Friday, May 30, 2008

Thinking About Stardoll at the LSA

I am blogging today from the Law & Society Association conference in sunny Montreal, where I just presented a paper on the exploitation of children's affective labour in corporately-owned virtual worlds. The panel I was a part of, organized by York University professor (and CRC in Law, Communications and Cultural Studies) Rosemary Coombe, revolved around intellectual property and immaterial labour, and granted me the opportunity to meet and learn about the work of four legal scholars doing excellent, provocative, cutting edge work in this area (names, details and abstracts can be accessed here).

My talk today was a reworking of my ongoing study of the commodification of kids' digital play, reviewing some of the ways corporate entities appropriate and marketize kids' emotional investments in online communities and virtual worlds. I talked about BarbieGirls and Neopets (again!), but could very well have mentioned this article which appeared in today's online edition of Forbes (written by Sramana Mitra) on teen fashion site Stardoll. Here's an excerpt:
Stockholm-based Stardoll features more than 330 dolls and tens of thousands of virtual garments and accessories. It is also the No. 1 site worldwide for pre-teen and teen girls, according to comScore. The site has over 7 million unique visitors per month and 16 million registered users from 200 countries.

[...]

Stardoll, like Vogue, earns revenues from advertising. Advertisers on Stardoll include major fashion and entertainment brands such as Donna Karan, LVMH, Disney and Sephora. Stardoll also earns revenues from products sold in its virtual shop. The site sells between 60,000 to 180,000 items per day.

Surprisingly, Mitra maintains that the site has not yet been used -- at least extensively -- for market research. But she also proposes that sites like Stardoll are just what the market needs..."an inexhaustible, ever-ready focus group that could help retailers cut back on excess purchases. Something like a social network." While I'm doubtful about her assertion that Stardoll has not yet begun to exploit its users/data in this way, she sounds right on the money in her hypothetical scenario of "how this might work":
Zara, a retailer based in Spain, launches a virtual collection on Stardoll, which becomes an instant viral hit among pre-teen and teenage girls. Let's say seven designs in the collection bubble up to the top as the most popular, each with an average following of 1.2 million girls. Knowing this, would Zara need any other focus group or market research to figure out exactly what is striking a chord with its target consumers?

If Zara becomes really disciplined, it can pre-launch each season's designs into Stardoll, collect market feedback and provide that data to its stores around the world. Zara can also do geographically targeted research through Stardoll. For instance, Zara's Florida stores can look at data for Florida consumers, while Los Angeles stores can drill down on what teens in L.A. like.

I wonder how just certain she really is that this type of thing is not already unfolding. I'll have to sneak another peak at Stardoll and its corporate communications once the conference has ended.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

CFP: Kidding Around at the University of DC

From the Centre for Research in Young People's Texts and Cultures portal, a CFP for an upcoming conference on cinematic/media representations of children and childhood.
Kidding Around: The Child in Film and Media

26-27 September 2008 (Rescheduled from Feb. 29-March 1)
University of the District of Columbia

The University of the District of Columbia Film Committee invites papers on the theme of the Child in Film and Media for an interdisciplinary conference to be held on the UDC campus on 26-27 September 2008.

Representations of children in today's media intersect with contextual issues that demand scholarly consideration. As the academic and commercial markets' attention to children's literature and media increases, the need to explore how children are used, targeted, explored, and represented in books, films, games, and toys grows. This conference will explore how different media, particularly film, deal with definitions of childhood, the place of the child in differing texts, and the connections scholars and critics have made with these various forms of media.

Papers addressing individual authors and works in developing these themes are encouraged. Panel proposals are welcome.

Please email your 250-word abstract, contact information, and a brief
bio to Alexander Howe at: udcfilm@yahoo.com
Please visit the conference website for more information:
http://www.udc.edu/films/ka.htm

Deadline for Submissions: 1 August 2008. Early submissions are appreciated.

Alexander N. Howe
Assistant Professor of English
University of the District of Columbia
4200 Connecticut Ave, NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-274-5658

