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 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 UmeĆ„ 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 ( 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 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 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.