Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kids Mobile Play: Nick Goes Mobile

By way of David Kaplan, over at MocoNews, another spat of new developments over at Nickelodeon....this time in the area of mobile content. The company plans on launching three new mobile websites, which will tie-in with existing Nickelodeon branded content. Each site will be targeted toward a different demo - one for kids, one for teens and one for parents. Kaplan thinks that a heavier emphasis will be placed on the sites/properties aimed at teens and adults, as they represent the bulk of existing cell phone users, but I suspect that the kids market will be targeted quite aggressively. The children's industries have been trying to establish a kids' mobile market in North America for a couple of years now, and Nickelodeon has been particularly successful in using cross-media convergence strategies to continuously devise new ways to infiltrate kids' lives.

Kaplan further provides a summary of an interview he conducted with Viacom's Steve Youngwood, who described Nickelodeon's mobile strategy in terms of a "multi-pronged approach", although it's not immediately evident how their site will differ from the plethora of kid-oriented cross-media brands currently spreading through the kids' digital media culture. The mobile website (in beta since late 2007), "represents the juncture of the group’s gaming and mobile focus." As Kaplan describes, the Nickelodeon WAP site will initially contain around 25 casual games, with more on the way. The company is planning to use a (*gasp*) ad-based revenue model. On this, Youngwood assures us that “Because of the sensitives associated with kids and advertising, we try to be proactively responsible by clearly identifying what is and isn’t an ad. This is all part of a continuous dialogue with our users and their parents”. We'll see.

You can read more of Kaplan's interview with Youngwood over at PaidContent.org, and find out more about Nickelodeon's emerging mobile properties here. I've been amassing a ton of info about kids and mobiles over the past two months, and will be posting a lot more on this topic in the very near future.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Check Out: AdAge's Kids Upfront 2008

The current edition of Advertising Age Online includes a nice assortment of US kids' media and marketing related articles, compiled together in a special feature called Kids Up Front 2008. I highly recommend reading these before they pass into archive, at which point a subcription is required (though affordable on a pay-per basis). Not only does AdAge have access to information the public does not (they commission and conduct a lot of proprietary research that sometimes then becomes available for purchase at exorbitant industry prices, and other times remains within AdAge's privilege to report), and hence is an excellent resource for free and cutting edge insider information that is not always available elsewhere. And I must say that for an industry publication, they include a (pleasantly) surprising number of critical articles, lots of analysis, and generally try to achieve a level of reflexivity that is otherwise sorely lacking within ad/marketing industry discourses. Of particular interest are a series of articles penned by Andrew Hampp, including this one on the kids' $1 Billion television industry, one co-authored with Emily York describing a surprising increase in food advertising spending despite the ongoing child obesity controversy (and self-regulatory commitments of the US food and beverage industries), an overview of Nickelodeon and all the money it's making through online (adver)games, and an exploration of PBS Sprout's decision to target parents instead of kids. It also includes some handy stats supplied by ComScore Media Matrix:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Virtual-to-Real World Play

March 11, 2008: Big oops! So, yesterday I mistakenly posted the article that I was trying to link to instead of posting my own write-up, an error I didn't notice until just now. Yikes! That original post was written by Virtual Worlds News, a great source for gaming news and for keeping track of the evolution of the virtual worlds industry. So, here's take two on Virtual-to-Real World Play.

******
By way of Virtual Worlds News, some nice liveblogging coverage of last month's Worlds in Motion Summit. The Summit itself included a number of fascinating talks from some of the world's leading game producers and designers, who discussed everything from advergames and virtual markets in Habbo Hotel, to content and technological convergence within various game environments. Of particular interest was a talk given by MindCandy's Michael Acton Smith on "Thinking Outside Virtual Worlds" and the company's newest game/toy/project Moshi Monsters -- a new virtual-to-real world kids' property that I first reported on in December, and set to launch sometime over the next couple of weeks. Like many of its contemporaries, Moshi Monsters bridges different forms of mediated play, using a "virtual pet" as the anchor. What I find unique about this project, is that the brand is incorporating mobile devices from the get-go, resulting in a property that (according to Virtual Worlds News) Acton Smith describes as "Tamagotchi mixed with Facebook and a little bit of Big Brain thrown in."

Commenting on the success of Webkinz, which although impressive still lags behind traditional toys such as Beanie Babies, Smith had this to say:
"So why, as a game designer, should we care? Why should we bother thinking beyond the screen?" Smith posited. One reason is that toy tie-ins are not only an additional revenue source, but they allow for a deeper connection with the users.

To which he added (according to VWN):
"I believe there’s still a huge amount of opportunity left in this space,” said Smith.

