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.

1 comment:

Chuk said...

Yes, I watch some Dinosaur Train with my four-year-old daughter, usually on my iPhone since there's a few free episodes available.

I wanted to comment on a slight tangent, maybe this was always present in the "new" Tinker Bell character, but she's a hacker now! Or at least a maker -- something I'd like to see in "role model" type character a lot more than the Disney princesses they had when I was young. They even had a throwaway reference to an optics formula in the new movie.
(Came here from your article in The Escapist. Good stuff.)