Thursday, September 27, 2007

May I Recommend: John Harris' Game Design Essentials

John Harris over at Gamasutra has just released the second installment of his Game Design Essentials series, which I would like to recommend to those of you with an interest in game studies. The format of the series is to overview 20 case study games that best exemplify key game forms and issues within digital game design. While written from a practitioner perspective, the articles (so far) deal with numerous themes of interest to game scholars (and players!). The first installment was 20 Difficult Games, and the most recent is 20 Open World Games. The "Design Lessons" and links provided at the end of each short case study are also great resources to have on hand. Enjoy!

Neopets Key Quest Crosses Boundaries

The perpetual motion machine that is 'Neopets' continues to churn, with announcements this week of a new partnership with toy manufacturer Jakks Pacific to create a whole gamut of new Neopets toys and accessories. The site itself is still growing strong -- according to comScore, Neopets attracted 5.9 million visitors last month, its strongest month yet and a 50% increase over the same period last year. comScore also reports that the average "tween" user spends 2 hours and 33 minutes on the site. Wowza! This new partnership expands upon previous/existing Neopian merchandising initiatives, and also represents a further integration of Neopets' online and real-world play products. In particular, a number of the Jakks toys will tie-in to Neopets' new multiplayer "Key Quest" game, by providing codes that will allow kids to "transport" their toys into the online environment (so basically, a rip off of Webkinz). From Gamasutra:
The Jakks toy line will focus on plush Neopets toys, but the aggreement also covers action figures, accessories, playsets and plug-and-play interactive toys, as well as role-play products, vehicles, youth electronics, water toys, novelties, stationery products, kites, and craft activity toys. Jakks’ Neopets collectible plush products are expected to begin to hit retail shelves in early spring 2008, with figures, playsets and other Neopets products shipping to retailers nationwide for fall.

Additionally, the plush toys and other upcoming Neopets consumer products will tie into a new multiplayer “Neopets Key Quest” in the game. The toys will contain codes that allow kids to unlock virtual extensions of the toys to use as part of the Neopets Key Quest game, with virtual versions of the toys represented in the users' Neopets profile.

The companies plan to release the new line next spring (2008). Until then, kids will just have to content themselves with Webkinz and The Littlest Pet Shop.

Trend Alert: From Buffy to Twilight

Interesting story from the CBC this week on Twilight, an enormously popular tween/YA book series written by a young Mormon woman named Stephanie Meyer - think Buffy the Vampire Slayer without a super-powered protagonist and even more relationship talk. From the CBC website:
Meyer’s saga — the third book was published recently — offers readers supernatural bodice rippers without much bodice ripping (more on that later). Since its 2005 debut, the series has sold upwards of 2 million books, and the latest installment, Eclipse, sold 150,000 copies on its first day alone. With a certain boy wizard in retirement, Twilight is the biggest young-adult phenom going.

Frothing with romance and gothic atmosphere, the books tell the story of Bella Swan, a regular jeans-and-T-shirts girl who moves from Phoenix, Ariz., to a drizzly corner of Washington state. It’s all doom and gloom — that is, until she encounters boy-vampire Edward Cullen on the first day of school. "He was glaring down at me," she narrates in the first book, Twilight, "his black eyes full of revulsion. As I flinched away from him, shrinking against my chair, the phrase if looks could kill suddenly ran through my mind."

The article goes on to describe the books' huge fan following, which includes swarms of vampire-attired girls showing up for book signings, and a healthy online component. The series has been optioned for film adaptations by Summit Entertainment, and two more installments are set for publication by 2009.

Disappointingly, the article doesn't make any mention of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite the obvious points of comparison...both in terms of themes and in terms of the substantial fan base. Ok, so Buffy was never at the same level ($$-wise or audience-wise) as Harry Potter, but still! It seems kind of likely that Twilight is tapping into some of the same audience, and at the very least extended an already established tradition of "vampire-romance" within girls' culture (from Anne Rice to Buffy and Angel to The Darkangel Trilogy).

By the way, for those of you who still miss it, Joss Whedon has been publishing a comic version of Buffy Season 8 through Dark Horse Comics. I suspect the book will eventually be made available as a graphic novel as well, so if you've missed the first few issues you might want to hold off until next spring and get the "complete season."

