Monday, April 27, 2009

Hey Kids! Take Your DS to School

Via Kotaku, news about some fascinating international initiatives aimed at better incorporating videogames into school curriculum. While North America continues to lag behind in this area, school districts in the UK and Japan are making significant leaps and bounds toward finding viable educational applications for various digital gaming technologies, particularly the Nintendo DS (and now DSi). As Kotaku's AJ Glasser writes,
"Leading the charge toward a Nintenducation in the UK is Scotland. Their Centre for Games and Learning (aka The Consolarium) is an extension of the Scottish Government Schools Directorate that presents teachers and education administrators with ideas for implementing all kinds of gaming consoles into schools.

Derek Robertson, National Adviser for Emerging Technologies and Learning and administrator of the Consolarium, says that the use of the DS in schools is now commonplace, compared to when he first introduced the consoles to schools in 2006. "Initially I purchased 30 [Nintendo DS consoles] and carried out my first Dr. Kawashima [aka Brain Age] trial. The extended trial saw us handing out over 450 consoles to support our project."

While The Consolarium provides suggestions about which games (and systems) might be most amenable to curriculum development (such as Brain Age), it also encourages schools and teachers to be experimental and try out other games and approaches. As Robertson (cited by Glasser) explains, "Our main approach is not to prescribe a series of lesson plans but to suggest how the game, be it Nintendogs or Hotel Dusk, can be used as the contextual hub about which learning in a variety of curricular links can grow from."

The Consolarium seems to be filling a crucial function in the movement to "digitize" the classroom, that of providing support and resources to teachers who would like to integrate new media into their teaching, but don't always have the skills and/or tools to do so. The need for a "Digital Teacher Corp" was recently identified by the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre as a key priority in raising student engagement and updating classroom curriculum. As Cooney Centre Industry Fellow Carly Shuler writes in her recent report Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children's Learning (download the full report here):
"Teachers cannot teach with devices they do not understand. Professional development is essential to the future of mobile learning. Perhaps most important is to avoid a problem that has often occurred with the incorporation of technology into education in general: It is not just a matter of showing teachers how to use the devices; rather, it is crucial to show them how to use them within their curriculum."

In follow up to the report, the Cooney Centre's Levine and Thai wrote in a recent article for the New York Daily News:
"We should start by introducing digital innovation in every school. Teachers are resistant to using digital technologies because they cannot teach what they do not know. Schools of education and professional development programs are using a Stone Age approach to deploying games in classrooms. That should change now.

As a down payment to President Obama and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's challenge to improve school outcomes and teacher quality, we propose the establishment of a Digital Teachers Corps. It would integrate new digital games from research-tested educational media programs such as Sesame Workshop's "The Electric Company" to improve children's essential literacy and math skills and to attack the weak performance of English-language learners across subjects. Games and simulations perfected by our military institutions and medical schools could be adapted to teach higher-level content in science and technology as well as world languages - all areas where the U.S. has fallen behind."

Looks like The Consolarium might be a good place to start when it comes time to articulate the model for how this "Digital Teachers Corps" might work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Paid to Play - Club Penguin Recognizes Playbour, Cont'd

Quick update on the Club Penguin story. This week's edition of the Club Penguin Times provides further details about the new salary feature: Starting May 1st penguins who "work" as tour guides and/or secret agents will be "paid" 250 Coins a month (per position, which means that some industrious penguins can earn 500/mnth). They'll receive their "paychecks" through Penguin Mail. Too cute!! :) BTW: Check out this article on Associated Content about "What the New York Times Can Learn from Club Penguin", which describes how the Club Penguin Times has an "average monthly readership of about 6.7 million readers a month"...yowza!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Paid to Play - Club Penguin Recognizes Playbour

Wow...I'm so impressed by Club Penguin's most recent developer blog post, a.k.a. Community news post, announcing that they will soon be "paying" members who perform community services in-game. They're not giving many details yet, but the post is titled "Penguins Getting Paid!", and includes the following teaser description:
"Have you ever thought about taking the quizzes to become a tour guide or PSA (Penguin Secret Agent)? If your penguin is old enough, and you're interested in helping out around the island, you might want to consider the challenge... It's going to be announced in the newspaper later this week that starting May 1st, penguins will get paid every month for doing those jobs!"

