Monday, July 28, 2008

Virtual-to-Real World Play Patterns

The Toy Industry Association (TIA), in collaboration with the NPD Group, just released findings from a new study on kids, toys and online play. According to Virtual Worlds News, the report, entitled Online Play: Earning Mom's Trust and Children's Interest, is "designed to help industry players understand what’s driving moms and kids ages 2 to 14 to social, gaming and/or entertainment" sites. Key findings include:

* 28% of kids who use social gaming/entertainment sites have "purchased either a physical item or digital content from these sites."

* Many kids spend upwards of 16 hours a week in virtual worlds - "creating avatars, playing games, earning and spending virtual currency, and socializing."

* Online-offline toys offer "enhanced play value and are the glue that bonds these digital natives...to a new generation of play."

* Kids rarely go online alone, and siblings play a large role in the online experience. ("suggesting an opportunity for content that can appeal to multiple consumers with team-oriented participation.")

* Gaming is the primary activity driving kids' internet use ages 2 to 14: 76 percent of all kids on the internet are "drawn" to social and gaming sites. Furthermore, 75% of 6-to-8 year olds and over 90% of kids over 8 yrs are accessing online content.

Additional findings will be presented at the upcoming Virtual Worlds Kids conference (September 3rd in LA). A big thanks to Izzy Neis for the head's up.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Star Wars Brandstravaganza

I was expecting to see a lot of news coverage this weekend of the big Star Wars: The Clone Wars toy launch that Lucas/Toy'R'Us had organized to introduce the new tie-in toylines for its upcoming Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated film (opening in theatres August 15th) and television series. So far, however, the interweb has been eerily devoid of photos and stories of the event, which is too bad as I'm quite curious to see how the whole thing unfolded. Just like a Star Wars film opening (or as became custom whenever a new Harry Potter book was released), Toys'R'Us had a whole midnight extravaganza planned, with anticipation building over the past several weeks as giant in-store clocks counted down to launch time. Weird! Anyway, here's a description of what Toys'R'Us had planned for this weekend's launch (from last month's Playthings magazine):
The biggest celebrations will take place at Toys “R” Us Times Square and Toys “R” Us Mission Bay in San Diego [***to coincide with ComicCon of course***], where Star Wars aficionados will be encouraged to come dressed as their favorite character and take part in a “Cloned Costume Contest.” Star Wars enthusiasts attending these two events will also be treated to trivia, games and prizes. As an added bonus, customers who purchase Star Wars merchandise at any Toys “R” Us store during the midnight events will have the opportunity to receive special gifts, including a Star Wars Holographic General Grievous action figure from Hasbro or a Lego reversible poster.

I'll keep an eye open tomorrow morning for any interesting coverage, and will add some links and/or commentary if anything good comes up. In the meantime, there have been some pretty interesting articles written in the past few weeks around the Clone Wars toys/marketing strategy that might be worth checking out, including:

Douglas Quenqua's New York Times piece on the cross-promotional history of Star Wars films and toys.

The above mentioned Playthings story about the toy launch.

This great article that appeared in a recent edition of The Escapist, written by Spanner, which explores Star Wars merchandising and "collectibles".

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Kids Outsmarting VW Safety Systems

Kids' virtual worlds expert Izzy Neis wrote a great post last week on how kids are outsmarting, bypassing and subverting the safety systems in online games and vw's. Her post (complete with comments and some great Youtube examples) discusses a piece that appeared on NetFamilyNews, describing the "Top 8 Workarounds" kids are using to bypass the chat restrictions and break the rules in Club Penguin. The original author, Anne Collier, is a journalist and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, and her list is derived from both her own experiences as well as from the results of in-game field work conducted by Atlanta-based parenting columnist Sharon Duke Estroff. Here's a summary of Collier's list:
"1. Beating the language filter."
By "putting consecutive words in separate message "bubbles,"" adding spaces between letters, using capitalization and punctuation, etc. In BarbieGirls, I've seen many of these same practices, along with misspelling words or spelling words phonetically to get around restrictions.