Email: howe_a@comcast.net
Visit the website at http://www.udc.edu/films/ka.htm

Friday, May 23, 2008

DGamer: Disney Fine-Tunes Its Cross-Media Integration

Last week, in conjunction with the opening of the newest Narnia film, Prince Caspian, and its spin-off Nintendo DS Game, Disney launched the much anticipated DGamer -- a social network / virtual world aimed at tying together Disney's various digital gaming platforms (console, handheld, online) and creating a more cogent gamer community around Disney's properties. The VW can be accessed through both DS Wifi and online, and represents the "first integrated online community of its kind to [provide such a service] on multiple platforms." According to the press release:
DGamer, which leverages the community technology of Disney.com, allows players to log into their DS and online accounts to create and customize a unique 3-D avatar and persistent profile. A wide variety of outfits, hats, eyewear and accessories are available to choose from, including special Disney-themed costumes, such as Buzz Lightyear, Tinker Bell and familiar Disney theme park mouse ears. Kids can chat, view user profiles of their DGamer friends, and post high scores to leaderboards. In addition, players earn "honors" which represent what players have been rewarded when completing in-game missions. Honors can also trigger unlockables such as special gear for player's avatars, all of which transfer automatically between the DGamer Web site and the DGamer feature in DS games from Disney when users log in. For example, when playing The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, players can unlock Prince Caspian character costumes that can be worn by their DGamer avatar. Certain "honors" also unlock exclusive content in Nintendo DS games from Disney and within the DGamer channel online.

Although Prince Caspian is the first game to include the feature, the plan is to have it implanted in all future Disney DS games, including the upcoming Tinker Bell game, as well as its other online properties. To join, players must register online -- or use any existing Disney account -- and customize a 3-D avatar, which it will then use to interact with other players throughout the DGamer universe. Player stats will be tracked by DGamer servers, which will upload and store players' progress across a variety of games...along with a plethora of other player details and information I'm sure. While little mention has been made of how and what player information will be collected by DGamer, Disney has made sure to address parental concerns -- both within the design and PR of the VW:
Parents are also encouraged to play an active role in the DGamer community. By accessing parental controls at www.dgamer.com, they can specify the level of interactivity that kids have online and feel confident that their child's experience is age appropriate. For example, parents can choose between three chat levels for their kids' use by utilizing the familiar security features and infrastructure at Disney.com, which hosts the DGamer site. Kids can either communicate using a predetermined list of words and phrases called "Speed Chat," through modified free-form typing that blocks inappropriate language or suggestive phrases called "Speed Chat Plus," or via "Open Chat" which requires an exchange of a True Friend Code outside of the DGamer system. Disney.com employs several safety features to ensure all chat communication is moderated for safety.

As Earnest Cavalli pointed out on Wired Blog back in February, Disney has yet to address whether or not the service will include targeted advertising or other forms of embedded marketing (I suppose he means in addition to advertising Disney's own products), or whether microtransactions will play any role in the DGamer business model. But I agree with Cavalli's prediction that:
"If all of this sounds like a marketer's wet dream when it comes to targeting the under-13 set, you're getting the idea... I get the feeling that there are a long line of PR folks at the House of Mouse who are salivating over the possible revenue streams DGamer introduces.

Couldn't have said it better myself!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Disney's New Ad Lab Sends Shivers Down My Spine

Via MediaPost's Media Daily News, another announcement from Disney, this time about a new research lab that it is launching in order to "gain insight into viewer reaction to a range of advertising" and marketing initiatives. As David Goetzl describes, the main purpose of the lab is to find ever "more advanced" ways to gauge audience engagement and ad effectiveness, which will then be used to increase sales at ABC, ESPN and other Disney networks. Similarly, Meg James of the LA Times writes,
The new research center will be based in Austin, Texas, and will test a variety of advertising practices to discern how receptive consumers are to products that are integrated into shows, whether people pay attention to split screens and how they watch programs on mobile devices. Disney hopes to have the center running by November.

The effort is part of a companywide campaign to bring Disney's advertising sales strategy into the 21st century as behavioral research is more plentiful in the digital age. Now, television networks have second-by-second viewing data available, through Nielsen Media Research, TiVo and cable television operators.

In order to accomplish this, Disney has enlisted the expertise of Murdoch University Professor Duane Varan, an established television audience researcher. No mention in the press release or in the ensuing press coverage if the lab will include research on child audiences, but it is Disney, so...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jonathan Smith, You're My Hero

Of interest: recent coverage of the Nordic Game 2008 conference (a big game industry conference in Sweden), where a keynote was given earlier today by Jonathan Smith, the head of TT Games (Traveller's Tales). TT Games is the development company behind the massively successful LEGO Star Wars titles...a franchise which has now sold over 18 million units and inspired LEGO Indiana Jones and the upcoming LEGO Batman games. According to GamesIndustry.biz, Smith started off the conference with some harsh criticisms of the industry's treatment of child players. In describing TT Games' rationale for getting into the business of designing kids' games, Smith stated (as quoted in GamesIndustry.biz):
"We believed that children were very badly served by the games they were being given...As parents at the time with children ourselves we knew that children were looking for things in games that they were rarely getting. We identified a market opportunity."