Payment will no doubt come in the form of coins or items, of course, but it's a payment nonetheless. The reason I'm impressed is that by "paying" players for their contributions Club Penguin is acknowledging the value of the players' "immaterial labour". Players' willingness to perform (virtual) community services is often an important of part of virtual worlds -- it helps to ensure that in-game communities run smoothly, and fosters inclusiveness and camaraderie among players. Many games "offload" community building activities onto players. Well, offload is perhaps a strong word, since determining the nature of one's own "community" is empowering and a huge part of what makes virtual worlds so appealing. But even if the tasks are undertaken voluntarily, that doesn't mean they aren't also productive, generating a form of immaterial labour or "playbour" necessary for "producing" the virtual world experience, which is then promoted and sold to other players (via membership fees, etc.). Recognizing the value of this labour is a key step in preventing its exploitation, so kudos to Club Penguin for further empowering its young players and communicating to them that their time and energy is a valuable and important part of the site (and a key component of its business model).

With the spread of virtual communities and player-generated content, immaterial labour is becoming an increasingly relevant area of debate and study. Check out the following sources for further discussion of the various issues involved:

Julian Kücklich (2005) "Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry", Fibreculture Journal, issue 5.

Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford (2005) "A Playful Multitude? Mobilising and Counter-Mobilising Immaterial Game Labour", Fibreculture Journal, issue 5.

Andrew Herman, Rosemary J. Coombe & Lewis Kaye (2006) "YOUR SECOND LIFE? Goodwill and the performativity of intellectual property in online digital gaming", Cultural Studies, Vol. 20, Nos 2/3, pp.184-210.

Terranova, Tiziana (2000) "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy", Social Text, 18(2), pp.33-58.

Pybus, Jennifer (2007) "Affect and Subjectivity: A Case Study of", Politics and Culture, issue 2.

Côté, Mark and Jennifer Pybus (2007) "Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks", Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 7(1), pp.88-106

Or (if you have subscription access) my own paper from a couple of years ago: Grimes, Sara M. (2006) "Online Multiplayer Gaming: A Virtual Space for Intellectual Property Debates?", New Media & Society, 8(6), pp.969-990.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pretty last post, which discusses the weaknesses of automated filter/monitor systems, somehow caused my blog to be flagged as a potential "spam blog" it! thanks to google for proving my concerns are not misplaced :)

Virtual Playground Monitors

Via yesterday's New York Times, a great article by Leslie Berlin (who is the project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford) about the different techniques and technologies used to moderate children's virtual worlds for inappropriate/dangerous content and risky behaviours. The article focuses on vw's that try to monitor "intent as well as content"...rather than simply blocking keywords or limiting communication altogether. It also describes that bullying and disclosing personal info remain the most common dangers faced by young people online. According to Berlin, the biggest challenges for vw moderators are keeping up with "user innovations" aimed at bypassing moderation tools (such as "workarounds" or "secret codes"), as well as striking a balance between technological solutions and human judgement when it comes to deciding which words, workarounds and behaviours should ultimately be filtered out. However, this "balance" is becoming increasingly reliant on technology and sophisticated in-game surveillance tools. She describes the process as "a continuing game of cat and mouse between the young people and the technology designed to protect them." For instance:
NetModerator, a software tool built by Crisp Thinking, a private company based in Leeds, England, can monitor online chat “for intent as well as content,” says Andrew Lintell, the company’s chief executive. To build the tool, he says, Crisp Thinking analyzed roughly 700 million lines of chat traffic, some from conversations between children and some, like conversations between children and sexual predators, provided by law enforcement groups.

The software is integrated into a virtual world’s site. If the technology uncovers phrasing, syntax, slang or other patterns in a conversation that match known signs of bullying or sexual predation, it sends an alert to a moderator, who can then “drill down” to look not only at the entirety of the specific conversation, but also at every posting from either participant.

“We can capture a full picture of a user’s history on the game,” Mr. Lintell says. NetModerator also includes a filter that is updated regularly to include new words, abbreviations or character combinations that can be read as words, like “sk8.”

Berlin goes on to describe that the NetModerator program is already being used in a number of virtual worlds for children, including Cartoon Network's FusionFall, which uses the software to monitor open chat and player-to-player e-mail. Is this reminding anyone else of Minority Report? Private surveillance technologies being used for extensive data-mining and profiling...not exactly what pops into your mind when you think of a playground monitor, nevermind the deeper questions this raises about how these particular "patterns" are established and what other behavioural trends are being tracked concurrently.

For instance, another example described in the article is a new technology by Keibi Technologies, which is used to "determine whether user-generated content — like videos, images and text — contains objectionable material." It also builds a profile of every person who uploads content, and is currently used by "several sites aimed at children and teenagers"...which makes those profiles all the more comprehensive (and potentially invasive).

