Monday, December 21, 2009

Brief Hiatus - the Christmas edition

Just wanted to let readers and friends know that I won't be posting again until after the holidays. Christmas vacation started early this year (yay!), but I'll be back with a new post before the New Year. Merry Christmas and/or happy holidays to you and your loved ones...hope it's a good one!!!
Sara

(via Geeksugar)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Habbo Reveals the Depth of Corporate Surveillance in VWs


Via Emily Claire Afan at Kidscreen online, news this week that Sulake is expanding its already impressive data mining services to advertisers and third-party data collectors, by enabling companies to "track" how, when and why certain topics come up in the everyday "in-world" conversations of players of teen-targeted virtual world Habbo Hotel. The company calls the service "Habble," and describes it as a new "brand measurement tool". What it really does is allow companies to buy access to players' thoughts and peer interactions, through an ongoing and highly context-sensitive tracking of "brand names, slogans or key phrases" in player-to-player chat. The data is then mapped out to enable identification of peaks and drops in the rate at which the word/brand/phrase features as a topic of conversation. The client companies can also contrast these fluctuations with other events, promotional initiatives (either in-game or IRL), measurement variables, players' plans for the coming weekend, etc., etc. As Afan writes:
More than 155 million registered avatars controlled by users 19 and younger are part of the global Habbo community and Habble will enable marketers to measure brand names, slogans or key phrases used over a defined period. Data is updated daily, displayed and analyzed in a chart that maps activity peaks. The tool does not grant access to personal info of Habbo users, but monitors the level of brand mentions and then cross-references them with other measurement data.

As Afan -- and the Sulake press release -- points out, the tool doesn't grant access to the players' personal info...but then again, it doesn't have to to be effective. The fact that the company already knows so much about its players, along with the very flexible ability client companies are given to cross-reference with other measurement data, makes a lack of "personally identifiable info" almost irrelevant. You don't need to know someone's name or address when what you're aiming to find out is whether a particular brand strategy is more or less likely to work on girls aged 12-14 living in the suburbs who spend time in Habbo talking about how much they like both Vampire Weekend and Red Bull. And isn't most market research "anonymous" in this respect anyway? Tracking trends among demographics - groups of people with similar characteristics and/or interests - isn't exactly dependent on individual names and phone numbers.

The tool has already gone through a trial run, back in September, in partnership with MTV International - wherein it was used to track a campaign promoting the MTV European Music Awards. According to the Sulake press release, "After the campaign commenced in September, Habble showed that conversations around the awards were up by 371% in the UK and 762% in the Netherlands." As the press release makes quite clear, however, ad effectiveness is not the only thing companies will be able to measure:
Brands not directly engaging within the virtual world can also use Habble to analyse teen perceptions amongst product categories. This allows brands to see conversation levels related to messages targeted at young people, which could help shape future marketing plans.

Sulake describes Habble as "fly on the wall marketing insight into the hard to reach under-18’s demographic." This is a somewhat innocuous way of portraying what actually amounts to 24-7 corporate surveillance -- spying on players and recording their conversations, all in the aim of finding out more about their preferences, daily habits, and how to more effectively exploit their deepest desires.

Of course, the language used in the corporate materials is much more flippant, calling kids "media savvy" and highlighting their presumably vast ability to identify online marketing. At one point, they describe:
Teens today expect to engage with brands online and are aware of online marketing and advertising campaigns. Habbo research shows that 75% of users accept advertising promotions in Habbo and 56% tell their friends about promotions they have seen; 17% say they do this often.

Note that there is absolutely nothing in there about teens being aware or okay with having their conversations recorded and analyzed to "help shape future marketing plans." And note that the generalization about "teen awareness" ignores much of the research on kids' and teens' online literacy, which can be awesome in some areas, but poor in others -- especially about things like data mining and copyright, which they mostly "learn about" from companies rather than objective third parties. The Sulake argument ignores well circulated studies, such as Turow's research showing that both kids and adults often assume that the mere presence of a privacy policy means that their info will be protected.

Not to mention the clear evidence that the depth and breadth of current data mining practices are misunderstood by even the most digitally literate adults. Which leads me to wonder if we'll hear even half as much about Habbo's new initiative as we do about Facebook selling their (adult) users' information.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Possibility to Clean and Buy Stuff Shop


Via the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Advertising Age magazine, news (well, Thanksgiving-leftover news) of the recent online launch of Disney's newest kids' program The Possibility Shop. Described by AdAge as Disney's "First Branded-Entertainment Program," The Possibility Shop is a DIY Craft show for kids and "moms" (according to the official "About" description) staring Courtney Watkins, an author/TV personality who specializes in crafts and "Creative Adventures" (i.e. crafts and games). More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the program is also:
[A] web video series at Disney.com/PossibilityShop produced with the Jim Henson Co. and exclusively sponsored by Clorox. The series was customized in part to promote Clorox brands, including Clorox disinfecting wipes, toilet-bowl cleaners and the new Clorox 2 laundry pre-treater, but the episodes will not feature any use of the products themselves. Instead, each episode will be accompanied by a Clorox-branded vignette showcasing how each brand can help clean up the home, a common task among the characters in "The Possibility Shop."

Yikes, yikes, yikes, on so many levels. First, there's the blatant and clearly over-reaching commercialization, which surely pushes (I would say exceeds) the limits of existing regulations around advertising to kids. But second, and no less disturbing, are the archaic gender discourses that arise from a craft show, most likely targeted to girls and already explicitly targeted to women ("moms"), that is not only sponsored by cleaning products but "commonly" features cleaning as a key theme of the show itself. I'll delve a little deeper into the gender implications after addressing the commercial/regulatory issues. But first, a brief synopsis of The Possibility Shop pilot webisode.

Episode One: Thanksgiving
The first webisode is quite brief. The first segment lasts 3min 26sec, and starts with an introduction of the show and its mission statement by Courtney Watkins, focusing on the current holiday episode and the surrounding web features, which include plenty of ads and links for Clorox products. Following the intro (which just features Courtney talking directly to the audience from a white sound stage) and a short title sequence, is a short episode about finding something to do at the kids' table during Thanksgiving dinner. The activity is presented as a solution to a problem a "girl guide"-like child friend of The Possibility Shop, Ivy, presents to Courtney. The idea is that she'll get a new Thanksgiving-themed badge for creating table "the best Thanksgiving Kids' Table ever." Courtney suggests a game that facilitates turn-based storytelling, which she calls "Fascinating Factoids". A third character, Mix, is involved throughout the exchange, contributing funny quips and some physical comedy. His job at the shop is undefined, but for now he appears to be Courtney's assistant. After demonstrating how the game works, Courtney and Ivy get to work on preparing the game at the crafts table. The camera pans to a "hand puppet" housed in a picture frame on the wall, who gives further instructions and advises the viewer to visit the Family Fun website.

This is followed by a 90 second ad for Clorox, featuring Courtney and Mix, and set within a back room of The Possibility Shop with a large bookcase full of Clorox bleach/laundry detergent and other cleaning products. Mix has some spaghetti sauce on his shirt, which Courtney sees and suggests that he recycle the shirt as fabric for a quilt. As soon as she walks away to do some "Possibility Shopping", Mix hears a disembodied voice from above - "Mother Knowsbest" - who advises him that with the power of Clorox he can save the shirt. She then talks him through a step-by-step spot cleaning session using Clorox, which she describes using the same ever glowing terms featured in Clorox ads and slogans.

The ad segment is followed by another, shorter segment of original content that lasts 1 min 14 sec. This includes a 40 second follow up with Ivy (who tells us the game was a big success), and then a separate segment set in the white sound stage from the introduction, where Courtney suggests using the extra pieces from incomplete puzzles as the basis for a drawing. Just look at it until you're inspired.

The webisode ends with a straight up 30 second ad for the same Clorox laundry detergent featured in the earlier ad segment, featuring a group of young moms touring a Clorox "test lab". The screen then resets back to the first segment.

Neither of the ad segments can be fast forwarded, paused or skipped. If you click on the ad segment while it's playing, a new browser window opens up to a Clorox website. Both ads carry a subtitle-style text warning that the content in question is an advertisement and that the program will resume in x number of seconds (counting down as the ad runs its course). Significantly, when I watched through the entire program a second time, the ad warning was gone. The ability to skip the ad was not.