According to Smith, in order to address this gap, the team began involving kids in the early stages of the development process, rather than relying solely on market research.
"When people say focus testing I reach for my revolver, because it involves asking a variety of people what they think of an idea, which is a waste of time...What we do is get people to play the game and sit behind them as they play the game and take those lessons directly to influence the level designs."

Smith expresses a lot of enthusiasm about kids' ideas and feelings when it comes to video games, as well as an enormous amount of faith in kids' ability to communicate what does and doesn't work for them. Although this is somewhat contrary to some of the research I've read, I'm a big fan of the idea of child-centered design and exploring new ways of incorporating kids' own needs, ideas, aptitudes, etc., into the design and implementation of digital games...and not merely for educational purposes, but also as part of making games more fun and fulfilling for child players.

I applaud Smith for his critique of commercial kids' games as well. I too think that children are poorly served by the games industry, despite the fact that they are some of its most important and loyal customers. There are a lot of badly designed games out there that get offloaded onto kids, using popular media-brands (Bratz, Spongebob, etc.) as a Trojan Horse to create intertextual value and to get kids' playing them. In my current study of online multiplayer games for kids, I'm definitely finding a repeat of this trend, and it's good to hear from those designers that are trying to break away from the prevailing notion that kids' games should be overly-simplified, repetitive, linear and highly controlled...not to mention excessively commercial.

Not that the LEGO Star Wars games aren't commercial - I definitely place them along a continuum of narrativized and branded toys, with action figures and playsets as key progenitors. But I suppose my hope is that the message in Smith's keynote -- i.e. that the industry needs to become more responsive to kids' needs -- highlights a way for the industry start rethinking their underlying assumptions about kids and their play, which could open up all sorts of possibilities, including (perhaps) a de-commercialization of kids' games to allow for more exciting innovation in themes, storytelling, and player experiences.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Barbie BCause Backlash

Short but interesting article by Dan Mitchell in yesterday's New York Times about a blogger-led backlash against Barbie's new line of "eco-friendly" products...which includes cloth bags and other accessories that "repurpose excess fabric and trimmings from other Barbie doll fashions and products which would otherwise be discarded." At issue is Mattel's attempt to get in on the eco-toys trend, a move that many see as mere "greenwashing" of an otherwise environmentally unfriendly product line. Here's an excerpt:
When greenwashing is aimed at adults, environmentalists generally find it annoying and sometimes — if it is sufficiently transparent — amusing. But when children are the targets, the environmentalists find it infuriating. So when Mattel recently issued a news release promoting its new line of Barbie BCause accessories for the doll — hats, handbags and the like — it was too much for the blogger on Eco Child’s Play, Jennifer Lance.

“The eco-conscious young girls I know of steer clear of Barbie,” she wrote. “Truly green families will not be fooled by Mattel’s greenwashing.”

According to Mattel’s (news release), the “playful and on-trend Barbie BCause collection repurposes excess fabric and trimmings from other Barbie doll fashions and products which would otherwise be discarded, offering eco-conscious girls a way to make an environmentally friendly fashion statement with cool, patchwork-style accessories.”

The whole thing is “pretty ironic given that Barbie dolls themselves are made out of plastic and are packaged in even more plastic,” Jen Phillips wrote on Mother Jones magazine’s blog, the Blue Marble. "And not the kind of plastic you can throw in the recycling bin, either."

For more on greenwashing kids' commercial culture, check out Amy's recent post on the issue over at Shaping Youth.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Sesame Symposium

Earlier today, Common Sense Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (a.k.a. Sesame Workshop) held the First Annual Joan Ganz Cooney Center Symposium Focusing On The Impact Of Digital Media In Educating Children, an invitation-only symposium that was streamed live both online and within Second Life. Following on the heel's of the "D is for Digital" study the Center released earlier this year, which reported on the sorry state of "educational" tech toys for kids, today's symposium was geared towards harnessing the power (and pleasures) of digital technologies to create new learning opportunities, bridge digital divides, and encourage the private sector to commit to higher goals and standards when it comes to educational products. To give you an idea of the scope and tone of the event, here's an excerpt from the promotional description provided on the Global Kids website:
Michael Levine, the Center's Executive Director, said: "Today's children are growing up in an era of rapid change. Unprecedented learning tools are at their disposal: real breakthroughs and remarkable gains in education are possible. We can and we must harness these promising communication technologies for children now, especially those who are lagging behind. The early endorsement of partners like McGraw-Hill, EA, CPB and PBS reinforce the importance of our mission. The symposium is a timely opportunity to convene the critical sectors to advance innovation and mobilize change."

