Monday, December 22, 2008

Gamine Expedition on Holiday

As some of you have likely already noticed, I'm taking a short break from blogging over the Christmas holidays.

Gamine Expedition will return at the end of the month!

Merry Christmas!!

Sara

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sprout Promotes TV as Sleep Aid

Hoping to fuel their own new Christmas tradition, PBS Kids Sprout -- the much debated 24 hr television network for toddlers and preschoolers -- will be airing an 11 hour long "Snooze-A-Thon" this Christmas Eve, aimed at building brand loyalty among toddlers, though the network is calling it "helping kids fall asleep" on that most exciting of nights. Here's the description from the press release:
From 6:00 p.m. ET on December 24 straight through to 5:00 a.m. ET Christmas morning, Sprout will air the "Snooze-A-Thon," an 11-hour, uninterrupted block showcasing popular nighttime host Nina and her puppet sidekick Star from The Good Night Show snoozing comfortably on the set, along with clips of beloved characters from preschool favorites like Sesame Street, Dragon Tales, The Hoobs, Pingu and Berenstain Bears catching some zzz's. So, no matter what time of night the kids are up checking for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof, parents can tune into Sprout to show them that even their favorite television friends are fast asleep waiting for Santa to arrive.

Sure it sounds cute and all, but the idea of actually encouraging parents and kids to use television as a sleep aid (one that also just so happens to prolong kids' exposure to some of the most heavily commercialized brands in their cultural environment) seems irresponsible. Especially considering all the research that's come out showing that kids with TVs in their bedroom aren't getting a sufficient amount of sleep at night.

I'm thinking in particular of research conducted over the past few years for the Kaiser Family Foundation. For example, in 2003, Rideout et al. found that 26% of toddlers (under 2 years) and 43% of 4-to-6 year olds had a television in their bedroom. This study was followed up more recently by a review conducted by Frederick J. Zimmerman, who looked at studies linking heavy media use to sleep deprivation among children and teens. As Zimmerman writes:
Concern about media use and sleep in children dates at least to the 1970’s, and probably much before. A 1981 study of middle-class children in Indiana found a significant association between TV viewing and both shorter daytime naps and shorter nighttime sleep among toddlers. Such results have been replicated subsequently and seem to have grown stronger with time. Three recent studies of elementary-school children found that the amount of television viewed per day is significantly associated with lower total sleep time and with a general measure of sleep disturbance.

An equally strong predictor in one study was bedtime viewing, but the strongest predictor was having a television in the child’s room. The fact that a TV in the bedroom was significantly associated with sleep problems, even controlling for parentally reported total viewing time, raises the possibility that having a TV in the bedroom makes it possible for children to watch before bedtime without the parents’ knowledge. Sleep quality has also been related to media viewing. A recent study of infants and toddlers found that the amount of television viewing is associated with both irregular naptimes and irregular bedtimes.

These findings have been supported by a variety of sleep experts and pediatrician studies, including this one and this one.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that children in general are not getting as much sleep as they used to. As Zimmerman describes:
Recent research in the United States suggests that most children do not regularly get an amount or quality of sleep that would ensure optimal development and health. A 1981 study of children ages 1–5 in the U.S. identified average total sleep times of 11.5–13.5 hours. Twentyfive years later, a 2005 study of a similar sample of 1–5-year-old children identified average total sleep times of 9.5-11 hours. [...] Yet another recent study found that children ages 1–5 sleep an average of 8.7 hours per night. While the amount of sleep that would be judged adequate for this age range is unclear, it is almost certain to be more than the reported amount in this study.

In addition, it's estimated that between 20 and 30% of young children have some type of "sleep problem". This has lead some analysts to wonder if the relationship between media use and lack of sleep is really all that causal, or if it is perhaps correlational...i.e. kids who can't sleep end up using more media. But even with this added wrinkle (which reproduces the same argument that is eventually launched against any media effects research), there is absolutely nothing to suggest that media use in any way helps kids fall asleep.

Of course, empirical research doesn't always (or usually) have all that much influence on cultural practice when it comes to families and media use, and it seems to be no different here. According to Rideout et al.'s 2006 Media in the Family report, 30% of parents who put a television in their child's bedroom did so because they believe it "helped them sleep". Rideout et al. write:
Most parents don’t put their children to sleep to the TV (67% don’t have a TV in their child’s bedroom, and of those who do, 40% say they "never" put their child to bed with the TV on). However, as noted above, sleep crops up several times in the survey as among the reasons that many parents decide to put a TV in a small child’s room. Among parents with a TV in their child’s bedroom, three in ten (30%) say one reason they put a TV there is that it helps their child fall asleep, and about two in ten (19%) say they did it to try to get the child to sleep in his or her own room (instead of in the parent’s room). Among children with a TV in their bedroom, 37% (or 12% of all children) go to bed with the TV on half the time or more.

Parents also tend to see TV as having a generally calming influence on their children. In the same 2006 report, Rideout et al. describe:
Just over half (53%) of parents say that TV tends to calm their child down, while only about one in six (17%) say that TV gets their child excited. The rest of parents either say: TV calms and excites their child equally (9%); it depends on what the child is watching (8%) or on the child’s mood or time of day (3%); or they don’t know (10%). Television’s effect on children does not vary reliably with the child’s age or gender. Children who watch mostly entertainment shows are more likely to be calmed by TV than are those who watch mostly educational shows (72% vs. 50%).

This is likely part of what supports the idea that some parents have about TV helping their kids fall asleep. On the other hand, is "calming" the same as sleepy? Research would suggest not.

Another big issue here is the question of whether or not these findings are consistent across age groups. There are various and quite significant differences between children depending on age, maturity level, habitus, etc., both in terms of how media impacts them, how well they understand the content, and how media consumption makes them feel. And Zimmerman has found that although TV can be relaxing for "children of preschool age and older," it is quite possible that this is not the case for toddlers. Differences in cognitive processes between age groups, as well as the lack of research into toddlers' responses, are both good reasons to use caution when making generalizations on this issue.

This is also true of "television programs that have been specifically created to calm children down and help them fall asleep, and are promoted to parents as such." Just like the Baby Einstein scandal, where it was eventually uncovered that there was NO research or evidence to support the company's claim that their products assisted children's development...a fact made all the more troubling when contrasted with the growing amount of research demonstrating that media exposure can actually have various harmful effects on toddlers and babies...there is no research to suggest that "calming" shows are more or less effective than other shows among this particular age group. I agree with Zimmerman's conclusion that "More research is required to assess the effects of different types of content on children’s relaxation and alertness at different ages."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Job Posting at the University of Sheffield

I've fallen upon an extremely enticing job posting for a research associate at the University of Sheffield's School of Education. Not only will the successful candidate get to work on a project called "Children's Playground Games and Songs in the Age of New Media" (how awesome is that!?!), but they'll get to work with Jackie Marsh (!)...an amazing (and very friendly) kids' media scholar who researches kids' virtual worlds, games, new media and other forms of pop culture (find out more about her work via her blog Digital Beginnings). Here's the job posting description in full:
Job Title: Research Associate (Part-time, Fixed-term)
Department: School of Education: "Children's Playground Games and Songs in the Age of New Media"

Ref No: R06924

Closing Date: 5th January, 2009

Summary: The postholder will conduct ethnographic research to study how the oral traditions of playground games relate to children's media cultures. Applicants should have a higher degree, preferably a doctorate, in a relevant field (e.g. Media/Cultural Studies, Education, Sociology), with a research-training component. Experience of social research in the field of childhood, fieldwork with young people, and the qualitative analysis of data is also essential. The post is funded by the AHRC as part of the 'Beyond Text' programme and is tenable from 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2011, working on a part-time basis of 17.5 hours per week.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Kids Gaming for Good

A number of studies have come out over the past couple of years supporting the idea that children are not only highly empathetic, but also capable of incredible altruism and environmental consciousness as well. For example, as Afan wrote in a Kidscreen article back in September:
Altruistic impulses seem to be on the rise with kids, according to a recent study from Stamford, Connecticut's Just Kid Inc. The company's research team found that a full 90% of US kids believe helping others is important, and 21% of the sample group said they would purchase products that donate a portion of profits to a good cause.

Thinking about how much of kids' everyday lives are filled with discussions and lessons about sharing and cooperation, it's hard to reconcile how it is that kids' culture (in the post Sesame Street/Yo Gabba Gabba years anyway) can be so utterly devoid of these very traits. For the most part, the emphasis is on individualism and accumulation...qualities conducive to consumer socialization, rather than community service or charity. When empathy and affect are included, it's usually mobilized to create stronger links between kids and branded characters/toys, and used to nurture brand loyalty and stimulate repeat purchases rather than make any real connections between kids' capacity for caring and the people and things that might really need/deserve it.