"2. Code lingo."
Using secret code to communicate. Not just initialisms (like LOL and POS), but also "text-formatting tricks that get around safe-language rules: e.g., if language filters don't allow numbers, kids share their ages by expressing them in dots. For example, they ask, "How many dots are you?" and get back: "I'm ........."" I've also seen examples of wearing certain clothing items as a way of communicating real life identity (such as gender, etc.).

"3. Identity theft, kid-style."
I've seen this quite a lot over the past few years, kids claiming to have "hacked" (or to have been hacked) or "stolen" (of have been stolen from) someone else's password. But the reality is usually that the two shared passwords at some point, and the tersm "hacked" or "stolen" become a way of describing a misuse or abuse of the other person's password (and trust) to do something mean. This seems to be the case in Club Penguin as well, as Collier writes: "Password-sharing, however, is rampant in kid virtual worlds - a popular way of offering and accepting best-friend status. It becomes a problem when your "best friend" logs on as your avatar and makes it break the rules so you get kicked out."

"4. Stealing virtual possessions."
"Kids also use peers' passwords to steal their virtual clothes, furniture, and other in-world possessions". For the victim, this means starting over, and for the thief, they get the extra social capital associated with having lots of items, and with having "hacked" the system (see above). This also links into real world peer relationships - Collier writes - "as Sharon said, a lot of penguins know each other as humans at school too." We can definitely imagine how this would work for bullying and social exclusion.

"5. Abusing abuse reporting."
As Collier describes, "Kids can report other kids for all kinds of vague reasons, but they don't have to give a reason - all they have to do is press a button on the player card and the complaint goes straight to the monitor," Sharon said.

"6. Using safety features to bully."
Players always have the option of blocking or ignoring other players, and they use these tools to ostracize and exclude.

"7. Digital "Spin the Bottle.""
Collier explains how traditional pre-teen games for exploring sexuality and dating have been translated into virtual worlds. Here's her description of one specific example of "virtual spin the bottle":
"An example in Club Penguin: "Spin the Fish," only the fish doesn't spin; "you have to pretend it does," according to young CP lifestyles blogger Imatweetybrd, whose blog Sharon found. "You either say 'I'll spin!' or someone will tell you to spin. Then, most likely, you are just going to say 'spin,' then 'it landed on [the penguin's name that you like most]. At that point, you go up the person and say 'mwah.' Then your turn's over. Your penguin might like you back and ask you out or maybe you want to ask him out, then you guys can leave the game or whatever.""

"8. Kid avatars have cheats too."
I've found this particularly true in Club Penguin as well - the only real way to play and make $$ is to figure out the tricks and "cheats" - most of them are pre-programmed (part of the game's design) and passed along throughout the player community by word of mouth (and possibly through the in-world newspaper as well, though I still have to check on this). Collier and Sharon found that cheats are also circulated outside of the game, on the various webpages that provide tips, walk-throughs, etc....sites that are easy to find through any search engine, and -- as Collier points out -- a totally normal part of gamer culture.

Awesome! And be sure to check out both Collier's post and Izzy's post for some additional analysis, examples and commentary.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Games for Kids? Why Not!

I found this great article by Nick Gibson in Developer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, on why the digital games industry should get in on the current wave of virtual worlds and MMOGs for kids. The article contains quite a few gems, as Gibson points out:
The children of today represent a generation for whom interactive entertainment is an integral part of growing up. They are also a generation comfortable and highly adept online. Combine these and you have a new games frontier of colossal potential but one in which most ‘traditional’ games companies appear largely disinterested. As a result, this new market for children’s MMOGs and virtual worlds is witnessing a stampede of companies from outside of the games industry, especially from the toy and TV industries.

