Friday, January 25, 2008

Habbo Gets Ready to Rumble

A news item that caught my eye this week was the announcement that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has formed a promotional partnership with the popular teen virtual world Habbo.com. From Cynopsis! Kids (Jan. 24 edition):
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Habbo.com have teamed to promote WWE's Royal Rumble on the teen-targeted website. While the actual Royal Rumble takes place January 27, live on PPV, the Habbo Royal Rumble began this week, as Habbo members vote for the top 30 WWE wrestlers they think will make it into the big event this weekend.

Upon reading this, I immediately started thinking about a great article I found a few months ago in the Business & Society Review by Shanahan and Hyman. The article argues that WWE (still called the WWF at the time the article was written, back in 2001) broadcast programming should be deemed a program-length commercial based on the FCC criteria, and that the WWE "is a major violator of the strictures on host selling and program-length commercials." What are they selling? Well, according to Shanahan & Hyman, they're selling themselves...in the form of pay-per-view events. The article goes on to provide a political economic analysis of the WWE brand, and a well-constructed argument that WWE broadcasts are pretty much hour-long advertisements that hook viewers into a narrative that can only be followed properly if the pay-per-view components are regularly viewed/consumed as well.

The stats they provide on the WWE are humbling esp. when considering that -- although they are now quite outdated -- the brand remains immensely popular among young boys and adolescent males. For example:
With more than 5 million viewers, RAW IS WAR, the WWF’s weekly flagship program on the USA network (but recently moved to TNN), is the highest-rated program on U.S. cable television; Smackdown, the WWF’s weekly program on the UPN network, draws almost 5 million viewers. On average, the 35 million U.S. fans of the WWF and rival WCW (World Championship Wrestling) watch 15 hours per week of wrestling programs. Although WWF broadcasts attract an audience that is 70 percent male, viewers belong to many demographic segments (e.g., women are the fastest-growing segment). The three largest audience groups are 6 to 17 year olds (especially 11 to 15 year olds), 18 to 44 year old men, and 18 to 24 year old women. Pre-teens constitute more than 15 percent of the audience. To accommodate these younger viewers, the WWF tempers the violence and sexual innuendo on its weekend morning programs. The WWF’s more than one-half million U.S. fans part with $30 million a month for its pay-per-view programs, such as King of the Ring.

The broadcast programs promote the pay-per-view by creating week-long hype for the weekend PPV events. According to Shanahan & Hyman's study, the average two-hour RAW IS WAR program contains only 36 minutes of actual wrestling. The rest is dedicated to developing soap opera-esque storylines through interviews, grudge match announcements, interruptions by surprise visits from other wrestlers or wrestlers' girlfriends (or boyfriends for female wrestlers)/spouses/children or enemies, etc. The storyline, interviews and all the rest build up intricate plotlines that promise to find resolution only during the PPV event:
All pay-per-view tournaments are scheduled immediately after the Sunday evening program HEAT, which is used to promote the event; tournament results are announced the next night on RAW IS WAR. Unlike many pay-cable programs, these tournaments are never re-broadcast on U.S. stations such as USA, TNT, or WTBS. Still photographs are used to promote a pay-per-view re-broadcast of the event the following night (Tuesday; a non-wrestling night for the WWF). The winner of King of the Ring is touted as the newest icon in professional wrestling’s upper echelon. Of course,“winner” is somewhat of a misnomer; in 1989, Vince McMahon admitted, while under investigation by the New Jersey Gaming Commission, that the matches are scripted.
[...]
Because viewers are highly involved with wrestling programming in general, the WWF can work pay-per-view programs into the storyline in the guise of matches to resolve grudges fostered during weekly broadcasts.