The agenda for the day-long event, comprised of panel discussions, children-led demonstrations of new technologies and a hands-on forum promoting two dozen of the best digital media initiatives in the nation, features a keynote address by EA's Chief Creative Officer, Bing Gordon, and one of the first demonstrations of BOOM BLOX, a new game for Nintendo Wii developed by EA in association with director Steven Spielberg. All panels will be streamed on the web by the Center's partner Global Kids.

While coverage of the event itself has yet to appear (I didn't get a chance to tune in myself, unfortunately), some initial coverage of the symposium's background documents (which you can access via ypulse) was provided by Gary Rusak in today's KidScreen Daily. Rusak focuses in on a new study conducted by Common Sense Media, and released to coincide with the symposium, which examines parents' thoughts about kids and digital media. The major conclusion of the study appears to be the finding that parents actually feel quite ambivalent about their kids' "digital media savvy" -- feeling that digital media skills are important (as beneficial as traditional skills such as reading and math), but also critical about the social aspects of (and social skills development associated with) new media technologies. As Rusak explains:
A full 67% of parents said they did not think the internet helped teach their kids to communicate more effectively; 87% of parents said they did not believe the internet helped their kids learn how to work with others; and 75% do not believe the web can teach kids to be responsible in their communities.

Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, says the findings indicate that parents are trying to catch up with the technological advances that their children more easily adapt to. "When it comes to digital media in kids' lives, it's a confusing time to be a parent," he explains. "Clearly, parents seem to understand that the wold has fundamentally changed and that kids need digital media to be successful...But, the results suggest that parents still have reservations about how their kids engage with each other using digital media."

Pretty obvious, I know, but I'm nonetheless quite pleased to see a study and some stats to support the common sense perception that parents are dealing with a pretty paradoxical assortment of feelings, information and expectations when it comes to kids and ICTs.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Financial Times Takes a Look at VW's for Kids

Check out today's online edition of the Financial Times for an article by Jonathan Birchall examining commercialization in virtual worlds for kids. Birchall quotes both Susan Linn (of the CCFC) and yours truly (!), focusing on BarbieGirls and Webkinz as key examples. I must point out that although I'm erroneously described in the article as a professor (while I am definitely still just a "PhD Candidate"), I'm really pleased with the quote and the way my comments were framed:
In the US and elsewhere, public discussion of virtual worlds has been dominated by potential threats to children from sexual predators and from violent images in online games. The media and toy companies have responded with an emphasis on site safety, with limits on what messages a user's avatar can send.

But Sara Grimes, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, says there has been very little attention paid to the commercialisation and marketing elements of digital play, including the collection of data that can be used for advertising linked to online behaviour. "It is easy to get distracted from these issues . . . The sites also play on that by promoting themselves as safe havens and tapping into parental concerns," she says.

Nice!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Escapist Reviews Grand Theft Childhood

"Must read" alert - check out The Escapist for Adam LaMosca's recent review of a new book on video game violence by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, the Harvard-based husband and wife team that co-founded the Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Mental Health and the Media. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Video Games and What Parents Can Do (what great timing on the title, btw), primarily reports on a big, well-funded study of violent videogames and teens, which the authors conducted between 2004 and 2006. As LaMosca reports, the book also provides a thorough overview of the controversies and misconceptions that continue to cloud public discourses around video games (a reprise of which we've been seeing all week with the release of GTAIV), while other important social issues go unaddressed. Here's an excerpt of LaMosca's review:
Throughout Grand Theft Childhood the authors note the inescapably social aspect of games, especially for young males. For boys, playing videogames - even M-rated video games - is normal. It connects them with their peers, providing both recreation and a source of conversation. The authors demystify kids' interests in games, noting that their motivations to play aren't borne of reclusive or antisocial tendencies. Instead, kids play for excitement, escapism and to relieve stress or boredom. In addition, kids are surprisingly capable of recognizing the difference between in-game and real-world violence - sometimes even more so than the researchers themselves.

[...]

Kutner and Olsen address common misconceptions about gaming with deftness and precision, demonstrating that they understand both videogames and their detractors. Although their own research informs much of the book, they devote abundant space to reasoned discussions about junk science methodology, political grandstanding, recent developments in anti-game legislation, current events, and more. Grand Theft Childhood's chapters are peppered with quotes from public figures, which the authors usually waste no time in debunking through research or common sense.

I look forward to finding out for myself how balanced their approach is, but I suspect that either way this book will have a lot to offer -- particularly for those of us interested in the unfolding discourses around kids and gaming.