Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Moon Gets a Make-Over

Via Ypulse's anastasia (who is on the magazine's advisory board), a head's up about a couple of upcoming online initiatives by New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams, the ad-free magazine by and for 8-12 year old girls. The magazine is now operating under the larger umbrella New Moon Girls Media, and has started calling itself the "original social network publication." In the coming year, the organization plans to launch two new online communities -- one for teens (girls aged 13-15) called orb28, and one for younger girls (8-12 years) called Luna Vida Club. There isn't much information about the sites yet, apart from the announcement and some discussion of how the sites will tie into the magazine/company's original mission of providing girls with an ad-free space to share their thoughts, opinions and dreams. For example, here's a little blurb from their website:
Our mission is to bring girls’ voices to the world. Eighty percent of our content is written by girls; adult content is researched and recommended by girls. Because our magazine and internet experiences for girls ages 8 to 15 remain free of advertising, we are especially grateful for coverage from supportive media organizations.

Anyway, it sounds like a very promising project - I look forward to seeing the results in the new year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ofcom's New Guidelines for Kids' TV

From the December 13th edition of Cynopsis! Kids, a story about Ofcom's new guidelines for children's television programming, which will apply to programs produced for both kids and teens (i.e. viewers under 18 years). According to Cynopsis!, the guidelines reflect a growing concern about game shows (and reality shows?) that involve / star child participants, following a series of "high-profile game-related debacles in kids programming in the UK this year." She writes, "Ofcom wants producers to make clear to kids and their families that they might lose, as well as explaining they should pay close attention to the related emotional angst and stresses of performing and the various issues that go with that." The organization recommends that it might be useful for producers to consult with a child psychologist for advice in dealing with the potential negative outcomes / experiences that kids might encounter. Sounds like a good place to start, anyway. Along with these recommendations, the Ofcom guidelines ask producers and broadcasters of kids' programming to comply with existing rules set forth by the Broadcasting Code, including (as cited in Cynopsis! Kids):
* Development of clear guidelines for production staff working with those under eighteen;
* Appropriate background checks on a participant's social, family, health and educational circumstances and a thorough risk assessment if necessary;
* Where practicable, ensuring there is a single, consistent point of contact with whom the participant is able to liaise throughout the production to oversee the child's welfare; and
* Careful consideration of the program format and its likely impact on the participant is recommended. For instance, springing high impact surprises on under eighteens in 'live' or 'as live' programs where conflict or highly emotional situations may be involved, could cause harm and/or distress. Similarly, in genres which involve young children in competition with others, performance anxieties and pressure to succeed may be issues.

Now I'm quite curious to find out whether Canada's Code has similar stipulations in place for game shows, reality-type competition shows and kids.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

New Feature: Kids and Mobile Play

For the next three months, I will be conducting research for one my professors on mobile technologies and kids in the UK. As part of this project, I will be posting relevant news items, reports / articles of interest and (eventually) some of my research findings in the form of two new regular features -- one that will explore Kids and Mobile Play, and one that will discuss issues around Families and Surveillance.

This inaugural installment of Kids and Mobile Play links to news articles about two new mobile technologies for kids. The first, as reported by Warren Buckleitner in the New York Times, is a fascinating attempt to link a number of contemporary trends within kids culture...virtual pets (in this case, Moshi Monsters), online worlds (MoshiMonsters.com) and mobile phones (MoPods cellphone charms). Here's an excerpt from Buckleitner's article:
In a twist on the Webkinz model — pairing a password-tagged toy with an online world — Moshi Monsters (www.moshimonsters.com) are a family of six monsters that live in a light-up cellphone charm and, virtually, in an online home you create. The charms, called MoPods, were marketed last year in Britain. They contain a receiver that detects the faint signal emitted when cellphones send or receive messages, even when the ringer is silenced. They respond with a 15-second burst of L.E.D. fireworks, while the monster spins inside the plastic bubble.

According to the article, the companion online world is pretty limited. Players are required to visit the site and solve puzzles in order to feed their monsters and buy them furniture for the monster's online home. There's also an interesting surveillance dimension...in that the MoPods detect each other's presence. Buckleitner suggests that "Teachers may also find an unexpected use for the MoPods: monitoring illicit in-class cellphone use."