Virtual Worlds for Kids...and Marketers

From earlier this week, a new report by eMarketer on the big rise in popularity of virtual worlds among and for kids and teens...which according to Marketwire is really great news for marketers (their title, "Wildly Popular, Virtual Worlds Are Marketers' Playground", kind of says it all). Some highlights from the Marketwire article include:

- eMarketer's prediction that "24% of the 34.3 million US child and teen Internet users will visit virtual worlds once a month in 2007"...a figure that they argue will rise to 34% in 2008 and up to 53% by 2011.

- the conclusion that young people are attracted the the "UGC" or creative aspects of virtual worlds, which are "allow kids to tap into their creativity, indulge their desire for self-expression and exercise their proclivity for exploration."

- the direct links the article makes between UGC and market research, claiming that "The good news for marketers is that most virtual worlds are capable of offering detailed information about how their users interact with brands and advertising." The bad news? "[I]t is difficult to know what all this virtual interaction really means. What value is there in a person's avatar drinking a Pepsi? Or wearing a shirt bought from a virtual store? What if a person's virtual activities have no bearing on their real-world activities?"

The real bad news, however, is for the kids/teens who flock to these sites - namely that without respect for their privacy or intellectual property, their every move within these environments might be tracked and analyzed by market researchers in the off chance that it might tell them how to target youth demographic groups better.

You can read more coverage of the report on Izzy Neis' blog as well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

My Looming Comps

The reason I haven't been posting much lately, and won't likely be posting much or at all until sometime late next week, is that I'm finally writing my comprehensive exams this week, after much rescheduling, reading, rescheduling again, more reading and many hours of prep work. I've posted a little info about this process before, but haven't really shared as much about my progress through the comps as I thought I would when I first started this blog last fall. Oddly enough, however, maintaining Gamine Expedition has nonetheless been really helpful -- not only for my research, but also in terms of getting me into the habit of frequent spontaneous writing and pulling things/ideas/references together on the fly. Reading gaming news and kids' media blogs everyday has also been helpful in getting me in the right "reading mood" over the past few months.

For those of you going through the same process, or are simply interested in what I'm going to be writing about, here are my (very long) field definitions (which, as of August 2, are now officially on file with the School of Communication):

Theories of Play and Games
With the continued rise in the prominence and popularity of digital games since the 1980s, interest in play theories has mushroomed within communication and media studies, as scholars attempt to theorize and understand this new form of mediated play. While the works of a small number of play theorists, most notably Huizinga (1950/1955) Caillois (1958), and Sutton-Smith (1997), have thus far been singled out and established as canon in the study of digital games, the vast majority of communication scholars studying digital games have failed to adequately ground their studies within the full spectrum of traditions and perspectives that make up the field of play scholarship. Yet, a wide variety of play theories have enormous relevance for communications scholars, not only within the context of digital games, but also in terms of spectator sports, interactive media, consumer leisure culture, and children’s “branded” play. In order to truly understand the role of play within new media interactions, we must first construct a broader understanding of play that examines both why and how people play. This comprehensive exam will survey theories and research that provide a theoretically grounded context for future studies of mediated play and games. Included are readings that explore four key themes that I believe can better situate communication scholarship on games and play within a more comprehensive cross-section of play studies traditions: play and development; play, philosophy and critical theory; play and culture; and mediated play: toys, games and rules.

In the first two sections, I will review various functional and philosophical explorations of why humans play. An emphasis on purposive play arises within the first section, play and development, which explores the developmental function of play as expressed in a number of studies and theories originating from the field of psychology. One of the most important aspects of this section involves the relationship between play and child development. Play fulfills an important role within children’s cognitive development, wherein playing games and learning rules leads to the development of higher mental functions (Piaget 1965) and the internalization of fundamental social scripts (Vygotsky 1933). On the other hand, while the structures and systems of games are linked to developing brain functions, other scholars highlight the importance of fantasy and imaginative play in facilitating children’s socialization, as well as in providing a contained, “safe” outlet for children’s creativity, stress and aggression (Paley 2004; Bettelheim 1987). I will also include in this section theories that approach play from a more universal approach, relating play activities to a myriad of cognitive and emotional functions in adults as well as children (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi 1994).

The universality of play is explored further within the second section, play, philosophy and critical theory, which situates the question of play within philosophical, moral and social contexts. The primary problem that I will address in this section is the various ways in which play is delineated and defined, which relates back to the question of functionality through a questioning of the assumptions that shape our understanding of what play is in the first place. This section will explore debates around the purposiveness of play (Marcuse 1978; Bateson 1973), the parameters of play (Hans 1981), the biases and class dynamics that inform our understandings of play (Bourdieu 1991; Gruneau 1983; Lash 1979), as well as the metaphysical essence of play (Suits 1978; Winnicott 1971).