In some cases, using these tools has allowed sites to reduce moderator staff from over 20 people to just 3 or 4. But of course, the sites and designers don't want us thinking that they're relying solely on automated filter software (which has in the past proven itself almost invariably ineffective and/or overly-restricting). The argument is that because so much of the obvious stuff is being flagged by the system, moderators now have more time to focus on the "subtle or hard-to-interpret messages"...interactions and behaviours that aren't outright "offensive", but that may hint at something much more serious (such as the suspected presence of a predator, or that a user may be suicidal). The work that moderators do is definitely incredibly important -- particularly in children's websites -- it's difficult, complicated and for the most part surprisingly undervalued. If these technologies are truly making their jobs easier and allowing them to get into the grey areas a bit more, then that's great...but seeing as so much gets by moderation systems as it is, and that even the most advanced software still can't accurately predict human intention...and seeing that the increased reliance on automated systems is resulting in drastic reductions of human moderator staff rather than a simple shift in kind of makes this whole line of argumentation pretty sketchy.

Berlin and her interviewees also describe some of the "workarounds" that kids and teens use to circumvent filter technologies, highlighting the continued weakness of these systems. For example, they use:
...spammers’ tricks like inserting random spaces or deliberate misspellings into their chats. Ms. Littleton has heard of users trying to identify their hometowns in code. (“Opposite of pepper, body of water” is Salt Lake City.) Ms. Marshall has intercepted them trying to share phone numbers by typing the letters that correspond to the digits on a telephone keypad.

When one site blocked the word “love,” Ms. Marshall says, the children substituted the word “glove.”

Such ingenuity is one reason that technology alone will never provide enough protection, she says. “Kids will find a way to communicate,” she says, “and you can’t block every word in the dictionary.”

Technologists agree with her. “There’s no silver bullet from a technical standpoint to do this,” says Mr. Smith at Keibi. “This is about helping humans to make a decision about whether there is a problem.”

The article also has some useful stats about growth in the kids' vw sector, such as:
By the end of this year, there will be 70 million unique accounts — twice as many as last year — in virtual worlds aimed at children under 16, according to K Zero, a consulting firm. Virtual Worlds Management, a media and trade events company, estimates that there are now more than 200 youth-oriented virtual worlds “live, planned or in active development.”

My big takeaways from this article? The sense that the more things change the more things stay the same...despite the big push for "safety first" in many of these sites and guarantees of 24 hour human moderator services, there's still a huge drive to rely on technologies that seem...for the most part...not all that different from the automated filter systems of five years ago. More sophisticated maybe, but not exactly a horse of a different colour. Second - more and more evidence of the huge piles of data being amassed in these sites, as well as the troubling convergence of surveillance and profiling...using "safety and security" as an excuse to not only monitor and analyze children's behaviours online, but also to make decisions about them based on "predicted intentions." Third - the incorporation of UGC into the mix....I'm sure they are definitely looking for offensive materials, but how is that measured, what are they looking for, whose interests are being prioritized (corporate copyright regimes, anyone?), what's the impact on free speech/expression, and...of course...what else are they looking at (likes, personal habits, consumer trends, etc.).

Monday, April 13, 2009

Opportunity Alert: Stupid Fun Club and the Corus PhD Fellowship in Television Studies

Two very appealing new opportunities have been announced over the past few days that I thought might be of interest to readers of Gamine Expedition. The first, via Emily Claire Afan over at Kidscreen, stems from an announcement that Will Wright will be leaving his current position at EA to head up their newest collaboration...a multimedia IP think tank called the Stupid Fun Club. As Afan writes:
The entertainment think tank is in charge of developing new IPs across a variety of media from video games and movies to TV, online and toys. Will Wright, the designer behind the hugely popular Sims franchise, and most recently Spore, will be leaving EA to run Stupid Fun Club, which he and the video game publisher own equally as principal shareholders.

From this investment, EA also gains the right to develop game concepts from SFC projects.

Wright has dabbled with the Stupid Fun Club as some sort of mysterious side project for several years now, but its past projects (and existing website) don't reveal much about the future scope and aims the "idea hub" might take. I'll be keeping an eye out for additional info...and job postings!