The second news item of interest comes from Textually.org
and reports on NTT DoCoMo's new kid-friendly 3G phone and bracelet set. The product is being marketed primarily for its "safety and convenience" features, but also appears to provide a number of play opportunities. Still, it's hard to tell if this one should go in play or surveillance...I suppose there will be a lot of overlap between these two categories, as the same features can often be used for both. Here's the description from Textually.org:
In an emergency, the child can quickly switch on the phone's 100-decibel alarm, which produces two types of noise alternately. When the alarm is activated, the phone also emits a bright light (high-intensity LED) that is easily visible to people in the surrounding area. The phone can be set to automatically notify loved ones when the alarm is activated, and provide the handset's current location as well.

... Another neat feature, if the phone's power is switched off, a presetting can enable the handset to automatically turn back on (in as little as five minutes) and message the incident and the phone's location to a registered DoCoMo phone visible to people in the surrounding area.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kabillion Puts Child-Generated Content onto DVD

Via Gary Rusak at Kidscreen, news about a new child-generated content venture called Little Director. Rusak writes:
Riding that UGC wave, Taffy Entertainment's multiplatform VOD and broadband channel Kabillion has partnered with Little Director to enable kids to create drawings that can than be transformed into short animated movies. Little Director's proprietary technology takes children's drawings and stories and produces 90-second animated movies that can be screened on Kabillion and then copied to a DVD for home viewing. Kabillion is charging US$19.95 per DVD, a 50% discount on the same service offered on the Little Director site.

Sounds kind of neat, although my first question is what happens to the submitted content, in terms of intellectual property claims and authorship rights. I've checked out the Little Director site and can't find a terms of use...which is odd, considering the gray area of co-authorship within which this service seems to operate. Worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

New CCFC Campaign - Webkinz Incorporates Third-Party Ads

The Uber-popular, toy-based, virtual environment for kids, Webkinz, has begun incorporating third-party ads into their content, causing a bit of an uproar among parents and launching a new campaign led by child advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to convince the site to remove the extra ads. I say extra because the Webkinz site, as the CCFC points out, is in itself already an advertisement, of the "transmedia intertext" variety. Here are some of the details about the CCFC's campaign, from the organization's website:
Webkinz.com, the most visited virtual world for children in the United States, has quietly begun targeting its users with outside advertising.

The site is already commercial – in order to subscribe to it, children must buy a Webkinz toy that comes with a special code. But apparently using the site to sell millions of Webkinz stuffed animals wasn’t enough for Ganz (the makers of Webkinz) and now they’re selling their young users to advertisers. To make matters worse, Ganz didn’t bother to inform parents, many of whom purchase Webkinz toys for their children expecting that the website will be free of outside advertising and links. By opening the site to advertisers, Ganz is choosing to maximize profits at the expense of parents’ trust and children’s wellbeing.

Please take a moment to tell CEO Howard Ganz to stop advertising on Webkinz.

Is anyone else frustrated at the typical timeline for this particular breed of kids' sites? They start off seemingly unbranded...until you realize that they already have numerous licensing agreements in place, and that a whack of ancillary products are actually being referenced in the site and throughout kids' culture. As soon as the site becomes popular - third-party advertisers and market research (for sale, anyway, as it's surely been going on behind the scenes all along) are introduced. At this point the site either crosses into media-brand territory (films, comic books, videogames, action figures), or becomes yesterday's news, as kids seek out the "next big thing". I wonder, however, if the kids' motivation is really that of finding the "next" big fad (as marketing discourse would have us believe), or whether they might, inadvertently or not, be trying to escape the ads and other changes that take place within their favorite sites once the emphasis has shifted away from attracting a large population base, and onto ways of selling that population to advertisers. How much does the integration of advertising alter the activities, community and overall experience? Once kids are no longer the main focus -- from a business perspective at least -- are they (and their needs) treated any differently?

