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' 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 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 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.

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."


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."