Possibility Shopping
AdAge hints that while the show may not meet television ad standards, "slightly different rules apply on the web." However, while it's true that slightly different rules apply to the web, I'm doubtful that the show as is meets the FTC- FCC's web standards either, especially in regards to "Host Selling". According to the FCC definition, Host Selling includes "any character endorsement that has the effect of confusing a child viewer from distinguishing between program and non-program material." And as far as web content goes:
The FCC’s rules permit the sale of merchandise featuring a program-related character in parts of a related Web site that are sufficiently separated from the program to mitigate the impact of host selling.

There is certainly very little in terms of "look and feel" to distinguish the Clorox ads from the rest of the content. The setting simply looks like another room in the Possibility Shop, a conclusion supported by Courtney's movements through the scene. The characters are the same ones that appear in the program content, playing the same roles, referring to the same themes (quilting, Possibility Shop, etc.). Even the editing fails to provide a definitive cue that the segments are ads, seeing as the regular content is also broken up into sections, for e.g. switching between the white sound stage and the Possibility Shop. Although there is a text warning that the ads are "advertisements," the warning disappears with repeat viewings. I highly doubt that the show meets the criteria outlined above, even if it is online instead of televised.

Not that this is all that surprising, but the webisode also fails to provide any meaningful content in between its promotions of Clorox. Is it just me, or is there a shocking lack of crafting & creativity? The "Fascinating Factoids" game sounds fun and all, but it doesn't exactly scream craft skills or DIY. Even here, there is little time dedicated to showing kids how to prepare their own versions of the game. The note-sized construction paper cut-outs are already prepared in advance, neatly contained in a fish bowl before Ivy even steps into the room. And just as they're about the show Courtney and Ivy writing out their personal factoids on the paper cut-outs, the camera pans over to a "hand puppet" who gives some brief instruction about asking a parent to write your factoid for you if you can't write clearly enough (which seems wrong somehow, bypassing an opportunity for young writers to practice their craft), and then just promotes the Disney Family Fun website. The game is so simple that it might not need much detailed instruction (although you can download these from another page on the Possibility Shop website), but the lack of any substantial guidance or instruction - both for the factoid game and for the "puzzle piece" idea - just makes the enormous emphasis placed on spot cleaning all the more noticeable.

It also looks as though The Possibility Shop is not the only branded property Disney is trying to build these days. The AdAge article goes on to interview Brad Davis, Disney Online's VP-advertising sales, who describes that:
Disney sites have gotten more flexible in partnering with advertisers in recent months. A partnership with Walmart called "Rock Out Your Zone" made its debut in June on Disney.com and promoted Walmart's teen-targeted furniture line, Your Zone.

"Everything we've created before that has been Disney-driven. Now we've flipped that model where in our case we're creating the product with the advertiser's needs in mind and with the [online] guest's benefit," Mr. Davis said.

As for Clorox, they maintain in the article that the "intended audience is moms, but Ms. Liu [a representative from Clorox's digital media arm] said she expects they will view the webisodes with their kids." Clearly, the tone and mode of address taken in the Thanksgiving webisode is aimed at children - you don't tell a mom to ask her parents to help her write out a factoid. But this does highlight a pretty strange facet of the show - the nature of the sponsor product itself. Laundry detergent with bleach isn't exactly something you want kids getting into, and since there's very little in the program to either indicate that the product placement/host selling is aimed at selling a product OR that it is intended only for adult viewers, this particular nuance seems more like a PR attempt to hide the glaring contradictions of a very iffy marketing strategy.

The AdAge article doesn't comment too much on this, but they do admit that "Products such as toilet-bowl cleaners may seem like a stretch for integration with Muppets." And a bit of a stretch for a kids' show, no?

Craft and Clean
A deeper consideration of the product itself brings me back to my second point, which is the gender politics of a show that tries to integrate play & crafts with cleaning at all, but particularly in a show that seems to be so clearly targeted to girls. In follow up to my post a couple of weeks ago, there is a long history of problematic links between girls' "craft" toys and domesticity, the implications of which seem to be epitomized in a craft show that so heavily emphasizes cleaning and laundry. This includes implications in terms of the continued instrumentalization of girls' play -- play that emphasizes productive outcomes rather than fun and enjoyment -- along with the ongoing emphasis found within girls' culture on activities that work to reproduce and reinforce traditional ideals of "femininity" and "domesticity".

Despite the fact that the cleaning scene depicted in this particular webisode features a man as the one actually doing the cleaning, the associations are much clearer here than in most of what I've seen so far in the commercial construction of "kids craft culture" (by which I mean media and products aimed at commercializing arts & craft....not to be confused with the cultural practice itself). First, Mix cleans under the instructions of the disembodied female voice of "Mother Knowsbest" (a strategy often used in television ads for cleaning products as well, wherein the man doesn't know how to clean and a woman or voiceover shows him how). Second, in positioning itself toward a predominantly female audience (though we'll have to wait and see the ads, etc., to draw any final conclusions about the demographics of the child component of the target audience), its underlying message of play and cleaning as a) intertwined and b) appropriate activities must also be seen as necessarily aimed at female viewers.

Of course, many would say that learning to clean up after oneself is a key lesson that all kids should learn, one that stands in stark contrast to the larger commercial culture's promotion of hedonism, waste and ephemera. But the messages being communicated in Possibility Shop must be seen within the larger historical & social contexts specific to girls' culture, wherein cleaning, care taking and home making are not only prevalent but often hegemonic - squeezing out alternatives until you're left with a bright pink girls' toy aisle that could serve as a diorama of western gender stereotypes. For example:



This is hardly the only Disney initiative that contributes to this regressive approach found throughout girls' culture. But it is a particularly sad missed opportunity to make some of those links between crafting and empowerment discussed in my previous post on this topic.

Important note - there are a couple of other things I noticed that are perhaps worth mentioning. Not only is Mix the one depicted cleaning the shirt, but Courtney actually proposes turning the stained shirt into a quilt rather than try to clean it. She also doesn't hear the voice of "Mother Knowsbest," and although she moves in and out of the ad segment compiling a "Possibility Shopping List," she doesn't engage with the Clorox products in any way. She doesn't even look at them. I'm not sure what this distancing is supposed to imply, but reading through Courtney Watkins' very non-commercial website, there may be a hint of tension here in terms of the different interests going into the show's production, or evidence of some underlying awareness of traditional gender roles/representation and the need to avoid going too far with the associations. I admit that this is perhaps wishful thinking on my part, and perhaps even part of the advertising strategy to avoid sullying Courtney's image with product shilling, but nonetheless worth keeping an eye on in the episodes to come. [**Note: I was waiting for today to post about this because the Possibility Shop site said there would be a new episode today, but there seems to be some sort of delay. I'll try to update this post once the next show becomes available]

The companies involved are treading on pretty tenuous ground with this one, so this particular show may not be around for much longer. Then again, it could also just as likely evolve into a full blown television series. Seeing as the FCC recently held a public consultation on product placement in kids media (check out Shaping Youth's filing here), the time seems pretty ripe for a crack down on these kinds of initiatives. But, of course, the precedence isn't all that good when it comes to extending media regulation these days. Either way, however, I'm dismayed to see Disney barreling down this particular trajectory.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reimagining Learning Puts LittleBigPlanet in the (MacArthur) Spotlight

Earlier today, the MacArthur Foundation and the HASTAC Initiative announced the upcoming launch of the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition, on the theme "Reimagining Learning." The $2 million open competition officially starts on December 14, and seeks proposals that outline "creative ideas to transform learning using digital media." In particular, the competition description emphasizes project that link STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula and other experiences to digital games. As per the competition description, this means "any game, especially but not limited to LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3." Proposals are furthermore sought in two different but deeply interrelated categories, one of which revolves almost entirely around LittleBigPlanet. The DMLC invites proposals from designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others engaged in building digital media experiences (what the organization is calling "the learning labs of the 21st Century") that aim specifically to "help young people interact, share, build, tinker, and explore in new and innovative ways." In addition to the obvious sponsorship of Sony and LittleBigPlanet, the competition is further supported by a grant to the University of California at Irvine. There are also some important political links to US President Obama's call for new efforts to reimagine and improve education in STEM subjects, and the competition was coordinated in partnership with National Lab Day.