Game designers, though, need to start thinking “beyond the screen.” The revenue stream has too much potential not to. “More importantly,” said Smith, “it allows consumers to connect to our worlds and create more engagement and, hopefully, more fun.”

What makes online pets different from earlier, non-digital versions is, Acton Smith believes, their high levels of interactivity:
Setting online pets apart from Furbies...is the ease of interaction. From Webkinz to MyePets to Moshi Monsters, interaction is key. MindCandy, for example, is adding widgets aimed at its older audience to tie their pet experience to Facebook or Bebo. Once users add friends, the creatures will socialize even when the users are offline, generating a Facebook-style newsfeed to track activity.

For the younger audience, MindCandy is adding "stealth education” with changing vocabularies and puzzles tied to the in-game currency of “rocks,” with monsters adding new puzzles for their owners every day.

In terms of the larger industry trends, here's a quick run-down of what Acton Smith and Virtual Worlds News had to say about the key players in this area and where they've focused their virtual-to-real play efforts [****Note, this list is great, but incomplete - I can already think of a few that are missing, and will work on providing a more comprehensive list as soon as I get a chance****]:

- Webkinz: The plush toys for starters, as well as figurines, lip gloss, and other licensed products to monetize the interest in the brand.

- BarbieGirls.com and Be-Bratz: Are targeting older. Toys and accessories already available, more to follow.

- Collectible cards: A number of properties are expanding this way, including Bella Sara, Chaotic, Maple Story, and World of Warcraft.

- Virtual Paper Dolls and IRL (Fashion) Design: Moo.com (with Habbo), Stardoll, Zazzle, and FigurePrints.com all provide different tools that allow users to bring virtual fashions into the real world: by printing avatars on a T-shirt, or designing avatar clothes that can then be made IRL for the player, designing your own avatar-based figurine, etc.

- TestTubeAliens.com: Toy that detects screen patterns when held up to the computer screen, changing the mood of the "test tube alien" inside.

- UbFunKeys: Similar to Webkinz, but with plastic figurines instead of plush toys.

- Tamagotchi: Relaunched and updated to include an online world.

- Me2: According to VWN "A motion sensor that records your physical activity and then points to your virtual character at home, potentially promoting activity away from the sedentary lifestyle."

- iBuddy or Ambient Devices’ gadgets: Which "interface with your computer or environment to provide you more information, creating more of an augmented reality than a straight up virtual world, but creating possibilities, said Smith, for giving feedback to users away from their avatars."

To this we could add Neopets, which has long had its own line of plush toys, interactive figurines, collectible cards and console tie-in games...as well as Barbie i-Design and a slew of others...

...Including many of the properties represented in the last panel of the summit, which was (appropriately enough) entitled "Striking Gold: How Kids’ Worlds Took the Crown". The panel (moderated by game journalist Leigh Alexander) brought together a nunmber of heavy hitters within the kids' digital play landscape, including Paul Yanover (of Disney Online), Lane Marrifield (co-founder of Club Penguin), Jason Root (Senior VP of Nick.com & NickatNite.com) and Kyra Reppen (Senior VP of Neopets). Again, this is primarily a summary of first-hand coverage (to which I will add comments at a later date or incorporate into something else), this time provided by the Worlds in Motion blog, which I've divided up into the key questions/themes that appear (from reading the coverage at least) to have driven the discussion.

On the question of how each company initially decided to focus on the kids' market:
Paul Yanover (Disney): "[S]tarted off from "[the] revisionist side of things." In the 90's, Disney Imagineers began experimenting with virtual reality and “though that didn’t really pan out, that team built great tech and art” eventually those ideas became Toontown."

Lane Marrifield (Club Penguin): ""We didn’t have an identity to start with, other than we had kids." He discussed looking at what was available for kids, what they liked, what they didn’t." [We] map every decision we make around the experience of six year olds, well, my six year old really."

Jason Root (Nickelodeon): They "Saw patterns on how kids were using our site, and the web at large.” 84% of kids are playing games online. “We wanted to evolve into a ‘place’, we wanted to bring those things together” with focus on mixing branded and non-branded content.

Kyra Reppen (Neopets): "[T]here is a "[natural] emotional connection with pets." Their virtual world "just started out being fun, but it's endless how much can be done with it."

On how player loyalty is maintained, as well as how player feedback and input is used:
Kyra Reppen (Neopets): “It’s about listening to the users...we get 30,000 new accounts every day... we need to cater to them, but we also need to take care of the old users who’ve been there for over four years. They have different needs, they’re the experts. So listening to them, making new content every day, keeping them engaged is important. It’s up to us to keep them.”

Paul Yanover: "It’s all about participation, it’s about listening. It’s something they have to have ownership of. We don’t want to project something at them, they need that ownership.”