Read more coverage at the New York Times and at Common Dreams.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Imagine [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]

There's a great post on Bonnie Ruberg's Heroine Sheik this week about the new Imagine line of girl games by Ubisoft for the Nintendo DS. I've been seeing (and cringing at) ads for these games during Saturday morning cartoon blocks lately, and have been interested in finding out more about them, so this is great timing. You can also check out this post on Ypulse. Rather than chime in on the issues these games raise in terms of gender representation and how "girl games" are consistently defined by the games industry in the same stereotypical terms, I want to post an excerpt from a paper I'm working on that links this trend to a much deeper historical tradition of utilitarianism in the social shaping of "girls play". Adults have long sought to contain children's play, but girls' play in particular, for more "useful" and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers. Not that girls didn't love their dolls and Easy-Bake ovens (I know I did!), but there's a lot going on here relating to the social construction of girls play that it is impossible to really separate out from the experience itself. The following excerpt is part of a larger exploration of how western thinking about play tends to approach it in very "rational" and instrumental terms (for example, the construction of work/play as analytic categories), and how this approach influences what games and activities are deemed "appropriate" or idealized at a particular point in history.
Another important entry point for understanding how the rationalization of play occurs beyond the boundaries of the work/play binary is through a deeper exploration of the role of the domestic sphere in the construction and regulation of modern play practices. In reviewing the foundational literature on play, the male-centricity of the work/play dichotomy and the omission of female players from these debates are immediately apparent. The omission of the female experience of leisure within modernity challenges the notion that industrialization ever truly led to a separation of the spheres as reflected in the work/play binary, and calls into question the ways in which play and work have thus far been defined within the play literature. Throughout history, as Calvert (1998: 76) writes, “[L]ife was often very different for boys and girls at any given time. Boys and girls in America were dressed differently, treated differently, given different amounts of time for play, work, and study, and taught to handle all three activities differently.” Women and girls have historically enjoyed fewer leisure opportunities (Vallone 1995) and been steered toward much more limited and restrictive play practices than their male counterparts (Hendershot 1996). Indeed, productive or functional play has been a prominent feature of girls’ leisure time throughout the industrial era. In the nineteenth-century, as Formanek-Brunell (1998: 364) describes, “Girls were urged toward usefulness in their play as natural training in the republican values they would need as future wives and mothers of citizens.” Historical studies of girls’ and women’s leisure thus suggest that the modern rationalization of play does not necessarily represent the incorporation of “work” into play, as much as a continued extension of domesticization—-the rationalizing system of the “private” sphere of the home.

Not that girls just accepted the roles and limitations that were placed on them. In parallel with the tradition of containing girls' play is a tradition of little girls using play to subvert gender norms and expectations:
Although dolls are often seen as obvious "vehicle[s] of feminine socialization," recent ethnographic research, as well as historical analysis of memoirs, diaries and oral histories, reveal a long-standing tradition of gender role subversion and rejection of adult authority within girls’ doll play (Formanek-Brunell, 1998; Gussin Paley, 2004). This emerging research reveals the familiar, but academically neglected, practices of brutal doll torture, doll-body modification, doll bashing and doll funerals. As Formanek-Brunell (1998: 374), describes, although many girls (and boys) played with dolls in prescribed ways, “[E]vidence reveals that doll players pushed at the margins of acceptable feminine and genteel behaviour." For some girls, dolls became a valuable tool for thwarting social norms and undermining restrictions. For example, during the nineteenth-century “doll parties” were often promoted as a beneficial and appropriate activity for girls. Designed as a primarily aesthetic activity (girls were meant to show off their dolls and look at each others’ doll clothes), “doll parties” were regulated by a complex set of rules and etiquette which were circulated in advice books and women’s magazines. In practice, however, the events often transformed into active play dates that involved sliding down the stairs on tea trays and “smashing their unsuspecting dolls to bits” (Formanek-Brunell 1998: 375).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Link to: Rob Garner's Post on Webkinz

No time for a long post today, but thought this story would be of interest to Gamine Expedition readers. As Rob Garner writes in today's MediaPost blog, Google Zeitgeist 2007 (by Marissa Mayer) has ranked Webkinz as the 2nd most popular search item, and the most searched social networking site...above Facebook, YouTube and MySpace. Here's an excerpt from Garner's post:
Marissa Mayer’s Google Zeitgeist 2007 / Trends announcement yesterday makes a strong case that kids have already inherited the Web. Five social media portals and networks made the list of the top ten fastest-rising search terms. But the fastest-rising social media network isn’t Facebook, YouTube, or MySpace. It’s a social networking site for beanie-baby-like plush toys, and their respective preschool-to-preteen owners, called Webkinz (it’s at no. 2, just behind “iPhone”). If you’re not familiar with Webkinz, it’s a sort of technically primitive (and safe) Second Life for kids, and the price for entry is buying one of the plushes, then logging in and socializing with other online animals in their own virtual world that also includes their own little rooms and a variety of games.

