Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maya Götz on Gender in/and Kids TV

Update (Oct.31, 2008): Part III of Kidscreen's coverage of Götz's report is now available and focuses on boys' TV character preferences.


Kidscreen magazine is currently doing a three-part profile on recent research by Dr. Maya Götz of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television in Germany, which was presented at last week's Cinekid Festival. Götz's findings appear to be drawn from two studies she is currently (or recently) working on, entitled "What makes a TV character the favourite character“ (2004-2008) and "Children’s Television Worldwide: Gender Representation" (2007-2008). The Kidscreen/Cinekid report not only provides updated statistics on gender (representation and depictions) in children's television, but also some pretty detailed statistics on girls' and boys' own preferences when it comes to television content, protagonists and body ideals. The first two parts are already available on the Kidscreen website (Part 1 here, and Part 2 here), with the third installment coming up on Friday.

The first part of Götz's study tracked gender representations in 19,664 kids' shows from 24 different countries. Key findings include:

* Only 32% of human protagonists in kids' shows are female, compared to 68% male.

* When non-human leads (monsters, animals, robots, etc.) are considered, this ratio is even more disproportionate: 13% female vs. 87% male.

* Gender stereotypes are still extremely prevalent within kids' television. Female characters are most often depicted as:
- conventionally beautiful, underweight and sexualized
- motivated by a romantic interest
- shown as dependent on boys
- stereotyped according to hair colour: blondes are either the "nice girl next door" or proverbial "blonde bitches" and redheads are headstrong, cheeky tomboys.

* Concurrently, male characters are most often depicted as:
-loners or leaders
- more frequently antagonists
- more frequently overweight
- even more frequently Caucasian
- stereotyped in four ways: the "lonesome cowboy," the "emotional soft-boy," the "clever small guy" and the "dumb blockhead"


Götz's research also reveals that these stereotypes are far from what kids' actually want and prefer out of their television characters. For example, they found that girls identify most with female leads who "take control of their own lives, find their own solutions to problems, and make things happen for themselves." Children of both genders prefer "natural, less sexualized body shapes when it comes to female characters," as well as kid characters who look "more like kids and less like caricatured women." Götz's study asked over 1000 children aged 3 to 12 years to look at three different images of a popular cartoon girl character, each one with a different waist size, and select their preferred version. More than 70% of girls and boys chose the character with a healthy-sized waist (as opposed to the thin one or the "chubby" one).

In terms of narrative, kids of both genders prefer stories and characters that reflect their interests, are suspenseful and/or funny. There's lots more great data available, so be sure to check out the Kidscreen reports for now, and keep an eye out for upcoming publications by Götz et al. in the very near future.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tinkerbell is Indeed Pure (Marketing) Magic

I believe that today is the day Disney's newest direct-to-DVD project, and Fairies/Pixie Hollow tie-in, Tinkerbell is finally being released, just in time for Halloween, but more importantly just in time to market all the upcoming tie-in toys that Disney has lined up for the holidays. With the Pixie Hollow MMOG now up and running (and awesome, but more on that in just a sec), and the rest of the cross-promotional pieces falling firmly into place, Disney's Fairies...a branding initiative three years in the making...is officially on its way to becoming the next big thing in girls' (digital) culture. According to this Canadian Press article:
"The goal is to grow revenue in the franchise year over year. The model is its Disney Princess business, a group that joins Sleeping Beauty and Snow White with more recent heroines like Pocahontas and Mulan, and reaps $4 billion a year.

Disney's been pretty tight-lipped about the population sizes and profits made from its various virtual worlds, but comScore recently released new stats about Disney's MMOG empire, which now includes Toontown, Club Penguin, Pirates of the Caribbean Online and the new Pixie Hollow:
Among the 65 million avatars so far created in Disney's four worlds, there were 9.2 unique visitors in September, up 37 per cent from last year, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Steve Parkis, the senior vice president of Disney Online Studios, said makers of virtual worlds generally convert 5 to 20 per cent of visitors into paying customers with monthly subscriptions - which enable users to buy better gags or weapons, pursue more interesting quests or, in Pixie Hollow, make and buy outfits.