Jason Root: "For user generated content and professionally created content, it’s about balancing those. Some kids want more of one than the other, but we have to find that balance."

Lane Marrifield: “It [was] a whole different gig. The purist nature of creating something for kids helped set us in the right kind of decision making.... all we hoped [for] was it liked enough that we could build a sustainable business model. We just hired our first marketing person!”

On safety as a key feature (and selling feature):
Lane Marrifield: “We have over 120 people dedicated to the safety of Club Penguin. We don’t mess around with that. We knew that if we were going to build the trust of the parents, there was no margin for error there. Only one incident and it would’ve been over.”

As the Worlds in Motion coverage describes, "The company’s safety program was thorough enough that they were invited to an F.B.I conference on safety to give a talk. "We’re more focused on that then we are on the gaming community.""

On balancing play with profits:
Jason Root: [T]he difficulty lays in, "figuring out how stay true to the audience and [at the same time] how to make a viable business plan... feeding these sites, they need to be tended to."

Kyran Reppen: "It’s hard to get the payment mechanisms in [kids’] hands.” Which, according to the Worlds in Motion article, "is why pre-paid cards for online services have been a boon for them as well as others."

On how to keep kids playing the games as they grow older.
Kyran Reppen: "This generation of kids are growing up with virtual worlds as their play pattern. They’re going to grow up demanding new kinds of play patterns... I can only speak for what Neopets has done, and it speaks to constant innovation."

Lane Marrifield: "Frankly, that's part of the fun. It's not just about building it, it's about sustaining it. It needs to be a labor of love. Kids will smell a disingenuous product from a million miles away... you got to truly care about kids."

Thursday, March 06, 2008

New Book Alert: The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture

An exciting new publication to report on today, co-edited by my supervisor here at the LSE, Sonia Livingstone - in collaboration with Kirsten Drotner - called The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture. The collection is a sort of response or follow-up to Singer and Singer's Handbook of Children and the Media, by providing both a more international focus, as well as a broader and more up-to-date overview of the various media forms and technologies that inhabit children's culture. It includes chapters by a number of high-profile children's media scholars, including David Buckingham, Mimi Ito and Dafna Lemish, as well as some of my favourite scholars from related disciplines such as toy studies (Dan Fleming), political economy of communication (Janet Wasko), and communication rights research (Cees Hamelink). Here's a copy of the abstract:
This essential volume brings together the work of internationally-renowned researchers, each experts in their field, in order to capture the diversity of children and young people's media cultures around the world. Why are the media such a crucial part of children's daily lives? Are they becoming more important, more influential, and in what ways? Or does a historical perspective reveal how past media have long framed children's cultural horizons or, perhaps, how families - however constituted - have long shaped the ways children relate to media?In addressing such questions, the contributors present detailed empirical cases to uncover how children weave together diverse forms and technologies to create a rich symbolic tapestry which, in turn, shapes their social relationships. At the same time, many concerns - even public panics - arise regarding children's engagement with media, leading the contributors also to inquire into the risky or problematic aspects of today's highly mediated world.

Deliberately selected to represent as many parts of the globe as possible, and with a commitment to recognizing both the similarities and differences in children and young people's lives - from China to Denmark, from Canada to India, and from Japan to Iceland, the authors offer a rich contextualization of children's engagement with their particular media and communication environment, while also pursuing cross-cutting themes in terms of comparative and global trends.Each chapter provides a clear orientation for new readers to the main debates and core issues addressed, combined with a depth of analysis and argumentation to stimulate the thinking of advanced students and established scholars. Since children and young people are a focus of study across different disciplines, the volume is thoroughly multi-disciplinary. Yet since children and young people are all too easily neglected by these same disciplines, this volume hopes to accord their interests and concerns they surely merit.

Really looking forward to reading this one!

CARU and MPAA Partnership

Via KidAdLaw and Cynopsis! Kids, news that the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) has entered into a referral agreement with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), in order to better enforce MPAA ad guidelines. According to the news coverage:
Under the agreement, the MPAA will participate in reviewing complaints, received by CARU, concerning placement of ads for PG-13 rated movies during TV programming targeted to specifically to kids under 12 that it cannot resolve. Once referred by CARU for review, the MPAA Advertising Administration will to determine whether the film is appropriate for advertising to kids. This is a role that CARU previously took on and then referred on to the Federal Trade Commission. The issue centers primarily around movies that are rated PG-13. According to MPAA Advertising guidelines, PG-13 films with certain content may only be advertised to particular audiences, and the Advertising Administration works with film companies in targeting ads appropriately.