The third section, play and culture, will incorporate the question of ‘why we play’ with analyses of ‘how we play,’ drawing upon studies conducted from within the fields of sociology and anthropology. I will start with the canonical works of Caillois (1958) and Huizinga (1950), who were among the first scholars to construct a differentiated theory of play as a culture-creating activity. Their categorizations and definitions of play and games provided an early lexicon for discussing various aspects of play, while their positioning of play as existing outside of capitalist Industrial society launched a crucial debate among play theorists on the relationship between play and work (explored in depth in the next section). This theme is taken up again by Darnton (1981), for example, who repositions play within the context of the workplace and emphasizes the profane element of play, thereby problematizing the high/low dichotomy inherent within differentiated notions of play. Subsequent works by Goffman (1961) and Geertz (1973) represent a further shift, by approaching play as a representational realm of activity, wherein issues and relationships of social and cultural significance come to be represented and made sense of in the form of social rituals, which include forms of play. Their work on the representational function of play within different cultures and contexts leads directly into the work of Sutton-Smith (1971; 1986; 1997), a key figure within emerging constructivist theories of play. I will explore the recent evolution of Sutton-Smith’s (1997) theories about the cultural and symbolic significance of play, and the impact his research has had on other play theorists (Pellegrini 1995). Finally, I will review the works of Schwartzman (1978) and Vallone (1995) who represent the developing space for feminist discourse within cultural and representational theories of play.

The theme of ‘how we play’ will continue in the final section, mediated play: toys, games and rules. Here, I will review the artefacts and systems that have come to dominate and structure play within the technologized western world. In this section I will explore the various tools of play, by unpacking the technological and design features of toys (Goldstien et al. 2004; Formanek-Brunell 1998; Hendershot 1996), as well as their representational and symbolic functions (Sutton-Smith 1986; Erikson 1977), and the relationship between mediated play and commercially-mediated culture (Cook 2001; Flemming 1996; Kline 1993). I will also examine the structuration and systematization of play through games and rules. As rules and standardized games become integrated into technological, bureaucratic and economic systems, such as online digital games, they come to enact a form of rationalization of play. An overview of the literature on games and rules will thus allow a better understanding of how play comes to be defined by the parameters of a game (Dyck, 2000; Jenkins 1998; Avedon & Sutton-Smith 1986), which are in turn representative of larger social systems.


Critical Theory and the Politics of Technological Artefacts
The study of technological artefacts has a long tradition within communication and media studies. From the foundational works of Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1951), to the more recent contributions of political economists (Smythe, 1981; Castells, 2003; Mosco, 2004), communication historians (Eisenstein, 1983) and cultural studies theorists (Williams, 1974), communication scholars contribute a unique perspective into the social, cultural and political implications of technologies and their contents. In recent years, media technologies have undergone a series of profound transformations, in terms of their technological design, their corporate and regulatory infrastructures, as well as their relationship with audiences. With the advent and widespread adoption of domestic “new media” technologies in particular, audiences become reconfigured as “users,” entering into ever more direct relationships and interactions with the technologies that structure, disseminate and produce our shared “digital” culture (Barney, 2000; Livingstone & Lievrouw, 2003; Rushkoff, 2003). As the presence of technological artefacts, systems and users expands into increasing areas of everyday life, communication scholars are called upon to provide critical analysis of the impact this has on cultural and social experience. To this end, communication studies is experiencing a deepening compatibility with an emerging body of work that explores the complex dynamics between users, technologies, and social institutions. Deriving from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology (Suchman, 1987), philosophy (Berman, 1982; Winner, 1986; Feenberg, 1999) and design research (Kirkham, 1996; Druin, 1999; Graner Ray, 2004), as well as specialized approaches such as science and technology studies (STS) (Hughes, 1989; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999) and social construction of technology (SCOT) (Pinch & Bijker, 1987), these critical theories of technology have much to offer communication scholars in their quest to understand the changing role of media and other cultural technologies in contemporary society.