"Ten to 12 per cent is where you want to be, 20 per cent is very successful," Parkis said of the conversion rate. "We would be in the more successful range across the majority of our products."

The Canadian Press estimates that Disney's online worlds make about $7 million a month and $85 million a year, which they describe as "on par with one low-budget hit movie." Not to mention all the promotional activity that goes on in the sites, even just in terms of transmedia intertextuality, keeping kids "inside" the narrative of a particular Disney media-brand.

I've now played several hours of Pixie Hollow and I've got to say...they've done a really great job with this game. The flying mechanics are really fun (though sadly in 2D), the different areas are very pretty and create a real sense of a surrounding environment (though a bit fragmented). And there's an underlying theme of community service which includes a coop-style market system. Contributing to the community is encouraged (and at least early on it's required in order to progress through the character's skill levels), and players get to "make" virtual items such as clothes and shoes...a process that is incorporated into a series of mini-games through which you dye the fabric, cut it into shapes and sew the pieces together. The other mini-games interspersed throughout the world are also pretty fun...no coop mini-games that I could find (at least not yet), but players are able to play tag and race each other in the regular multiplayer areas. Tie-in products are advertised on the site, but don't seem to appear inside the game environment...though I'll have to do more searching until I find out for sure.

My initial assessment - Disney continues to set the standard when it comes to commercial kids' MMOGs. It's not an extraordinarily high standard, unfortunately, but they're definitely playing by a different set of rules and expectations than the BarbieGirls and Webkinzes of the online world.

The Many Modes of Role-Play

Check out this week's issue of The Escapist, which explores various forms of role-play both in and outside of games. Here's the list of featured articles:
Russ Pitts: The Dice They Carried
Russ Pitts remembers the last time his d20s came out of the bag, and it involves a grown man acting like a kitten.

Sara Grimes: Hit'em Hard and Make'em Bleed
Roller derby: the first full-contact roleplaying game?

Alice Bonasio: Cosplay and Effect
Playing as a videogame character and dressing up like one might not be as different as you think.

Jay Barnson: Weekend Warrior
Jay Barnson loses his LARP virginity.

George Page: Aggro Management
When does World of Warcraft stop being "just a game"?

Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Club Penguin Gets All Dolled Up

Via today's edition of Cynopsis! Kids (not to mention last week's "head's up" courtesy of Izzy Neis), news about Club Penguin's recent (and upcoming) forays into the land of "tie-in products". Here's the excerpt:
Club Penguin celebrates its third anniversary with the launch of new toy line of internet-connected products, including plush, mini-figures and play sets. A new limited edition plush figure will be released every eight weeks, each of which comes with a coin featuring a code that kids can use to redeem unique virtual items online. The Club Penguin toys will be available at Toys "R" Us...Disney Stores, Disney Theme Parks, and the Club Penguin shop online. Additionally, Disney will release the new Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force game for Nintendo DS next month.

Look out Webkinz! Here comes the Disney promomachine!

Read more about the Club Penguin DS game here. Also, be sure to check out this Club Penguin toyline/So You Think You Can Dance Canada? cross-over promo event and photo opp planned for this Saturday at the Toys "R" Us Vaughan Mills, Ontario. It looks like Disney is finally ready to start cashing in on their $700 million investment. And it looks like I'm going to have to get serious about plotting how this new emphasis on tie-in products might translate into new features, changes, and/or embedded marketing in the game's contents and design.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Resource Alert: IPOsgoode Launches