More coverage and some comments to follow later on today/tomorrow. In the meantime, check out KidAdLaw's coverage here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Media International Australia: Beyond Broadcasting Now Available

The newest issue of Media International Australia is now out (though available only with subscription, I'm afraid), and provides a collection of articles exploring the special issue theme "Beyond Broadcasting? TV for the Twenty-First Century". Edited by Graham Meikle and Sherman Young (and including a new article by yours truly), the theme articles deal with a variety of issues - policy, cultural, political - currently taking center stage, as television moves away from traditional models and into new practices, technologies and formats. A number of general articles are also included in the issue - of special interest to kids' media researchers is the article by Geoff Lealand and Ruth Zanker describing findings of a recent study of New Zealand children's "media worlds". My own contribution to the issue addresses the shift toward and use of MMOGs by children's television networks, the product of a preliminary study into kids' media convergence I conducted last spring, which I also presented at a couple of conferences in October (UDC and aoir 8.0). Here's the abstract (which might already be somewhat familiar to regular Gamine Expedition readers):
This paper traces the migration of North American children’s television into the realm of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), and the issues this raises in terms of the commercialisation of children’s (digital) play. Through a content analysis of three television-themed MMOGs targeted to children, Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis, Cartoon Network’s Big Fat Awesome House Party and Corus Entertainment’s GalaXseeds, I examine how this new development within children’s online culture operates in relation to existing industry practices of cross-media integration and promotion. Dominant trends identified in the content analysis are compared with emerging conventions within the MMOG genre, which is generally found to contain numerous opportunities for player creativity and collaboration. Within the cases examined, however, many of these opportunities have been omitted and ultimately replaced by promotional features. I conclude that all three case studies operate primarily as large-scale advergames, promoting transmedia intertextuality and third-party advertiser interests.


Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

CFP: Digitel 2008

Via the AIR-L mailing list, a CFP that may be of interest to some of you:

2nd IEEE International Conference on Digital Games and Intelligent Toys Based Education (DIGITEL 2008)

November 17-19, 2008, Banff, Canada
http://www.ask4research.info/digitel/2008/

** Sponsored by IEEE Technical Committee on Learning Technology

The Conference Proceedings will be published by the IEEE Computer Society Press.

** Important dates:
Submissions due: May 30, 2008
Decision notification: August 1, 2008
Final articles due: September 12, 2008
Conference: November 17-19, 2008

There is a rapidly growing interest in exploring design and technology of digital games and intelligent toys for learning. While digital games, especially online games, exploit advanced multimedia and Internet technology, intelligent toys embedded with chips and sensors utilize wireless, mobile, and ubiquitous computing technologies. Digital games and intelligent toys are potential new genres of advanced learning technology.

The gaming strategies and toy design that incorporate both individual and social activities will offer a significant opportunity for researchers to investigate the long-running research issues of technology enhanced learning such as attention, motivation, and emotion. It will not be a surprise that in the distant future when this emerging research is proved to be fruitful, most technology enhanced learning will incorporate some elements of digital games. Despite the surging interest in this emerging research, there are plenty challenging research issues to be investigated. For example, can one really learn meaningfully and deeply from games? Will there be new theories that explain phenomena of learning with fun? What constitute game pedagogies? How this genre of technology enhanced learning can be adopted to formal and informal learning settings? What are the possible dark sides of game and toyed education and how to prevent them? DIGITEL 2008 provides a forum for researchers various disciplines and practitioners to share and exchange of this emerging research area.

We invite submission of papers reporting original academic or industrial research on the issues related to digital games and toyes based education. Complete papers will be required for review process; only abstracts will not be sufficient. All authors of accepted submissions will be required to complete IEEE Copyright Form. Authors of selected papers will be invited to submit extended versions for a Special Issue of a reputed journal.

** Submissions
Submissions are invited in following categories:
Full papers: 8 pages
Short papers: 5 pages
Posters: 3 pages
Workshop proposals: 2 pages
Panel proposals: 2 pages
Interactive sessions: 3 pages

** For more details, please see the website:
http://www.ask4research.info/digitel/2008/

* Conference Chair:
Margaret Haughey, Athabasca University, Canada

* Program Chair:
Michael Eisenberg, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

* Local Chair:
Maiga Chang, Athabasca University, Canada

* General Chair:
Kinshuk, Athabasca University, Canada

* General Co-Chair:
Tak-Wai Chan, National Central University, Taiwan

* Organization Chair:
Rory McGreal, Athabasca University, Canada

* Local Administrator:
Jill Calliou, Athabasca University, Canada

* Finance Chair:
Rebecca Heartt, Athabasca University, Canada

** For queries, please contact:

Kinshuk (kinshuk at ieee.org)
Jill Calliou (jillc at athabascau.ca)