Within virtual worlds, however, this trend appears to be shifting in a significant way. Although the vast majority still contain a heavy emphasis on market exchange, accumulation, and producing "subjectivities of consumption" (Pybus, 2007), this emphasis is offset and possibly even contradicted by an influx of features that allow kids to transform their participation in online gaming communities into real-world philanthropy. I don't know what it is about virtual worlds...perhaps it's the built-in "community" dimension, or perhaps it's the unprecedented access to kids' thoughts and opinions that's spurring it on...but more and more kids' virtual worlds and MMOGs are incorporating opportunities to do good, give back and help others. And kids appear to be responding in a big way.

Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:

Club Penguin
For the second year in a row, Club Penguin is donating $1 million to three different charities, and letting its players decide how the money is allocated by donating their own virtual coins to their cause of choice (well, their favourite of the three). The Coins for Change campaign was a massive success last year - according to the Club Penguin website: "More than 2.5 million children donated in excess of 2 billion virtual coins they earned playing games on Club Penguin to support the environment, children's health or children in developing countries." This year the program will run from December 12-22, and given the amount of hype around it, should draw in even higher levels of participation.

Shining Stars
Following the Webkinz model, Russ Berrie's Shining Stars is a line of plush toys that comes with the access code to a tie-in virtual world. Buying a toy gets you naming rights to an actual star, and the company donates part of its proceeds to The Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation, a charitable organization that "helps kids with serious illnesses and their families cope with their conditions." The site drew in more than 1.5 million registrations in its first year, and its early success inspired Russ to develop two more charity-associated toylines - Seapals and Treetures. The company estimates that "15% to 20% of the company's net sales in 2007 were driven by environmentally-friendly or charity-related products. Consolidated net sales for 2007 increased by 12.4%, to US$331.2 million from US$294.8 million the previous year" (Afran, 2008).

Dizzywood
As Amy Jussel described back in April: "Dizzywood is ‘planting’ the concept of collaboration, as kids nourish and tend a garden that grows faster with teamwork…By rewarding kids with seeds instead of the usual ‘coinage and consumption’ cues, they’re enabling more meaningful content to take root, a prize in itself." The site also teamed up with The Arbour Day Foundation to create an in-game Earth Day event last spring, during which "for every virtual tree planted in Dizzywood, a real one was planted on Earth."

SecretBuilders
This newly launched virtual world, which incorporates themes and characters drawn from classic literature, includes a charitable donation program called "One for All", a multiple choice quiz activity through which the company will donate real money to real charitable organizations as players answer questions correctly. For now, the charity seems to be limited to "planting a tree", but the site describes that "We are continuously seeking to establish partnerships with non-profit organizations to provide children with opportunities to contribute to important causes such as tree planting, clean water, hunger, endangered species, book donations, health and the environment."

Pixie Hollow
Although not tied to a real-world charity, Disney's Pixie Hollow features a virtual economy based (at least in part) on community service. Fairies must make and donate clothes (and other items) to the Pixie Hollow community at large before they are able to make things solely for themselves. The notion of giving to the community before taking for oneself is really surprisingly socialist (I won't say Marxist, because I know the negative connotations this word has in the US, so I'll just stick with "communal" and "community" and push the ideological baggage aside for now), especially for Disney. But then again, their other MMOG Toontown is centered around taking down the corporate cogs...hmmmmmm...it looks like someone at WDIG has a really well developed sense of irony.

Various other sites have featured one-off events of this nature as well. I haven't heard of any examples of kids organizing themselves to transform their virtual play in this way (it would be really hard to do without a big corporation behind them), but I wouldn't be too surprised if there were some out there (particularly within "educational" virtual worlds and MMOGs, or as in-game initiatives like the Pixie Hollow example). But then again, I can't think of any comparable examples from the realm of teen/adult virtual worlds either...a lot of real world exchange and business transactions unfold in Second Life, but I don't recall any stories about World of Warcraft players donating gold to charity.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Little Big Planet: UGC vs. IP


I've been meaning to write about this for quite some time, but thought I'd wait to see if the story would initiate a more widespread discussion first. The quirky-cute and much anticipated UGC-focused PS3 game Little Big Planet has now been on the market for about a month (it's currently #13 on VGChartz, which is awesome for a PS3 game), and by all accounts players are busying themselves making their own levels with the game's innovative player-generated-level design feature (you can check out a demo here, or a more detailed walkthrough of the design process here). Of course, it was only a matter of time before questions and conflicts began to arise around the ever sticky issue of IP...What happens when players integrate images and themes taken from other cultural texts into their UGC levels? And, perhaps more importantly, who owns the IP rights over the levels that players create?

In terms of who owns the copyright over players' original UGC creations, the issue was discussed within various forums when the game first came out in October. Although Sony originally indicated that players would be able to sell their creations - implying that players would retain IP ownership over the levels they create - more recent changes in the TOS seem to contradict this. For example, as I Have the Princess points out:
Sony have recently made changes to their PSN terms of use, notably adding terms and conditions for user generated content. No doubt, this is a legal precaution leading up to the release of LittleBigPlanet, obviously there needs to be guidelines to allow Sony to define and take action again inappropriate content.

But what really got my attention were some of the rights Sony have concerning your generated content…

You also authorise us [Sony] and our affiliated companies, without payment to you, to license, sell and otherwise commercially exploit your User Material
The document continues on outlining that Sony may sell subscription services or gain advertising revenue related to your content. Certainly sounds a far cry from what we’ve heard earlier about selected users being able to set a price and sell their levels, but I guess we’ll know soon enough how this will effect entrepreneurial users.

Similar concerns were voiced over at GameCulture blog, which argued:
...in three weeks, we could all be working for Sony, crafting and sharing levels that Sony owns outright. Perhaps some of those levels will end up being packaged as downloadable content, much the same way that fruit of some of LittleBigPlanet's best beta players is being packaged with the official release. [...] The revenue we generate for Sony by building their content for them is just part of the genius of their business model.

But how does the equation change as user-generated content becomes less a matter of remixing existing intellectual property by 'modding' a game and starts to look more like the creation of original work? What happens when the systems game developers build for us are less games than platforms for the creation of new games?

Since these earlier posts, the only real development has been in relation to copyright infringement within player-designed levels, some of which have been deleted/removed by Sony without warning, much to the chagrin of the players (read this post over at Joystiq for some good background and legal discussion). A bit of a controversy (and some hints of resistance) has erupted among players, but it also looks like Sony is still trying to decide how it will approach these issues. For example, as GameIndustry reported:
While one of the biggest draws for the PlayStation 3 game is the ability for users to create their own content, such freedom is providing a headache for the developer faced with moderating submissions for download.

Simply removing the offending content has sparked some complaints from the fan community, but Media Molecule has said that it is working on a solution to better communicate with users as to why levels have been deleted.

"We're reviewing the moderating system currently to provide better feedback on why levels are moderated," said a spokesperson for publisher Sony on the official forums.

"Primarily, any level that is reported using the grief tool will be checked over by a moderator, at which point they'll examine it in line with the EULA (End User Licence Agreement). If a level is found to be in violation of the EULA it will be moderated and you'll receive a message to that effect," explains the post.

"We're moving towards a system where additional information is given, however for the time being if you don't want your level moderating avoid anything unsuitable for users of all ages and copyright content."

Levels featuring content from games and other media including Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda, Batman and Scrubs have all been removed from the servers – with users complaining that they have spent hours creating content and have no back-up of their work.

Sony has said it hopes to inform users how they can tweak their creations to make them suitable, rather than be forced to delete the entire level.

For a good description of the delicate balancing act that Sony is facing with this, check out Izzy Neis' post from a couple of weeks ago. It would be more than awesome to see Sony adopt a user-centered approach to its TOS and copyright policies, one which better reflects the user participation and importance of UGC in the game's design...Not to mention its business model (see GameIndustry excerpt above). In the meantime, however, the vague threat of corporate copyright appears to be taking precedence, trampling over fair use and players' ability to engage creatively and critically with their culture.