This week, Osgoode Hall Law School at York University launched a new program for research on issues relating to intellectual property and technology. Under the direction of Giuseppina D’Agostino, Assistant Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, IP Osgoode seeks to provide an independent and authoritative voice on IP governance issues, cultivate interdisciplinary, comparative and transnational research, as well as foster collaboration and policy development. Here's an excerpt from the project's site description:
The program’s researchers and collaborators from the academy, government, business and other networks actively engage in a vibrant Canadian and border-crossing, transnational debate. Our advisors are leading experts in the legal community and provide the bedrock of support and leadership to the program. Drawing from the best Canadian forces and the program’s global partners, IP Osgoode is involved in some of the most important and cutting-edge IP law and technology related research and policy discussions of today. Among the program’s current target areas are all facets of intellectual property protection and access, privacy, ethics and intersecting areas of the law, from contract, health, labour, aboriginal, environmental, constitutional, corporate and international all within a variety of disciplines, from business, sciences, and the arts.

Other members of the IPOsgoode team include Rosemary Coombe, a number of distinguished professors and adjunct faculty with the Osgoode Law School, as well as a number of graduate students from both York and other universities (myself included). Keep an eye out for their Speaker Series, visiting scholar program, as well as a number of upcoming workshops and symposia. The program's online initiative includes a student-run blog covering intellectual property law and related current events and issues.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Protecting Virtual Playgrounds Symposium

A couple of weeks ago the Washington and Lee School of Law hosted a symposium on the social and legal implications of the recent emergence of virtual worlds for kids, entitled Protecting Virtual Playgrounds: Children, Law, and Play Online. The organizers have now posted video (and audio) streams of all of the symposium presentations, including a panel on play featuring Dorothy Singer and Greg Lastowka, and a keynote address by Edward Castronova. Very awesome of them to make this publicly available, as it sounds like it was quite a fruitful event for those involved. It's not often that economists, law scholars, designers and psychologists get together to talk shop.

I've got to say though I'm pretty disturbed that I didn't find a single media/communications scholar on the speakers list. Hopefully there were at least a few in attendance, but even so, it's quite an oversight considering how much of the work (past and present) on kids' mediated play, digital games, etc. has come out of this discipline.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Parents for Ethical Marketing Donation Drive

The wonderful people over at Parents for Ethical Marketing are in the midst of a donation drive, trying to raise funds to keep their blog going and expand their project into new areas. Parents for Ethical Marketing is a grassroots non-profit based in the US (they also run the Corporate Babysitter blog), where they work to raise parental awareness, public pressure and legislative action around marketing to children. Founder Lisa Ray is also an active public commentator, providing a nuanced parent's perspective on a variety of marketing-related issues in news articles and online forums. A worthy cause indeed. Here's the info:
A modest goal: $10,000 before Thanksgiving

This is fundraising week here at Parents for Ethical Marketing. I’m trying to raise 10,000 dollars by Thanksgiving to continue this blog and expand PEM’s scope. It’s a modest goal, considering:

– a marketer will drop 4,000 dollars for access to data of children’s financial profiles and spending patterns; and

– marketers spend 1.4 billion dollars — per month — marketing to children.

By donating to Parents for Ethical Marketing, you will help fulfill our mission: to encourage corporations to adopt responsible marketing standards and practices that sustain the health of children and families.

More info on the org and how the money is allocated is available here.

Good luck PEM!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Job Posting: Civic-Minded Gamer Wanted

I just received this job advert from the GamesNetwork mailing list. It's for a research assistant position with Games for Change, an industry / academic / non-profit collaboration aimed at "increasing real-world impact of digital games as an agent for social change." Sounds like a pretty excellent opportunity for some lucky gamer. Here are the details:
Research Assistant - Games for Change-focused project

Research assistant needed to help on a writing project. It's a great opportunity for the right person, short term at first, with longer term potential. Starting immediately, for 5 - 10 hours a week, for 1 - 2 months.

You should be:
1. A gamer. You need to know, play and think about games - mainstream, independent, serious.