A key focus of the competition, and of the MacArthur Foundation generally, is to identify and promote new ways of fostering participatory learning experiences for kids and teens. The organization defines participatory learning as "a form of learning connected to individual interests and passions, inherently social in nature, and occurring during hands-on, creative activities." As such, the competition will function as part of MacArthur’s ongoing "digital media and learning" initiative, which explores existing and potential ways in which digital technologies can be used to change how young people play, learn, socialize and engage in traditional and emerging forms of citizenship. For an example of some of the previous work done under this rubric, you might want to check out the "Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" project that wrapped up last year (a joint project carried out at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, that drew on the expertise of a number of key children's scholars, including Mimi Ito and Barrie Thorne, among equally notable others).

Anyway, here are the competition category descriptions as posted on the DMLC official competition website:
21st Century Learning Lab Designers
The 21st Century Learning Lab Designers category is aligned with National Lab Day. Winners will receive awards for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through activities based on the social nature, contexts, and ideas of science, technology, engineering and math. Digital media of any type (social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may be used. Proposals are also encouraged for curricula or other experiences that link or connect to any game, especially but not limited to LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3 (PS3™).

Game Changers
Winners in the Game Changers category will receive awards for creative new games or for additions to Sony's LittleBigPlanet™. These games and game expansions should offer young people highly engaging game play experiences that incorporate principles of science, technology, engineering and math. One aim of the Game Changers category is to create new game play experiences using the existing popular video game, LittleBigPlanet™, winner of numerous "game of the year" awards in 2008. Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA), in cooperation with ESA and ITIC, will team with MacArthur to support this component of the Competition. Sony Computer Entertainment of America will donate a significant number of PlayStation®3 (PS3™) consoles and copies of LittleBigPlanet™ to community-based organizations and libraries in low-income communities. They will also make the winning levels available to the game playing community at no cost. [****SMG: As described in the press release, Sony will also donate 1000 PlayStation 3 consoles and copies of LittleBigPlanet to libraries and community-based organizations in low-income communities across the US.]

Proposals submitted to either category will then be posted for public comment at three different stages of the selection process. According to the competition website, multiple awards will be given in each category (including People's Choice Awards for proposals that receive the most votes from the public at large), the winners of which will be announced this coming Spring 2010.

Seeing as I was planning on making LittleBigPlanet a key case study in my planned future investigation of UGC games and player-creator communities, this is a pretty exciting announcement. The profile raising, well-funded, wide-reaching nature of the competition will mean some pretty interesting things in terms of the evolution of the LBP community, the types of people involved, as well as some likely opportunities for investigations into the demographics of the competition entrants, and the thematic and formal features of the levels they submit (thinking specifically about the Game Changer category here, but of course the broader competition holds even more potential for new and exciting forms of content). On the one hand, of course, I can't ignore the underlying sponsorship and corporate branding dimensions of the competition. This is definitely a great PR move on Sony's part, coinciding as it does with the launch of the newest installment of what is fast becoming an LBP franchise. The question remains, how will the presence of "TM" (trademarks) limit & appropriate the creativity of the submissions?

That said, there are very few programs quite like LBP, both in terms of accessibility (by which I mean usability, affordability and access to the hardware requirements/platform) and in terms of playability. The game and its ever-growing community are fantastic examples of user-centred design. The game and level-builder are also highly accessible to children and novice users, and seem to be used by users of both genders (using anecdotal evidence and observations - some real examination of the demographics involved in these games would be immensely useful at this point), which only enhances the appeal and potential that the game carries for opening up these types of competitions to new voices, youth voices, etc.

My primary research questions will necessarily include a focus on the proprietary implications that arise whenever creativity is invited and facilitated under a system of corporate governance (which are almost always driven by profit and copyright concerns). However, in the case of the DMLC competition, it seems that the goal is to create and promote the submissions under some form of Creative Commons, as indicated by the stipulation that the game levels be offered to the player community free of charge. Admittedly, this might be wishful thinking on my part, but it's definitely one of the possibilities I'll be examining as I follow the developments and outcome of the competition over the next few months. I wish now that I had stuck with my original proposal for the upcoming DMLC conference, which was to talk about my research plans for LBP, Spore, Metaplace and Kodu (and now Playcrafter). *sigh* Oh well, there's always next time!

**Update: Though this wasn't mentioned in either of the press releases I read last week, it seems that the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre (the research arm of The Sesame Workshop) is also involved in this initiative. Here's an excerpt from their press release:
"ESA and ITI are also working with leading education stakeholders on the competition, including The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, Games for Change, and E-Line Ventures. ESA, ITI and their partners will challenge America’s best and brightest, including children, to enter the competition with ideas that can be designed into web-executable, browser-based, STEM-related computer and video games in three age-based categories: 4 to 8 year olds, 8 to 12 year olds and 12 to 16 year olds. In addition to funding, ESA, ITI and their member companies will provide judges, mentorship, and technical expertise to the winning teams to maximize their utility, outreach and effectiveness."

Great to see the Cooney Center is involved with this - they do excellent work and have all the required expertise when it comes to merging high quality educational content with fun, as well as a great mandate when it comes to involving & addressing the needs of marginalized groups.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Prepare a Teaching Dossier

For those of you who are, like me, currently attempting to navigate the bewildering, intimidating and - unfortunately - often disheartening process of applying for a faculty position, this article by Adam Chapnick is definitely worth a read (and a bookmark!). It appeared in a Canadian online resource called University Affairs a couple of weeks ago, and provides a step-by-step guide to putting together a teaching dossier - which many applications ask for, without really explaining what the expectations are in terms of length, contents, etc. Chapnick goes into quite a bit of detail, and provides some great guidelines on things that may seem like small details, but end up being precisely the kind of issues that stump us the most as we scramble to tailor application packages, meet deadlines, and juggle reference letter requests. Here's a brief excerpt of Chapnick's article - be sure to check out the original for further elaboration about what each category of "evidence" actually entails.
What is a dossier?
A teaching dossier is a professional document that provides evidence of your teaching beliefs, experiences and abilities. It is generally six to 12 pages long, plus appendices. It includes three types of evidence:

Personal materials
* a statement of your philosophy of teaching and learning [he adds that this usually consists of a 250- to 750-word statement that defines you as a teacher, and if you haven’t taught yet, you can replace this temporarily with a statement of teaching goals and ideas.]

* an account of your teaching experiences and related responsibilities [title of the course + one line description of its content + size of class + specific teaching responsibilities – lecturing, labs, marking, facilitation; a course outline as an appendix, if you designed the course yourself] [newer instructors might have to define experience broadly. Chapnick recommends that you consider other types of teaching experiences, listed in order of importance: course instructor; seminar facilitator or lab leader; marker (specify what kind of marking); guest lecturer; and guest workshop conductor.]

*a summary of your commitment to professional development [note whether you have given a talk or published an article on teaching and learning issues; subscribe to teaching-related listservs; attend departmental workshops or brownbag lunches on teaching and learning themes; have completed a teacher training course.]


Materials from others
*evidence of teaching effectiveness (evaluations; letters of support; nominations/awards received) [include a chart that summarizes any formal, numerical teaching evaluations you might have collected. Include an explanation of what the numbers on the scale mean. If you have access to departmental or institutional averages, include those for context.]

Products of teaching
* examples of teaching materials [vidence of pedagogical innovations (include a hand-out explaining a new assignment you have developed), complete copies of older teaching evaluations, solicited letters from colleagues or former students]

* course outlines [course outlines that you've designed yourself, or a model outline of your dream course]

[...] A teaching dossier always includes a statement of your philosophy of teaching and learning, is presented in narrative form, makes few explicit references to research, and typically includes a table of contents.