The shows also contain numerous other examples of host-selling for sponsor products, which are often also advertised between programming, theme music (each wrestler has a theme song, which can be purchased on a CD promoted during broadcast). The study found that even advertising students (university age) had trouble identifying all the examples of host-selling contained within the programs - this truly seems like an early example of the immersive advertising that has now become so popular online.
There are also problems with the disconnect between ratings and the actual age of audience members. As Shanahan & Hyman explain:
The FCC defines a child as someone under the age of 17, yet RAW IS WAR, Smackdown, and HEAT are rated TV-14. As the largest viewer segment for professional wrestling is 6 to 17 year olds, this inconsistency is meaningful. Although the TV-14 rating means that parents could block children less than 14 years old from viewing these programs, 14 to 16 year olds, who fall into the largest segment of wrestling fans, would not be excluded. So, contrary to the Children’s Television Act of 1990, the WWF is host selling to children.

I think much of the same arguments could be made in relation to this new development, which will surely have some "unintentional" overlap in terms of age groups. Habbo.com is already so heavily commercialized, I doubt that this new development will raise too much of a fuss (sadly), but I think it's nonetheless worth to note how easily the program-length commercial can be digitized. The arguments made by Shanahan and Hyman also provide a good foundation from which to analyze future WWE promotional efforts, and I think provide some good grounding for arguments against advergames and immersive advertising generally.

Here's an additional link to the full article (subscription is required).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Publish or Perish!

*****Update: IJIRE links repaired*****

A bit of shameless self-promotion today, I'm afraid. I am very pleased to announce the publication of two new articles drawn from my ongoing work on kids' online culture. The first appears in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, which was launched just last week. The issue includes an article by Gove Allen, Dan Burk and Charles Ess (on the ethics of robotic data gathering), an examination of emerging legal issues in the collection/use of internet-sourced research data (by Tomas Lipinski) and an interview with Annette Markham. My own article, Researching the Researchers: Market Researchers, Child Subjects and the Problem of "Informed" Consent - which I workshoped at last year's Trials and Tribulations conference, looks at some of the ethical dilemmas I've encountered in my own research, and how the disconnect between academic and industry standards can lead to problems in conducting research in commercial online spaces.

My other new publication appears in the most recent issue (no.12) of the International Journal of Communications Law & Policy, a special issue that is linked somewhat to a panel on legal issues that took place at the 2006 AoIR. Highlights include Ian Gillies' exploration of Virtual World legalities, and Gerard Goggin's article on mobile content regulation in the converging media environment. My contribution to the issue, entitled Kids' Ad Play: Regulating Children's Advergames in the Converging Media Context, looks at possible entry points within existing Canadian and US media law and policy that could be mobilized to better regulate marketing to children online. The article originated as a course paper for Jon Festinger's Video Game Law course at the University of British Columbia, and my thanks again to Jon for his valuable guidance on this projet.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kids and Mobile Play: Ofcom and Mobile Content

By way of the Times Online journalist Elizabeth Judge, news that UK media regulator Ofcom will be launching an inquiry into mobile content, after a series of complaints that the mobile industry is not effectively enforcing existing - voluntary - rules aimed at limiting the types of content kids can access via mobile technologies. A number of children's charities (I suspect they mean advocacy groups) point to the industry's lax standards when it comes to marketing and implementation as key examples of the inadequacy of the voluntary system. As Judge describes:
Mobile phone networks including Orange, O2 and Vodafone signed up in 2004 to a code that is aimed at protecting children using “next generation” 3G phones that offer services including internet access, video cameras and full-colour screens. Under the code, the phone companies agreed to offer parents who bought the 3G models for their children the ability to install a filter, which would block access to unsuitable internet content such as adult chatrooms.

A classification system for content - similar to that used in cinemas - was also introduced, with unsuitable material to be labelled “18”.

According to the children's charities who have launched the complaints, major phone networks and phone shops are not doing their job when it comes to providing parents with tools or information related to the risks associated with kids' unsupervised mobile technology use. Their arguments build upon a report released last year by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which concluded that "the boom of phone ownership among under-18s had created an “increasing opportunity for the sexual exploitation of children and young people”."