This comprehensive exam will review key texts examining the ways in which technological artefacts embody and interact with their larger social contexts, particularly in terms of dominant ideologies, political economics and the everyday lifeworld of the user. In order to provide a broad overview of the various methods and approaches currently available for deconstructing the ideological and socially-constructed dimensions of technological artefacts and systems, this exam will combine studies conducted by communication scholars with seminal texts drawn from the interdisciplinary fields of technology studies. These works can be further categorised around four major themes that are of particular relevance to discussions of new media technologies: philosophy of technology; studies of technological artefacts and systems; the politics of technology (with an emphasis on feminist critiques of technology); and children and technology.

The first section, philosophy of technology, explores major themes and theoretical issues involved in the study of technology within the contemporary Western context. These foundational texts reveal key social, political and cultural dimensions of the technologization of modern life, and set the tone for subsequent work in this area. I will examine how the technological determinism and technological disenchantment of the post-war era, as established in the initial explorations of technology’s role in Canadian life and culture embarked upon by Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1951), eventually led to a critical rethinking of technology in the form of responsive examinations of the limits of technological rationalization (Marcuse, 1964), and a reclamation of the active role of institutions, social groups and individual action in shaping technology (Williams, 1974; Franklin, 1989). I will trace the evolution of the critical theory approach to studying media technology into the contemporary context, through works which consider the materiality of communication technologies (Angus, 2000) and the rationality of the (computer) “networked society” (Barney, 2000). This section will also explore alternative and emerging critical theories of technology, focusing on Feenberg’s (1999; 2002; Veak, 2006) theories of instrumentalization and democratic rationalization.

In the second section, I will review studies of technological artefacts and systems, which provide insight into the historical and contextual backdrops of particular technological artefacts, as well as methodological frameworks for future investigations of this kind. These readings will include historical and applied examinations of technological development (Kumar, 1978; Eisenstein, 1983; Suchman, 1987), studies conducted within the SCOT approach (which also applies historical analysis) (Pinch & Bijker, 1987; Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2005), and studies of technological systems (Hughes, 1989; Star & Bowker, 2003). In terms of methodology, these readings will also provide an overview of recent reinterpretations of SCOT theory provided by the “social shaping of technology” approach (MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2003). Lastly, this section will review interdisciplinary studies of new media technology, informed in part by SCOT and other applied theories, including Bakardjeva (2000), Flichy (in Livingstone & Lievrouw, 2003), and McMillan (in Livingstone & Lievrouw, 2003).

The third section will emphasize the political dimensions of technological artefacts and systems, with a special emphasis on political economic and feminist critiques of technology. From Winner’s (1986) controversial work “Do artefacts have politics?”, to Berg and Lie’s (1995) reworking of Winner’s thesis to include gender issues (“Do artefacts have gender?”), these readings challenge the underlying assumptions and biases of early technology studies by introducing questions of power and ideology to the analysis. The political economy of new media technologies is the focus of Castells (2003) and Mosco (2004) who, like Berman (1982), envision technological systems as conduits for the dominant ideologies of modernity—including hyper-capitalism and social rationalization. A similar emphasis on ideology is also found within feminist critiques of technology and technology studies, who demonstrate how political and social constructs—such as gender—become embodied within technological artefacts and systems, at both the level of design (Kirkham, 1996; Graner Ray, 2004), and at the level of social practice (Wajcman, 1991, Rothschild et al., 1999, Arisaka, 2001).

The final section comprises texts focused on an often-neglected user group within media and technology studies—children. While children figure prominently within social, cultural and political discourses around technology (Buckingham & Willett, 2006)—they are the focus of regulatory debates, the catalyst for the expansion of technological forms into new areas of social life (from the home to the school to the playground), and the locus of cultural hopes and fears about technological impacts—their role as users is a subject that is often excluded from academic discussions of technology. The works reviewed in this section demonstrate how conflicting social conceptualizations about the nature and function of childhood within late modernity are reproduced in the form of dichotomous, “moralistic” debates within academic deliberations of children’s unique relationship with new media and digital technologies (Hutchby & Moran-Ellis, 2000), ranging from the highly celebratory (Rushkoff, 1996; Holloway & Valentine, 2003) to the deeply pessimistic (Kline et al., 2003). The ideological and political dimensions of these discourses are further revealed (often by contrast) within emerging studies of children’s technological artefacts (Druin, 1999) as well as preliminary examinations of children’s experiences as users of technological forms (Suoranta &Lehtimäki, 2004; Seiter, 2005).