Chapnick also recommends that applicants check out the sample statements and guidelines provided on the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Saskatchewan website. Click on The Teaching Portfolio in the lefthand navigation bar; and then, The Parts of a Portfolio). If you've found any other guides or good advice online for getting through the job application process or for putting together good materials, please let me know!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rethinking Domesticity in Girls' Lives and Play Cultures

This week I've been thinking a lot about the changing (and not so changing) role of "domesticity" (traditional notions of femininity, home/private sphere, keeping house, proper etiquette, gender roles, aesthetics, etc.) in the lives of girls and women, particularly within the realm of leisure. This is in large part due to the fact that my lecture this week was on "technologies of empowerment," looking at how women are using traditional and new technologies -- often in combination -- to challenge status quo, gender politics, and gender role expectations...as well as to construct new ways of engaging with social institutions (such as markets) and techno-politics. A key theme was how technologies (& technological practices) that have traditionally been designated as "feminine" and/or associated with women (such as looms and knitting needles) share many of the same formal characteristics as key digital technologies, including computer software and networks. While I feel optimistic and very enthusiastic about these developments, at the same time I can't help but be reminded of the very different ways many of these same traditionally feminine technologies have historically appeared within girls' play culture as modes of domestication and containment. Now I'm left wondering how these two areas might be reconciled -- on the one hand to add some perspective to the optimism that surrounds handmade/DIY feminist culture, and on the other hand to produce a more progressive approach to a tendency within girls' play culture that can otherwise seem quite regressive.

I think the best way to start this discussion is to first provide a better explanation of the contents of the above-mentioned lecture. As I may have mentioned here before (and as indicated in the sidebar), I'm currently teaching a fourth-year seminar course called "Women and New Information Technologies" at the School of Communication, SFU. This week, I presented some of the themes raised in Sadie Plant's "Future Looms: Weaving women and cybernetics" (here's a link to a GoogleBooks excerpt), by examining both the parallels between traditional women's craftwork (such as weaving, embroidery, knitting, etc.) and computing technologies, as well as the ways in which these traditional practices are currently being reclaimed and reinvented by young women as part of a variety of cultural practices, business ventures, and forms of feminist community-building and activism. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean by this:

Handmade Nation
A key example (in my lecture at least) is the Handmade/Arts and Crafts movement, which links with contemporary feminism in a variety of ways, not least of which is the potential the movement contains for alternative economic models. One of the sources we "looked at" (although I couldn't get a hold of a full licensed copy in time for a screening - it just came out 2 weeks ago!), was a new documentary by Faythe Levine called Handmade Nation, which chronicles the resurgence of traditional craft-making across North America. Levine also co-authored a companion piece with Cortney Heimerl last year entitled Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design, published with the Princeton Architectural Press. The film and book focus on interviews Levine conducted with crafters and artists across the US, the vast majority of whom are women who have combined traditional practices (albeit oftentimes with a very contemporary spin, e.g. skull and cross bone doilies) and new info technologies to establish both a new crafting community and burgeoning neo-artisan economy. As described on the publisher website:
Participants in this community share ideas and encouragement through websites, blogs, boutiques, galleries, and craft fairs. Together they have forged a new economy and lifestyle based on creativity, determination, and networking.


Open Source Embroidery
Another example I looked at in this lecture is a project/art collective called Open Source Embroidery. Founded in 2005 by postdoctoral researcher Ele Carpenter, the project was created to explore and support artists engaged in investigating the relationships between embroidery and programming. As the website describes, Open Source Embroidery is "based on the common characteristics of needlework crafts and open source computer programming: gendered obsessive attention to detail; shared social process of development; and a transparency of process and product." Very interesting. Here's an excerpt from an article in Wired about the project:
The movement brings together knitters, embroiderers and quilters who see parallels between the way they create their crafts and how open source software creators share their ideas. At the BildMuseet at Umeå University in Sweden, an exhibition — also called Open Source Embroidery — showcases artworks that use embroidery and code as a tool for participatory production and distribution.

“The idea of collaboration has been made cool by open source software,” says Carpenter, the curator of the exhibition. “But artists have been working like this for a long time.”

Even the differences between needlework crafts and open source software are alike, she says. Embroidery is largely dominated by women, while software is created mostly by men, she says. In embroidery, tiny stitches come together to create a pattern visible on the front of the fabric, while its system is revealed on the back. It’s similar to how software is created.


There is of course some argument about how "alternative" these practices really are, and some good feminist challenges to the purported empowerment and progressive politics (if any) that they ultimately bring about. But from what I've seen, they do indeed seem to represent an alternative to (rather than support of) the status quo, one that contrasts in important ways with the liberal feminist approach of making space for women within existing structures/institutions. By creating new spaces and new structures within which women and men can redefine workplace norms, opportunity, and expectations, and thereby challenge outdated (patriarchal) structures -- not from within, but rather on their own terms -- these practices do become political in ways that extend far beyond leisure or a nostalgia-laden aesthetic trend. As such, they could indeed represent a key facet of an emerging political movement.

And while Handmade Nation and sites like Etsy (and the surrounding debate about women and Etsy) and the like focus specifically on craft work, there are also a number of links between Arts&Crafts and various other forms of DIY and the hidden productive practices of women and girls -- from music and film production, to girl's bedroom culture, to open source and hacker cultures. There are also some very interesting overlaps between craft/DIY and women's lifestyle sports subcultures, particularly in sports that have traditionally been male-dominated, such as snowboarding (e.g. Holly Thorpe's article on female snowboarding "feminizing" their gear with hand-knitted toques and other customizations).

In giving some further consideration to these themes and ideas, however, I've become quite caught up in the paradox that emerges when the discourses of empowerment/feminism/community contained within much of the handmade/DIY movement are contrasted with feminist discussions of girls' play. Here, I'm thinking about all the research into girls' commercial culture and toy culture that reveals the enormous emphasis that has been placed on instrumental activities, domesticity and the development of traditionally feminine skills as the most "appropriate" use of girls' leisure time. Within girls' culture, the emphasis placed on tea parties, play kitchen sets, sewing and the like, all become examples of how girls play is shaped by an ethos of "domesticity", which operates both as a ideological justification for girls' confinement within the home (with indoor play & domestic themes portrayed as natural choices for girls' play), as well as the systematic instrumentalization of their play and leisure (play that is geared towards a purposive end (namely of training girls to be future mothers/wives) rather than "play for play's sake").

So my question has become - can these two areas be reconciled within a feminist theory of/approach to play, and if so how?

Starting Out Points
- Arts&Crafts is a key area of kids' toy/play culture, with girls' targeted with a plethora of sewing/stamping/beading/knitting games - ranging from plastic pretend kitchen sets and sewing machines, to semi-functional Easy-Bake ovens and very basic Singer sewing machines, to more-or-less fully functional embroidery sets and the like. While the marketing for these objects is often quite stereotypical, you do see quite a bit of them promoted as educational toys or "alternative" toys as well. Are there links between the current Arts&Crafts movement and the tradition of arts&crafts in kids' (and primarily girls') leisure? If so, where and how are these links promoted? How could girls' toys/leisure be more firmly incorporated into the discourses of empowerment enjoyed by the older girls and women who are engaged in this subculture?

- If purposive leisure is indeed a better conduit into the emerging structures of the "information society" - artisan markets, open source, immaterial labour, the blurring of traditional boundaries between play/work public/private - are we in fact seeing an expansion of traditions established within girls' play culture and women's "leisure" (always a contested category as women have historically enjoyed less leisure, engaged in more purposive leisure, and have more often multi-tasked chores and leisure) into the lives of boys and men?

- Read through the work done by Ludica - this group has done some fascinating work examining some of these themes, particularly in regards to girls' play, gendered relationships with space (domestic, public and digital) and digital games. For example, their article A Game of One's Own examines conceptions of play space from a female perspective.

All I have for now are some preliminary ideas - there are obvious overlaps and obvious starting points, as you can see from my rudimentary list above, but at a theoretical level the empowering dimensions of craft work do seem to trouble my emerging definition of "domesticization" as the form of social rationalization currently taking place within children's digital play (extending from girls' play traditions into boy's play as well through virtual worlds and transmedia intertexts that transform play into a form of consumption/affective labour). Perhaps it is within the vocational/non-alienated labour implications of women's craftwork that its potential emerges??? Perhaps it is the lack of alternatives within girls' commercial play culture (as it is constructed within commercial and social discourses only - I do not mean to ignore girls' and parents' very real ability to choose toys outside of the pink aisle) that makes the emphasis on purposive play so limiting??? More to come as I think these issues through a little more, and in the meantime I welcome any points of discussion or challenges in the comments section below that might be of use in making sense of these questions.