Indeed! He also offers a pretty concise overview of the market, which he describes as follows:
Most [kid-targetd MMOGs] feature simplistic gameplay, are browser-based, developed in Flash and opt for low-res cartoon graphics over the verisimilitude sought by hard-core developers. Almost all of the worlds are offered for free but feature advertising and/or optional payment models such as subscriptions or retail purchases (e.g. toys or cards) which unlock exclusive parts of the world. Around 40 per cent feature micropayments, mostly geared around avatar and virtual world customisation. We estimate that subscriptions and micropayments in children’s MMOGs and virtual worlds alone generated over $300m in 2007 and will grow over 30 per cent this year. Add in advertising and retail sales and it becomes easy to see why there is so much interest in this market.

The rest of the article is full of great points and tidbits. Here's a summary of the ones I found particularly noteworthy:

- Gibson reminds readers about the 2005 BBC survey, which found that 98% of UK kids aged 6 to 15 years play games at least once a month (most once a week), and that "games were rated as the single most important medium" for this same age group.

- Gibson estimates that there are currently 50 child-focused virtual worlds, with 45 more in development. This contrasts somewhat with the "112" figure that's been floating around, but upon closer inspection, that list did include a number of vw's and MMOGs for teens (not kids), as well as sites that don't really qualify as virtual worlds.

- Around 25% of these virtual worlds that have already launched are based on existing kids' properties.

- He lists slightly different population size figures than I've seen elsewhere for big vw's like BarbeiGirls and Habbo Hotel, including a 12 million monthly user rate for Neopets.

- Kids' MMOGs feature a variety of business models. Some are merely cross-promotional tools. Others are "extremely profitable". He points out that development costs within this market segment are "a fraction of typical MMOGs."

- Kids' games might be technologically more simple than traditional MMOGs, but they also pose some complex challenges, including the need for ongoing maintenance and development, continuous customer interaction, and the "myriad challenges of dealing with children (content, security, legality etc.)".

I wonder here about the logic of identifying "rudimentary technology" with kids'MMOGs...surely this is a consequence of the lack of prior experience of the developers involved, or the promotional focus of many of the branded MMOGs. If more game development companies got in on the action, I'm sure the landscape would change drastically. It's wrong to assume that child players/audiences naturally translates into lower quality products. It also ignores the growing sprinkle of sophisticated MMOGs for kids that are coming out...

But imagine what the games industry could do with this emerging market...how different it would look with Blizzard and EA at its helm, instead of Mattel and market research companies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sesame Street Relaunch

There's a great article by Elizabeth Jensen in today's New York Times about Sesame Workshop's massive overhaul of its SesameStreet.org website. The article focuses on the organization's use of child-centred design research in the planning of its new site. Here's an excerpt:
Like the "Sesame Street" television show, the site was based on research. In this case it involved about 100 children of all socioeconomic levels at three preschools in the New York area, said Glenda Revelle, vice president for research for Sesame’s digital content. The research found that children did not want a linear television-like experience on the Web site, she said, and that online as on television, they responded strongly to having a Muppet guide them.

So unlike other Web sites, which rely heavily on Flash animation, this one features a live-action Muppet video that welcomes children with a new educational theme every day.

The hope is that the site will eventually become the main point of entry for the Sesame Street audience. And in keeping with tradition, the site is aimed at lower-income kids, so the plan is no monthly subscriptions. The site will also introduce a new safety option - Playsafe, a proprietary, trademarked, downloadable program that makes it difficult for children to leave the Sesame website.

Hmmmm...digital playpen, or forced brand loyalty? Just because it's Sesame Street doesn't mean we shouldn't question the motives behind forcing kids to stay on one commercial website. For all its awesomeness and goodwill, Sesame Workshop is still a global media giant - with annual revenues nearing $100 million, and multiple licensing initiatives underway.

Anyway, the site relaunches on August 11th, but will be previewed at this weekend's BlogHer conference.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Kids Apparently Really Love Online Video

Via the Center for Media Research, news that a recent Nielsen study on online video consumption has discovered that kids 2-11 watch more online video than any other age group. As the CMR article describes, "per person, kids consumed more streams than those over 18, and spent more time watching online video from home." Here's the breakdown:
Kids aged 2-11 years view an average of 51 streams and 118 minutes of online video per person during the month;


Teens aged 12-17 yrs view an average of 74 streams and 132 minutes per person per month;

Adults aged 18+ view an average of 44.3 streams and 99.4 minutes per person per month.