2. Civic-minded or have an activist-bent. You probably think and care about current events and/or civic issues - and may even be interested in the power of mainstream media to change the way people think about and act on issues. Media like An Inconvenient Truth, Nickel and Dimed, MASH.


Responsibilities:
1. Research on digital games - in mainstream, independent, and educational sectors

2. Research on scholarship - review of current scholarship on games and learning, civic engagement, new media, social justice


Helpful if you are:
1. A good writer - the work is predominantly research, though clear thinking and writing skills are a big plus.

2. Familiar with/ involved in the DML field and the emerging research around games and learning.


Perks:
1. FUN job
2. Work from anywhere
3. Competitive pay
4. Opportunity to be involved in Games For Change (G4C) - a non-profit and community of people interested in using games to address pressing social issues (www.gamesforchange.org.)

Please send a cover letter and CV to Suzanne Seggerman (President and Co-founder of Games for Change) at suzanne@gamesforchange.org.

"A Game for Change is a digital game which engages a contemporary social issue in a meaningful way to foster a more just, equitable and/or tolerant society."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Gamasutra on How to Regulate UGC

I highly recommend that everyone check out this absolutely fascinating piece included in today's edition of Gamasutra, all about emerging regulatory questions and challenges raised by the inclusion of increasingly sophisticated UGC (user-generated content) tools within digital games. Using LittleBigPlanet as a case study (or rather a jumping off point), the article asks the looming and important question: "How can the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) evaluate a console title that hinges primarily on content created and distributed by users?"

The ESRB doesn't have a very good track record when it comes to the unique challenges presented by multiplayer, online gaming. In the face of MMOGs and now the spread of online capable console titles, the games industry's self-regulatory body has adopted a "no contest" response -- declining to evaluate titles beyond providing the vague warning that "Game experience may change during online play" and the now standard disclaimer "Online Interactions Not Rated By the ESRB." According to the Gamasutra article, the ESRB is taking a similar position on UGC. As ESRB spokesperson Eliot Mizrachi describes, "player-created content [is] not accounted for in the rating and is outside the jurisdiction of the ESRB." Outside the jurisdiction? Really? That sounds wrong, doesn't it?

As the article goes on to explain, however:
But recognizing that entire games rooted in UGC go a bit beyond "online interaction," Mizrachi says that the ESRB can't -- and shouldn't bear the moderation burden alone.

"Game publishers have a key part to play, and many are quite active in addressing consumer complaints and doing what they can to moderate and regulate online gameplay," he says.

"The gaming community also plays a vital role, and it, too, actively self-regulates inappropriate behavior of other players by reporting such cases to publishers. It's a collective effort."

Still, Mizrachi notes the critical role that continuing consumer education campaigns can play, and says the ESRB is strengthening its focus on such efforts, according to the official spokesperson.

The first groups that the ESRB is hitting up with its "consumer education campaigns" strategy is, of course, families and children...PTA groups, teachers, media literacy programs. Now, although I am a big supporter of media literacy, I also think that the ESRB can do a lot better than simply offloading these kinds of massive responsibilities onto parents, children and the public school system (not to mention game developers!)...yet again. The whole concept of self-regulation sort of hinges on the premise that the industry is going to take on the burden of self regulating...not passing the buck onto individual families and publicly (ahem, government) funded institutions, attempting to teach them how to do what the ESRB itself (with all its resources and funding) has refused to do because of the level difficulty and complexity involved in rating "player-created content." If that's the case, I can't think of a better or clearer argument in support of government regulation or at the very least co-regulation. For some time now, the ESRB has been faced with serious and increasing challenges in fulfilling its mandate -- from earlier rumors that the organization wasn't playing games through to the end before rating them, to the massive inconsistencies and biases in how it doles out M ratings, to its more recent impotence towards online gaming. At this point it has pretty much admitted that it doesn't have the infrastructure or resources to keep up with industry trends, developer needs or player interests.