Not sure what it all means, if anything, but there you have it. And I disagree with Garner's conclusion that this particular finding is evidence that "kids have already inherited the web"... I mean, every kid interested in Webkinz likely comes with a parent who then has to find out more about it. Anyway, you can read the rest of the post here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Writing a Dissertation Proposal

At some point over the next two weeks I have to finish writing my dissertation proposal, so that my committee has time to read it before I leave for London. Despite the fair amount of work I've already done in this area (and towards my actual dissertation research), I'm finding it quite difficult to summarize the whole thing as a 20 page document. This is compounded somewhat by the fact that our school does not provide any clear template or guidelines about what a proposal should include (apparently the proposal requirement is fairly new, and none of us are completely sure that it's actually required, though certain that it will be helpful in the long run). When in doubt, my tendency is usually to hit the books, and this time is no different. I've been reading through Glatthorn and Joyner's Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation for some general advice and parameters. While oriented towards more quantitative / science-esque research projects, they offer the following handy template for what they call "working proposals" (vs. "comprehensive proposals", which are 75 pages long!):
Introduction to the Study = 5 pages
- One or two paragraphs that get the reader "into" the proposal (e.g. "This proposal describes a proposed research study that will examine...")
- Background of the study (sets the context and what external factors might influence the study)
- The problem or thesis statement, hypothesis and research question(s)
- General purpose and/or significance of the study

Review of the literature = 5 pages
- Review the theoretical literature, by reviewing theories and developing a conceptual framework (derived from theory, i.e. identify key concepts and trace their relationships)
- Review the empirical literature (past research on the topic, key findings)
- Link the two
- Relate the review to your own study

Methodology = 15 pages
- Type of research
- Context and access
- Participants (and selection process)
- Data collection
- Data analysis
[****And here I would add chapter outline****]

Appendix: Proposed time line = 1 page

Total = 26 pages + Bibliography

They also remind us to write in the future tense. I'm thinking that I might separate out the "Theoretical/Conceptual Framework" component into its own section...I'll probably still compare the two, but my logic tells me that it should go after the review of past research, to situate my own study and describe how it will contribute/diverge/address past oversights, etc. I might also overlap this with the methodology section a bit, seeing as I'm combining a couple of different theoretical approaches, which in a sense determines my methodology as well.

Another extremely useful resource was one recommended to me by Anil: a whole page full of Sample Dissertation Proposals offered on the University of Texas website. This afternoon, I'm putting aside some time to read through some of these past proposals, see how previous doctoral candidates have put these documents together. According to Anil, the proposals come complete with comments that the authors made years afterwards, pointing out things that they didn't end up doing, or changes made during the research process, what they would do differently, etc. He's also checked on the authority of the authors themselves, and confirms that each proposal was written by a successful PhD (who graduated and is now gainfully employed). Awesome!

Writing a Dissertation - Updated in Nov. 2009:
Here's a graph I made about how to structure the thesis itself, which I put together a few months after my thesis proposal was accepted. It's a summary of key guidelines and advice given in a workshop on "meta-structure" that I took in spring/lent 2008 with Patrick Dunleavy, author of Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation and professor at the LSE. You can also find many of the handouts and presentations Dunleavy uses in his regular workshops, along with various other highly useful resources, on the LSE website. I hope this helps! It's been very useful for me, esp. in keeping an eye on the "big picture" stuff throughout the writing process.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sneak Peak at "Kids on the Go" (New Nielsen Report)

*****Oops, forgot to post this yesterday (Sara, Dec.5, 2007)*****

The Nielsen Company is getting set to release a new report on young people and mobile devices, called Kids on the Go: Mobile Usage by U.S. Teens and Tweens. According to the press release, the report will include a number of new findings about "tweens" (kids aged 8-12 years), such as:
* 35% of tweens own a mobile phone.
* 20% of tweens have used text messaging.
* 21% of tweens have used ring & answer tones.
* 5% of tweens access the Internet over their phone each month.