Judge's article also provides some great stats, such as:
- A million under-10s in the UK (1 in 3) own a mobile phone (according to mobileYouth)
- 32 per cent of children aged 8-11 regularly use a mobile (according to Ofcom)

Further coverage can be accessed at MoCoNews.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

"D is for Digital" But Not Educational

****Originally drafted on January 9th****

By way of Josh Golin at the CCFC, an announcement this week from the newly formed Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which has recently completed a report on the kids' (ages 3 to 11) digital media industry. Focusing on educational content and marketing, D is for Digital makes a pretty clear argument for government-driven standards when it comes to digital products claiming educational value. According to the Center's press release:
The 50-page study, the first to analyze the current interactive media environment for preschool and elementary age children, documents how the recent aging down and exponential growth of digital products are shaping how children, ages 3-11, live and learn. Of the 300+ products studied, the paper found that most do not take advantage of available research regarding children's educational needs particularly in a global economy where literacy and learning requirements are fast evolving. Among the findings, the survey yielded only two educational video games (in an industry that generated $500 million in 2006 for the top 20 titles alone) based on explicit educational curriculum design available in the market.

The report also identified influential market trends with strong potential for education; examined the type of informal learning products on the market; and recommended ways to expand the availability of quality educational media for children.

The report also makes a number of recommendations for industry, researchers and policymakers including:

- Better partnerships should be built between research and industry, to foster quality educational products;

- More emphasis should be placed on educational videogame development;

- Intergenerational interaction should be encouraged through product design;

- Evidentiary standards for "educational" products need to be created; -- and here the report refers back to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2005 report A Teacher in the Living Room?, stating that in the time that has lapsed since the KFF's study, the market has become (as the KFF predicted) "dominated by products that advertise unsubstantiated educational claims." In response, the Joan Ganz Clooney Centre recommends the following "Action Step":
Federal regulatory bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission, voluntary industry groups such as The Better Business Bureau, and parent advocates such as Common Sense Media should collaborate on a consumer protection initiative to better describe educational effectiveness in interactive media products for children.

- Policies should be implemented to protect children from digital commercialism; -- a recommendation which the Centre suggests can be achieved by better coordination of regulatory bodies:
Federal regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, and voluntary industry, public interest advocacy, and philanthropic organizations, should initiate the advancement of policies that protect children from commercialism in a digital age. A revitalization of The Children’s Television Act needs to be undertaken to modernize the child protections now called for in a digital age.

The report also offers two recommendations specific to academics:
- A research agenda should be established that addresses the implications of market trends on product development;
Academic researchers need to investigate the implications of the current environment on children’s informal learning, and recognize “what works” in educating children through digital media products.

- Academic research should be made more accessible to industry;
Academic institutions should disseminate research findings to industry through industry publications and events.

There's a fine line between praxis or collaborating for a better media environment, and full-on commercial research, which really isn't addressed here. Read one way, it sounds like a great idea, read another way, it sounds like research for profit, or at the very least enhancing the one-way street that currently exists between academic and commercial research. Academic research findings may usually only be available through journals and academic texts, but at least it's published freely and made part of the public domain. In the world of kids' media, it's the commercial sector who sits on the research goldmine, and I'd like to see these "partnerships" result in a more open and accountable commercial research sector as well.

While the fact that the study was focused on "educational" media explains much of its emphasis on purposive play/media use, I think that an underlying bias for productive leisure is also driving much of the Center's activities and positions. This is clear from the company's mission statement (which describes the Center as "Focusing especially on the needs of disadvantaged children, the Center conducts and supports research, creates educational models and interactive media properties, and builds cross-sector partnerships to scale-up best practices"), and is also pretty explicitly expressed in Michael Levine's (the Center's Executive Director) statements about the report (as quoted in the press release), which included the following:
"Kids today are spending almost as much time with media as attending school, so there is an opportunity to create more engaging educational products than ever before. Unfortunately, most of the new digital products we reviewed, with notable exceptions, do not yet promote the vital literacy, creativity and problem-solving skills children need to succeed. The report documents how industry leaders, working closely with experts in child development and research, can develop interactive educational products that can leverage key market opportunities and promote a new vision for learning and entertainment."

