Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Uruguay Places First Official Order of OLPC's $100 Laptops

Courtesy of the MAGIC Network, BBC News reports that Uruguay has first become the first country to place an order for 100,000 of the One Laptop per Child's (OLPC) controversial $100-laptops for kids. If all goes well, the country will purchase another 300,000 to "provide a machine for every child" in the country between the ages of 6 and 12 by 2009. According to the BBC article:
The order will be a boost for the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organisation behind the project which has admitted difficulties getting concrete orders.

"I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a cheque written," Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the organisation, recently told the New York Times.

However, he said he was "delighted" with the first deal.

"We commend Uruguay for being the first country to take concrete actions to provide laptops to all its children and teachers and look forward to other countries following this example," he said.

Some of the problems that the organization has had include the steadily rising cost of the machines, which are supposed to sell for $100 or less, but have now (according to the BBC) increased to $188. Governments were also initially limited to purchasing batches or lots of 250,000 units, in green or white...a stipulation that has now been removed. In addition to making lower lot quantities available, starting November 12, individual members of the public will also be able to buy a machine "for themselves as well as one for a child in a developing country" (an initiative called "The Give 1 Get 1 (G1G1) program). Prices for individual machines start at $299. This last part is great news for researchers interested in exploring the technology first hand, and I'm now seriously considering including a design analysis of the computer in my thesis.

Along with the OLPC laptops, the Government of Uruguay will also provide internet access to all of the schools involved.

Check out the BBC's "Clickable guide to the key features of the "$100" laptop".

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two New Films About Video Game Controversies

Courtesy of Game Politics, news about two new documentary films examining videogame controversies (and specifically focused on the videogame violence debate) that are slowly circulating through the festival circuit. The first, directed by Danny Ledonne -- the maker of the controversial game Super Columbine Massacre RPG -- follows the controversy surrounding the game, in the wake of the Columbine massacre and the ensuing anti-game political climate. The film, Playing Columbine: A True Story of a Video Game Controversy, was screened at the GameCity festival in Nottingham. You can check out Ian Bogost's coverage of the film at Water Cooler Games, or an early review at Kotaku here. As Bogost writes:
The terrific irony is that Playing Columbine has an infinitely greater chance of getting picked up for broader distribution of some kind at a festival compared to the game. Of course, it also has an infinitely greater chance of actually getting shown at a festival in which it is accepted as a selection.

Meanwhile, the Kotaku posting questions the film's seeming self-centeredness:
In his latest work, Ledonne has created a documentary about the aftermath of his game about the aftermath of the massacre. Judging by the rather short trailer, it feels like the documentary is a little too much about Ledonne and not enough about the very real and complicated issues involving both the shooting and the idea of tacking serious subject matters with video games.

You can judge for yourself if/when the film comes your way. In the meantime, you can check out the trailer on Youtube.

The second film, Mortal Kombat by Spencer Halpin, is a much more inclusive look at the history and scope of videogame controversies. As Ledonne himself describes:
It seamlessly blends together the history of the medium, highlighting the colors and textures of early videogames, the controversy-sparking 16-bit era, and the graphical sophistication of the modern platforms… The film is a visual treat from first frame to last…

While the trailer for Mortal Kombat appears to build a case against videogame violence, Ledonne maintains that the film actually supplies a "summarily decisive blow to the anti-game critics of the world." You can also read a very early review by Bija Gutoff at Apple, and/or watch the very spiffy trailer on Youtube, while you wait for a screening/copy to make its way to your area. Note: When the trailer was originally launched online last year, it was met with a lot of criticism from the games community, for its apparent sensationalizing of the issues and anti-game stance. Ledonne's comments are thus important, as it indicates that the film paints quite a different portrait than what is seen in the trailer.

p.s. Those of you with an interest in finding good documentaries about videogame culture and issues might want to check out King of Kong.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Human Values and Virtual Worlds

The Virtual Worlds Forum, which took place in London last week, started off with a bit of a bang, as keynote speaker and industry veteran Lord Puttnam gave an opening speech bemoaning the growing number of toy-based virtual worlds aimed at kids, calling them a "threat" to basic human values. According to the BBC coverage, Puttnam fears that the only thing "children will learn from these virtual spaces is that they are first and foremost consumers. He urged creators to build more moral virtual worlds that instill in children the values that societies need." Puttnam, an Oscar award winning movie producer, pointed specifically to games like Webkinz, BarbieGirls and UBFunkeys, stating:
"Are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people?" he asked. "Do we really want them to think of themselves as not much more than consumers?"