And among the 5% of tweens who access the Internet over their mobile phones:
* 41% do so while commuting or traveling.
* 26% do so while at a friend's house.
* 17% do so while at social events.

The press release goes on to describe that although text-messaging and ringtones (?) "remain the most pervasive non-voice functions on the phone, other content such as downloaded wallpapers, music, games and Internet access also rank highly among tweens." I'm a bit confused about the ringtones thing -- do they mean downloading ringtones, or creating them, or both? [This also reminds me of something else I read this week, about a study in Whales that found that as girls age, they engage in fewer creative activities than guys do...including creating ring tones.] Anyway, the press release doesn't provide stats on how many tweens download content, but they do give some info about those that do:
* 58% of tweens who download or watch TV on their phone do so at home.
* 64% of tweens who download or play music on their phone do so at home.
* 56% of tweens who access the Internet on their phone do so at home.

That's kind of unexpected, isn't it? That most downloads happen at home, and not "on the go"?

The report also provides some comparative analysis, looking across age groups and across media. For example, Nielsen found that tweens are spending less time surfing the internet than teens (e.g. 48% of tweens say they spend "less than one hour per day online" vs. 81% of teens who say they spend one hour or more). When they are online, "70% of tweens use the Internet for gaming" (whereas teens use the Internet mostly for e-mail...again contrary to all the hype that young people don't use email). Again, I find the phrasing a bit confusing (perhaps purposefully) - do they mean that 70% of tweens do game (as in, at all...to whatever extent and for however long), or that gaming is the most popular activity among tweens?

Check out Gary Rusak's coverage of the report on Kidscreen, or Tanya Irwin's coverage on MediaPost

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Vancouver Olympics Woos Kids with the Cutest Mascots Ever!


So, last week the 2010 Vancouver Olympics committee unveiled its team of official mascots (seen above - picture courtesy of canada.com, which you should also check out for a hilarious short article about them entitled "Why do our mascots all look like Hello Kitty?"). Each one is based on West Coast Native legend, and represents a key component of the BC landscape. For example, check out the "bio" for "Miga":
The sea bear is inspired by the legends of the Pacific Northwest First Nations, tales of orca whales that transform into bears when they arrive on land. The Kermode bear is a rare white or cream-coloured sub-species of the black bear that is unique to the central West Coast of British Columbia. According to First Nations’ legend, Kermode bears — also known as Spirit Bears — were turned white by Raven to remind people of the Ice Age. Orcas are also honoured in the art and stories of West Coast First Nations, as travellers and guardians of the sea.

They're also super cute, anthropomorphic Pokemon-types, that do look like Japanese animation-style (e.g. Hello Kitty) characters, and surely not by accident. On the other hand, the mascots and their branding are also obviously targeted to kids, and in that regard are pretty on the pulse in terms of what's aesthetically and thematically popular right now. Think of the huge popularity of Chinese and Japanese legends in kids' culture over the past few years, which forms the basis of a number of media brands. This includes Xiaolin Showdown and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even things like Magi-Nation and Pokemon that incorporate the same mythical themes and elemental magic. In this respect, I think Miga the Sea-Bear, Quatchi the Sasquatch, and Sumi the Animal Spirit might have a lot to offer, adding Native legends to kids' repertoire and possibly opening the door for a more diverse kids' cultural landscape.

I can't help but notice, however, that the Olympics committee seems to have taken a much larger cue from the commercial kids' industries (not just style and themes). Branded toys, books and other mascot-imprinted accessories are already available for sale on the website. Hmmmmmm. Is this an example of making a big important public event more relevant for kids through the incorporation of themes/interests drawn from kids culture, or is it simply yet another case of rampant commercialization (increasingly associated with the Olympic games in general) reaching into the child demographic? I suppose we'll have to wait and see, but my fingers are tightly crossed for option number one.