Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Browser-Based Games Stepping Up

Chris Morris at Forbes wrote an interesting piece yesterday that discusses browser-based vs. console (and computer) games, and the slowly narrowing gap between the two in terms of popularity and design sophistication. He focuses on two upcoming browser-based games that he thinks have the potential to change the online gaming landscape - id's Quake Live and Cartoon Network's Fusion Fall.

With Quake Live, Morris explains, id will attempt:
"...to create the industry's first massively multiplayer shooter. Matches will be limited to 32 people, pitting like-skilled players against each other, thanks to a new matchmaking tool. While the game could have supported more players, Marty Stratton, executive producer at id, notes this type of game can "get kind of overwhelming" when too many people play simultaneously.

More intriguing is the business model: The game is free to play and will be fully supported by advertisements. Dell has signed up as the game's premiere sponsor.

"The browser-based game is something that's really attractive because of the accessibility," says Stratton. "It has this promise of 'everybody has this,' and it's one of the biggest platforms on the planet. And it's now to the point where you can do some very slick, polished, nice things within browser technology.""

CN's Fusion Fall aimed at players aged 8-14 yrs) is also (still) scheduled for a fall '08 release, even though the KidNet apparently only recently decided to go with a browser-based format. As Morris describes:
""FusionFall" has been in development for 2.5 years, but the decision to a browser-based game was reached just a few months ago.

"We started looking at [being browser-based] on day one, but the technology for what we wanted to do wasn't there," says Chris Waldron, executive producer of the game.

As the game's release drew near, Waldron says more competitors popped up, many specifically aimed at the children's market. Technology had advanced, though, and the company knew it needed to stand out. In March, developers began porting the game to browsers."

Although the business model has not yet been announced, I think it's safe to anticipate advertising will be involved. Morris describes the game as a blend of:
"...the social aspects of a massive multiplayer online game and the jumping aspects of a more traditional console platform game. Players will collect representations of Cartoon Network characters and use those (in Pokemon-like fashion) to defeat alien invaders."

Collecting and cross-promotion...sounds like the emerging standard alright. But the big difference with Fusion Fall is that this game actually has the potential to bring a MMOG look and feel (high quality graphics, collaborative play, expansive environments, complex narratives and challenging quests) into the world of children's online gaming...something that so far only Disney has really attempted (first with Toontown, and now with Pirates of the Caribbean Online).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CFP: Mediated Girlhood

A very cool CFP made its way into my Inbox this morning that might be of interest to some of you. It's a call for book chapter proposals for a new book on "Mediated Girlhood" that is being put together by Mary Celeste Kearney, Associate Professor with the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as founder of Cinemakids. Here are the details:
Call for Papers

Mediated Girlhood: New Explorations of Girls' Media Culture
edited by Mary Celeste Kearney, PhD, The University of Texas at Austin

Proposal deadline: October 15, 2008

This collection--currently proposed as part of Peter Lang's "Mediated Youth" series, edited by Sharon Mazzarella--will include new work on girls' media culture that broadens and enriches the field.

Of particular interest are chapters that expand scholarship on girls' media and popular culture beyond its conventional white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western, consumerist, and presentist framework.

Possible topics:

- girls' media production
- girls' media made prior to the 1990s
- non-white girlhood in media and popular culture
- non-Western girlhood in media and popular culture
- queer girlhood in media and popular culture
- working-class girlhood in media and popular culture
- girlhood in documentary film
- girlhood in reality TV shows
- girls' media reception/fan practices
- girls and video gaming
- girls and cyberculture
- girlhood and music culture
- girls and mobile technologies
- girls and conglomerated media culture.

Please send a 250-word proposal, short bibliography, brief author's bio, and contact information to Mary Celeste Kearney at mkearney@mail.utexas.edu by October 15, 2008.

Notification of accepted proposals will be made by December 1, 2008. First chapter drafts of 5000 to 8000 words will be due in late spring 2009.