Where are kids watching all these videos, you might ask? Nielsen provides handy "top ten online video destinations" listings for each age group, which you can view here. Here's the top ten list for kids aged 2-11 years (by unique viewer composition percent; US, Home, April 2008):
1. Disney Records:
49.6% (179,000 individual users) of viewers are between the ages of 2 and 11 yrs

2. EverythingGirl.com:
48.0% (161,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

3. MyePets
47.6% (161,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

4. JETIX
46.9% (159,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

5. Playhouse Disney
43.9% (340,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

6. PBS Kids
43.1% (281,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

7. LEGO
40.9% (137,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

8. NickJr
39.6% (718,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

9. Barbie
39.6% (105,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

10. Nick
39.3% (1,009,000 users) between 2 and 11 yrs

Kids are also flocking to the more well-known online video sites (such as YouTube), and although they represent a smaller percentage of the total audience for these sites, their presence is nonetheless quite significant. For example:
YouTube: 4,129,000 monthly viewers between the ages of 2 and 11 yrs

DisneyChannel.com: 1,324,000 monthly viewers between 2-11 yrs

Disney.com: 842,000 monthly viewers between 2-11 yrs

Myspace.com: 827,000 monthly viewers between 2 and 11 yrs (so much for age restrictions)

Buena Vista Online Entertainment: 455,000 monthly viewers between

Cartoon Network: 431,000 monthly viewers between2-11 yrs

Google Video: 323,000 monthly viewers between 2-11 yrs

Source: Nielsen Online, VideoCensus, June 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Behavioural Tracking Under the Microscope (US)

Interesting developments at the Senate Commerce Committee hearings on behavioural profiling yesterday, as US Senators discussed the privacy implications of targeted web advertising, data-mining and the massive amounts of data collection the private sector engages in online. As Ira Teinowitz writes in today's AdAge, senators are somewhat split about whether the practices "go too far", i.e. do they infringe on individuals' Constitutional and civic rights, and/or warrant new privacy laws. However, from what I've read, there also seems to be somewhat of a consensus that behavioural profiling raises legitimate questions about "who watches us and how that information gets used." With exceptions, of course...such as former marketing executive Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). According to Wendy Davis at MediaPost, DeMint called the prospect of new privacy laws "a solution in search of a problem." As Davis writes:
[DeMint] asserts that market pressures will spur online businesses to develop good privacy practices. "It would be my assumption that the businesses represented at the table have a lot of incentives to compete for best privacy policies."

According to Saul Hansell's article in yesterday's New York Times, DeMint added to this: "By the time the F.T.C. acts, the industry would be far ahead."

Luckily, (at least some of) the other participating Senators weren't buying it. As Davis writes, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who presided over the hearing, called DeMint out on his free market logic, stating that "if market forces alone were sufficient to protect consumers, there would be no need for the Food and Drug Administration to conduct inspections, because companies that sold spoiled products would simply go out of business." According to Teinowitz, Dorgan did praise behavioral tracking as "helpful", but also expressed concern that the practice was "like someone following you around from store to store, taking notes on what you do." The Senator was quoted saying:
"There are legitimate questions raised about our traveling over the internet and who watches us and how that information gets used. We need to understand much more about that. I would hope that every consumer, when traveling on the internet, would understand what kind of information trail they leave and who might want to use it."

Some of the strongest statements came from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla), who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped draft the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill that is also currently under Senate consideration. He compared the concerns raised by behavioral tracking to those the government has encountered in relation to wiretapping and other Big Brother-type activities. As Nelson described (quoted by Teinowitz):
"What I am struck with is that we [have] a similar issue here. I use the internet to go online to read the newspapers back home. If suddenly the kinds of articles I am reading ... are going to be identified with me so someone can target advertising, I'm going to question the underlying basis of this. In our discussion of snooping of terrorists, we carved out an exception that we don't want the government to go and examine what books we are reading at the local library. Well right here, we have the question of whether we are going to allow other people within the private sector examine the same thing and then use it for a commercial advantage."