If this is of interest, you might also want to read a previous post I wrote on my "under construction" idea about domesticization as a parallel system of social rationality within modern society.

Here are some examples of the kinds of girl's toys I'm talking about:




Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Hidden Playground: New Article in The Escapist

This week's issue of The Escapist is on the theme of "Healthy Living," and explores various ways that gaming can be a part of (rather than a detriment to) a healthy lifestyle. I'm happy to have my article on outdoor play, the free-range kids movement, and portable/ARG game hybrids included in what has turned out to be a fascinating issue that covers both a number of serious health issues (obesity, vitamin D deficiency) relevant to gamers & non-gamers alike, as well as a number of ways that games (e.g. exer-games, Wii, portable gaming devices, fitness games) can be used to promote fitness, physical therapy and outdoor play.

Here's an overview of the contents with direct links to the articles:
Editor's Note by Jordan Deam

The Hidden Playground by Yours Truly

Gamer-Size Me by Craig Owens

Step Into the Light by Chris LaVigne

Waggle Therapy by Lauren Admire

I mentioned awhile back that I was working on a longer article examining how an emerging game genre combining portable game devices, wifi and some of the traditions established within alternate reality games (ARGs) might be used to promote free-range and outdoor play...and this is it. In the article, I propose that while many parents and kids would like to reclaim urban and suburban space for outdoor and "free-range" play, decades of moral panics, housebound latchkey kids, sedentary bedroom culture, stranger danger and family unfriendly urban design have depleted the play opportunities available in many (most?) neighborhoods and city blocks. Of course, given enough time and freedom, kids will find ways to play almost anywhere. But for right now, lack of practice along with the enduring social construction of "public space" as unwelcoming to the kinds of shenanigans most conducive to free play, might combine to make that reclamation a bit trickier than some parents/kids might expect.

My article examines how games like The Hidden Park (for iPhone) and Treasure World (for the Nintendo DS) (while not a substitute for non-digitally-enhanced outdoor play) might be used as "seeing stones" through which public spaces can be "opened up" to play, and made available for those more imaginative and autonomous forms of play that kids enjoy and benefit from most. By breaking down existing definitions of what an urban or suburban landscape is, how it should be experienced and what kids are expected to do there, I argue that these types of games put forth "a direct challenge to the idea that public space is inappropriate and dangerous for kids." Once this space is opened up, so is the play potential.

I use the motif of the "seeing stone" in reference to a number of great fairy tales and kids' books that focus on adventure and the invisible magic that exists all around us, which also acts as fuel for imaginative make-believe play and games. Here's the description from the article:
Imagine this emerging genre as the digital equivalent of a "seeing stone." The seeing stone shows up in a number of modern fairytales, including Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's The Spiderwick Chronicles and Neil Gaiman's Coraline. A primitively carved totem, its key feature is the eye-sized hole in its center. By looking through this hole, the children in these stories are able to see aspects of the world that are usually invisible to humans: magic, fairies, portals to other dimensions, ghosts and goblins and even other people's souls. The idea that the world around us is much more magical than it seems has clear links with childhood traditions of outdoor play and make-believe.


I also wanted to provide some links to some of the sources mentioned or that inspired the article, and here's as good a place as any:

Lenore Skenazy's FreeRange Kids

Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood

Roger Ebert's Raising free-range kids

Henry Jenkins' Complete Freedom of Movement

Kotaku interview with Miyamoto

Hope you enjoy the article!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Transmedia Expansions from Fairies to Fairy Godmothers

There's been so much "buzz" around the Disney Fairies, Tinkerbell and Pixie Hollow these past couple of weeks I don't even know where to start. I was initially thinking of posting about Tinkerbell's recent "makeover" (which actually isn't a makeover but rather just a new additional outfit she appears wearing in the new Disney Fairies direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure), perhaps in comparison with other much discussed revamps of girls' culture characters Dora the Explorer, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite. But style is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the new media powerhouse emerging out of the Fairies/Tinkerbell/Pixie Hollow media brand, which just seems to keep growing in both reach and success since the site's launch a couple of years ago.

Some of the more interesting/important developments right now revolve around the launch of the second Tinkerbell-based DVD, which of course comes with its own Nintendo DS tie-in game, both of which in turn tie-in to the Pixie Hollow virtual world. According to the press release, the new game creates even more linkages with the virtual world than the previous title (i.e. the original game/DVD released last fall). Considering how much of the virtual world (features and activities) are now exclusive to paid subscribers, this likely also ties in nicely with the velvet rope marketing model the site has increasingly oriented itself toward to accord with the VW's gains in population base and popularity. Here's an excerpt about the tie-in features taken from the press release (as published on Business Wire:
Unique to this year’s game is the ability for players to create and personalize up to five of their own fairies, from facial features to hair accessories, each with different talents focusing on tinkering, light, water, animal and gardening. One of those fairies can be uploaded onto the Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow (PixieHollow.com) virtual world from Disney Online, where visitors worldwide have created more than 22 million fairy avatars. Players are then able to use their DS fairy to go on quests, play talent games and gather items within the PixieHollow.com world.

Players can also embark on an online quest that ultimately unlocks a special item on both platforms and they can add ingredients gathered in the DS game to their collection on PixieHollow.com. The two platforms are now linked through up-to-date news and polls, dispatched from the online world directly to DS.

In addition, Disney Fairies: Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure includes DGamer, the online community exclusive to Disney gamers on Nintendo DS, allowing players to connect with others and unlock Fairy-themed items in their DS game.

Interesting to see that Disney is still updating DGamer - I haven't checked in on that game/site in awhile, it might be time for a return visit to see if things have improved or expanded much since its soft launch last year. But anyway, without seeing them firsthand, the cross-platform features sound a lot like the Club Penguin virtual world/DS game campaign built around Secret Agents that emerged soon after Disney acquired the site. I think it might be time for a more formal comparison of the ways in which these tie-ins function, are marketed, and impact the virtual world space/community.

Another esp. noteworthy Tinkerbell news story that also (surprisingly, or perhaps even shockingly) ties into the launch of the Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure DVD is the UN's announcement naming Tinkerbell an "Honorary Ambassador of Green". And then the UN screened the film at its New York headquarters, making it the site of the DVD's "world premiere". Bizarre! Here's an excerpt from the UN press release:
The United Nations today named the Disney animated character Tinker Bell an “Honorary Ambassador of Green” to help promote environmental awareness among children. The announcement came just prior to a screening at UN Headquarters in New York of the world premiere of the Walt Disney animated film, “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.”

“We're delighted Tinker Bell has agreed to be our Honorary Ambassador of Green,” said Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. “This beloved animated character can help us inspire kids and their parents to nurture nature and do what they can to take care of the environment.”

Today's event is intended to promote environmental awareness in the lead-up to the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, where countries will aim to 'seal the deal' on a new global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Okay...I had no idea that the UN was now part of the Disney promotional machine. I mean, using a beloved children's character as a kid-targeted "ambassador" is only ambiguously different from using a celebrity or sports hero, and there are of course promotional undertones anytime a media persona (real or fictional) gets involved in a campaign like this. Identifying Tinkerbell or any other Disney character built around the promotion of pro-environment values is in itself not so troubling - I've had these discussions with Amy Jussel before about using children's media characters to promote healthy foods. and overall I'm still open to the idea of using icons and themes from kids' culture for pro-social, pro-health and pro-environment type purposes. But all of that aside, it's the fact that this particular initiative announcement came as part of the promotional spectacle of the movie's (and game, books, toys, etc.) "premiere" (i.e. release date) that really stands out as odd, off and unworthy of the UN. This announcement is much too deeply embedded in the marketing of the film and much too in conformity with Disney's promotional interests to be seen as anything but a new and disturbing form of product placement.