Not that this is surprising, of course - as we've seen in various other games and digital cultural practices (mash-ups, machinima, etc.), a big part of UGC is the appropriation, integration and subversion of popular commercial cultural texts. And the industry as a whole is much more easily swayed by concerns about protecting corporate copyright than it has by individuals/players' potential IP and fair use rights. Then again, although Sony has taken some levels down for fear of copyright infringement, they also seem to be trying to figure out a way to moderate and manage UGC in a way that still fosters user feedback and player creativity. It's a fascinating case study in the problematic position of user-centered design within an impossibly stringent corporate copyright regime. It's also a great example of the social construction of technology, as the company attempts to respond to legal pressures and player demands/criticisms (despite an adequately developed policy on either copyright or player rights) in its shaping and management of a new technological/cultural form.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alice in Promoland


Just a little "head's up" today on a new Disney marketing initiative that's slowly starting to gain momentum. You've probably heard all about the upcoming Disney/Tim Burton live action/CGI adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (which you can read more about here and here). The film won't hit theaters until 2010, but Disney is already slowly building buzz around the property's rebranding. While the original animated Alice in Wonderland is definitely a beloved Disney classic, it isn't exactly associated with the kind of cross-promotional hoopla that the company has perfected with properties like Monsters Inc. and the Disney Princesses. So it's not surprising to see that the company is using Burton's re-imagining of Lewis Carrol's original tale as an opportunity to give the property a promo-focused face lift.

Preliminary evidence of this campaign emerged this past September, with the (re?-)release of a new hardcover Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland book, illustrated by Mary Blair (*****Update: After just a tiny bit more hunting online, I found out that Blair was actually a longtime illustrator and animator at Disney, and was the one who produced the original concept artwork for Alice in Wonderland in 1951!!! Which explains the dark undertones of the Disney classic animated film, while also supplying a great historical/nostalgic anchor for the new adaptation. Thank you Wikipedia******). Blair's illustrations also happen to do a fantastic job of bridging the original Disney animated film's characters and style (which were of course ultimately much more cartoon-y and bright than Blair's concept art) with the darker and more gothic Tim Burton aesthetic. While it's too early to start identifying consistencies between the book and upcoming movie, I couldn't help but notice that the Mad Hatter in both versions now has wild red hair. I'm not sure how the stories themselves will compare (Burton seems to be staying truer to the Lewis Carroll story), but my interest is definitely piqued. I'm also wondering at the unlikely coincidence of Sesame Street's newest direct-to-DVD project Abby in Wonderland, which was also released in September.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Club Penguin and Social Sites for Kids

As I write up my thesis chapter on kids' virtual bedroom culture, I've gone back to dedicating large portions of my days to inhabiting and revisiting my case study worlds - BarbieGirls, Club Penguin, et al. I've found myself spending a particularly significant amount of time in Club Penguin - not only is the site in the midst of launching a new tie-in toy line and Nintendo DS crossover - but a number of very interesting events and new developments have taken place there of late, which I've found important to make note of. The snow-in at the dojo...the amazing community celebrations that occured around the site's 3rd anniversary and then around Halloween. The ongoing obsession with ninja sightings. All great stuff when it comes to studying emergent play vs. viral marketing in kids' virtual worlds. Anyhow, perhaps it's because I've been spending so much time there lately (in addition to the hours and hours and hours I've logged in this and my other case study sites over the past two years) that I was particularly disturbed by this new piece of alarmist nay-saying that featured in the Vancouver Sun over the weekend. It seems that a newly launched kids' online safety watchdog group in the US called CyberSafeNation has found some evidence that some kids' sites aren't doing enough when it comes to chat moderation and player monitoring. Unfortunately, instead of revealing their evidence and naming some specific examples of risky sites, they've decided to go after kids' virtual worlds in general...with Club Penguin positioned right at the centre of their campaign to have kids' access to online communication shut down altogether.

The folks over at Club Penguin have already responded to the accusation, pointing to the fact that their moderation system does effectively block out the types of inappropriate talk that CyberSafeNation has found in other sites. They also point out that they offer a SafeChat system that does already limit players to a selection of pre-approved and extremely G-rated chat sentences. And I have to say, that even after all this time, my position on Club Penguin's above-average safety and highly effective moderation system hasn't changed. Having now logged well over 80 hours in the site, observing kids' interactions and making note of any type of deviance, the vast vast majority of which is innocuous, I've never seen or heard anything that remotely resembles CyberSafeNation's description of "kiddie porn". That said, the same is certainly NOT the case for some of the other sites I've examined...Nicktropolis has basically turned into a cruising bar, and a segment of the BarbieGirls community is as obsessed with "dates" as it is with clothes. Although both sites have arbitrarily restricted players' ability to engage in critical discussion with one another, they have been amazingly lax when it comes to monitoring chat for inappropriate themes and conversations (which often take place in full view of other players) or at identifying potentially risky workarounds (the article mentions spelling out phone numbers to get around bans on putting in the numbers directly...the sites I'm studying haven't missed anything THAT obvious, but there are plenty of other, more subtle examples). CyberSafeNation's findings are reflective of a number of sites geared to kids that currently attract enormous population bases and expose/enable players to various degrees of inappropriate talk, propositions and behaviours (of course, I also advocate taking a much more nuanced and less alarmist approach to kids' "inappropriate" behaviours - but that's a topic for another day).

So why pick on Club Penguin? Well, the goal here is obviously to create a whole lot of widespread worry and panic about kids' virtual worlds, and since Club Penguin is so massively popular among kids (not to mention the high visibility and media-panic-responsiveness of parent company Disney) it's an easy target. What frustrates me most about all this is that I wholeheartedly support the need for a more concerted and widespread public debate around kids' VW's. We SHOULD be talking about the ways in which they're regulated (or not), designed, manipulated for commercial gain, but we also need to consider the ways in which these sites are used to construct meaningful communities of interest, provide a much needed space for social and peer group play, allow for player creativity and innovation, and give kids an opportunity to express themselves in a public forum. If previous digital games/media/culture debates have taught us anything, it's that polarized, essentializing and misinformed dichotomies do little more than kill legitimate debate about these issues and developments. An "all or nothing approach" that claims banning kids from online communication as the only acceptable solution not only accentuates (and very likely exaggerates) the risk while completely ignoring the benefits of virtual worlds and other types of CMC, but it also dismisses the importance and legitimacy of children's rights to free expression and to create their own cultural spaces and discourses. Let's not punish kids for our systemmatic failure to protect and promote their rights, interests and safety online. We've got a lot of options here beyond banning kids outright from a significant new form of culture and human communication...better (or even just 'some') regulation, corporate accountability and transparency, and the establishment of support systems that facilitate parental involvement are all viable possibilities that have never been given serious consideration.

It's also far time that advocacy groups, politicians and the press stop making sweeping and potentially dangerous generalizations about various forms of media and technology. Groups like CyberSafeNation can provide an absolutely invaluable (public) service by acting as watchdog and holding corporations accountable, but only if their findings are reported fairly and accurately. If certain games are more dangerous than others, isn't it important to report on precisely WHICH games are high risk and have poor moderation systems? Rather than stir up some potentially unrelated panic about a more popular site? I'm deeply disturbed by the lack of responsibility shown in the Vancouver Sun article...obviously the examples they cite aren't ones that were actually found in Club Penguin, but they were found somewhere. Why did feeding panic about Club Penguin take priority over protecting the kids who actually use the sites where the risky behaviours were recorded by CyberSafeNation? And how are parents supposed to be able to make informed choices without specific, timely and accurate information?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maya Götz on Gender in/and Kids TV

Update (Oct.31, 2008): Part III of Kidscreen's coverage of Götz's report is now available and focuses on boys' TV character preferences.


Kidscreen magazine is currently doing a three-part profile on recent research by Dr. Maya Götz of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television in Germany, which was presented at last week's Cinekid Festival. Götz's findings appear to be drawn from two studies she is currently (or recently) working on, entitled "What makes a TV character the favourite character“ (2004-2008) and "Children’s Television Worldwide: Gender Representation" (2007-2008). The Kidscreen/Cinekid report not only provides updated statistics on gender (representation and depictions) in children's television, but also some pretty detailed statistics on girls' and boys' own preferences when it comes to television content, protagonists and body ideals. The first two parts are already available on the Kidscreen website (Part 1 here, and Part 2 here), with the third installment coming up on Friday.

The first part of Götz's study tracked gender representations in 19,664 kids' shows from 24 different countries. Key findings include:

* Only 32% of human protagonists in kids' shows are female, compared to 68% male.

* When non-human leads (monsters, animals, robots, etc.) are considered, this ratio is even more disproportionate: 13% female vs. 87% male.