He said: "Might we not prefer to build worlds that encourage those same values and skills we wish them to exercise in the real world?"

"The challenge ahead is this - to ensure that virtual worlds are increasingly places that offer real meaning to their lives and in the real world to learn from the sense of community and collaboration that's been experienced in virtual worlds," he said.

Following these comments, the article quotes a number of CEO-types running toy-based games for kids in defense of the practice, many of whom say that using virtual worlds to communicate with children is simply "natural" since they're already so familiar with online culture, virtuality, etc. The article quotes Matthias Mikshe (founder of Stardoll), Alice Taylor (editor for education at Channel 4) and Marc Goodchild (head of interactive at BBC Children's), but these comments all focus on the popularity of virtual spaces/games among kids (and even parents), without addressing the more important aspects of Puttnam's remarks [***Update: See Comments section for Alice's clarification about her own "response," which was taken somewhat out of context, and check out some of her own postings about the Forum, BarbieGirls, etc.***]. The only game-maker to even marginally address the issue of consumer discourses within branded games was Mark Hansen, director of business development for Lego Universe. Relying on the old "chicken and egg" defense of consumer culture, Hansen had this to say:
"Is it positioned to sell more product or as an extended experience with the product they have already bought?" he asked. "Kids are very smart and will spot that really quickly."

Wow. I'm quite impressed with Puttnam's speech and his attempts to open up the discussion to something a little more complex and meaningful than we usually see in the public debates around a) kids and technology, and b) commercialization. While it's unfortunate that none of the game-makers were able/allowed to really construct an adequate response (and didn't their parents ever tell them that 'popularity' isn't everything?), at least the notions of consumer socialization, and of commercialized play as a pedagogy of consumerism have been brought to the industry's table.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Advergaming Defined

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has just published the first in a series of papers that will review the current (and future) state of advergaming -- its platforms, demographics, player behaviours and best practices. In addition to summarizing the most recent data on advergaming and usage statistics (financial, PC/console ownership rates, etc.), this first paper also provides a detailed overview (and very useful categorization) of the various forms of advergaming currently in circulation, as follows:
Advergames: Custom-made games specifically designed around a product or service (e.g. Burger King - Sneak King);

Dynamic In-game: Advertising elements within a connected game itself, that can be dynamically changed depending on location, day of week and time of day (e.g. vending machine fronts, billboards and posters);

Inter-level Ads: Display or digital video ads shown during natural breaks in gameplay, such as between levels ("inter-level") or between rounds of play;

Game Skinning: Includes game sponsorship of display units around the game, and/or custom branding integration into the game;

Product Placement: Integrated brand messaging, sponsorship and/or products into a game (e.g. beverages, mobile phones and cars);

Sponsorships: Advertiser owns 100% share-of-voice in and around an existing game, such as sponsorship of a tournament, zone (level), or session of gameplay. Advertiser might also sponsor the release of new exclusive content associated with a game;

Static In-game: Advertising elements within a game that may not be changed. These may reside within game play itself or on menus, leader boards, etc. This type of ad format is also referred to as "Hard-Coded" advertising;

Post-Game: Ads shown following completion of the game;

Pre-Game: Display or digital video advertisements shown before gameplay begins as the game is loading.

Read the full report here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Okami Lives!

Great news on the gaming front: Eurogamer, Slashdot and Joystiq are all reporting that last year's critically-acclaimed yet sadly commercially-ignored Okami will get a second crack at the big leagues, when it is transported to the Wii this coming spring (2008). You might remember me going on and on about this game when I played it early this year. And given the unique forms of gameplay enabled by Wii technology, I'm pretty excited to play the remake. Here's an excerpt from the Eurogamer article:
Celebrated on PS2 for its absorbing puzzle and action adventure mechanics, gripping narrative inspired by Japanese folklore and beautiful watercolour visuals, its rebirth on Wii has been much hyped.

The game also lends itself rather well to the potential of Nintendo's Wiimote for control. Amaterasu's Celestial Brush - a paintbrush used in combat and for solving puzzles - is a perfect fit for the Wiimote, and so it proves, while combat will also include various "motion-controlled physical attacks".