A very fascinating first contribution from the people who brought us Sesame Street -- definitely going into my chapter on kiddie-tech and "educational" play.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bratz and Commodity Flow

****Originally drafted Jan. 8th****

In follow-up to his excellent piece on commodity flow in children's television (written with Giglio and a copy of which you can access here), Matthew P. McAllister has now published an article on Bratz, which appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of Children and Media (subscription required). I saw McAllister speak this fall on ironic product placement in TV comedies, where the product placement itself becomes the target of commentary and humor, but of course advertises the product nonetheless (at least in most cases...he showed an episode of the Sarah Silverman Program as a counter example). His previous article (with Giglio) on commodity flow is a must-read for anyone interested in the commercialiazation of kids' TV (and Saturday Morning Cartoons in particular). His approach expands upon Raymond Williams' concept of flow, combining content analysis with a critical analysis of programming schedules, cross-channel coordination, and cross-media integration. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

iBarbie

*****Originally drafted on January 9th*****

Inspired by the success of BarbieGirls, and building upon its past good fortune with fashion games (such as the Barbie: Fashion Designer PC games), Mattel made its mark on this week's Sandbox Summit by launching its newest girlie-tech initiative, a CD/collectible card game hybrid called Barbie iDesign. According to the press release:
Barbie® iDesign™ is the newest introduction from the "Barbie Tech" group, and builds on the success of Barbie Girls™, a hybrid play experience that combines a real world, doll-inspired music device with a virtual world platform. BarbieGirls.com, the first global, virtual online world designed exclusively for girls now boasts more than 9.5 million registered users worldwide and has been referred to as the "fastest growing virtual world ever".

Continuing to tap into how today's girls play, and expand the Barbie® tech line-up, Barbie® iDesign™ turns fashion play traditionally experienced through a doll into an interactive, computer-based game with scannable fashion cards. With Barbie® iDesign™ girls become the ultimate fashion stylist through a highly creative and engaging gaming experience.

The game's incorporation of RL play and virtual play is of particular interest to me, of course, as is the clever integration of collectibility into the game design. Sort of Pokemonesque, the collectible cards that go with the game could turn into quite the cash cow for Mattel, and quite the headache for kids (as gameplay will surely be limited unless more cards are acquired) and parents (who will be expected to pay for said cards). Of course, Barbie dolls have always promoted consumption through the collection of Barbie clothes, accessories, dream houses and friends....all of which now appear available in card-to-virtual form. As the press release explains:
There are 200 different, collectible fashion cards, consisting of various hair styles, tops , bottoms, dresses, shoes, accessories and fashion models, and each has a unique barcode that when "swiped" through the USB-connected scanner, is uploaded to the "Design Studio" closet within the PC software. Once fashions are scanned and loaded on the computer, girls can play fashion stylist and create more than 21,000,000 fashionable ensembles in the game's "Design Studio." When the fashions are runway ready, girls are able to customize their fashion show in the game's "Fashion Runway" mode of play.

Other than promoting micro-purchases, the game will allow girls to "create unique fashions...by mixing and matching the different fashiosn that have been swiped and added to the "closet"" (just like on the Barbie Girls site, this sounds more like styling than fashion designing, and I'm pretty sure we'll see many of the same clothes available for purchase in Barbie doll sizes), design a fashion show featuring the runway talent of Barbie and her friends (again, through customization, and "play" in the "Designer's Club" -- where they can watch a recording of their "Runway Show", design a magazine cover using images from their Runway Show (or Design Studio), and use the "fashion cards" to play basic games like memory. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy, as this sounds like a perfect example of Mattel's now standard approach toward integrating marketing.

In related news, Mattel spent a good chunk of the pre-Christmas hype season building up its BarbieGirls brand and mp3 player, touting its popularity and claiming the title of "most requested toy" for girls, according to a number of magazines and websites that rank this type of thing. And although I did find a number of articles supporting the claim, the vast majority (i.e. all the ones I read) were cut and paste rewrites of a Mattel press release from late-November. Here's an excerpt:
As the holiday season's busiest shopping weekend kicks off today, gift-givers will be heading into the Barbie® aisle to find the season's "most requested toy" for girls. For the fifth year in a row, Barbie® toys were named the No. 1 requested holiday gift by girls, per the National Retail Federation, shining this year with the hugely innovative, tech-y Barbie Girls™ device and a new line of princess-themed dolls and playsets based on the popular new DVD "Barbie™ as The Island Princess." Additionally, several other Mattel Brands' toys have been named by toy, parenting, technology and retail experts as the season's must-have's.