* Gender stereotypes are still extremely prevalent within kids' television. Female characters are most often depicted as:
- conventionally beautiful, underweight and sexualized
- motivated by a romantic interest
- shown as dependent on boys
- stereotyped according to hair colour: blondes are either the "nice girl next door" or proverbial "blonde bitches" and redheads are headstrong, cheeky tomboys.

* Concurrently, male characters are most often depicted as:
-loners or leaders
- more frequently antagonists
- more frequently overweight
- even more frequently Caucasian
- stereotyped in four ways: the "lonesome cowboy," the "emotional soft-boy," the "clever small guy" and the "dumb blockhead"


Götz's research also reveals that these stereotypes are far from what kids' actually want and prefer out of their television characters. For example, they found that girls identify most with female leads who "take control of their own lives, find their own solutions to problems, and make things happen for themselves." Children of both genders prefer "natural, less sexualized body shapes when it comes to female characters," as well as kid characters who look "more like kids and less like caricatured women." Götz's study asked over 1000 children aged 3 to 12 years to look at three different images of a popular cartoon girl character, each one with a different waist size, and select their preferred version. More than 70% of girls and boys chose the character with a healthy-sized waist (as opposed to the thin one or the "chubby" one).

In terms of narrative, kids of both genders prefer stories and characters that reflect their interests, are suspenseful and/or funny. There's lots more great data available, so be sure to check out the Kidscreen reports for now, and keep an eye out for upcoming publications by Götz et al. in the very near future.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tinkerbell is Indeed Pure (Marketing) Magic

I believe that today is the day Disney's newest direct-to-DVD project, and Fairies/Pixie Hollow tie-in, Tinkerbell is finally being released, just in time for Halloween, but more importantly just in time to market all the upcoming tie-in toys that Disney has lined up for the holidays. With the Pixie Hollow MMOG now up and running (and awesome, but more on that in just a sec), and the rest of the cross-promotional pieces falling firmly into place, Disney's Fairies...a branding initiative three years in the making...is officially on its way to becoming the next big thing in girls' (digital) culture. According to this Canadian Press article:
"The goal is to grow revenue in the franchise year over year. The model is its Disney Princess business, a group that joins Sleeping Beauty and Snow White with more recent heroines like Pocahontas and Mulan, and reaps $4 billion a year.

Disney's been pretty tight-lipped about the population sizes and profits made from its various virtual worlds, but comScore recently released new stats about Disney's MMOG empire, which now includes Toontown, Club Penguin, Pirates of the Caribbean Online and the new Pixie Hollow:
Among the 65 million avatars so far created in Disney's four worlds, there were 9.2 unique visitors in September, up 37 per cent from last year, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Steve Parkis, the senior vice president of Disney Online Studios, said makers of virtual worlds generally convert 5 to 20 per cent of visitors into paying customers with monthly subscriptions - which enable users to buy better gags or weapons, pursue more interesting quests or, in Pixie Hollow, make and buy outfits.

"Ten to 12 per cent is where you want to be, 20 per cent is very successful," Parkis said of the conversion rate. "We would be in the more successful range across the majority of our products."

The Canadian Press estimates that Disney's online worlds make about $7 million a month and $85 million a year, which they describe as "on par with one low-budget hit movie." Not to mention all the promotional activity that goes on in the sites, even just in terms of transmedia intertextuality, keeping kids "inside" the narrative of a particular Disney media-brand.

I've now played several hours of Pixie Hollow and I've got to say...they've done a really great job with this game. The flying mechanics are really fun (though sadly in 2D), the different areas are very pretty and create a real sense of a surrounding environment (though a bit fragmented). And there's an underlying theme of community service which includes a coop-style market system. Contributing to the community is encouraged (and at least early on it's required in order to progress through the character's skill levels), and players get to "make" virtual items such as clothes and shoes...a process that is incorporated into a series of mini-games through which you dye the fabric, cut it into shapes and sew the pieces together. The other mini-games interspersed throughout the world are also pretty fun...no coop mini-games that I could find (at least not yet), but players are able to play tag and race each other in the regular multiplayer areas. Tie-in products are advertised on the site, but don't seem to appear inside the game environment...though I'll have to do more searching until I find out for sure.

My initial assessment - Disney continues to set the standard when it comes to commercial kids' MMOGs. It's not an extraordinarily high standard, unfortunately, but they're definitely playing by a different set of rules and expectations than the BarbieGirls and Webkinzes of the online world.

The Many Modes of Role-Play

Check out this week's issue of The Escapist, which explores various forms of role-play both in and outside of games. Here's the list of featured articles:
Russ Pitts: The Dice They Carried
Russ Pitts remembers the last time his d20s came out of the bag, and it involves a grown man acting like a kitten.

Sara Grimes: Hit'em Hard and Make'em Bleed
Roller derby: the first full-contact roleplaying game?

Alice Bonasio: Cosplay and Effect
Playing as a videogame character and dressing up like one might not be as different as you think.

Jay Barnson: Weekend Warrior
Jay Barnson loses his LARP virginity.

George Page: Aggro Management
When does World of Warcraft stop being "just a game"?

Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Club Penguin Gets All Dolled Up

Via today's edition of Cynopsis! Kids (not to mention last week's "head's up" courtesy of Izzy Neis), news about Club Penguin's recent (and upcoming) forays into the land of "tie-in products". Here's the excerpt:
Club Penguin celebrates its third anniversary with the launch of new toy line of internet-connected products, including plush, mini-figures and play sets. A new limited edition plush figure will be released every eight weeks, each of which comes with a coin featuring a code that kids can use to redeem unique virtual items online. The Club Penguin toys will be available at Toys "R" Us...Disney Stores, Disney Theme Parks, and the Club Penguin shop online. Additionally, Disney will release the new Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force game for Nintendo DS next month.

Look out Webkinz! Here comes the Disney promomachine!

Read more about the Club Penguin DS game here. Also, be sure to check out this Club Penguin toyline/So You Think You Can Dance Canada? cross-over promo event and photo opp planned for this Saturday at the Toys "R" Us Vaughan Mills, Ontario. It looks like Disney is finally ready to start cashing in on their $700 million investment. And it looks like I'm going to have to get serious about plotting how this new emphasis on tie-in products might translate into new features, changes, and/or embedded marketing in the game's contents and design.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Resource Alert: IPOsgoode Launches

This week, Osgoode Hall Law School at York University launched a new program for research on issues relating to intellectual property and technology. Under the direction of Giuseppina D’Agostino, Assistant Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, IP Osgoode seeks to provide an independent and authoritative voice on IP governance issues, cultivate interdisciplinary, comparative and transnational research, as well as foster collaboration and policy development. Here's an excerpt from the project's site description:
The program’s researchers and collaborators from the academy, government, business and other networks actively engage in a vibrant Canadian and border-crossing, transnational debate. Our advisors are leading experts in the legal community and provide the bedrock of support and leadership to the program. Drawing from the best Canadian forces and the program’s global partners, IP Osgoode is involved in some of the most important and cutting-edge IP law and technology related research and policy discussions of today. Among the program’s current target areas are all facets of intellectual property protection and access, privacy, ethics and intersecting areas of the law, from contract, health, labour, aboriginal, environmental, constitutional, corporate and international all within a variety of disciplines, from business, sciences, and the arts.

Other members of the IPOsgoode team include Rosemary Coombe, a number of distinguished professors and adjunct faculty with the Osgoode Law School, as well as a number of graduate students from both York and other universities (myself included). Keep an eye out for their Speaker Series, visiting scholar program, as well as a number of upcoming workshops and symposia. The program's online initiative includes a student-run blog covering intellectual property law and related current events and issues.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Protecting Virtual Playgrounds Symposium

A couple of weeks ago the Washington and Lee School of Law hosted a symposium on the social and legal implications of the recent emergence of virtual worlds for kids, entitled Protecting Virtual Playgrounds: Children, Law, and Play Online. The organizers have now posted video (and audio) streams of all of the symposium presentations, including a panel on play featuring Dorothy Singer and Greg Lastowka, and a keynote address by Edward Castronova. Very awesome of them to make this publicly available, as it sounds like it was quite a fruitful event for those involved. It's not often that economists, law scholars, designers and psychologists get together to talk shop.