It's always surprising how resistant people are to government surveillance and yet so many are also completely open to commercial surveillance. I'm glad Nelson brought it up (though his statements really make me want to go into the FISA hearings and see what position he's taken over in that context).

Of course, the hearing was also attended by industry types (well, their lawyers, anyway) and representatives from the FTC, who contributed their own comments and arguments...some of which I found quite surprising. The big "twist" was that several of the big Internet companies actually sided with privacy advocates on introducing a new privacy law, whereas the FTC promoted self-regulation. Weird! As Hansell writes,
Privacy lawyers working for both Google and Yahoo both endorsed the idea of some kind of legislation. So did — predictably — Leslie Harris, the chief executive of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an activist group.

"Google supports the passage of a comprehensive privacy law that would establish a uniform framework for privacy and procedures to punish bad actors," said Jane Horvath, a senior privacy counsel for Google. Mike Hintze, an associate general counsel of Microsoft, said much the same thing.

On the other hand, Lydia Parnes - director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection - denied the need for new legislation, and again defended the FTC's 2007 proposal to strengthen industry self-regulation...a proposal that was, unsurprisingly, endorsed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Parnes stated (as quoted by Hansell):
The commission is cautiously optimistic that the privacy issues raised by online behavioral advertising can be effectively addressed through self-regulation."

At the same time, however, the FTC is still unwilling to give a timeline or say when a final version of their plan will be made available. Hmmm.

For more info, I recommend checking out the Center for Democracy and Technology website. Oddly, I haven't found all that much coverage of the hearing outside of industry publications, but expect that more will surface over the next couple of days.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bullies on the Virtual Playground

An article that appeared in last Wednesday's LA Times, written by Alana Semuels, caught my attention this morning with its very provocative headline: "In virtual worlds, child avatars need protecting -- from each other". The article discusses the various types of subversive play that children engage in within virtual worlds, focusing on the bullying and insults that seem to be an inevitable part of anonymous online communication no matter the age of the users, as well as how preventing these behaviours is translated into the day-to-day operation of virtual worlds for kids. Semuels provides a good introduction to the various moderation practices and techniques used by VW operators to keep their sites safe for kids (and appealing to parents), which in turn hints at some of the underlying politics of how and what decisions are made when it comes to restricting and limiting kids' online communication. Unfortunately, Semuels doesn't really get deep into these underlying politics, and instead keeps the discussion at the level of protectionist discourse...with a bit too much vilification of child users for my taste. Here's an excerpt:
To keep these worlds from turning into a virtual "Lord of the Flies," websites are monitoring every word children type, limiting them to only preapproved dialogue and patrolling the websites with employees undercover as kids. Some also are giving kids the equivalent of a 911 call, so they can holler for help.

What really caught my eye was that the designers/operators Semuels interviewed also describe using these types of strategies to prohibit "cheating" within virtual worlds. More than simply restricting swear words and personal info exchanges, the game operators also take it upon themselves -- in some cases, at least -- to determine and delineate a pretty specific (and highly idealized) categorization of which play practices are acceptable and which are not. For example:
Other sites have set up stings to catch cheaters, posing as children or watching players who know information that could be acquired only by cheating. Some of the monitoring borders on pesky. Kids sometimes roll their eyes at moderators and continue whatever it was they were doing.

"When in doubt, we err on the side of the user," said Debbi Colgin, head of community and customer services at Habbo, a virtual world that monitors its chats 24 hours a day. "We would rather educate them and warn them than not."

In November, Dutch police arrested a teen who stole passwords and furniture from Habbo users, and they questioned five others. The case is pending.