I completely agree that this game is pretty much the perfect candidate for adaptation to the Wii - even though the original PS2 version was amazing and groundbreaking, the opportunity to draw with the Wiimote is going to be something else entirely. Since playing Okami, I often find myself wishing I could pause whatever game I'm playing to draw in a Slash or Lightening Bolt. I also wonder if the Wii version will retain the original T rating...there's was really no reason for it. Other than a couple of subversive jokes, there's nothing "crude" or suggestive or particularly violent about it. Anyway, keep your eyes peeled for a Wii trailer.

Massively Preschooler Online Games

David Kaplan has written a piece on PaidContent.org about Nickelodeon's MyNoggin (which launched yesterday) and Disney's upcoming Bunnytown (to be launched later this week[???] -- the article says yes, but I can't find confirmation). Both are virtual worlds, and both are aimed squarely at preschoolers.

Nick's MyNoggin, which launched yesterday, is described by Kaplan as:
[A] casual game that is the main feature of a subscription-based, ad-free service for preschoolers and their parents. The game is described as “curriculum-based learning through game play.” The game also serves to promote Nick Jr. and Noggin characters, which game players use as icons.

The site itself advertises games that "progress with child's achievement", and reports that will let parents monitor their child's in-game learning. Meanwhile, Disney is expected to release further details about its Bunnytown site, which will tie into a new Saturday morning Disney Channel puppet show premiering next month (check out the trailer here).

Although Kaplan argues that the sites have different strategies in mind -- emphasizing that MyNoggin will be ad-free, while ignoring 'character branding' as its own highly effective ad strategy -- it's clear that both aim to cross-promote ancillary products and media (For a different incarnation of the same article and argument, check out Daisy Whitney's post at TV Week, which positions the sites as the "two different approaches" to creating virtual worlds for preschoolers). Nickelodeon might couch this in educational/participatory culture discourses, but Disney is much more upfront about their expectations around branded play. As the article explains:
Disney’s online offerings, on the other hand, are intended to drive viewership and product purchases. Mindy Stockfield, VP of digital media at Disney Channel and Jetix, tells TVWeek that the entertainment giant is giving kids exactly what they want. Stockfield pointed to research, commissioned by Disney, that showed viewers have a particular affinity for particular shows and brands, saying, “By playing our games and being part of the content, it engages them so much they want to watch the show more.”

What Kaplan and Whitney don't mention is that Nick and Disney are not alone in creating immersive online experiences for preschoolers. Just last week, Sesame Workshop launched its much anticipated Panwapa, a virtual world that seeks to teach 4-to-7 year olds about global citizenship, and introduce a new transnational team of Sesame muppets. For a great description of the site's contents, check out this posting at Children's Media Consultant. Similarly, if I heard correctly at last week's aoir conference, PBS Kids is also planning a virtual world or community for preschoolers. So far, all of these initiatives appear to emphasize "educational" content -- likely as a strategy to get parents on board with letting their 4-year-olds play online. And I'm sure we'll be hearing a LOT about "safety" as well, though how either of these dimensions are to be defined and implemented remains to be explored.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Child-Generated Content Gets Televised

I've been meaning to post on this since before my comps, but somehow didn't found the time until now. Following the success of Canadian Zimmer Twins and other (possibly less successful) attempts to integrate "child-generated content" into cross-media properties (check out my post on this from last March), Star Farm/Bardel Entertainment/YTV have announced their own plans to integrate kid-produced content into their co-venture, kiddie-goth property Edgar and Ellen. Here's an excerpt from the Star Farm press release, posted in August by Izzy Neis (who, by the way, also does work for Star Farm):
Viewers will finally see just how wildly creative the twins can be as fans inspire 10% of the content and receive full credit [***yay!!!***]. Every episode contains a short-form cartoon that is inspired by their global fans via www.edgarandellen.com. The twins, in the most startling trick of all, break through the screen barrier and address their fellow pranksters by name.

While many companies struggle to incorporate user-generated content, Edgar & Ellen is pioneering a multi-layered approach throughout its storytelling. The mischief-makers reach audiences through multiple platforms simultaneously. Avid fans in scores of countries read the books and create content online.