I've got to say though I'm pretty disturbed that I didn't find a single media/communications scholar on the speakers list. Hopefully there were at least a few in attendance, but even so, it's quite an oversight considering how much of the work (past and present) on kids' mediated play, digital games, etc. has come out of this discipline.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Parents for Ethical Marketing Donation Drive

The wonderful people over at Parents for Ethical Marketing are in the midst of a donation drive, trying to raise funds to keep their blog going and expand their project into new areas. Parents for Ethical Marketing is a grassroots non-profit based in the US (they also run the Corporate Babysitter blog), where they work to raise parental awareness, public pressure and legislative action around marketing to children. Founder Lisa Ray is also an active public commentator, providing a nuanced parent's perspective on a variety of marketing-related issues in news articles and online forums. A worthy cause indeed. Here's the info:
A modest goal: $10,000 before Thanksgiving

This is fundraising week here at Parents for Ethical Marketing. I’m trying to raise 10,000 dollars by Thanksgiving to continue this blog and expand PEM’s scope. It’s a modest goal, considering:

– a marketer will drop 4,000 dollars for access to data of children’s financial profiles and spending patterns; and

– marketers spend 1.4 billion dollars — per month — marketing to children.

By donating to Parents for Ethical Marketing, you will help fulfill our mission: to encourage corporations to adopt responsible marketing standards and practices that sustain the health of children and families.

More info on the org and how the money is allocated is available here.

Good luck PEM!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Job Posting: Civic-Minded Gamer Wanted

I just received this job advert from the GamesNetwork mailing list. It's for a research assistant position with Games for Change, an industry / academic / non-profit collaboration aimed at "increasing real-world impact of digital games as an agent for social change." Sounds like a pretty excellent opportunity for some lucky gamer. Here are the details:
Research Assistant - Games for Change-focused project

Research assistant needed to help on a writing project. It's a great opportunity for the right person, short term at first, with longer term potential. Starting immediately, for 5 - 10 hours a week, for 1 - 2 months.

You should be:
1. A gamer. You need to know, play and think about games - mainstream, independent, serious.

2. Civic-minded or have an activist-bent. You probably think and care about current events and/or civic issues - and may even be interested in the power of mainstream media to change the way people think about and act on issues. Media like An Inconvenient Truth, Nickel and Dimed, MASH.


Responsibilities:
1. Research on digital games - in mainstream, independent, and educational sectors

2. Research on scholarship - review of current scholarship on games and learning, civic engagement, new media, social justice


Helpful if you are:
1. A good writer - the work is predominantly research, though clear thinking and writing skills are a big plus.

2. Familiar with/ involved in the DML field and the emerging research around games and learning.


Perks:
1. FUN job
2. Work from anywhere
3. Competitive pay
4. Opportunity to be involved in Games For Change (G4C) - a non-profit and community of people interested in using games to address pressing social issues (www.gamesforchange.org.)

Please send a cover letter and CV to Suzanne Seggerman (President and Co-founder of Games for Change) at suzanne@gamesforchange.org.

"A Game for Change is a digital game which engages a contemporary social issue in a meaningful way to foster a more just, equitable and/or tolerant society."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Gamasutra on How to Regulate UGC

I highly recommend that everyone check out this absolutely fascinating piece included in today's edition of Gamasutra, all about emerging regulatory questions and challenges raised by the inclusion of increasingly sophisticated UGC (user-generated content) tools within digital games. Using LittleBigPlanet as a case study (or rather a jumping off point), the article asks the looming and important question: "How can the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) evaluate a console title that hinges primarily on content created and distributed by users?"

The ESRB doesn't have a very good track record when it comes to the unique challenges presented by multiplayer, online gaming. In the face of MMOGs and now the spread of online capable console titles, the games industry's self-regulatory body has adopted a "no contest" response -- declining to evaluate titles beyond providing the vague warning that "Game experience may change during online play" and the now standard disclaimer "Online Interactions Not Rated By the ESRB." According to the Gamasutra article, the ESRB is taking a similar position on UGC. As ESRB spokesperson Eliot Mizrachi describes, "player-created content [is] not accounted for in the rating and is outside the jurisdiction of the ESRB." Outside the jurisdiction? Really? That sounds wrong, doesn't it?

As the article goes on to explain, however:
But recognizing that entire games rooted in UGC go a bit beyond "online interaction," Mizrachi says that the ESRB can't -- and shouldn't bear the moderation burden alone.

"Game publishers have a key part to play, and many are quite active in addressing consumer complaints and doing what they can to moderate and regulate online gameplay," he says.

"The gaming community also plays a vital role, and it, too, actively self-regulates inappropriate behavior of other players by reporting such cases to publishers. It's a collective effort."

Still, Mizrachi notes the critical role that continuing consumer education campaigns can play, and says the ESRB is strengthening its focus on such efforts, according to the official spokesperson.

The first groups that the ESRB is hitting up with its "consumer education campaigns" strategy is, of course, families and children...PTA groups, teachers, media literacy programs. Now, although I am a big supporter of media literacy, I also think that the ESRB can do a lot better than simply offloading these kinds of massive responsibilities onto parents, children and the public school system (not to mention game developers!)...yet again. The whole concept of self-regulation sort of hinges on the premise that the industry is going to take on the burden of self regulating...not passing the buck onto individual families and publicly (ahem, government) funded institutions, attempting to teach them how to do what the ESRB itself (with all its resources and funding) has refused to do because of the level difficulty and complexity involved in rating "player-created content." If that's the case, I can't think of a better or clearer argument in support of government regulation or at the very least co-regulation. For some time now, the ESRB has been faced with serious and increasing challenges in fulfilling its mandate -- from earlier rumors that the organization wasn't playing games through to the end before rating them, to the massive inconsistencies and biases in how it doles out M ratings, to its more recent impotence towards online gaming. At this point it has pretty much admitted that it doesn't have the infrastructure or resources to keep up with industry trends, developer needs or player interests.

It's clear that the ESRB will need to undergo a serious overhaul if it is to remain relevant in this new age of collaborative gaming - a review of its mandate, an influx of better informed and much more adaptable decision makers, and much much greater transparency. And while I completely agree that the organization needs to be more responsive to developer and player interests, the position described above is a far cry from adopting an inclusive approach to regulation...Instead of sharing resources and information, all the ESRB seems to be doing is delegating the task of monitoring content to the market. Above all, the ESRB needs to build a closer (institutionalized) relationship with the regulatory bodies whose jurisdiction does include player-generated content...i.e. government regulators. If governments and civil servants can go after people who infringe on corporate copyright and post unlawful content (online, inside game environments, etc.), the argument could certainly be made that player-generated content falls within its scope as well. Not that I think real world laws should simply be transposed onto UGC and collaborative games, as that would almost certainly ruin the games for everyone involved. But rather that it's definitely time for the FCC to start monitoring the ESRB's role and function as a "self"-regulator, maybe make sure that someone is actually taking on the burden that is otherwise so aggressively guarded and consistently wrestled away from government intervention.

Pixie Hollow: From Virtual Space to Real Space and Back Again

Yesterday, I received an email from "The Never Council" (a.k.a. the folks at Disney's Pixie Hollow), which read:
We hope you've enjoyed creating and customizing your Fairy on DisneyFairies.com. If you've visited your Fairy's page recently, you've probably noticed things have changed quite a bit. That's because we've launched Pixie Hollow, a brand-new Fairies online world!

While you can still visit your "Pixie Pages" on PixieHollow.com, here are some things that have changed:

FLY - Now you can flit around your Fairy home and explore beautiful meadows filled with lots of other Fairies just like you!

MAKE FRIENDS - The friends on your Pixie Page have disappeared. This is to allow room for all of the new Fairy friends you'll meet and chat with while flying around the Hollow.

DRESS UP - To change your outfit, you will need to enter Pixie Hollow and go to the "Wardrobe" tab in your Leaf Journal.

REDECORATE - The furniture in your home has been put away. To redecorate, just enter Pixie Hollow, fly to your home, and click on the Storage button.

PLAY GAMES - Customizing your Fairy is just the beginning! Now you can play fun games and earn rewards in the meadows.

This is just the beginning of all the fun, new stuff you can now find at PixieHollow.com. Next time you log in, click on the PLAY button to begin exploring Pixie Hollow.

So now you know what I'll be doing for the rest of the day. After tracking this project for many many months now, I'm so glad that this site has finally launched. More to come once I've had a chance to explore and see what all the fuss is about.