CFP Exploring New Media Worlds Conference

Just got this CFP for a conference coming up in February/March 2008 in Texas entitled Exploring New Media Worlds: Changing Technologies, Industries, Cultures, and Audiences in Global and Historical Context. Keynote speakers will include children's media scholar Ellen Seiter and political economy of communications theorist Vicent Mosco. Here's the description and submission details:
Integrating fields of study in a time of change; setting a new agenda for media studies.

Papers and proposals are invited on any aspect of the conference themes, offering reports of new research, position-taking conceptual essays, discussions of media and telecommunication policy, and both international and historical comparisons on changing technologies, industries, cultures, and audiences.

The program will include keynote speakers (Larry Grossberg; Steve Jones; Vincent Mosco; and Ellen Seiter), roundtable discussions, thematic panels, prominent scholars as respondents, and time for interaction. A wide selection of papers from the conference will be published. Travel grants are available for student members of the National Communication Association (see our webpage for more information).

Send papers or proposals (abstracts or annotated outlines) with a 50 word professional biography by email attachment to mediaworlds@libarts.tamu.edu. Panel proposals are also acceptable. Deadline: November 20, 2007.

Conference will be held from February 29 to March 2, 2008

For more information see http://comm.tamu.edu/mediaworlds

Email mediaworlds@libarts.tamu.edu or Rothenbuhler@tamu.edu.

Keynote speakers:
Larry Grossberg; Steve Jones; Vincent Mosco; and Ellen Seiter.

Confirmed participants:
Carole Blair, Sandra Braman, Celeste Condit, Bruce Gronbeck, Andrea Press, Ronald Rice, Paddy Scannell, Joseph Turow, Angharad Valdivia.

And the Texas A&M faculty:
Patrick Burkart, Heidi Campbell, Antonio La Pastina, Srivi Ramasubramanian, Eric Rothenbuhler, Michael Stephenson, Randy Sumpter, and Ian Weber plus strong faculty groups in Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Health Communication, and Organizational Communication.

The Exploring New Media Worlds conference is hosted and co-sponsored by the Department of Communication, the College of Liberal Arts, the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, and the Program in Presidential Rhetoric,Texas A&M University, with support from the National Communication Association.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mark Your Calendars: Worldwide Day of Play

From Cynopsis: Kids!:
Nickelodeon's fourth annual Worldwide Day of Play will be held on September 29, 2007,when the network and its digital siblings Nicktoons Network and Nick G.A.S. will go dark for three hours (12p-3p) as part of an ongoing initiative to get kids up and active to combat childhood obesity. Nickelodeon comes back on air at 3p with health oriented messaging and the finale of the Let's Just Play Go Healthy Challenge at 6p (30min), followed by new episodes of several series and the premiere of Back at the Barnyard at 9p. The Let's Just Play Go Healthy Challenge is a joint effort of Nickelodeon, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an initiative between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. Some 1,000+ Go Healthy events are scheduled to take place around the world on this day.

You can check out the official site here, where kids can sign up to join the challenge of either losing weight, exercising more or eating healthier foods.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Waiting for LittleBigPlanet

I believe that the demo version for LittleBigPlanet, the much anticipated upcoming WYSIWYG user-generated content game being built for the PS3 by Media Molecule, is going to become available (or perhaps already is) sometime this fall, with the full game launching in early 2008. In the meantime, we can only speculate about what the game's UGC features, potential market (and ultimate ESRB rating), and overall gameplay will look like. From the official (and fan) game description, however, it looks like it could (potentially) represent quite an innovation in collaborative game creation. From the Media Molecule site:
The LittleBigPlanet experience starts with players learning about their character’s powers to interact physically with the environment. There are obstacles to explore, bits and pieces to collect and puzzles to solve – requiring a combination of brains and collaborative teamwork. As players begin to explore, their creative skills will grow and they will be ready to start creating and modifying their surroundings – the first step to sharing them with the whole community.

Characters have the power to move anything in this glued and stitched-together landscape; hey have the power to design, shape and build both objects and entire locations for others to play.

There’s no complicated level editor; all of these skills can be learnt by simply playing the game. Creativity is part of the gameplay experience and playing is part of the creative experience. Players can make their world as open or as secretive to explore as they like.

When it’s ready, they can invite anyone within the LittleBigPlanet community to come and explore their patch – or can go and explore everybody else’s.

Check out the official site (and demo) here, or watch the trailer here.