For further information, please contact Mary Celeste Kearney at
mkearney@mail.utexas.edu (Department of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin: http://rtf.utexas.edu/faculty/mckearney.html)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

UK Kids Make Up Nearly A Third of Stardoll's Userbase

Statistics are a funny thing - pretty useful for supporting claims or for justifying a particular subject/site of study, but also immensely malleable and oftentimes downright ambiguous in terms of how they can be mobilized, interpreted, reinterpreted, etc...depending on who is reading them, how they are read and categorized, and how they are framed within the surrounding discussion. As a qualitative researcher who focuses mainly on case studies, ethnographic research and design analysis, I have a pretty casual relationship with stats - I use them to support arguments, but don't generate any of my own. I'm also deeply suspicious of statistics, thanks in part to a wonderful stats course I took in my final year as an undergrad at the University of Ottawa, which focused as much on how stats can be misused and abused as it did on reading and analyzing them.

I was reminded of this when I read the recent batch of internet use stats published by Nielsen Netratings UK, which describes its findings as indicative of key differences in the internet preferences of UK kids vs. teens vs. adults. Their new study provides a top ten list for three age groups - kids under 12 years, teens aged 12 to 17, and then adults. The sites included in these top ten lists are ranked based on what percentage of the site's total audience belongs to each group (you can check out the complete listings over at Marketing Charts). This is a somewhat unique way of measuring "popularity" - for instance, some of the sites ranked low on the list actually attract a larger number of individual kids than the top ranked sites. From these stats, Nielsen Netratings concludes (as outlined in the press release as well as in media coverage of the report):
Entertainment sites have the greatest affinity with under 12s; for 12-17 year-olds it’s games sites and for 18-22 year-olds it’s student and video sites.

However, anyone familiar with these sites - particularly the kids' (under twelves) sites - will notice that the sites have been categorized in inconsistent or odd ways. For example, here's the list for the under twelves...notice how many of them are "games" sites, but aren't classified as such:

Websites with the greatest percentage of UK Unique Audience under 12 years.

1. Stardoll 32% (representing 108,000 child users) (categorized as a targeted "portal"...why not online game?)
2. Club Penguin 29% (196,000 users) (categorized as "kids, games, toys" - why not online game?)
3. Nick 25% (76,000 users) (also "kids, games, toys")
4. LEGO 25% (98,000) (also "kids, games, toys")
5. Cartoon Network 24% (107,000) ("kids, games, toys")
6. BBC CBBC 24% (318,000) ("kids, games, toys")
7. CBeebies 20% (293,000) ("kids, games, toys")
8. Disney Intl. 19% (146,000) (categorized as "multi-category entertainment", doesn't mention that it includes some of the most popular online games for kids around)
9. RuneScape 16% (87,000) (online game)
10. MiniClip 15% (239,000) (online game)

By my count every one of those sites includes a pretty significant gaming component, but for some reason, kids are described as having an affinity for "entertainment sites", whereas teens are the ones identified as favoring online games. For comparison's sake, here's the same list for 12 to 17 year-olds (also by Nielsen):
1. Frengo 26% (117,000 users) (mobile content download site))
2. RuneScape 25% (138,000) (Online Game)
3. Bebo 19% (919,000) (online community)
4. BBC Learning 5-19 19% (184,000) (educational content)
5. FreeOnlineGames 18% (112,000) (online game)
6. AddictingGames 17% (100,000) (online game)
7. Metro Lyrics 17% (108,000) (music)
8. MiniClip 15% (240,000) (online game)
9. LimeWire 12% (350,000) (downloading program)
10. Meebo 12% (87,000) (instant messaging)

I'm not sure, really - only three of these sites are online games, and they have pretty low percentages and rates of participation. What I'm mostly curious about here is how the categories used to make sense of the data were constructed, and why? My own interpretation of the data says that for kids, online gaming and cross-media entertainment (that incorporates different forms of content, gaming interactivity) is key, whereas teens have a much more diverse range of online usage habits but tend toward communication-based activities. Either way, the percentages provided are only somewhat useful...I'd much rather know the proportion of total child and teen users for each site (not just those from the UK), as well as the proportion of total UK users first, and then the percentage of UK kids and teens second, in order to get a better sense of national and international usage patterns, demographics, etc.