I haven't seen any of the resulting products, but I really appreciate the fact that kids will receive full credit for their contributions. This represents a pretty radical departure from the emerging norm among sites/companies soliciting UGC from kids (and adults), who much more often claim full copyrights over contributions and other submissions, even when kids' contributions are central to the goal and contents of the property. Take, for example, Lost the Plot Online, Inc. (LTPO)'s terms of use for Zimmer Twins, a site aimed at enabling kids to create and submit episodes for the brand's interstitial television programming:
Again, if your content is selected for broadcast through Teletoon Canada Inc., we will have you execute a release and contract relating to that broadcast. Those documents will indicate that you assign all rights in the content to LTPO and that you allow LTPO to license the use of the content to Teletoon Canada Inc. for broadcast.

While Zimmer Twins has so far been limited to Canada and to web/TV cross-overs, the brand shared Star Farm's plan to expand to a variety of formats over the coming months. According to an article appearing in KidScreen earlier this month:
The co-branded Zimmer Twins site will be featured on qubo.com beginning December 2007, and will include games, puzzles and tools for creating user-generated mini-movies. Cross promotion for the new web elements on qubo's broadcast and digital services is in the works and will feature story-starter clips that ask viewers how they would finish each story and then direct them to the website to make their own creations.

The best user-generated toons, and their creators, will get a nod on qubo's weekly NBC, ION and Telemundo networks broadcasts, and daily on the qubo 24/7 channel that's available in the US on on select digital, cable and satellite systems.

As a member of the MAGIC Network and a big supporter of children's rights, I am 100% supportive of involving kids in cultural production processes, and creating media and cultural products that reflect kids' own ideas and priorities. What troubles me about all this is that there are as yet no clear guidelines or rules about how kids' copyright/authorship fits into corporately-defined intellectual property regimes...and no formal mechanism in place to ensure that their potential rights are upheld. While properties like Edgar and Ellen appear to be taking a positive approach and enforcing their own ethics about how child producers should be treated, I suspect that unless this is implemented at a structural level (regulatory, legal, or at the very least through industry standards of practice) and/or unless some sort of challenge is put forth, the majority of media producers will maintain their existing stance vis-a-vis user submissions, and continue to claim full copyright/authorship over kids' ideas.

In the meantime, check out some of the other initiatives quietly involved in setting the standard -- iCarly and Me:TV -- both Nickelodeon properties, and both of which make sweeping IP claims over user submissions (forever, throughout the universe type claims).

And for some more discussion on this, you should check out this posting by Children's Media Consultant

Saturday, October 20, 2007

New NPD Report: The Small Child Gamer

Earlier this week, Beth Snyder Bulik at AdAge covered the new NPD Group report on children and videogames, identifying "6" as the new entry age into "serious" gaming. Here's an excerpt of Bulik's article:
NPD Group's annual survey on children and video games, released this week, found that while older kids still dominate in time spent per week on gaming, the most significant spike in hours played occurs between the 2-to-5-year-old and 6-to-8-year-old groups. First-, second- and third-graders spend 75% more time than they used to on gaming, adding an average of three hours per week to their playing time.

"When kids get to the 6-to-8-year-old age range is when we see them turn into more serious gamers. Not only does the amount of time they spend playing games increase the most dramatically, but they migrate from using 'kid' systems to using more portable and console systems as well," NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier said in a news release.

I think that this is the first study I've come across that considers the shift from "kid systems" to regular gaming devices. Fascinating stuff, and I'm surprised it's not something we hear about more often. The article also provides details about kids gaming habits:
The study also found that one-third of children ages 2 to 17 spend more time playing video games than they did a year ago. Half of the kids were classified as light users, at five or fewer hours played per week, while the other half were medium, heavy or "super" users, playing six to 16 hours or more every week.

"At 58%, personal computers have the highest percentage of personal use for gaming among kids age 2 to 17," NPD Group Director David Riley said. "Not only is the PC the most accessible, but because of the dynamic nature of the internet, it tends to be less expensive for marketers than console and portable platforms."

So, it seems that part of what we're talking about here are online casual games, like Club Penguin perhaps, or even BarbieGirls. Bulik, and her interviewees at Ubisoft, are optimistic that this will translate into revenue for the traditional game industry as well, as companies move into the small child market with new casual games for kids. However, she also considers some of the impact this move might have on the commercialization of kids' culture: "While more kiddie playtime does represent opportunity for marketers and game publishers, the increasingly younger demographic and time spent on gaming raises some eyebrows -- and concerns."

