites could provide kids with narrative openings and ways to subvert and appropriate media branding. The multiplayer component is especially relevant in this regard, but so is the freedom and player-collaboration that are so often emphasized in T-rated MMOGs. But there's also a lot about digital technology that enables enclosure and control, and if companies lean to far towards brand management and the commercialization online play (which they so often do...directing players towards in-game ads, restricting play to those activities that relate most directly to consumerism), it could instead mean a massive expansion of the (always potentially) limiting effects of licensing. I agree with Izzy that the prospect of playing with your toys online is filled with possibility and awesomeness - I'm just hesitant to believe that companies like Mattel will take full advantage of the many freeing affordances of MMOGs when these same technologies also offer such readily available opportunities to extend existing cross-promotional/marketing initiatives.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Child Safe Viewing Act and the Super V-Chip

With the US Senate Commerce Committee 's approval of the Child Safe Viewing Act last week, the FCC will now have to investigate the feasibility of a multi-media V-chip (being dubbed "Super V-Chip") that does not interfere with existing content provider packaging and pricing schemes. This announcement is actually kind of rife, because it takes sides in an ongoing debate about how to best facilitate parental (as opposed to governmental) regulation of their kids media exposure. The "Super V-Chip" has been proposed as an alternative to the "a la carte" sale of cable networks supported by the current FCC chairman (Kevin Martin) as well as the Parents Television Council. While the Super V-Chip would allow parents to "block" undesirable content across a variety of media formats (incl. TV, cable/satellite receivers, Internet, wireless, etc.) available in the home, the "a la carte" solution would -- at least for television -- allow parents to pick and choose (and only pay for) exactly those networks they want to have available in their homes in the first place.

The solution proposed by Sen. Mark Pryor and the Child Safe Viewing Act represent a sweeping expansion of an existing framework, one whose effectiveness has been quite limited so far. Part of the bill's mandate will be to respond to concerns about the underutilization of the existing V-Chip, which blocks content on TV sets (all TV sets come with this technology already installed). Studies show persistent lack of awareness among parents about how the technology work, while others express frustration with the lack of accuracy and reliability in the accompanying ratings system.

Here's a run-down of the various players' positions, courtesy of Multichannel News:
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark): “It’s an uphill battle for parents trying to protect their kids from viewing inappropriate programming. I believe there is a whole new generation of technology that can provide an additional layer of help for these parents,” Pryor said in a prepared statement. “My bill simply lights a fire under the FCC to take a fresh look at new options in the marketplace.”

FCC chairman Kevin Martin: Supports "a la carte" sale of cable networks as the solution to parental concern about children seeing inappropriate content, putting him at odds with the cable industry’s view that blocking solutions are superior to government interference in the distribution of cable programming.

The Parents Television Council: Backs Martin on the a la carte or “cable choice” issue and does not endorse Pryor’s bill. According to PTC president Tim Winter, “Our desire is that the industry will respond to continued public demand for a safer television environment for children and families by adhering to the decency law on broadcast television and by creating a way for parents to choose and pay for only the cable programming they want.”

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Club Penguin to be Disneyfied

News via Gary Rusak at Kidscreen that Disney has announced it will be acquiring Club Penguin, for a reported $350 million (which could grow to $700 million (USD) if goals/promises are met). Rusak writes:
What likely attracted Disney is that Club Penguin has seemed to crack the code of making digital platforms pay in the kids space. Since its launch in October 2005, the site has signed on more than 700,000 subscribers who willingly pay the US$5.95 fee every month, and it currently has more than 12 million activated users, primarily between ages six and 14, in the US and Canada. The site will be re-dubbed Disney's Club Penguin, but will retain its URL (www.clubpenguin.com) and continue to operate from its Kelowna, Canada base.

While the company's founders will remain in control of the site, and Disney says that it has "no immediate plans" to change Club Penguin's contents or mode of operation, I have a pretty good feeling that this is going to significantly transform the property. Either we'll soon be seeing Club Penguin merchandise at the Disney Store, or else some sort of movie or television deal, or some other imprint of what media scholars like Janet Wasko and Alan Bryman have termed "Disneyfication". In the meantime, you can read the whole article here.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

You can customize fairies, what about products?

I just found some good coverage of this year's Licensing International convention in last month's Animation World Magazine, written by Karen Raugust. Of particular interest is Raugust's exploration of "digital dimensions" of licensing animated properties, some of which deals with one of my case studies, Disney Fairies. She writes:
It has become typical to integrate new media -- social networking, iTunes, online communities and the like -- into any youth-focused licensing program. Digital distribution helps get a property into the hands of young consumers who are not using traditional media as much as in the past, and it helps create a deeper connection between consumer and property.

Disney supported its Disney Fairies brand, which is on track to reach $800 million in retail sales of merchandise this year, even before the release of its first DVD movie in fall 2008, with a website that, sans marketing support, generated 25 million page views. Girls can customize their own fairies on the site, and they have created 1.5 million unique fairies to date. The studio plans to launch a similar site for Cars in the future.

In his annual Licensing Show press conference, Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, said he sees more potential for online-distributed custom and personalized merchandise, which DCP already offers through a few licensees. "You can customize fairies. What if you could customize merchandise based on those, or put those in books?" he asked.

She also provides some useful info about DIC's new Kewlopolis project:
DIC Ent. creates online communities for all of its properties, including its new Dino Squad animated action-adventure series, which will air on CBS Saturday mornings. The studio recently launched Kewlopolis, a community that connects all of its property-specific sites and has its own social networking and user-generated components. Demonstrating how much the world has changed, Andy Heyward, DIC's chairman/ceo, said at a luncheon for licensees and press, "We see the TV show almost as an infomercial for the online."

The rest of the article, particularly the sections on digital games and "the majors", provides a wealth of news on current and upcoming projects of particular interest to new media/kids researchers...check it out here.