Of course, the point of a press release isn't to provide complete and comprehensive data...just to pique our interest enough to purchase the full report. But it disturbs me that so many media and news outlets take press releases such as this one on face value...I'm sure we'll be seeing lots of articles listing Stardoll as the most popular site among UK kids (though listed as an entertainment site and not as a game, which it clearly is), and "online games" as the preferred activity for UK teens, without any additional critical assessment or contextualization about what these findings might really indicate (or not) when examined in a tiny bit more depth. Meanwhile, the CBBC's amazing success at attracting nearly three times as many UK kids under twelve as Stardoll has (318,000 vs. 108,000) may very well go unnoticed.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cerise Interview

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Thomas Cross of Cerise Magazine, an awesome online gaming magazine for (and often about) women, to do an interview about Gamine Expedition and my thoughts about being an academic games researcher. I was really pleased with the scope and direction of the interview questions, and very happy with the result, which you can read here in the August issue. Thanks so much to Thomas for getting in touch with me - it was an excellent experience all around. This month's issue of Cerise is also quite excellent, comprising a number of articles exploring the theme "Fight Like a Girl"- check it out.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Resource Alert: Decoding the Digital Kid

The latest issue of KidScreen magazine includes the inaugural edition of a new regular column, written by Dr. Warren Buckleitner and focused on various aspects relating to "Decoding the Digital Kid". Many of you are likely familiar with Buckleitner from the Children's Technology Review (he's the editor), from his gig as an adjunct assistant professor of communications at NYU, or from his many articles and media interviews. He also runs the Dust or Magic Institute on Children's Interactive Media, an industry-focused annual review (and critique) of commerical children's technology products for educational and consumer markets. The new Kidscreen column is, as Buckleitner describes:
"designed to help KidScreen readers working in the digital media and product space better serve their target audience. In my 25 years as an educator and child development researcher, I've learned that reaching children through interactive media involves a different psychology than that used in developing linear media.

What I'm hoping to do is highlight one aspect of this interactive magic in each column and shed some light on what goes into making a top-notch digital application for kids.

The first edition is focused on how designers can make lots of money by instilling "Feelings of Ownership" (FOO) in children - highly reminiscent of my recent exploration of "affective labour" in kids' virtual worlds, but coming at it from the opposite position. He cites the Wii Mii's, Will Wright's The Sims and Spore, Play-doh and Mr. Potato Head as examples of successful mobilizations of kid's "FOO", and outlines four points to "keep in mind" when trying to attract and/or captivate the child audience, that include providing avatar/environment customization features and space for storing items/content. With a background in elementary education and child psychology, as well as many years of experience with children's technology design, Buckleitner has a pretty high level of expertise and knowledge when it comes to understanding how to translate commercial priorities into design choices. I think this new column will be a very useful resource for understanding how design choices are made, industry principles, and the ways in which theory becomes translated into product design.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

America's Army On the Radar

The US Army's online, first-person shooter game America's Army, has been getting a lot of heat these days, as international criticism grows around the game's function and targeting as an army recruitment device. Peace activism groups and civil rights groups are particularly concerned about the fact that the game is targeted to young boys, aged 13 to 16, and that the Army is using the game to specifically target boys from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. One of the major issues here involves international laws around child soldiers. As anti-war group Direct Action to Stop the War describes on its website:
The military recruitment of children under the age of 17, however, is a clear violation of international law (the U.N. Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict). No attempt to recruit children 13-16 is allowed in the United States, pursuant to treaty.

The group points to a recent report published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), entitled Soldiers of Misfortune, which describes various ways in which the US Military is using Pentagon-produced video games, military training corps, and databases of students' personal information to recruit youth under the age of 18...oftentimes during school class time, and disproportionately targeted at poor and minority students. The report itself is well worth a thorough read - the descriptions of the intimidation and coercion tactics used by the military recruiters sent to interact with American high-school students are positively chilling. In terms of the America's Army videogame, the report includes a fascinating analysis of the game's success and function within the army's larger recruitment strategies [Note: The report also makes some brief claims about media effects and videogame violence that I think are unsubstantiated, and anyway not within the focus of this post, and therefore not included in the following excerpt]. Here's an excerpt:
The Army uses an online video game, called "America's Army," to attract young potential recruits at least as young as 13...As of September 2006, 7.5 million users were registered on the game’s website. As of February 2005, the Pentagon was investing about $6 million each year in the video game.