I've gathered together links to all the sources cited in the Mattel press release that include the Barbie Girls mp3 in their top ten (for girls, or for younger kids, or for kids generally). These include:
All Aboard Toys.com
eToys
iParenting Media
AOL
PC Magazine
The National Parenting Centre
Top Toys Guide
Toy Wishes
Toys'R'Us
UK Toy Retailers Association.

The site/product has also won an award from the Web Marketing Association for "Best Toy Site", which I find particularly interesting and worthy of note. It seems that we are witnessing a veritable renaissance of the girls' games movement, with almost no deviation from its first incarnation, other than the massively increased presence of marketing and cross-promotion.

Yesterday's News: NPD's Kids and Digital Content

As Kidscreen's Gary Rusak (and numerous others) reported yesterday, The NPD Group has released a new study on kids' (aged 2-to-14 years) digital usage patterns, called Kids and Digital Content. As Rusak writes:
One of the more notable observations to come out of Kids and Digital Content, says NPD industry analyst Anita Frazier, is that despite the greater multi-functionality that devices - including computers, video game consoles, MP3 players and cell phones- provide, kids are by and large using the device for its primary purpose. A full 86% of kids surveyed said they used iPod-like devices to listen to music, while only 17% said they used the devices to watch movies, for example. "What this means," she explains, "is that the idea of device convergence has a ways to go to before it really becomes a factor in kids lives." In other words, kids won't be casting aside their computers in favor of internet-enabled, all-encompassing gaming systems or multi-functional cell phones anytime soon.

The study also revealed that kids download video clips the most frequently (7.1 times/month), followed by music videos (5.7 times/month), music (4.2 times/month), games (3.1 times/month) and ring tones (2.8 times/month). But the most popular activity by far remains playing video games, with a full 84% of the study's respondents gaming on all or one of the digital devices.

According to the NPD press release, the report also explores the different ways in which kids consume content. For example, the findings reveal that:
The way kids consume their digital content varies. Games and movies are primarily driven by their physical offerings, while ring tones/ring tunes are often consumed digitally, though half report consuming them in the physical format. Almost all kids who use movie content get it in the physical format, with one-quarter also getting movies in digital format.

I'm not sure I completely understand what they mean by "physical content," but I suppose it's meant to indicate that a physical product has been purchased. As with many NPD studies, the findings were gathered via "surrogate reporting"...i.e. through moms...which means that the findings are likely somewhat off, but interesting and useful nonetheless.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Announcements!!!

I have a bunch of half-finished blog posts that I've been sitting on all week, and unfortunately it now looks like I won't have time to post them until later on THIS week, as I am right in the midst of packing up for a semester in London!!! For the next couple of months I will be stationed at the Media@LSE...the Department of Media and Communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science. If you're in the area, drop me a line - I'm always keen to meet other kids' media researchers and professionals, and will be trying to set up meetings with like-minded people while I'm there.

I also have couple of other announcements to make that I'm very excited about. The first is that I have been officially enlisted as a correspondent for Amy Jussel's awesome blog and organization Shaping Youth, both of which are dedicated to providing a critical (and comprehensive) look at media & marketing to kids. You can read my first contribution to the site here, which is a reprint of the article I wrote for Children's Media Consultant. Look for more to come in the next couple of weeks. And thanks to Amy for the opportunity to contribute to the valuable work she is doing for kids and parents.