In highly related news, Disney has also announced the opening of its newest DisneyWorld feature (on October 24th) called...you guessed it...Pixie Hollow. According to this article on Fox Orlando, the feature consists of a Tinkerbell and her Fairy Friends themed "meet and greet experience" aimed at younger children (particularly girls, I have no doubt). From what I gather, this means costumed actors who will be available to meet and take pictures ("complete with pixie dust") with young fans of the new Disney product line, within the Toontown section of Disney World. It's pretty fitting that Pixie Hollow is aligned with Toontown, considering the development trajectory of their virtual equivalents. Disney's first MMOG for kids was Toontown, followed by Pirates of the Caribbean Online, and now Pixie Hollow.

Part of the Pixie Hollow strategy involves some sort of play with secret language (also very appropriate for targeting young girls). Here's the description from the Fox article:
"When you're in their world, you're able to understand what they speak, which is different, and you remember the movie Peter Pan? Well only Peter Pan could understand what they said, well when you're in Pixie Hollow, you're like Peter Pan, and you can understand when they talk," said Francois Leroux from Walt Disney World Entertainment.

I wish I could understand that quote!

And, of course, the Pixie Hollow tie-in movie, Tinker Bell hits DVD stores on the 28th. Should be a Pixtastic month for Disney - with the Fairies brand already raking in millions in merchandising, this added support of media and theme park tie-ins could finally make this the next "Disney Princesses".

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Game On, Girls!

The NPD Group released a new report today that's been getting a lot of buzz, describing a recent survey into girl gamers and the play habits of girls aged 2 to 14 years. The study, entitled Girl Power: Understanding This Important Consumer Segment, focuses on "how girls ages 2 to 14 spend their time in a typical week, also delves into what they and their moms are buying for them, as well as the categories that engage them the most." Among their key findings = evidence that girls are spending more time gaming (PC and console) this year than they did in 2007, AND evidence that even older girls are spending more time playing with toys. Very cool!

The press release provides a handy break down of the various age categories covered in the report. For example:
Pre-schoolers age 2-5 are highly engaged with toys including plush/stuffed toys, dolls, fashion role-play, puzzles, and educational toys.

First Readers (age 6-8) are more inclined to play with board games, arts & crafts, and virtual world games.

For pre-teen girls age 9-12, playing with traditional toys is still the activity of choice. [...] But tweens (age 9-12) are [also] migrating to computer and video games, especially virtual world online games. Socialization is gearing up among the pre-teens, and the advent of interactive gaming really hits home with these girls who are looking for friends from the confines of their homes.

Young Teens (age 13-14) are also gamers, but many girls this age are also now listening to music on portable digital music players and talking/texting on their mobile phones. [..] Despite the natural progression away from traditional toys to games and electronics, [however] many older girls report they are spending more time this year playing with traditional toys compared to last year.

The study uncovers that traditional play patters are quite pervasive among girls. According to NPD analyst Anita Frazier "Over 50 percent of girls ages 2-14 engage with dolls, plush, and arts & crafts in a given week which is a testament to the evergreen nature of these types of activities for girls."

In terms of digital and online play, many of the digital activities that seem to be the most popular among girls of all ages provide social features - i.e. social networking and virtual worlds. Kind of just confirms what we already knew, but it's also great to see that gaming and playing are both on the rise within girls' culture...it seemed for awhile there that KGOY and other factors were taking the fun out of girlhood, and I'm somewhat reassured by the thought that even young teens are putting aside more time to just play.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Oscar the Grouch Promoting Waste Reduction in Canada


By way of Gary Rusak over at KidScreen, news that this year's annual Canada wide Waste Reduction Week will be brought to you by none other than Oscar the Grouch. Rusak writes:
Oscar the Grouch, with his penchant for collecting trash and reusing it, may just be the original and strongest advocate for recycling [...] The grumpy green Sesame Street character is participating in the week-long event from October 19 to 25 through two television public service announcements, promotional posters and a public relations campaign. The first PSA will debut on Canadian national broadcast outlets later this month in which Oscar explains ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.

This "Waste Reduction Week" appears to have some pretty heavy associations with corporate sponsors (some of which produce more waste than all the kids the Canada combined, I'm sure) and not all that much publicity, so the inclusion of a beloved Sesame Street character could definitely provide a much needed profile boost for the whole reduce part of the old "reduce, reuse, recycle" strategy (funny how the first two are so often left out of the equation). I think this generally sounds like a pretty excellent match-up: Oscar loves trash, kids love getting involved in environmentalism, and so the idea of pairing him with the reuse/recycle message makes a lot of sense. He's also been used in similar campaigns in the US.

And in other Muppet News...

The Jim Henson company is currently shopping/launching a number of new kids' properties...Five years after buying back the company from German conglomerate EM.TV, the Henson kids appear to have worked out quite a multi-tiered strategy for reviving the Henson media brand. And the company appears to be focused on recovering its roots in combining educational/social messages with fun, imaginative themes and characters. New projects include a CGI series called Dinosaur Train (tentatively linked to PBS Kids), and The Skrumps (character-based series with built in collectible-toy tie ins, first launched on Yahoo!Kids as a webisode series). Continuing in the Jim Henson puppetry tradition (and unmatched expertise), the company is launching a bedtime-focused short-form (i.e. interstitial) series called Pajanimals on PBS Kids Sprout in November, and is working on a number of other undisclosed cross-media properties. All of this in addition to its existing new properties, which include Sid the Science Kid (also on PBS Kids, and the first full series produced by the Jim Henson Digital Puppetry Studio), Unstable Fables (direct-to-DVD series) and Frances (another PBS series). Be sure to check out Muppet NewsFlash for ongoing coverage of all this. Gotta love the die hard Henson fans!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spore for Kids and the Future of Gaming

If you've been reading the gaming blogs, you already know that EA/Will Wright's new species creation/simulation game Spore is attracting a LOT of attention...acclaim, condemnation, outrage and enthusiasm from gamers on just about every side of the great (gaming) debates. The game is either the greatest thing since sliced bread or a shining example of corporate copyright regimes gone amok, but in either case I'm pretty darn fascinated by both its impact and potential. Here's a quote from a recent CBS News story on the game:
"Spore... is considered one of the most ambitious computer games of all time. The object is to CREATE life, not destroy it. It's a game about evolution..where players start as spores and develop into creatures who build civilizations and explore space... It's educational and appealing to girls and families."

The news segment and accompanying interview with Will Wright both promote Spore as a great game for kids...and I think (in theory, not having played the game myself yet) I would agree. The game focuses on creating and collaborative story-telling, on action and consequence, on possibilities and open-ended gameplay. It does sound a lot like Will Wright's other games (which include The Sims games) in some ways, but it also seems to be more firmly aligned with the exciting new crop of UGC games/more experimental games that are coming out of late.

While I haven't seen much in the way of marketing aiming Spore specifically at the child gamer demographic, its makers (including Wright himself) have described the game as purposefully inclusive in terms of the design and difficulty level of gameplay - they wanted to appeal to that larger Wii audience, to appeal to casual gamers, and evidently target gamers of all ages. Of course, the idea of targeting "everyone" is pretty problematic...even though the game may be designed for broad appeal (which in itself raises questions about how "broad appeal" is conceived and configured), its marketing and the surrounding discourses do a lot to position the game within specific target demographics. For example, there are many games designed to appeal to both girls and boys (think of the Super Mario titles), but that are also marketed quite specifically at boys. The idea within kids' media and marketing remains that girls will "cross-over" and buy products/media portrayed as "for boys" (or "for boys and girls"), but that boys will reject anything that is associated with girls. For years now, this has resulted in a predominance of boys and male characters within children's media, and the sad fact that unless the product is question is hyper-feminized (think My Little Pony, Bratz or Winx Club), the default user/audience is configured as male. Anyway, all this to say that just because these games might be great for kids and designed with kids (at least partially) in mind, doesn't mean that they will actually reach kids. Which is too bad, because kids and the kids' gaming environment could use some innovative, well-designed new entries.