Launched in July 2002, the video game is a recruitment tool that aims to generate recruits. According to Army personnel testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the goal of the then-new recruiting effort that included the "America's Army" video game was to penetrate youth culture and get the Army into a young person's "consideration set." The game's website features a link to the Army's main recruiting website. According to a survey of recruits at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army’s video-game development team found that about 60 percent of recruits had played "America's Army" more than five times a week, and four out of 100 said they had joined the Army specifically because of the game.

"America's Army" explicitly targets boys 13 and older. On the video game's official webpage, in response to the frequently asked question "Should Children 13+ Be Exposed to What the Army Does?," the game's Army developers argue it is suitable for children as young as 13, stating, "In elementary school kids learn about the actions of the Continental Army that won our freedoms under George Washington and the Army's role in ending Hitler's oppression. Today they need to know that the Army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms." As quoted by the New York Times, the video game project's deputy director stated, "We have a Teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards... We don't use blood and gore and violence to entertain. That's not the purpose of our game... We want to reach young people to show them what the Army does, and we're obviously proud of that. We can't reach them if we are over the top with violence and other aspects of war that might not be appropriate. It's a choice we made to be able to reach the audience we want."

Hmmmm...my keen sense of the obvious is picking up on a pretty deep contradiction here. However, I do agree with the deputy director's assessment that wars are filled with "aspects" that are not appropriate for children. *shudder*

Anyhow, the game and the ACLU report are both making headlines. For example, Michael B Reagan's article for Truthout, which is getting a lot of bloglove, traces the game's evolution from its release in 2002 at the E3 convention, to the huge problems with portraying war as blood-free. Other articles, such as Keith Stuart's contribution to The Guardian Game blog, point out that America's Army is hardly alone in promoting a "positive representation of the army experience". Meanwhile, Andy Chalk's recent post for The Escapist News discusses the Direct Action to Stop the War inclusion of Ubisoft in its public criticisms of America's Army, for the company's role in the development and distribution of console versions of the game.

I suspect that we'll be seeing a lot more controversy around this issue if/when the US Army opens its first "Army Experience Center, a combination recruiting center/video arcade/retail store to promote serving your country." According to an article by Holly Sanders that appeared in the June 15th edition of the New York Post:
Rumored to be coming to Times Square, it'll be like the Disney Store, except with guns and camouflage. The 14,500-square-foot center will be a multimedia extravaganza with high-tech gadgetry, including flight simulators and life-size soldier video games.

That person greeting you at the door? That's an actual Army officer.

While the Army will sell a small amount of merchandise at the venue, the focus is on building "brand experiences" that give potential recruits a taste of military service.

The reason I've added the "if" (above) is that the Post isn't exactly a reputable publication, and I haven't been able to find any coverage that doesn't trace back to it as the original source. On the other hand, there are currently a lot of job postings looking to staff something called "Army Experience Centres" (for example, this one), although the employer is listed as "confidential" and so these don't quite support Sander's story...yet. But this is definitely something to keep an eye on over the next several weeks. The convergence of marketing, gaming and military recruiting isn't something I've been following too closely, but now that studies are showing the extent to which this phenomenon involves kids and teens, it's not likely something I'll be able to ignore for much longer.

Update: Sept. 5, 2008: Confirmation! : According to the MediaPost the Army Experience Centre, a military-run arcade and recruitment centre, did indeed open this week in Philly. Check out the full story here.

Friday, August 01, 2008

New FTC Report on Kids' Food Advertising

Via Kevin Freking and the Associated Press, news this week of a new report conducted by the FTC on the status of food and beverage marketing to children and teens. The report, entitled Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities, and Self-Regulation, found that (cited from the press release):
44 major food and beverage marketers spent $1.6 billion to promote their products to children under 12 and adolescents ages 12 to 17 in the United States in 2006. The report finds that the landscape of food advertising to youth is dominated by integrated advertising campaigns that combine traditional media, such as television, with previously unmeasured forms of marketing, such as packaging, in-store advertising, sweepstakes, and Internet. These campaigns often involve cross-promotion with a new movie or popular television program. Analyzing this data, the report calls for all food companies “to adopt and adhere to meaningful, nutrition-based standards for marketing their products to children under 12.