She gives some space to Robert Weissman of Commercial Alert, who raises the issue of child obesity and its potential links to gaming -- focusing on in-game advertising! He states:
Advertisers and marketers have penetrated deep into the video-gaming world across all demographics. They're delivering sophisticated, tailored and repeated messages to children that their parents don't even know about," he said.

Bulik's reply is a surprisingly ill-informed defense of the in-game ad industry, claiming:
That may have been true for some marketers -- the most often accused are food, beverage and kids' entertainment brands -- but ad-serving companies that deliver in-game marketing, such as Double Fusion, for instance, are staying out of kids' views.

If there is one area of gaming where ads have run completely rampant it's kids' online and casual gaming. Just because this one marketer "stays away" from kids' games (and adds that they also refuse to in-game advertise tobacco and porn...wow), hardly supports Bulik's implication that advergaming or in-game advertising to kids is limited in any significant way. The article ends with some lip service to how parents are the real gatekeepers, and that game producers should employ a double marketing strategy, one that targets kids, and another aimed at parents that "emphasize[s] the creative or educational aspects of the game". I wonder if these guys have read Sold Separately? Anyway, way to set up the one critical perspective of this issue as some sort of straw man argument to dismiss...why even bother including an opposing perspective if it's just to pretend that the concerns expressed are unfounded or irrelevant?

Read the complete article here.
Read the GameDaily BIZ coverage here.
Read the original NPD Group press release here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

aoir 8.0: Let's Play, October 17-20 2007

This week, I'll be presenting my work on television-themed MMOGs for kids at the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (aoir). The theme this year, "Let's Play", explores the "(playful) blurring of boundaries online". Here's an excerpt from the official conference description:
Our conference theme of play invites empirical research and theoretical reflection on how human beings "seriously play" with one another on, via and through internet/s, on local, regional, and global scales. We call for papers that explore the intersection of the serious and the playful, the sacred and the profane, the revolutionary and the mundane, and fantasy and the reality.

Highlights (i.e. things I'm especially looking forward to) include a keynote address by Henry Jenkins, and presentations by Hector Postigo, Tarleton Gillespie, and Dan Burk, Mia Consalvo, danah boyd, Sal Humphreys, Bryan-Mitchell Young, and various others. Here's the abstract for the paper I'm presenting:
Saturday Morning Cartoons Go MMOG: Cross-media integration, branded play and the migration of children’s television to massively multiplayer online gaming

Since the 1980s, children's television has established itself as the nexus of cross-media integration within North American children's culture, both in terms of its frequent expansion across a variety of media forms, as well as its extension to a vast array of consumer products through merchandizing tie-ins. Today's successful children's television programs consistently adopt a cross-media strategy that transports their characters and themes into film (both feature and direct-to-video), print (books, comic books and magazines), and the digital realm (websites, video games, mobile content)—- each of which works to cross-promote the others, and all of which promote related merchandise. From action figures and play-sets, clothing items and school supplies, children's television and its companion media provide characters and narratives that act as a type of media-brand for innumerable "tie-in" toys and commodities. These products allow children to "play" with elements and characters from the shows, wear their images, and use quotidian objects that bare their imprint. Through the coordination of media content and branded toys, children’s television promotes a form of narrativized or "branded" play which sees children loosely conforming to the scripts and parameters predetermined by these media texts during both fantasy play and when playing with the branded objects (Kinder 1991; Seiter 1993; Kline 1995; Fleming 1996). When children "play television" they are not only often engaging with specific tie-in products, but they are also building more intimate relationships with particular media-brands.