Can't get enough Tinkerbell news? Disney Fairies is also an iPhone app now. Hmmm - there sure are a lot of kids' games coming in as iPhone apps. Looking forward to reading some research on parent/child co-use of iPhone devices for (cooperative?) gaming. ************Nov.5th update: And on that note, here are some emerging statistics courtesy of MarketingCharts, which indicate that: "More than 59% of US mothers who own an iPhone say they let their children use it, and 61% of these moms download games or educational content specifically for their kids." Hmmm - and what about dads?********

Not that Disney is the only one playing the transmedia game these days. The examples are endless. A recent, and also fairy themed venture Jan Bozarth's "Fairy Godmother Academy" book series/transmedia brand. As Omar L. Gallaga writes in yesterday's Statesman, Bozarth's book deal with Random House resulted from how well argued and organized her online/multimedia tie-ins were in her initial proposal; tie-ins that came with an existing media team at the "ready to begin work." Gallaga writes:
The staff is made up of designers and artisans whom Bozarth has worked with for about 15 years — the people she says she could trust to translate her detailed fantasy world into what Bozarth and the team call "Transmedia."

Explains Mario Champion, FGA's creative and technical director, "'Transmedia' is a shorthand way of saying the way kids play in a connected age. It's not just that it's digital — it's that it's connected."

Such connected media might mean a part of the Web site where girls can ask questions about or communicate with characters from the books, design their own virtual clothing or participate in a "Million Girl Choir," downloading audio tracks created by friends to combine with their own for a digital duet.

The ambitious project, which the team says will be rolled out over several years as the books are published, combines elements of massively multiplayer online games like "Club Penguin" with design tools, interactive music and video, and activities meant to get readers off the computer and into real-world activities with friends.

The interviews with the designers is well worth the read -- their comments tie into the whole girls' games discourse quite nicely and they have some interesting things to say about making space for UGC, craft and dress-up play, etc. But I can't help but sigh at the suggestion that transmedia is something new or innocuous or kid-based. Kids might play well with transmedia intertexts, but let's please not blame them for multi-modal branding. And the vast majority of the time the texts themselves are designed to maximize cross-promotion and incite multiple sites of consumption, rather than truly experiment with or tap into the opportunities contained within children's transmedia play practices.

I do like how the team presents its vision for the site/book/game, but only a thorough review of the contents themselves will tell if this is just another promotional strategy or something that's actually unique and postmodern. In particular, I think that future reviews (my own or yours) of the Fairy Godmother Academy's online components should focus on testing the following three statements that appear in Gallaga article:
"We're aiming to create a place where the books are a jumping-off place into this world of play and discovery, and of girls finding their own wisdom." ( - Ann Woods, art director of the Web site)

Here, the focus should be on opportunities for UGC or inter-user communication, flexibility of the system, opportunities for uploading original materials without usurping the kids' authorship or IP. Are kids able to engage with and subvert the source materials? If not, how are the books serving as a jumping off place. Where's the "discovery" occurring and what parameters are being placed on it?
In one example of the team's work, girls have the ability to not only choose virtual clothing, but to design it themselves.

What does 'design it themselves' amount to? Are we talking customization or real opportunities for original creations. If it's the former, what is the range of freedom and creativity afforded by the design/options available. What's the palette, what "sizes" are available, etc.?
"It's an intriguing balance," Woods said. "We never dumb down to girls."

This one's a bit harder to give a brief guideline for - what are some good ways to question or identify how games/sites "dumb down to girls" in their language and design. Then again, this might be the most intuitive one to detect. I'd love to see/read some good descriptions of what dumbing down is and what it looks like, so I'll leave this one open.


********On a totally different note:
Also, has anyone been watching the Jim Henson Company's new kids' animated TV program Dinosaur Train? Catchy tunes, cute characters, and some cleverly integrated educational content - I'm sure there are a zillion commercial tie-ins current or in development to consider and critique here too, but in the meantime the series itself seems delightful, intelligent and very Jim Henson-esque. Definitely worth keeping an eye on. Here's a clip to start the week off on a foot-tappingly good note.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New Article in The Escapist

Be sure to check out this week's issue of The Escapist, which explores the various acronyms associated with gaming and the game industry, under the theme title "Alphabet Soup". Alongside some great articles on MMORPGs, IGDA and TGI (Triangle Game Initiative), is an article I wrote on the ESRB and the many challenges it will need to overcome if it is to remain relevant in a web 2.0, technologically converged, digitally distributed game environment. Here's an excerpt:
Through partnerships with the National PTA and a website overhaul, the ESRB has made real inroads toward helping parents make informed choices for their gamer children. Awareness levels are higher than ever, and current studies show that most parents find the ratings "useful." A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only eight percent of parents list videogames as their main source of "concern about inappropriate content," whereas 32 percent list television.

All signs seem to indicate the ESRB has hit finally its stride, but that's likely not the case. While it's commendable that the ESRB has rectified its past mistakes, here in the present the unaddressed challenges keep on stacking up. Current trends in game technology, design and distribution pose serious threats to the ESRB's newfound relevance. Many of these challenges have already been discussed elsewhere, but when you put them all together you start to appreciate their immensity.

The main challenges I explore in the article include the spread of online content and UGC, converging game formats (though a large section of this portion unfortunately didn't make it to the final version), and new distribution systems. I had also hoped to have enough space to talk about indie gaming, but it ended up as just a tiny footnote, and something that I will definitely need to elaborate on in a separate post or article in the future. Not that I needed more fuel for the fire in this particular piece - it attracted a sizable response on the article's "Comments" forum, as well as the forums of a couple of other sites where the story got picked up, most of which reveal just how controversial and touchy this particular subject still is within the game community.

Unfortunately, much of the feedback I received communicated a fundamental misunderstanding that I was trying to promote an expansion of the current ESRB rating system to online interactions...which couldn't be further from the truth. As I've argued before, the current system does not have the flexibility and responsiveness required to keep up with contemporary trends in gaming, and slapping an E or M onto an online game (or online features os a game) would be pretty pointless (and potentially misleading). But that doesn't mean the ESRB itself couldn't try to come up with some sort of new approach to help parents make informed decisions about the different types of online/chat moderation systems available, the varying levels of freedom afforded by different UGC games, or at the very least enable parents, children and designers to exchange information in a more direct and adaptive way. They do, after all, have the full cooperation of the mainstream game industry, and unique access to mechanisms and programming that are otherwise (supposed to be) off-limits to would-be raters. But anyway, as the title of my article ("Obsolescence Pending") suggests, with all the time and energy that has been spent defending the current framework, it's doubtful that a massive restructuring is likely to occur anytime soon....leaving the door wide open for an alternative service or system to come in and provide something a little more comprehensive and hopefully much more responsive to technological advances, evolution of the player community, etc. Especially as a larger and larger portion of games and game content are not rated by the ESRB, and the ratings are restricted to a shrinking proportion of the overall games market (although as one commentator, SaintPeter, rightly pointed out, as long as there are single-player games there will be a place for the ESRB ratings, which is very true and highlights the technological determinism of my overall argument).

By far one of the most interesting and useful outcomes of the article for me and my own thinking about these issues was the feedback I received that provided preliminary sketches and suggestions about how this alternative system might work. While the article attracted a LOT of disagreement and challenge from the forum communities, I also received some great feedback on additional issues that would need to be included to make my assessment of the ESRB more exhaustive, as well as a number of ideas for alternative systems. For example:
slopeslider:
I have a few Ideas.
For online interactions there could be a new rating category.
Moderated/unmoderated user-generated content.
Moderated/unmoderated player chat
For multiplayer online games maybe a special moderated chat line for kiddies. It would be moderated, but the rules would be soo strict that it wouldn't be a problem moderating 2% of the overall game chat. I know if they had this most people A. dont want to talk to little kids and B. don't like super strict speech guidlines. That means they wouldn't have to moderate 1 million people chatting online at once, more like 10,000.

I agree - even a simple system of moderated/unmoderated would be a great place to start. I know that individual games often include a self-description, but a standardized categorization system would be much more immediately useful to parents. This theme was taken up and elaborated upon by BehattedWanderer:
BehattedWanderer:
That actually doesn't sound like a bad Idea. If they were to display a prominent warning about 'User made un/moderated content', specifically stating that 'users of varying ages can createj online content, which may result in inappropriate content being generated and played before it attracts moderator attention', then it would go a long way towards helping to assess the interactions that they cannot (but probably can hazard a guess) predict.

What they would need to do is put out a psa, or something, a short commercial, to be aired on the big channels--wouldn't have to be long, just a minute or so, alerting parents to the new type of content, and to look at the rating on the box, and that they should use their judgement when purchasing--Games rated T and M might feature more mature subject matter in the online play from both adolescents and adults, which would expose their children to such.