Out of the $1.6 billion, as Freking writes, $200 went to "cross-promotional campaigns" designed to ensure repeat exposure over several different formats. This included the use of about 80 films, TV shows and videogames to promote food/beverages to children. Cross-promotional strategies accounted for nearly 50% of restaurant food (and fruit & vegetable!) advertising expenditures.
For example, characters from Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean appeared in ads that were shown in movie theaters; and on television, product packaging, the Internet, and in-store displays. According to the report, food marketers created special limited-edition snacks, cereals, frozen waffles, and candies “in honor” of these movie characters. In cross-promotional campaigns, television ads and packaging often directed viewers to a Web site where they could enter a sweepstakes to win a related premium, such as movie posters, character action figures, and cash. Consumers might also be directed to "advergames" (video games advertising a product), free downloads such as screen savers and ring tones, podcasts, and online video episodes known as "Webisodes."

As the advertising industry was quick to point out in their own coverage of the report, the total spending was much less than previous studies had indicated (sometimes up to 10x as much). It just goes to show you what a couple of years and a whole lot of controversy, industry self-regulation, strategy shifts and governmental monitoring can do...and the FTC report acknowledges the progress that the food and beverage industry has made during this period. However, the FTC wants the industry to do a bit better, particularly since the largest portion of the advertising spending goes to promoting unhealthy foods. The report and press release outline a number of recommendations, which you can access here.

There was also some much-needed nuance in the report's discussion of Internet ad-spending, pointing out that internet ads cost much less than television...something to remember when making comparisons based solely on expenditure, and not on frequency. As Freking reports,
"The Internet — though far less costly than television — has become a major marketing tool of food companies that target children and adolescents, with more than two-thirds of the 44 companies reporting online, youth-directed activities," the FTC report said.


Coincidentally (just kidding!), the Council of Better Business Bureaus' (CBBB) also released its first report on the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), concluding that its members were indeed complying to their pledges (as vague and minimal as these actually are) and that rogue food giant Nestle has finally agreed to join the Initiative.

A number of academics and child advocacy groups weighed in on the report, including Kathryn Montgomery, who was interviewed in the AP article, and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). Says Montgomery:
"On the Internet, it's virtually an unregulated media environment and one that's hard for people to keep track of. Parents who are concerned abut their children's eating habits have to understand that you can't just look at what's happening on television. That's not the way it is anymore. It's a pervasive marketing environment."

In response, the CCFC's Susan Linn released a statement emphasizing the FTC study's various limitations and highlighting its many gaps in terms of the spending modes included in the final figures. These include:
* Program-length commercials/Integrated product placement:

"Companies report $46 million for character or cross-promotional brand licensing fees. However, most cross-promotional arrangements do not require a fee. In 2006, there were 81 media properties used by the target companies to promote their brands. These cross-promotions turn entire programs and movies into advertisements for the foods they promote, yet they are not counted as expenditures."

* Prime-time advertising:

"The total expenditure figure does not include spending for advertising and product placement on general audience programming watched by children, even though primetime shows such as American Idol and The Simpsons typically have larger child and teen audiences than programs considered children’s shows.

* In-school advertising:

"In-school advertising does not include regional and local or franchise spending for fast food companies. For example, McDonald’s infamous report card advertising in Seminole County Florida was sponsored by a regional marketing association and would not have been counted in the FTC Report."

* The full implications of online marketing:

"As the FTC notes, internet advertising, particularly on company sponsored websites, is relatively inexpensive. Expenditure data does not begin to capture its impact—the amount of time children spend with the sites and the frequency of their visits."

As both Linn and Montgomery point out, what the figures do not show is how the food and beverage industries, along with the marketing industries, are shifting their strategies...both to better target kids who use various forms of media, and potentially to get around regulatory restrictions, which already lag behind industry practice. The CCFC's last point about internet advertising is key in this respect. There's only so much that an assessment of dollars spent can really measure. Of course, this is also true of traditional media...for example, a study conducted last year out of the University of Arkansas found that a year into the food and beverage industry's self-imposed ad restrictions, very little had actually changed within the kids' media advertising landscape.