The second opportunity is academic-oriented, and comes in the form of a pretty sweet PhD fellowship in television/cross-media convergence studies at the University of Alberta, funded by Corus Entertainment. Here's a reprint of the fellowship position description - notice that the deadline is fast approaching!:
The Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta is pleased to announce the establishment of the Corus Entertainment Ph.D. Fellowship in Television Studies commencing September 2009. The fellowship is worth $10,000 per year and is eligible for renewal subject to successful progress through the program of study. Applicants should be working within the broader area of critical-cultural television studies. However, the specific area of research interest is open (i.e. industry analysis, audience reception, fandom, textual criticism, convergence culture, etc.).

The successful applicant will also receive the Sociology department’s standard PhD funding package. This includes four years of GaP funding initially worth approximately $21,500 per academic year as well as nomination for the Provost’s Doctoral Entrance Award which covers tuition. The University of Alberta also offers numerous competitive doctoral grants and awards and the department’s graduate students have a notably high success rate in securing both on-campus and national research grants. International students are eligible to apply for the fellowship.

The deadline for application is April 30, 2009. It is anticipated that the decision to award the scholarship will be made no later than May 15, 2009.

Corus is a market leader in specialty television and radio with additional assets in pay television, advertising services, television broadcasting, children’s book publishing and children’s animation. The company’s multimedia entertainment brands include YTV, Treehouse, W Network, CosmoTV, VIVA, Movie Central, HBO Canada, Nelvana, Kids Can Press and radio stations including CKNW, CKOI and Q107.

Questions about the fellowship or letters of interest should be addressed to:

Dr. Serra Tinic
Associate Professor, Media Studies
Department of Sociology, Tory 5-21
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB T6G 2H4 Canada
Tel. 780.492.0480

Questions about applying to the Ph.D. program should be addressed to:

Dr. William Johnston
Associate Chair, Graduate
Department of Sociology
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB T6G 2H4 Canada

Monday, April 06, 2009

Spore API - How Cool is THIS?

Via Dmitri Williams through the Gamesnetwork email list, news about an incredible opportunity for academics and researchers being offered by EA/Spore. Not sure when this was officially launched, but it's the first I've heard of it, and although I don't have time to comment right now, you can expect a post very soon filled with lots of "wows" and "awesomes". In the meantime here's a copy of the full announcement:
Exploring Custom Content in Spore

Spore is a social network based on player creativity. Each user in Spore is equipped with powerful 3D editors that enable the user to design any creature, building or vehicle they imagine and then share their creations with each other. Spore also allows players to exchange ideas and critiques about each other's creations, keep track of a creator's most recent work and collaborate on projects. Since the launch of Spore back in June of 2008, over 3 million users have joined and created nearly 100 million assets. The community also continues to grow with a new user joining every minute and a new creation being shared every second. For a glimpse into this online community, see which provides basic information about the newest and most popular creations among other perspectives. Sporepedia reveals that creations have spanned a broad space, alluded to a wide array of genres (Star Wars, Sesame St., Pokemon) and even explored new ideas in architecture, sculpture and other design.

However, one website alone is inadequate to explore this huge collection of custom content. As a result, Spore has released the Spore API: It is a collection of public web services that provide access to data about user activity, their relationships and the content they produce. This poses a unique opportunity for aspiring or seasoned developers, academics, and data visualization gurus. What tools can be built to navigate through this data set, track trends, organize and discover new content? For the novice, building a web application that allows a user to easily navigate through the millions of Spore creations and social web would be a tool welcomed by the community. For the more advanced student, understanding the propagation of ideas across the social network or building recommendation algorithms based on past user activity are just some examples of research projects to pursue. In any case, the Spore API awaits new approaches to exploration and understanding of this unique online world.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Little Big Planet Online Hits the 2 Million Mark

Wow. Via Chris Remo over at Gamasutra, news that earlier this week, the much discussed, much adored LittleBigPlanet hit the 2 million online players! (VGChartz puts total sales at 2.13 million). Together, these 2 million players have created 725,000 online levels, generated about 4 million comments, and played the game over 125 million times. As Remo writes:
The PlayStation 3-exclusive sidescroller relies heavily on user-generated content both to provide more gameplay for owners of the game, as well as to serve as grassroots-level marketing demonstrating its avenues for creativity.


In a press release today, publisher Sony Computer Entertainment specifically called out a number of particularly impressive levels, including "LittleBigPlanet Takeshi's Castle," "LBP Jurassic Park," "LBP-MotorStorm," "LittleBigCalculator," "Uncle Fritz's Funhouse Frenzy," "Illumina Garden," and "Huge Pinball Machine," which it calls a "community favourite."