The second is that I've been invited to speak at the 6th Annual CCFC Summit, Consuming Kids: The Sexualization of Children and Other Commercial Calamities, which will take place on April 3-5, in Boston, MA. I'll be talking about my ongoing work on marketing and media convergence in kids' MMOGs, focusing in on issues of commercialization, freedom of speech, authorship and play. The Summit is geared towards combining the knowledge and efforts of various groups trying to combat the commercialization of kids' culture, bringing together academics, media producers, educators, activists and parents. This is praxis at its finest, and I'm really looking forward to both participating and attending the numerous presentations and talks that the CCFC has planned. Confirmed speakers include Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame), Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Jean Kilbourne, Susan Gregory-Thomas, Alvin Poussaint, Juliet Schor, the CCFC's own Josh Golin and Susan Linn, among many others. Registration and information for the event can be found here.

It's stacking up to be a busy spring, but an exciting one as well. I'll be sure to post those half-finished news items once I'm settled in.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Children Now's 2007 Report Card

California-based children's advocacy group Children Now has just released their 2007 report on "the state of the state's children", emphasizing the diminishing standards for both health and education experienced by kids in the sunshine state. The report's key findings include some pretty alarming statistics, including:
- Only 47% of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool;

- One in three children is overweight or obese;

- Just 65% graduate from high school on time;

- 37% of children, ages 2-5, did not visit a dentist within the
last year;

- Fewer than half of families can afford the basics of housing,
child care, food, health insurance and transportation.

You can access the report in its entirety here, or read the press release on this and previous reports the organization has published on children's health and well-being (many of which specifically address media-related issues) here.

Family Surveillance: Helicopter Parents and the Wireless Leash

I've noticed quite a bit of coverage lately coming out of the UK dealing with "helicopter parents", a term / phenomenon originating in the US that describes contemporary parenting styles characterized by intense levels of involvement with kids' accomplishments (in sports, arts, etc.) and academic success. For example, The Guardian has published two articles in the past week dealing with the subject, following some late-December coverage in The Telegraph. And it seems that UK schools and employers are having as tough a time as North Americans dealing with the shift. As Donald MacLeod writes for The Guardian:
They've been at their student children's open days, interfered with the Ucas form and swooped in to challenge anything from essay marks to college accommodation. Meet the helicopter parents, so-called because they hover over their children, interfering and directing their lives in a way that would probably have embarrassed standard pushy parents.

A phenomenon already established in the US, British universities are now beginning to suffer at the hands of the new breed, particularly at careers fairs. Helicopter parents oversee their child's first graduate job application, prep them for tests and interviews - and have even tried to renegotiate starting salaries.

Paul Redmond, head of careers at Liverpool University, said their arrival was evident at careers fairs across the country last year, and that some students had been barged aside. "In future we will have to be more open and say it doesn't look particularly impressive to have your parents with you at a fair," said Redmond.

"Several high-profile graduate recruiters have reported incidents where parents have contacted them to negotiate a starting salary. Others have had parents contact them to complain about a 'child' who has been overlooked for promotion," he writes on EducationGuardian.co.uk.

Companies have also complained that recent graduates have had everything done for them by their parents - to the point where they cannot get to a meeting.

In his own article on the subject Redmond identifies 5 different types of helicopter parent, which include "white knights" and "bankers". It's kind of a fun way to relay the diverse forms the phenomenon can take, but I'm not sure that categorizing "types" is all that helpful in understanding the shift and its impact on family dynamics and kids' socialization into adulthood. There's also a link made to mobile phone use among youth, which Redmond calls the "longest umbilical cord in history" -- though the connection is not explained in much detail.

Redmond's article is also covered on the BBC News site, although it's mainly a reprint / summary of the original. Similar arguments are made in an earlier article by Sarah Womack for the Telegraph. For example:
The term "helicopter parenting" was coined by Madeleine Levine, an American clinical psychologist, who claimed in her book The Price of Privilege: "Kids are unbearably pressured not just to be good, but to be great; not just to be good at something, [but] to be good at everything."

The rise of the mobile phone is often blamed for the explosion of helicopter parenting - it has been called "the world's longest umbilical cord".

Has the perpetual access enabled by mobile phones really lead to a massive shift in the ways in which parents and children interact? Or does the technology simply reinforce emergent behaviours that are concurrently being driven by much larger social, political and economic forces?