The quest to get children "playing television" has been most recently achieved through a number of highly successful, television-themed online destinations for kids, often produced by networks carrying large amounts of children's programming. Websites or "online communities" such as Cartoonnetwork.com (in the US) and YTV.com (in Canada) consistently rank among the most frequented and top-rated by their relevant target markets. Here, networks are able to offer users information, games and content related to popular shows, direct-market their tie-in products and merchandise, and build brand loyalty. While these sites may feature a variety of cool applications and engaging activities, including discussion forums, mini-games, and exclusive "webisodes," they are ultimately promotional vehicles for the television network, its programs, and cross-media/merchandizing initiatives. More recently, the children’s television industry has once again sought to expand its scope, this time setting its sights on an emerging form of digital gaming that has already proven immensely popular amongst older market segments—the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

This paper will explore the migration of the children's television networks to the realm of MMOGs, the issues these new games raise in terms of the commercialization and rationalization of children's (online) play, and their significance within the larger context of the gaming industry. Tracing the development of three television-themed MMOGs targeted directly at children, I will examine how this new form of cross-media integration both extends and diverges from previous instances of "branded play." I will discuss the ethical implications of enhancing the immersive qualities of child-targeted branded play spaces, considering the ways in which children's special needs and vulnerabilities make them particularly susceptible to certain forms of manipulation inherent within "immersive branding" of this kind. At the same time, however, I will consider how the unique properties of existing, adult-oriented MMOGs—including an emphasis on collaboration, creativity and open-ended narratives—have enabled compelling instances of player-empowerment that could easily be reproduced within child-specific virtual worlds. In this sense, television-themed MMOGs and other "branded" play-spaces could in fact provide children with "narrative openings" instead of enclosures, allowing them to break-down, appropriate, subvert and re-write the very scripts and parameters that have traditionally constrained other forms of branded play. This analysis applies a critical approach to the study of technology (Feenberg 1999), drawing forth the political and ethical dimensions of specific design features and choices found within the three case studies examined, while utilizing a user-centered approach in the accompanying discussion of their meaning and potential impact on the experience of the child player.


New/Additional Resources:
Virtual Worlds, Real Ad Dollars in eMarketer Daily.
Are Kids Ready for Ads in Virtual Worlds? in C|Net News.com.
Virtual-world Makers Aim To Hook Kids, also in C|Net News.com and also written by Stefanie Olsen.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cerise Takes on Zombies and the Final Girl

Feminist game magazine Cerise has a new Halloween-themed issue out, that touches upon a number of game studies issues and games, from marketing survival horror games, to Fatal Frame and Clover's Final Girl theory, to gender representation in Resident Evil 4. I've been reading this publication since June (about a month after its launch) and overall have been quite impressed by its diversity and non-stereotypical feminine / feminist / gender studies approach to game issues/theory, game reviews, game-related crafts and -- most of all -- building a new online community for women gamers and game writers. They're also linked to the Iris Gaming Network, a very cool resource for women gamers (as well as game professionals and researchers). Even more exciting is their new call for submissions for upcoming theme issues on the following topics:

November 2007
Theme: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
Submission deadline: October 20, 2007

December 2007 Issue
Theme: Gaming as an Industry
Submission deadline: November 20th, 2007

January 2008 Issue
Theme: New Year, New Games
Submission deadline: December 20th, 2007

February 2008 Issue
Theme: Princess Power
Submission deadline: January 20th, 2008

For a full description of these themes and details about what they're looking for (i.e. submission guidelines), check out their submissions page here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mobile Phones for Kids...Continued

Now that comps are done, I have time to return to my research, including an ongoing project/article I've been working on since last year, examining cell phones for kids. There's been quite a bit of news on the children's mobile culture front, including a recent article by Marian Scott that appeared in the Montreal Gazette last week on the increasing number of kids with cell phones. The article cites Jacqueline Lane, director of teen research at C&R Research Services in Chicago, who describes:
Nearly half of American children 9 to 11 years old now have wireless phones, compared with just 16 per cent two years ago. One in five 6- to 8-year-olds have their own phone, up from six per cent. "There's been a huge jump among that younger market," said Lane, crediting family plans, introduced in the past three years, for fueling sales of cellphones for kids.

Despite the number of kiddie-tech cell phones, the growing amount of ads for mobile phones and features being targeted at ever-younger children, as well as the numerous mobile features/add-ons now featured on kids' sites and throughout kids' media, the article maintains that it's not the kids themselves that are driving the market surge. According to them, and according to Lane, it's not the kids who want their own cell phones, it's the parents.
"The most important thing for parents is cost control," said David Neale, senior vice-president of consumer products and services at Telus. "Primarily it's to be able to reach the child or for the child to reach the parent."

But that changes when girls reach 11 or 12 and begin to view a cellphone as a must-have accessory, Lane said. "That nag factor becomes hugely prevalent at age 12. It comes down to the chatty nature of being an 11-year-old girl and the maturity factor."