Follow the links for Youtube clips of these and various other awesome and/or pop culture-inspired levels. My favorite clip among them is this one of a uber-cool "Mirror's Edge" level.

The article also includes an interview from Sony marketing director Mark Hardy, who describes that LittleBigPlanet "is giving people from every walk of life the opportunity to express themselves creatively. The game is just the start. This is Creative Gaming: never-ending experiences that take on lives of their own through their players." Nice! If anyone knows where I can find out some user demographic stats for this game, esp. in relation to online participation rates, please please please drop me a line. I've had this game and all the fascinating developments around it (UGC, IP, cross-generational play) slotted as my next research project for awhile now, and it's exciting to see it's becoming such a massive, community-generating success. Now...if I can just finish writing this thesis already so that I can get started on the analysis ;)

In other news, the Cartoon Network's branded MMORPG FusionFall also hit a milestone this week, passing the 4 Million mark...pretty impressive considering the game has only been out since January. According to VirtualWorldsNews, this number describes "registered users," including both free-to-players and subscribers (a.k.a. basic and premium memberships). VWN describes:
FusionFall combines a a fair amount of gameplay, both in roleplaying and action-oriented styles, and is also looking to add in more social options. To celebrate the milestone, Cartoon Network is giving away a free Zak Saturday Bubblehead Helmet virtual good.

Apparently, once you get past the first couple of levels, the game is actually quite fun and addicting to play. I'll have to give it another go asap.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hello Kitty MMOG Coming to North America

Via the WarCry Network, news this week that Sanrio's girl-oriented MMOG Hello Kitty Online, based on Hello Kitty and other cutesy-bootsy Sanrio characters, will soon be expanding its services to North America through a partnership with Aeria Games & Entertainment Inc.. Here's an excerpt from the Sanrio/Aeria joint press release:
The announcement was made at the 2009 Game Developer Conference®, held at San Francisco's Moscone Center from March 23-27. Hello Kitty Online is the eagerly anticipated official massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) of the Hello Kitty universe. Aeria Games will manage North American online publishing and game service operations for Hello Kitty Online. Sanrio Digital will manage retail publishing of the game and operate SanrioTown ( ), the Sanrio-themed portal and social networking site integrated with Hello Kitty Online.

"Sanrio Digital is very excited to partner with Aeria Games, who will be our online publisher and operator for Hello Kitty Online in North America. With Aeria Games' leadership position in the free-to-play casual MMO sector and Hello Kitty brand awareness among the underserved female gaming audience, Hello Kitty Online will grow into a leading social gaming destination for teens and female adults," said Robert Ferrari, Vice President of Publishing & Business Development of Sanrio Digital.

The game will be "free-to-play with optional premium upgrades," a model that is proving to be immensely successful these days (see last week's post on Club Penguin). Already successful in various parts of Asia, Hello Kitty Online will continue to announce and implement expansion plans throughout 2009. In addition to promoting the Sanrio brand and media characters, the game is intended t establish itself at the nexus of the "underserved female gaming audience" by providing a "magical and cute" environment focused on themes of friendship and caring (sound familiar? i wonder if they'll ever design a vw for girls that doesn't revolve around those themes)...both virtually and IRL. As described in the press release:
Aside from redefining traditional MMO gaming with the inclusion of integrated social media services provided by SanrioTown, Hello Kitty Online connects the virtual world with real world charity events: during past beta events, Sanrio Digital translated player activities into real donations to charities such as UNICEF. Sanrio Digital intends to continue charitable initiatives as part of North American strategy for Hello Kitty Online.

Very much in keeping with the growing/ongoing "games for change" trend spreading across kids' digital culture (e.g. see this recent MediaPost article about Nickelodeon's "Games for Social Change"). Additional details can be found in a recent post on Gamezig,which describes some of the Hello Kitty Online charity events that have unfolded to date. Here's the excerpt:
"In a recent beta, the event "Food for Friends" invited players to craft virtual items to raise money for UNICEF and the Asian Youth Orchestra. A similar event named "Helping Hearts" asked players to craft virtual items that Sanrio Digital then converted into hundreds of real gifts for the children of the Po Leung Kuk residential child care unit.

Sanrio and Aeria Games have announced that similar virtual-to-real world charity initiatives will be coordinated for the North American market as well. I wonder what they (or the kids) will come up with. Oh corporately manufactured charities...such a cool opportunity for kids to get involved in social movements, but why is the cost always that kids end up being enlisted in viral marketing and brand promotion?