The issue of freedom vs. constraint certainly comes up a lot in discussions of mobile phones and young people. The helicopter parents coverage reminds me of other ways that mobile phones allow changing parent-child relationships to play out in technologically-mediated ways. Consider the various new services, such as Telus' Kid Find and Disney's Family Centre, that transform mobile phones into tracking devices, and allow parents to put controls and limits on how the technology can be used. We assume that these features will always only be used for benevolent and legitimate parenting purposes, but rarely consider how they are changing kids' sense of privacy, core family dynamics and social expectations of parental responsibility. Check out this article on AT&T's new "wireless leas" that appeared early this fall on Textually.org:
Parents are accustomed to setting up filters on their kids' computers that bar certain Web sites and blocking adult-themed channels on their televisions. "Now, with millions of children -- some as young as kindergarteners -- getting cellphones, the options are expanding for parents who want to set limits on their kids' wireless activities as well. The WSJ looks into the latest control options available - such as AT&T's Smart Limits service which just launched.

The new controls include those that limit the hours that children can use their phones for calling or text messaging to those that block access to inappropriate content on the wireless Web.

Wireless companies and handset manufacturers also are adding new features that actually help parents keep tabs on where their children physically are, addressing the peace-of-mind concerns that caused them to give their kids cellphones in the first place."

Lots to think about here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Virtual Worlds for Kids Continue to Gain Momentum...and Media Attention

Some more news this week about virtual worlds for kids, mostly coming from the marketing industry p.o.v. The first, from Marketing Vox by way of Wonderland Blog, reports on a recent study by Mediamark Research and Intelligence/Marketing Charts, that substantiates the now common finding that children play lots of online games. As Marketing Vox writes:
Nearly eight in 10 children (78.1 percent) age 6-11 report they play online games — by far the largest percentage performing any online activity, according to (pdf) the 2007 American Kids Survey from Mediamark Research and Intelligence (MRI), reports MarketingCharts.

The percentage of boys and girls who play online games was virtually the same, 77.7 percent vs. 78.5 percent, respectively. Boys are more likely to go online to get tips or cheats for gaming: One-quarter of boys (25.8 percent) reported doing so versus 5.6 percent of girls.

In related news, the New York Times (subscription required) did a story this week on virtual worlds for kids, and how the industry expects "nothing but net" for its existing and upcoming kid-targeted VWs in the coming year. As cited in the article:
“Get ready for total inundation,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.

Worlds like Webkinz, where children care for stuffed animals that come to life, have become some of the Web’s fastest-growing businesses. More than six million unique visitors logged on to Webkinz in November, up 342 percent from November 2006, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a research firm.

The article also offers a good summary of existing and upcoming projects (though not as good as Izzy's):
...Disney last month introduced a Pirates of the Caribbean world aimed at children 10 and older, and it has worlds on the way for Cars and Tinker Bell, among others. Nickelodeon, already home to Neopets, is spending $100 million to develop a string of worlds. Coming soon from Warner Brothers Entertainment, part of Time Warner: a cluster of worlds based on its Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and D. C. comics properties.

Add to the mix similar offerings from toy manufacturers like Lego and Mattel. Upstart technology companies, particularly from overseas, are also elbowing for market share. Mind Candy, a British company that last month introduced a world called Moshi Monsters, and Stardoll, a site from Sweden, sign up thousands of members in the United States each day.

...as well as some new and useful info about Pixie Hollow:
Tinker Bell’s world, called Pixie Hollow, illustrates the company’s game plan. Disney is developing the site internally — creative executives who help design new theme park attractions are working on it — and will introduce it this summer to help build buzz for Tinker Bell, a big-budget feature film set for a fall 2008 release.

Visitors to a rudimentary version of Pixie Hollow, reachable through Disney.com, have already created four million fairy avatars, or online alter egos, according to Disney. The site will ultimately allow users to play games (“help create the seasons”) and interact with other “fairies.” When avatars move across the screen, they leave a sparkling trail of pixie dust, a carefully designed part of the experience.

“We wanted to come up with a way to make flying around the site feel really good,” said Paul Yanover, executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online.

Good to know!