To which I responded:
So clever. What would you think if the system also enabled users to actively submit their content for some sort of peer-reviewed or moderator rating? For instance, if you think your game level should be rated E, you could flag it so that it gets some special (or more immediate) attention - perhaps through some kind of volunteer (or nominated, if the community is large enough) parent-gamer group. Parents could then set up child accounts that can only access content confirmed as appropriate. Or something along those lines.

To which BehattedWanderer replied:
I agree with you up to the point of peer review--that's all well and good, and could work pretty well, as long as there is unbiased review as well--it randomly picks someone from the review board (whom you don't know), and gives you a rating and a review from there, if not a quick chop from the cutting axe for trying to post an overly sexually-themed level in the 'E' category. Each review board is accompanied by one moderator, just to ensure fairness. After two or three of these random and anonymous reviews by the peer review or moderator groups, the rating is affirmed, and put into it's appropriate category.

The part I have a bit of issue with, however, is the latter part--specifically the child accounts. Parental settings are fine and dandy, and work on occasion. But the issue with that is that children are devilish when the want to be, and most can figure out how to either get around the parental controls, or flat out just change the parental control settings so that they have their own access. What's more, for every child account that is created and ahered to, dozens more won't even be created, leaving unfiltered settings for the child to browse. Most parents (I'm talking about those not that familiar with online play, mostly the older parents) wouldn't know to filter the content online, not expecting there to be such content so readily available within the game. It's for that reason I propose the ads--just to draw attention that their children might be accessing this kind of content without their knowledge. It's that age old idiom of "knowing is half the battle"--most aren't even aware there's an issue of unrated and unfiltered content.

Very insightful points and nuanced understanding of the parent-child-technology relationships involved. Another really great recommendation that draws on the idea of crowd-sourcing was provided by Nutcase, who describes:
Nutcase:
In this day and age, you could derive a quite accurate community rating by picking a number of people at random who have bought the game, and asking them to fill a ratings questionnaire. This job would naturally fall to game vendors because they are the only ones who know who has bought what. To increase confidence in the ratings, stores like Amazon could offer this only to people who have bought the game two weeks ago or more. Steam could go further and actually observe that the person has played the game for X amount of time.

Well, this kind of rating might have trouble catching spikes of content that come late in the game (70 hours into a JRPG...) or by random (an unmarked location in a sandbox game you might find or not...) but it would produce good ratings for the great majority of games. One can think of additional mechanisms specifically to deal with these cases.

This system would follow the actual audience attitudes closely without getting "stuck" in the morality of any given group. Also, the system would not need to flatten the results in one rating (though it could also do that for at-a-glance reading). Most of the actual data could remain browsable online with various filters, with only identity-compromising information stripped. The implications of half the audience rating something AO and half rating it T are quite different from everyone rating it M, though dumb averaging would make these two cases look the same. It's also to be expected that ratings vary depending on geographical area; for most people the ratings would be more accurate if they could use ones from their own area instead of all ratings.

Very true - getting the vendors/distributors involved would be key, and since it involves building consumer involvement and potential loyalty, and providing a service to both players and developers, it may not be all that difficult to get them on board. There may be more, I haven't had the time to go through the last batch of comments, but I think there's enough even here to begin envisioning an alternative framework. As Sal Humphreys posted on my Facebook wall:
I also think in the world of user-generated content - which is too vast to monitor - it might be that user-generated ratings have a role to play - if you develop a culture of rating, and have enough people rating, then you have a system that generates the information necessary to make informed choices.

Indeed!

Interestingly, this is all in harmony with a model currently being developed/promoted by independent game designer Daniel Kinney with his TIGRS rating system. I'm sure there are other models out there as well, just waiting to be taken up by the player community and industry. For instance, a number of non-indie developers are also working on incorporating user-based moderation systems and game reviews into online communities/hubs for certain games...an expanded version of these systems that includes more of a focus on tagging content as kid-friendly (or not), in a more systematic way, is another step in the right direction. Even something as simple as the self-rating system that Metaplace is using, which in fact does draw on ESRB-style ratings categories, seems viable as a starting point (no way to rate people/chat, however, as my students were unlucky enough to experience firsthand during a group discussion a few weeks ago). Most of these solutions do leave room for mistakes, of course, but could nonetheless provide an initial bedrock of advice and support for parents to make better informed decisions. What I'm particularly interested in are models that draw on kids and parents as well to provide content ratings and evaluation of ratings...after all, they're the ones actually using the ratings (and not just as a political tool either). This whole experience has given me a lot to think about, sprouting some wiggly little project ideas in the back of my mind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Kids' Comic Space

Part of the digital literacies discussions that I've been following of late have centered on the long-discussed (but not always applied) potential associated with using comics for intertextual, heavily visual, narrative formats through which kids can explore cultural themes, literature and learning. It's a fascinating idea that draws on the long history of comics, picture books, and transmedia intertexts within children's culture...while tapping into children's actual leisure practices in a way that transcends the usual boundaries between cultural categories (high/low culture, literature/entertainment, etc.) and gives some serious consideration to the value and possibilities contained within the re-emergence of comics as a literary form.

Not that comics have ever really gone anywhere, but they've certainly resurfaced within the mainstream in a big way these past few years -- a way that hasn't really been seen since, well, i'm not really sure when! (golden age? silver age?). I remember that Scholastic initiated a big push toward graphic novels and comics a number of years ago (e.g., click here to find out more about the launch of their Comix line back in 2005). And certainly, the emerging research on kids' reading habits within digital games and online environments is relevant to this discussion as well (e.g., Jackie Marsh's work on kids reading and writing in virtual worlds). Obviously, there are many more connections between this body of work and the research I'm doing on kids' games, and some cool possibilities of merging the two areas...not just thematically (which has been done before), but "ludic"ally as well. I still have a lot of catching up to do, and until my PhD is "in hand," this is definitely on the back-burner. But as a former comicbook collector and current reader of graphic novels (well, TPBs in my case), this whole realm definitely draws my attention.

Some neat places to start for finding out more about the kids' "comics space," and exploring its increased presence within both educational curriculum and kids' digital culture:

James Bucky Carter's En/Sane World - a repository of info and resources on "Sequential Art Narratives in Education (SANE)". His site includes lots of links and ideas for educators, as well as a variety of sources on "multigenre, multimodal, or otherwise "New" literacies."

The Online Visual Literacy Project - not just about comics, but appears to have some interesting background literature.

A short but sweet archive of comics-related posts on Media Macaroni, which includes a list of comics that the "cool kids" read and a great post about (as well as my first introduction to) Babymouse.

This excellent reading list of kids' comics posted by Jonathan Liu on GeekDad, in which he provides some great "off the beaten path" alternatives to the usual big name titles put out by Marvel and Disney (and yes - it was written in response to their partnership announcement this past summer).

Some of my own favourite kid-friendly titles (which I also posted in the comments section on GeekDad), that I would love to see more of within kids' digital culture:

Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin (think Harry Potter meets Hellboy meets Angry Little Girls)

Mike Kunkel’s Herobear and the Kid (actually anything by Astonish Factory is unique and all ages)

Jacob Chabot’s The Mighty Skullboy Army

And, although not always for kids, I really like the artwork and concept behind Roy Husada's Opera Manga, which he creates for the Vancouver Opera as a way of communicating/summarizing the storylines of upcoming performances to audiences. Very cool.

Of course, the renewed academic/press interest in comics, visual literacies and interactive storytelling is also in part being driven by kids themselves. For example, according to an article published last August in Publishers Weekly by Ada Price, web comics are being produced/created by younger and younger artists and writers, who are in turn benefiting from online distribution systems and exposure to land publishing deals with traditional book publishers. Again, nothing exceedingly new here...but the increased access (to younger age groups) and viability (in terms of potential for creators to actually generate an income from their artistic labour) are certainly keeping the topic relevant. I wonder how many actual "kids" are getting in on this, and I want to find out where they distribute their UGComics, and what the audience or community is like. I'm glad to see that this topic hasn't faded away and in fact appears to be gaining momentum. More links to come as I find them.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Roller Derby Grabs the Spotlight (and won't let go)

Today, the much-lauded and much-discussed film Whip It finally premieres in theaters across North America. The movie, which was directed by Drew Barrymore and stars Ellen Page, explores the wonderful and bizarre world of all-female roller derby. I had an opportunity to delve into this world a tiny bit last year, after attending a derby bout and then writing an article about where and how this particular breed of roller derby fits in (or doesn't) with the larger entertainment sports culture, women's pop culture, feminism, and above all play. In honour of the Whip It premiere, I've decided to repost the link to the article itself, which you can find in full over at The Escapist. Here's an excerpt to give you a sense of the general tone and topic:
Entertainment sports are often described as "spectacle sports" because they rely so much on the theatrical and stylistic elements that surround them. The hyperbolic displays of aggression, elaborate props and staged interpersonal conflicts all become part of the "bigger picture" of how viewers experience and understand the event.