Games like Spore are a great example of a new trend in digital games design that defies most mainstream conceptions of gaming. I've had the great fortune of playing a number of these types of games over the past few months -- from Valve's Portal, to Jenova Chen's flOw, to Q-Games' PixelJunk Eden, to Clover Studio/Capcom's Okami -- which was recently re-released for the Wii. With LittleBigPlanet less than a month away, I think that these notions of gaming as a form of creative, imaginative play are going to start to finally extend into the mainstream (i.e. non-gamers). And if the controversies around Spore's DRM are any indication, a broader acceptance of user-creativity in digital gaming could also lead to some real advances being made in the realm of intellectual property/authorship law and perhaps even the establishment of some real user rights to counterbalance the current state of corporation takes all when it comes to digital culture. On the other hand, so many of these excellent, innovative, inclusive (in terms of age and gender) games seem to keep slipping under the market's radar...and that's where marketing and popular discourses seem to come into play in a big way. I doubt Spore will be counted among these lost gems, but then again there's no guarantee that it will hit all the markets that it intends to. Right now, a lot of gamer types seem to be playing it, but as I described above, I haven't seen all that much attention being paid to the game from within the kids' gaming market and surrounding culture. Lots of questions here about the relationship between the children's industries, marketing, and the game industry's hesitation to directly associate certain games with the children's market.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Presenting at Infoscape: The Digital Child at Play

Today, I had the great pleasure of presenting my work at Infoscape in Canada's only truly big city, Toronto. Here are the details and abstract:
Sara Grimes (SFU) presents research at Infoscape

Rogers Communication Centre, Room 229
Ryerson University, Toronto, ON

6pm Thursday September 18, 08

The Digital Child at Play:

As the growing body of research on play and games demonstrates, the more-or-less rigid systems of rules contained within even the most basic and traditional of games can have a profound influence on the shape and contents of play, by establishing (or at the very least suggesting) the "conditions" within which play takes place. Within many children's games, these conditions are far from neutral, reflecting instead a diverse array of social norms, power relations, market priorities, and parental hopes and fears. Within digital games, in which the ‘conditions of play’ can be programmed directly into the computer code, an unprecedented level of control over how game rules and parameters are enforced upon their players becomes possible. This thesis attempts to uncover the political and social dimensions of children’s digital game technologies, as they are reflected in the design decisions (for example, through the inclusion of certain technological affordances and not others), industry norms, social expectations, legal/regulatory requirements, programmed game rules, and the gameplay experience. The goal of this thesis is to identify what new 'conditions' are introduced to children’s play through digital games technologies, and to discuss their potential impact on children's play culture.

Based out of Ryerson University, Infoscape is made up of an awesome (and incredibly friendly) group of researchers studying various aspects of the cultural (social and political) impact of digital code. Many, many thanks to Greg Elmer for inviting me and for giving me this opportunity to share my work with the York/Ryerson students and faculty who attended this evening's event.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex Rebrand

Just a brief head's up instead of a post today, after a long hot afternoon lecturing and evening preparing for a quick trip out to Toronto tomorrow, about Disney's ongoing expansion into the realm of kids' sports. Via Doug Smith at USA Today, news about Disney's rebrand plans for its Wide World of Sports Complex...the uber, multi-facility sports venue the company launched in 1997. Here's an excerpt:
Designed to expose young male and female athletes to the highest level of competition and allow them to train in a pro-like environment, the complex, which is separate from the theme park, is a sports-lover's smorgasbord spread over 220 acres that hosts events year-round. "It's an overnight success that has taken 10 years to build," says Ken Potrock, senior vice president of Disney Sports Enterprises.

It is also, at times, a marvel to watch thousands of youngsters in uniforms, with families and friends close behind, scurrying from one field or arena to the next, swinging bats or shooting hoops on the same fields or in the same arenas where many top pros practice and play. Earlier this summer, more than 15,000 boys and girls (ages 9 to 18) — playing for more than 900 teams from the USA and countries around the world — moved through the Disney facility to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships in basketball and baseball.

The rebrand is essentially a shift in focus, to create tighter links between the Complex/park and Disney's popular sports network ESPN. Associated projects include a Disney Princess Half Marathon planned for early next year. Check out the pictures in the press release...very princess-y, to say the least. As one of my students pointed out today - why can't the princesses run a full marathon?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Harry Potter Lawsuit Ends

Well, the verdict is finally in, and J.K. Rowling/WB have won their case against RDR Books, blocking publication of the Harry Potter Lexicon. From this morning's Cynopsis Kids!:
In New York, US District Court Judge Patterson has found in favor of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. in their copyright case against RDR Books, which planned to publish a reference book titled Harry Potter Lexicon. The judge completely blocked publication of the book, which Rowling explained, "took an enormous amount of my work and added virtually no original commentary of its own." On its website RDR Books stated that it is "obviously disappointed" and considering its options.

When I first wrote about the potential implications this decision could have for the enclosure of kid's culture, I unexpectedly stirred up quite a controversy. I'm still concerned about how the whole thing will be presented and interpreted among child audiences, and about the ripple effects that copyright cases like these have on culture, but it appears that the decision itself could actually turn out to benefit fair use and possibly protect fan fictions/companions pieces. As Anthony Falzone, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School (where Falzone is also a lecturer in law) and part of RDR Book's defense team, argues the decision was made in such a way that could actually protect reference guides and companion books...just not the Harry Potter Lexicon:
Reference guides and companion books about literary works have been a critically important part of literature since its inception, and the right to publish them stood largely unchallenged. We agreed to help defend the Harry Potter Lexicon because J.K. Rowling's claims threatened that right, and because we believe the fair use doctrine protects the Lexicon, and other publications like it. We tried the case in April in a Manhattan Court and waited through the summer for a decision.

Today we found out we lost. In a thoughtful and meticulous decision spanning 68 pages, the Court recognized that as a general matter authors do not have the right to stop publication of reference guides and companion books about literary works, and issued an important explanation of why reference guides are not derivative works. Needless to say, we're very happy the Court vindicated these important principles.

But the Lexicon did not fare so well. The Court held the Lexicon infringed Ms. Rowling's copyright, was not protected by fair use, and permanently enjoined the publication of it.

One of the biggest issues, in addition to the lack of original or critical content, appears to be the very strong similarities between the Lexicon and the Harry Potter books in terms of the writing and language used. As Judge Patterson describes in the full text of the Court's decision (which you can access here):
Although it is difficult to quantify how much of the language in the Lexicon is directly lifted from the Harry Potter novels and companion books, the Lexicon indeed contains at least a troubling amount of direct quotation or close paraphrasing of Rowling’s original language. The Lexicon occasionally uses quotation marks to indicate Rowling’s language, but more often the original language is copied without quotation marks, often making it difficult to know which words are Rowling’s and which are Vander Ark’s.

Check out pages 19 to 26 for a number of examples...in fact the entire document is a fascinating read.

In the meantime, I'm going to try to track down some online discussions and see what the fans think of all this.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Everybody's Talking About Kids' Virtual Worlds

This past week L.A. played host to the 2ns annual Virtual Worlds Expo, which brought together various industry types to discuss the future of virtual worlds culture, technology, business, etc. With an entire stream dedicated to Kids' Virtual Worlds, which included speakers from Disney, Neopets, Global Kids and more, there was subsequently a lot of news about kids' online culture--as companies, analysts and the like made announcements, predictions and assessments of this ever-growing market. Rather than provide an overview of the Expo (which you can read all about at Virtual Worlds News), I've decided to link up to some of my favourite bloggers' blog posts about kids' vw's that were (coincidentally or not) also published this week, for a more nuanced and (I hope) focused discussion.


1. Although Amy Jussel over at Shaping Youth also missed out on the VW Expo, she didn't let that stop her from putting together an excellent piece on new and upcoming kids' games virtual worlds. Inspired by the industry's newest list/claim of 150 vw's for kids (currently launched or in development), Amy provides a detailed run down of the games/vw's she's particularly interested in for their "considerable promise in Gaming for Good". She includes a diversity of games, from Elf Island and the Me2Universe, to Dizzywood and Playnormous.


2. Over at Terra Nova, Greg Lastowka has posted a thought piece on Habbo Hotel alleged cap on how much players (mostly teens) are allowed to spend on Habbo virtual items a month (according to an interview with a Sulake executive, no more than $35/month). As Greg describes:
Limiting what kids can purchase = consumers' rights? So, by extrapolation, in Scandinavia, I suppose the private candy manufacturers will only sell kids so much chocolate per month, because too much is bad for their teeth? And video game makers will sell kids only one game a month so they can spend more time on their homework? And what else?

Pham's claim -- and the price limit -- say something interesting about virtual property sales, I think. I honestly have no reason to doubt that Sulake really doesn't want to charge kids over $35 a month ($420 a year) for certain pixels, for their own good. I'm just interested in hearing more about what the "ideal market" for selling pixels to kids should look like (and why).


3. Tameka Kee at MediaPost wrote a fascinating and slightly chilling article about back-to-school brands using virtual worlds to reach young audiences...in more ways than one. For example:
Kohl's set up shop in fashion-focused world Stardoll, while Sears turned to the quirkier Zwinky, but both companies saw a tremendous demand for their virtual wares, according to eMarketer senior analyst Debra Aho Williamson. "Stardoll members purchased 1.8 million items from the Kohl's store within its first 16 days," Williamson said. The retailer honed in on Stardoll's female tween users with Abbey Dawn, the clothing line designed by pop star Avril Lavigne.

Or...
Paramount Pictures established a grand presence in Habbo Hotel (as Habbo's world is called) for its film, The Spiderwick Chronicles, complete with quests, contests and a ton of virtual merchandise, including themed furniture. "It was completely ingrained with the story and characters," [Jeremy Monroe, director of business development for Sulake] said.

[Note: Be sure to check out Monroe's hint about using Habbo Hote for market research a bit later on in the same article]. And...
Meanwhile in August, Sears launched a two-story virtual boutique in Zwinktopia, which sold more than 850,000 items in its first 16 days. The retailer also hosted a fashion show, allowing the "Zwinkies" (as the members are called) to get more involved with the brand and its merchandise. "A cool new fashion event hosted by Sears is going on NOW at Lexi Hall!" wrote Miss Cosmopolitan, one of Zwinky's dedicated bloggers. "As an added twist, you'll be able to let users know how you really feel as they strut the catwalk."


4. GameDaily provides an overview of a new NPD report on the Canadian digital games market. Among their conclusions? Kids are a significant part of what drove the market's recent 56% increase (in revenues - June 2007- June 2008). Read more about it here.


More to come, I'm sure, as people who actually attended the Virtual Worlds Expo (such as Izzy Neis) have a chance to digest and report back to the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

New Escapist Article

Check out my newest article on BarbieGirls in this week's issue of The Escapist, along with an assortment of other (and quite excellent) articles on women, girls and gaming (this week's theme is "La Luna"). Here's the table of contents, copied from the issue announcement:
"Hold on to something, because I'm going to hit you with a revelation. Information so startling, so astounding, that you may want to stop reading if you suffer from any kind of heart condition. Are you ready? Are you sure? Ok, here goes:

Girls like videogames. They make them, they write about them, and above all, they play them."

Web: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/features/issue/165

Kimberley Ann Sparks: Playing Mommy

"Walk down the hallway of any maternity ward and you'll hear the beeping of a multitude of machines accompanied by anguished cries of pain. If you had walked into my unit, however, you would've been surprised to find the beeping coming from a videogame and my anguished cries caused not only by contractions, but from the near misses and hard-fought victories of the videogame I was playing. Videogames are a part of my everyday life, and my pregnancy did little to change that."


Sara Grimes: I'm a Barbie Girl, in a BarbieGirls World

"Despite the fact that sales of Barbie dolls have steadily declined for nearly a decade (with some analysts estimating a 27 percent drop between 2001 and 2004 alone), Barbie recently ranked first on the NPD Group's list of top-selling toy licenses. The doll's reincarnation as a media brand is a big driving force behind her continued longevity. In addition to a highly profitable series of direct-to-DVD animated movies, top-ranking websites and a stable of videogames, Barbie is now at the center of one of the most successful children's virtual worlds to date."


Greg Tito: Indorktrination

"Erin and I have known each other for 10 years, and we've been married for five. We take part in so many activities together that it's difficult to list them. We spend plenty of afternoons at the beach soaking in the deliciously harmful sun. We enjoy trying new restaurants in our Brooklyn neighborhood. Theater is in our blood, and we love to see crappy Broadway musicals whenever we can.

"But throughout our entire relationship, there's been a rift; there are some things which we never share. And those things always seem to involve elves, dragons, spaceships, swords and the occasional magic ring."


Rachael Griffiths: The Frag Fraternity?

"The only contact I'd had with anybody from TFF was a few conversations over MSN Messenger and the TFF forum with Sally. Sally, one half of the couple who runs the event, assured me that she was going to look after me. TFF LANs currently run every six weeks in the Barnsley, South Yorkshire, with attendance varying between 25 and 40 people per LAN.

"Unfortunately, from the few conversations I had with her before the event, it appeared that there would be a distinct shortage of female gamers attending: a possible six out of around 40 people."


Vincent Keave: The Perspectives of Tracy J. Butler

"For some, it's a phenomenon. For others, a controversy. And for others still, it's a simple fact of life: girl gamers, the 'other half' of the gaming community. According to the ESA, 40 percent of all gamers are women. Yet there's a curious lack of a female presence in places where gamers traditionally congregate - internet forums, online multiplayer games, conventions. They're the silent minority - but not by much."

Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Browser-Based Games Stepping Up

Chris Morris at Forbes wrote an interesting piece yesterday that discusses browser-based vs. console (and computer) games, and the slowly narrowing gap between the two in terms of popularity and design sophistication. He focuses on two upcoming browser-based games that he thinks have the potential to change the online gaming landscape - id's Quake Live and Cartoon Network's Fusion Fall.

With Quake Live, Morris explains, id will attempt:
"...to create the industry's first massively multiplayer shooter. Matches will be limited to 32 people, pitting like-skilled players against each other, thanks to a new matchmaking tool. While the game could have supported more players, Marty Stratton, executive producer at id, notes this type of game can "get kind of overwhelming" when too many people play simultaneously.

More intriguing is the business model: The game is free to play and will be fully supported by advertisements. Dell has signed up as the game's premiere sponsor.

"The browser-based game is something that's really attractive because of the accessibility," says Stratton. "It has this promise of 'everybody has this,' and it's one of the biggest platforms on the planet. And it's now to the point where you can do some very slick, polished, nice things within browser technology.""

CN's Fusion Fall aimed at players aged 8-14 yrs) is also (still) scheduled for a fall '08 release, even though the KidNet apparently only recently decided to go with a browser-based format. As Morris describes:
""FusionFall" has been in development for 2.5 years, but the decision to a browser-based game was reached just a few months ago.

"We started looking at [being browser-based] on day one, but the technology for what we wanted to do wasn't there," says Chris Waldron, executive producer of the game.

As the game's release drew near, Waldron says more competitors popped up, many specifically aimed at the children's market. Technology had advanced, though, and the company knew it needed to stand out. In March, developers began porting the game to browsers."

Although the business model has not yet been announced, I think it's safe to anticipate advertising will be involved. Morris describes the game as a blend of:
"...the social aspects of a massive multiplayer online game and the jumping aspects of a more traditional console platform game. Players will collect representations of Cartoon Network characters and use those (in Pokemon-like fashion) to defeat alien invaders."

Collecting and cross-promotion...sounds like the emerging standard alright. But the big difference with Fusion Fall is that this game actually has the potential to bring a MMOG look and feel (high quality graphics, collaborative play, expansive environments, complex narratives and challenging quests) into the world of children's online gaming...something that so far only Disney has really attempted (first with Toontown, and now with Pirates of the Caribbean Online).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CFP: Mediated Girlhood

A very cool CFP made its way into my Inbox this morning that might be of interest to some of you. It's a call for book chapter proposals for a new book on "Mediated Girlhood" that is being put together by Mary Celeste Kearney, Associate Professor with the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as founder of Cinemakids. Here are the details:
Call for Papers

Mediated Girlhood: New Explorations of Girls' Media Culture
edited by Mary Celeste Kearney, PhD, The University of Texas at Austin

Proposal deadline: October 15, 2008

This collection--currently proposed as part of Peter Lang's "Mediated Youth" series, edited by Sharon Mazzarella--will include new work on girls' media culture that broadens and enriches the field.

Of particular interest are chapters that expand scholarship on girls' media and popular culture beyond its conventional white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western, consumerist, and presentist framework.

Possible topics:

- girls' media production
- girls' media made prior to the 1990s
- non-white girlhood in media and popular culture
- non-Western girlhood in media and popular culture
- queer girlhood in media and popular culture
- working-class girlhood in media and popular culture
- girlhood in documentary film
- girlhood in reality TV shows
- girls' media reception/fan practices
- girls and video gaming
- girls and cyberculture
- girlhood and music culture
- girls and mobile technologies
- girls and conglomerated media culture.

Please send a 250-word proposal, short bibliography, brief author's bio, and contact information to Mary Celeste Kearney at mkearney@mail.utexas.edu by October 15, 2008.

Notification of accepted proposals will be made by December 1, 2008. First chapter drafts of 5000 to 8000 words will be due in late spring 2009.

For further information, please contact Mary Celeste Kearney at
mkearney@mail.utexas.edu (Department of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin: http://rtf.utexas.edu/faculty/mckearney.html)