Hmmm...the links between consumer "savvy" and child "empowerment" continue. In Canada, youth enthusiasm for cells is following a similar trajectory. The article goes on to cite Laurie Mah, director of research strategy at Youthography in a Toronto, who describes:
In three years, the proportion of Canadian phone-toting tweens (age 9-12) has gone "from practically nothing to 40 per cent," she noted.

Scott and Mah also have some interesting things to say about kiddie-tech phones like the MiGo:
While the number of young users has surged, kiddie-style phones with brightly coloured plastic handsets have flopped.

"Tweens don't want cellphones that look like toys," Mah said of models like the Firefly, offered by Rogers, and Telus's Migo. "They want a cellphone because they want to look grown-up. You can't demean them with products that feel like they're meant for their 4-year-old sister."

"One in three 8-year-olds has an iPod," agreed Lane. "They certainly don't want a kid phone."

Indeed! Despite the optimism of the mobile phone industry that this growth will continue, Disney is already pulling the plug on its Disney Mobile phone service (Note: However, they apparently plan to continue their Family Center child surveillance service through another carrier). Meanwhile, Helio and Kajeet were both quick to offer free switch-overs to Disney mobile consumers. It's been fascinating to watch even established brands struggle to capture/create this market..from the sporadic starts/restarts and failures of kiddie-tech phones like MiGo and Firefly, to Disney's short-lived attempt to re-brand itself as a mobile service provider. I suspect that a more successful brand expansion strategy will be found within content provision, a strategy that's currently being embraced by a number of kids' media giants, from the Cartoon Network, to Nickelodeon to Neopets Mobile. Even Sesame Workshop is getting in on the mobile bandwagon...according to Kidscreen the company is currently testing a new "mobile learning downloads" program that will send reminders and content to parents and kids to help with learning letters/reading (including clips from the show...the lines between edutainment and advertising continue to blur).

Additional news items on kids and mobile phones that I've been collecting over the past few weeks include a couple of articles from c|Net News about AT&T's new parental controls ("Smart Limits") feature and how it weighs in on the ongoing battle between schools and cell phones. Contrast the "safety" and "control" discourses promoted by AT&T et al. with a recent study by User Centric, that found rampant usability problems and failure rates in the parental control features of a number of media technologies, including mobile phones. The Chicago-based research group found a 36% failure rate and that "parents and children had similar failure rates when setting up parental controls" for mobile phones (and other devices). The study concluded that "Overall...participants' lack of understanding about ratings compromised their ability to successfully set up parental controls and that parents may be more confident than they should be that the controls are properly set."

Ahhh...It's really great to be getting back into my research topic just as so many new/ongoing developments and discussion around kids and technology are unfolding.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Policy Rumblings on the Online Privacy Front

From KidAdLaw, news that the FTC will be holding a town hall style "open forum" on online targeted advertising. The two-day event will take place on Nov. 1-2, in Washington, D.C. and is open to the public. Sounds like a good opportunity to raise some of the issues with kids' sites, data-mining, advergaming, etc. Here are the details.
So-called "behavioral" advertising involves the collection of information concerning a consumer's activities online, including searches conducted, Web pages visited and content viewed, according to the agency. The goal of the meeting, the FTC said, is to bring together consumer advocates, industry representatives, technology experts and academics to address the consumer protection issues raised by such practices.

"Recently, several consumer privacy advocates, as well as the State of New York, sent letters to the FTC urging it to examine the effects of behavioral advertising on consumer advocacy," the agency stated. Topics at the Town Hall will include how behavioral advertising works, the types of data that is collected, whether such data is personally identifiable, and how such data is used.

Anyone can submit written comments on the topics to be addressed at the Town Hall, the agency noted.

Here are the KidAdLaw story link to the original FTC announcement, and some additional coverage from MediaPost, PCWorld and Broadcasting & Cable (all courtesy of KidAdLaw).

Coincidently, the 29th International Conferences of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners was held in Montreal last week, which examined a similar set of issues. Included on the agenda was a plenary session called "The Next Generation Dragon — Children’s Online Privacy", featuring Canadian kids' privacy/online culture experts Leslie Regan Shade, Jacquelyn Burkell and Valerie Steeves. Here's the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's blog post about their talk, which you can check again next week for video of the complete session.