It's clear that the ESRB will need to undergo a serious overhaul if it is to remain relevant in this new age of collaborative gaming - a review of its mandate, an influx of better informed and much more adaptable decision makers, and much much greater transparency. And while I completely agree that the organization needs to be more responsive to developer and player interests, the position described above is a far cry from adopting an inclusive approach to regulation...Instead of sharing resources and information, all the ESRB seems to be doing is delegating the task of monitoring content to the market. Above all, the ESRB needs to build a closer (institutionalized) relationship with the regulatory bodies whose jurisdiction does include player-generated content...i.e. government regulators. If governments and civil servants can go after people who infringe on corporate copyright and post unlawful content (online, inside game environments, etc.), the argument could certainly be made that player-generated content falls within its scope as well. Not that I think real world laws should simply be transposed onto UGC and collaborative games, as that would almost certainly ruin the games for everyone involved. But rather that it's definitely time for the FCC to start monitoring the ESRB's role and function as a "self"-regulator, maybe make sure that someone is actually taking on the burden that is otherwise so aggressively guarded and consistently wrestled away from government intervention.

Pixie Hollow: From Virtual Space to Real Space and Back Again

Yesterday, I received an email from "The Never Council" (a.k.a. the folks at Disney's Pixie Hollow), which read:
We hope you've enjoyed creating and customizing your Fairy on DisneyFairies.com. If you've visited your Fairy's page recently, you've probably noticed things have changed quite a bit. That's because we've launched Pixie Hollow, a brand-new Fairies online world!

While you can still visit your "Pixie Pages" on PixieHollow.com, here are some things that have changed:

FLY - Now you can flit around your Fairy home and explore beautiful meadows filled with lots of other Fairies just like you!

MAKE FRIENDS - The friends on your Pixie Page have disappeared. This is to allow room for all of the new Fairy friends you'll meet and chat with while flying around the Hollow.

DRESS UP - To change your outfit, you will need to enter Pixie Hollow and go to the "Wardrobe" tab in your Leaf Journal.

REDECORATE - The furniture in your home has been put away. To redecorate, just enter Pixie Hollow, fly to your home, and click on the Storage button.

PLAY GAMES - Customizing your Fairy is just the beginning! Now you can play fun games and earn rewards in the meadows.

This is just the beginning of all the fun, new stuff you can now find at PixieHollow.com. Next time you log in, click on the PLAY button to begin exploring Pixie Hollow.

So now you know what I'll be doing for the rest of the day. After tracking this project for many many months now, I'm so glad that this site has finally launched. More to come once I've had a chance to explore and see what all the fuss is about.

In highly related news, Disney has also announced the opening of its newest DisneyWorld feature (on October 24th) called...you guessed it...Pixie Hollow. According to this article on Fox Orlando, the feature consists of a Tinkerbell and her Fairy Friends themed "meet and greet experience" aimed at younger children (particularly girls, I have no doubt). From what I gather, this means costumed actors who will be available to meet and take pictures ("complete with pixie dust") with young fans of the new Disney product line, within the Toontown section of Disney World. It's pretty fitting that Pixie Hollow is aligned with Toontown, considering the development trajectory of their virtual equivalents. Disney's first MMOG for kids was Toontown, followed by Pirates of the Caribbean Online, and now Pixie Hollow.

Part of the Pixie Hollow strategy involves some sort of play with secret language (also very appropriate for targeting young girls). Here's the description from the Fox article:
"When you're in their world, you're able to understand what they speak, which is different, and you remember the movie Peter Pan? Well only Peter Pan could understand what they said, well when you're in Pixie Hollow, you're like Peter Pan, and you can understand when they talk," said Francois Leroux from Walt Disney World Entertainment.

I wish I could understand that quote!

And, of course, the Pixie Hollow tie-in movie, Tinker Bell hits DVD stores on the 28th. Should be a Pixtastic month for Disney - with the Fairies brand already raking in millions in merchandising, this added support of media and theme park tie-ins could finally make this the next "Disney Princesses".