Of course, this approach to cheating is quite common within digital games, but when it comes to kids, I think we really need to be careful about the translation of ideals (and what is more idealized than childhood?) into an overly-restrictive and narrowly-defined (corporate-)regulation of play. For example, are the notions of property (ownership and theft) that appear to be emerging within the regulation of kids' virtual worlds the same as those found within virtual worlds for adults? Are they more strict, more liberal, are they rights-based, or do they have more to do with social expectations around kids and "fair play"? What happens when "cheating" is both defined and regulated by a corporate entity, as opposed to the player community, parents, social norms, etc.? What space is left for kids to experiment with submitting and subverting rule systems if this type of experimentation is systematically removed from their play spaces? Where should the line be drawn, and whose interests should take priority?

When games are rationalized to this degree, is free play really possible?

I've been trying to work out a better understanding of the delicate balance between rules and freedom that is needed in order for a game to function -- as a game, as a play space, as a community, etc. -- as I work on the revisions for a paper I co-authored awhile back with my senior supervisor (Andrew Feenberg). This has allowed me to (finally!) get the chance to read Mia Consalvo's recent book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, which explores the practices, importance and implications of cheating, delineating a long history of both (player) cheating and the prevention of cheating (by industry, as well as other players) within digital gaming. I really like the way she tackles the various issues/politics/ethics (et al.) around cheating and play, and how traditional dynamics are altered by the introduction of digital technologies. For example, Consalvo (2007, p.147) writes:
In these instances, code is being used to define particular activities as cheating as well as draw attention to those engaging in such practices. Code is largely repressive, disallowing specific actions and enforcing certain norms of behavior. Player input on this process is limited. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is definitely one-sided. Players may choose not to play on such servers, but that option has its limits. It encompasses an all-or-nothing approach -- either you play by our rules or must find your own way.

While dealing with the topic of cheating and how to curtail it, this framework also relates back to issues of gameplay, and what players, developers, and others believe are correct and incorrect ways to play a game. In addition to highlighting certain social norms for behavior, cheating also lets us see what we consider the correct way to play a game to be, and how that conceptualization has changed over time and become better defined.

Furthermore, the fear that left to their own devices kids will turn virtual worlds into Lord of the Flies is, I think, much more reflective of the long tradition of seeing children and children's culture as something disruptive and unruly that must be contained and channeled by adults. Yet subversive play is also a key component kids' play, as noted by scholars such as Brian Sutton-Smith, Helen Schwartzman, Allison James and numerous others. Recent studies, including the one cited by Semuels conducted at UCLA by Deborah Fields and Yasmin Kafai on teens and cheating in Whyville, can be contrasted with other studies of youth online (such as Rebekah Willett's study of teens and social-networking sites, and Sonia Livingstone's study of kids using chat sites) in their exploration of the layered function of subversive and "inappropriate" online behaviours in young people's construction of identity, peer groups, etc. And an approach that "errs on the side of caution" is (from what I've observed in these games/vw's) unlikely to consider the less obvious value of allowing subversive behaviours to unfold and peer cultures to interact spontaneously.

Not to say that bullying and launching insults in a kids' game isn't problematic -- and mechanisms should be in place for kids to complain about and stop abusive interactions with other kids online. And not to mention the crucial role game/vw operators play in keeping out child predators, a key responsibility that many have taken on with little-to-no governmental or institutional support beyond legislative requirements. But I wish that the press coverage of these issues was more nuanced, and considered some of the other facets involved -- the politics of who decides (and why) what is appropriate and inappropriate within these spaces, whether or not kids are involved in these decisions and what this means for the shape and contents of their digital culture, how a recognition of kids' right to communicate and freedom of expression means accepting that they will sometimes say and do things that adults will not like or deem appropriate -- instead of limiting the discussion to the usual paradigm: wherein complex issues are simplified (and exaggerated) into moral panic, and corporate solutions are offered up (and celebrated) as the best and only response.

******Update******
For a different, more industry-focused perspective (and some good food for thought) on this same article/issue check out Izzy Neis' post on "funsuckers, griefers and bullies". Excellent commentary as always Izzy!
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