The athletes (or performers) play a key role in creating the spectacle. They are the main characters in an open-ended drama, the bodies upon which the story plays out. But not all spectacle sports are as heavily staged as others. Many unfold like any other sporting competition, without a predetermined script or outcome. In these sports, players toe an incredibly fine line between athleticism and roleplay, between adhering to the game's rules and conforming to the over-arching narrative.

Roller derby exemplifies this delicate balancing act. Recently resurrected by grassroots, all-female leagues in the U.S., roller derby is an unmatched display of female aggression, parody and subversion. Beneath its hot pink "riot grrrl" exterior, however, roller derby is also a high-speed, full-contact team sport. For the women who participate, roller derby provides a unique opportunity to dress up, ham it up and play rough. Really rough.

If you're interested in finding out more about this very unique, and by all accounts incredibly fun, phenomenon, this weekend is a good time to try. Roller derby leagues everywhere are planning events to commemorate the wide release of Barrymore's film, including a free derby at Robson Square in Vancouver hosted by the Terminal City Roller Girls. (A number of similar events have been taking place all week, for e.g. in Manhattan and Montreal, as well as in Toronto during the film's TIFF screening). Since so much of the culture is already the byproduct of media depictions (the Rollergirls reality television series is an oft-cited source of inspiration for current leagues), we might want to anticipate a bit of a roller derby explosion (or more specifically Tipping Point) after this, and maybe a trickle down into younger age groups.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Child Gamer Paper Published

I'm very pleased to announce the recent publication of an article I co-authored with Neil Narine, which appears in the latest issue of Communication, Culture and Critique. The article, entitled "The Turbulent Rise of the "Child Gamer": Public Fears and Corporate Promises in Cinematic and Promotional Depictions of Children's Digital Play," explores the ways in which child gamers have been depicted and mobilized within popular and public discourses since the introduction of home gaming systems in the late 1970s. We focus specifically on the ways in which moral panics and celebratory discourses about kids and gaming (which are inherently linked to discourses about kids and information technologies) resurface again and again within various cultural texts, from television ads, to magazine covers, to Hollywood film. Here's the abstract:
This paper examines depictions of the "cyberchild," and the child at risk in Hollywood films and television advertisements portraying children's digital gaming. We examine fears of digital play and adjoining hopes for its conversion into a "productive" and educational practice. We find evidence of a stiflingly polarized conflict over children's digital gaming: young gamers are either delinquent and violent, or naturally adept "cyberchildren" with bright futures as information workers. We propose three reasons why this polarity remains unresolved, detail how issues of gender and class are sidelined, and suggest that cinematic and promotional depictions have both helped shape and reflect grossly exaggerated characterizations of the child gamer.

The project started out as a conference paper, which we presented at the PCA and CSA back in 2006, and which we then elaborated and refined in response to some of the great feedback we received from conference attendees, colleagues (a special thanks in that regard to Helen Kennedy and Graeme Kirkpatrick for their early support and comments), and peer reviewers. An enormous thanks to Karen Ross, Jane Wynn and Jane Anderson at Communication, Culture and Critique for agreeing to publish this piece and for making the entire process such a pleasant and expedient experience.

Full citation for the piece is: Narine, N and S.M. Grimes (2009) "The Turbulent Rise of the "Child Gamer": Public Fears and Corporate Promises in Cinematic and Promotional Depictions of Children's Digital Play." Communication, Culture & Critique, Volume 2 Issue 3, pp. 319-338.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grimlie's World on Metaplace

Exploring theoretical concepts and course materials beyond simply writing about them can be a challenging prospect. This semester, in lieu of the standard class presentations, I'm asking my cmns 455 Women and New Information Technology students to explore the theories, terms and ideas discussed in seminar through social networking tools. Since technology is best approached as a form of practice, embedded in culture, relationships and social institutions, what better way to think through the debates, challenges and opportunities that ITs provide than to experience firsthand how these tools can be used to produce critical analysis.

Of course, these types of projects can be easier said (or assigned) than done, so I've decided to join my students in this endeavor by constructing a virtual world component to my lectures. The world will serve as a compliment to course materials and resources, and will function as an immersive and more interactive version of the course website. It will also provide a virtual space for group discussions, if students are willing to give it a try.

For this project, I'm using Metaplace, a user-friendly WYSIWYG (a.k.a. what you see is what you get) virtual world building tool that is free and open to the public. I first heard about Metaplace at this summer's State of Play 6, via Raph Koster's (Metaplace founder and all-star game designer) keynote. I was immediately excited to give it a try, and am even more excited about it now that I've had a chance to give it a whirl. Here's a screenshot of my work-in-progress, "Grimlie's World":



I've attempted to design a virtual environment that reflects some of the ways in which I make sense of issues surrounding women/girls and technology, particularly in terms of how they relate to my own research on children's digital games and play technologies. Here's the excerpt from my "Design Principles" statement, which as I mention above is posted on the course website as well as on the Intro page of the world itself:
In addition to being what I know best and therefore most available for thinking through theoretical issues, I find the realm of children's culture (digital and analog) a fascinating and highly useful way of exploring gender and technology. Very few areas of society are as overtly and openly gendered as children's toys and media - just visit to a nearby Toys "R" Us (pink aisles vs. blue aisles) or watch a few hours of Saturday morning cartoons for some immediate examples.

While counter-examples exist, the dominant discourse is one of extreme divisiveness with a rarely contested emphasis on hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity, and hyper-hegemonic ideals (e.g. middle-class "family values") and politics (heteronormative, conservative, etc.). This emphasis is reflected in the design and implementation of children's cultural and technological artifacts - from porcelain dolls to Easy-Bake Ovens, to Batman action figures.

Within the specific area of digital games, which have long been typecast as "toys for boys" (a problematic title for many reasons), these issues are at the centre of an ongoing debate, which we will be exploring in seminar and through our readings of Kafai et al's Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat. We will spend time discussing the whole concept of "girls games" - the argument that getting more girls into gaming will translate into more women in the game and other IT industries, the various issues of representation that are involved, the often overlooked question of leisure politics in contemporary society, as well as market and industry concerns about gendered design and the movement toward gender-inclusive design.

Throughout this discussion, however, we'll see that most games "for girls" continue to feature very gendered themes and imagery, not to mention colour palettes, and inexplicably limited design affordances. But if all games, and many technologies, are gendered to begin with, as well as predominantly gendered as "masculine", could the explicit display of "feminine" technologies not also be seen as a direct challenge, a re-appropriation and source of potential empowerment? The phenomenon is complicated - it raises so many interesting questions about the social construction of gender and technology, and hits right at the heart of some of the key divisions among feminist technology theorists.

I'm hoping to use the space as a way of depicting, and possibly eventually challenging, some of these paradoxes. My first iteration has been pretty straightforward - basically a suburban playground with different themed areas filled with objects that link up to external website, videos, etc. But I'm hoping that as I become more familiar with the space, I can start using it to engage with the theories and concepts at a more experiential level.

The most exciting thing about this is that my students are along for the ride as well, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how their projects evolve and develop over the course of the semester. You can find out more about the projects and the course on the cmns455 website, or come and see my progress in Metaplace. If you do, please share any thoughts or feedback - as a work in progress, helpful suggestions and comments are welcome and deeply appreciated. Here are a couple of additional screenshots FYI:

Some of the themed areas, reflecting dominant themes found in commercial girls' games, including "Sweets & Treats" (think Candyland or Strawberry Shortcake)


The town square, where you can transport to a separate "Classroom" are where course materials can be downloaded:


And lastly, the Classroom: