Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Marvel's LittleBigPlanet - Product Placement or Player Generated Content?

I haven't really had much time to absorb let alone relay any of the barrage of information coming out of this year's Comic-Con, but I came across this little gem yesterday and just had to write up a post about it. Sony and Marvel have entered into a cross-promotional partnership that will see official Marvel costumes (available for purchase and download) introduced into Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet. As The Escapist's Andy Chalk writes:
"While we don't know what exactly to expect from this new relationship, it does open some intriguing possibilities for future crossovers. Will the release of new Marvel films result in official LittleBigPlanet crossovers? Could characters created specifically for LittleBigPlanet eventually find their way into a Marvel comic? (It's happened before, you know.) Perhaps a bit more ominously, is it possible that Sony will begin to clamp down on user-created levels that tie in, unofficially, with the Marvel Universe?"

While others have furthermore speculated that the costumes might come with special powers, Chalk's mention of the IP implications is what piqued my interest (that and the possibility of playing as and designing levels for Rogue, Mystique or She-Hulk). Historically, Marvel has not adopted the most open approach to having its characters and IP re-appropriated by gamers. The biggest example of this remains the The Marvel v. NCSoft/Cryptic Studios case back in 2005, wherein Marvel filed a lawsuit against the game developer in regards to City of Heroes, on the basis that the game made it possible for players to infringe on Marvel's IP. Yikes! Follow the slippery slope down that fuzzy line of logic, and you end up with lawsuits launched against Microsoft Word (or paint supply companies for that matter) on the basis that their software makes it possible for people to plagiarize. Anyway, the Marvel v. NCSoft case got its fair share of press back in 2005, for instance over at Terra Nova. And some excellent points about creativity and freedom of expression were made within the motions to dismiss that were filed at the time, such as:
"Kids with wandering imaginations have long decorated school notebooks with pictures of fantastic and supernatural beings of their own design. The ingenuity of individuals, as expressed through the creation of characters incorporating timeless themes of mythology, patriotism, 'good,' and 'evil,' has been a source of entertainment in the form of role-playing games for ages. In the face of technology that enables individuals to engage in such activities in a virtual, on-line context, Marvel Enterprises, Inc. and Marvel Characters, Inc. (collectively, 'Marvel') have taken the unprecedented step of attempting to appropriate for themselves the world of fantasy-based characters..."

The case was ultimately settled out of court, an outcome that caused quite a bit of debate in and of itself...did it mean that City of Heroes was in the right, or did it mean a further delay in the establishment of "fair use" within a gaming/UGC context? You can read some of that coverage here, here and here. For instance, as Greg Lastowka (assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law and Terra Nova author) noted at the time (as quoted on ZDNet):
"...[T]he terms of the settlement apparently allow the NCSoft character creation engine to stand, which is a victory for the players. [...] However, Marvel's claims of player infringement have not been formally rejected by the court, which means analogous claims might be pursued by Marvel, or a like-minded company, in the future."


The settlement was made all the more ambiguous by a subsequent announcement that Cryptic Studios (the makers of City of Heroes) and Marvel (and Mictosoft!) were teaming up to develop an MMO based on the Marvel Universe. As Alice would say, "Curiouser and curiouser!" For those of you interested in the outcome of it all, I'm not too sure what happened, except that last week Joystiq reported that the Diablo creator David Brevik had been hired on as lead in the Marvel MMO's development.

Flash forward a couple of years to yesterday's announcement, and Marvel's tune certainly appears to have changed. Or has it? As Chalk points out, the partnership and introduction of branded ($$) costumes is likely to come with some strings attached. Would Marvel allow "counterfeit" costumes to continue to compete (especially as free downloads) in the same LittleBig Market? Probably not. And seeing as their solution the last time they found an IP loophole was to become business partners with the loophole provider, it does seem pretty likely that this is not merely a promotional opportunity for the media giant, but a preemptive strike as well.

In addition, there's still that ongoing, unresolved issue of players' rights vs. IP holders' rights, which in LittleBigPlanet has unfolded in a strange back and forth, with some players' levels being deleted "without warning or explanation", while other "media-inspired" levels have continued on without hassle. For many of the players whose levels have been deleted (**not including what I can only assume must be another million removed for obscene or abusive content**), there seems to be a general feeling that copyright is the common denominator. As Kotaku's Owen Good writes:
"Traffic on the LittleBigWorkshop discussion board seems to back [this] up. "This just happened to tons of levels in what seems like a matter of minutes, including my own level 'Failure To Launch.' " Says one user. "By the trend I see from the levels I can no longer play from my recent levels on my planet, its all about copyright. Some levels I've seen now unplayable due to moderation: Pacman, Batman, and Scrubs related level."

If "Failure to Launch" was taken down because it shares a title with a romantic comedy from 2006, then this is truly out of hand. The thread is more than nine pages long now, including a claim that a level based on the PlayStation 3 was taken down. Destructoid rightly points out the absurdity of a console exclusive being unable to refer to that console."


Of course, a plethora of player-generated levels based on videogames, films and television properties remain in circulation, which begs the question of which properties/brands are "safe" to reference and why. The durability of certain media-inspired levels is probably in part the result of the vastness of LittleBigPlanet's user-generated levels catalogue (which recently reached the 1 million mark...more on that below), and in part the result of a growing realization among media producers that UGC might just be the most effective form of "web 2.0" marketing you can find (and it's free!). As Kotaku's Luke Plunkett describes, not all companies are upset by player-generated IP infringement. This sentiment is backed up by Media Molecule's co-founder Alex Evans, who in an interview with IGN describes three copyright issues that the game has faced from the outset:
"There were three issues; one was negative and two were positive. The negative one was how hard it was to get worldwide legal harmony, because different countries have different laws around copyright infringement. We knew that people would be creative, and that there would be references. It was hard getting the right balance on a worldwide angle. But then there's been these two mad positives; one was the high quality of the levels, including the infringing ones. The other point is the number of IP owners who came up to us and said please whitelist us – we'll never ever ask you to pull infringing stuff. I can't say who that is, but those two things really shocked me, I think it shocked [the IP holders], who were like, hang on, my IP's being represented and it's being represented really well. The IP holders have to have last say over the representation of their brand, and that's fair enough, so we've always got to have a method for people misusing a brand, but what's been really lovely is how well represented so many brands are."

A great example of the type of "synergy" that Evans is describing here can be seen in this recent Ghostbusters cross-over.

But when you look at all the creativity and care that's going into so many of the player-generated content, you have to wonder why all of these partnerships and product placements seem so necessary to the IP holders (as opposed to just letting the players have some fun). Will Marvel's "Spiderman" really be that much better than this homemade version? And what about the fun of re-creating your favourite heroes and characters? What will happen to players' freedom to create and recreate when their creations aren't just being monitored and regulated, but supplanted outright by branding initiatives?

It's funny, but also quite timely I think, that this issue should come up (again) now, especially with all the hope and hoopla around Sony's recent announcement that in the nine short months since the game's launch, LBP players have created and uploaded 1 million levels to the PlayStation Network. As David Radd of Industry Gamers writes:
Sony calculates that the number of levels is equal to roughly one level generated every 21 seconds since LittleBigPlanet launched. It would take any one of the 2.4 million unique players that have played LittleBigPlanet online nearly five years playing non-stop to experience every uploaded level.

There's obviously a lot of potential here for democratizing culture and cultural production. Despite the fact that most (80%) PlayStationHome users fall within the typical 18-to-35 year-old male gamer demographic, Sony sees significant promise of player diversification and a gradual bucking of established trends within that other, growing 20%. More diverse representation, more accessible tools, and growing interest in UGC all spell opportunity -- opportunity for a more diverse (obviously), more engaging, active and responsive cultural climate. If, that is, stifling copyright/IP regimes don't throttle the life out of it first.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Revamp!

After many years with the all-pink palette, I decided it was time for an aesthetic overhaul. Apart from the new "look and feel", everything should be in the same place it was (or thereabouts) before I upgraded the template, although I suspect that I may be ironing out some kinks over the next few days as I discover lost items, dead links, and so on.

The image in the banner above is cut out from one of Becky Shaefer's brilliant Lara Croft needlepoint pieces, which circulated the web a few years ago, and which I still get a huge kick out of. Hope she doesn't mind my appropriation of her work.

For you regular readers of Gamine Expedition, please feel free to let me know what you think of the revamp :)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ridiculous Life Lessons for Silly Girls

I'm happy to see that along with the recent influx of a new (though arguably somewhat recycled) batch of "girl games" (a.k.a. pink games), the debates about girl games, girls and games and the space for girls within gaming culture are all being actively reinvigorated in a great collection of reviews, articles, discussion pieces and forums. Some of my faves so far are The Brainy Gamer's review of Majesco's Drama Queens (Nintendo DS), L.B. Jeffries' summary of the unfolding "girl games" discussion over at PopMatters, Tracey John's tongue-in-cheek Wired review of various "girl games" and the "ridiculous life lessons" that they contain (hence the first part of the title for this post), and now a great response to John's article featured in The Escapist written by Susan Arendt (called "Silly Girls" and the inspiration for the second part of my title for this post). I ended up writing quite a long response to Arendt's article in the Comments section of her article, which I figured could also serve double-duty as a blog post and give me a chance to get my two-cents in. But first, a quick recap of John and Arendt's articles to set up the context.

Tracey John's article reviews a representative selection of the huge number of "girl games" recently introduced (or soon to be) onto the market, pointing out that while parents fixate on violence in videogames as a cause for concern, there's a lot of other things to get worked up about, including gender stereotypes and the limited selection of games that make it to the "pink aisle" at the videogame store (yep, there's one there too!). As John describes, these games contain all of the same hyper-feminized and highly traditional themes and gender scripts found throughout girls' commercial culture:
A wave of new games for tween girls... [are] serving up innocuous gameplay designed to let players become perfect little princesses. Aimed at that lucrative, Hannah Montana-fueled intersection of childhood and adolescence, these games might give 8- to 12-year-olds their first experiences with fashion, make-up, popularity … even boys.

The weird thing is that you can view these "wholesome” games as being just as bad for girls as Grand Theft Auto’s random bloodshed and rampant criminality is for young, impressionable boys. And while GTA’s influence on boys has been dissected to death, what about the Nintendo DS’ upcoming avalanche of games for tween girls? What kinds of values do preteens learn from these titles? Valuable life lessons, or bad habits?

She goes on to describe the themes and "life lessons" included in EA's new Charm Girls Club, The WB's The Clique: Diss and Make Up, Majesco's The Daring Game for Girls (which gets the only truly positive review of the bunch), a new edition to Dreamcatcher Interactive's Dreamer Series: Top Model, two more Ubisoft entries Imagine: Babyz Fashion (can't wait to play at getting yelled at by the babyz' stage parents this time around) and Imagine: Detective, two new girl games by THQ - Princess in Love and My Boyfriend (which sound like basically the exact same game), two more from Ubisoft in their Style Lab series - Makeover and Jewelry Design and Nintendo's Style Savvy. Lots of make-up and fashion and social relationships, reminding me very much of the "girl games" movement of the mid-1990s, which saw similar titles emerging from both large conglomerates (like Mattel) and from a number of the independent, feminist developers attempting to establish a more clearly delineated, more popular, girls' games market by focusing storylines and themes on stuff that actual girls were understood to enjoy. Of course, this raises all the usual problems raised by essentialism...when applied to girls or gender or any group, there's always an enormous risk of stereotyping, of over-emphasizing certain elements and particular types while excluding others all together.

And this is where Susan Arendt's article comes in. Arendt basically responds to John's article by defending girls' right to play silly games with traditional themes if that's what they want, and by pointing out that as a culture we're much too quick to dismiss anything "girlie" as necessarily bad or lesser. As Arendt writes:
Ah, what's that I hear? That these games "perpetuate negative stereotypes"? Which stereotypes would these be, exactly? The ones that young girls like cute boys, looking at clothes, and gossiping about each other? Granted, it's been a few years since I was the target demographic for these games, but when I was a wee lass, I engaged in all of those activities so much that I practically had Master's Degrees in them. I somewhat doubt all that much has changed.

The simple truth is that young girls like stupid things. They like shopping and makeup and boys and ponies and glitter and The Jonas Brothers and a whole legion of other things that will make you feel like your brain is dissolving if you think about them for too long. And please, this is not your cue to protest about how you were never like that, you liked bugs and science and all the things that small girls typically don't because you're not about to be forced into some label, dammit! Get over it. If you grew up preferring dirtbikes to Barbies, that's grand, but if you didn't - if you fretted over the best color nail polish and prowled the local clothing stores like a lion on the savannah - well, that's ok, too.

[And here's my response, reproduced from The Escapist comments forum:]

I love the debate and issues that both these articles engage with. Girl games suffer from the same ostracization as most other forms of "girl culture" - whether it's princess parties and My Little Pony, or the daring girls who have the nerve to join the dirt biking team, there's always someone around just waiting to point out how "wrong" it is. Though in defense of Tracey John's article, that shouldn't mean that we can't hold them to the same standards as any other game... in terms of subjecting them to critique, analysis and discussion, as well as demanding the same levels of variety, innovation, immersion, good storylines, characters, etc. etc. as any other genre. John points out a pretty important aspect of this "new wave" of girl games - they mostly all revolve around the same three or four themes, contributing to the ongoing (though admittedly quite *sparkly*) cluttering of a market that seems to be growing despite these games rather than because of them.

My beef with this new spurt of girl games isn't that they exist - I agree with Susan that they should if there's a demand for them, but that they're taking shelf space (and development efforts) away from other genres that might do a bit better at filling the substantial gap that still exists within the girls' games market. Girls play online games WAY more than console games (90%+ vs. 28%), and I'm pretty sure that Stardoll, BarbieGirls and The Sims aren't the only titles capturing their attention (Runescape, Club Penguin, and Free Realms are all extremely popular among girl gamers as well). When it comes to console games, Guitar Hero and Wii Sports (and even Grand Theft Auto) rank way up there on girls' lists of their favourite games. I wish the industry would start looking toward girls' actual gaming habits rather than simply reproducing the same old themes that already dominate both the girls' toy aisle (a suffering market as girls now abandon their toys and dolls at younger and younger ages) AND the girls' games shelf.

If the industry is ever going to build more significant and sustainable inroads into the ever-elusive "girls market" they're going to have to add a few more tricks to their dog and pony show (hmm...dogs and ponies sounds like the premise for a new Ubisoft Imagine title). Maybe start by taking all those games that girl gamers already like and then actively market them to other, non-gamer girls? Even if it means that maybe some boys somewhere might see the game being advertised to girls? Even at the risk of associating that game with, *gasp*, girl culture? Would that really be so detrimental to sales figures? Would boys really abandon Guitar Hero just because they saw an ad during Spongebob that featured some girl players and a female voice-over?

Or maybe by finally taking a chance on "Science Mama", realizing that expanding into new markets is never risk-free, and that yet another "Princess Secret Crush" game is just as likely to tank as it is to sell? I mean, how many of these girl games have totally and utterly failed? And how many awesome and innovative girls games have been buried and left for dead by a market that emphasizes same-ness above (and to the detriment of) all else? Thomas mentions this in her blurb on The Daring Game for Girls: "Like the book, the game offers handy tips and facts as well as non-stereotypically female activities, encouraging girls to seek adventure - not boyfriends or cute clothes, for once. So, of course, no one will actually play it." Tell that to Her Interactive, makers of the extremely popular Nancy Drew games. There's so much untapped and unchanneled potential out there, yet all the industry's powerhouses (EA, Ubisoft, etc.) seem to be able to come up with is more of the same. And when a "different" game does somehow manage to get through, they fail to promote it, thereby letting the "market" "prove" there's no room for innovation.

Or maybe by realizing that girls aren't going to be drawn into gaming as a lifelong passion by themes and characters alone (although they are important). Design is so key to attracting new players...intuitive controls, rich environments and, of course, accessibility. The really sad thing about many of the girl games currently on the market - [and I know I'm going to get some negative responses from this, but here goes] - is how poorly they're designed. Clunky, buggy, overly-restrictive, with limited customizability and very low re-playability. Too much endless grinding at repetitive, mostly mindless (and buggy!) mini-games that have little or no relationship with the larger game. And this has been a shockingly pervasive feature of girl games ever since the first wave happened in the mid-1990s. There are of course a number of well designed, innovative titles as well (e.g. Super Princess Peach!!!), but these are way too few and far between. I anticipate that most of the titles in this newest batch will reproduce the norm, not the exception.

All of which really makes me wonder...who and what is this niche really for anyway?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Data Mining Kids and Teens' UGC and Social Networks

Via YPulse, and in follow up to an earlier news item the site broke last week, some coverage and discussion of Echometrix's new service PULSE, a self-described "real-time web based sentiment analytics tool that specializes exclusively on teen data (ages 7 to 21)." The service is already getting some buzz and news attention, and my immediate thoughts and concerns are no more positive now that I've read some of the initial reactions.

First off..."teen data"? Since when are 7-year-olds considered to be teenagers? What they really mean is children and teens, so COPPA should be in full effect here, but anyway. The confusion of kids and teens in Pulse's own descriptions of the service obviously makes it all the more problematic, not to mention difficult to analyze. Although it's possible that they really do distinguish between teens and kids in terms of the data they actually collect in some cases, in others (such as UGC) they are quite explicit about including data from both kids and teens. Furthermore, according to their URL and their Tween Pulse Research Blog, the company is pretty aware that they're not really limiting their research to teens...it probably just sounds more palatable that way.

The rest of the claims made in Pulse's corporate materials are downright creepy, and basically boast about mining youth-produced UGC, blogs, forums websites and chatrooms, along with any IM that "teens" engage in through the company's other product, "FamilySafe." According to Proudfoot, and as the product name would suggest, FamilySafe is an Internet security program that monitors and analyzes everything a child does online, and then alerts the child's parent of "anything alarming" through text messages. So far, FamilySafe monitors approximately 150,000 young people in the US and Canada, all under the rubric of providing parents with more "control" over their kids' online activities. Of course, it's highly doubtful that parents who have signed on to the FamilySafe were considering the larger market value of the "non-alarming" information that is also collected from their children through this service, but then again I guess you can't really be all that surprised when you discover that the market research firm you've paid to monitor your kids has a hidden agenda. Sorry to all the parents who bought FamilySafe unaware of its market research implications, but in this day and age of widespread corporate surveillance, a little research into the company's ownership and a thorough reading of the terms of service is pretty much mandatory when installing software that will track your/your kids' every online move. On the other hand, this is also a great (and possibly very devious) example of the corporate misuse (abuse?) of parents' safety concerns as a Trojan horse for market research and/or marketing.

Anyway, here's an excerpt of The Pulse product description:
Every single minute PULSE is aggregating the web’s social media outlets such as chat and chat rooms, blogs, forums, instant messaging, and web sites to extract meaningful user generated content from your target audience, the teens!

PULSE contextualizes the aggregated content and provides instantaneous customized summaries in real time of the teen market. The PULSE identifies, evaluates, and graphically displays a wide spectrum of analytic information relating to the type, tone, grade, frequency of communications, impressions, needs, desires, hopes, dreams and wants of this teen audience who live on the Web.

[...] we focus on user generated content, which is the only data source solid enough to reveal the author’s true attitude and emotion. We provide you with access to 100% unbiased, unfiltered, and user group generated content from a vast network of teen focused content sources such as forums, blogs, chats and IM conversations.

Well, as unbiased as any of us are when we post stuff online. There is certainly an element of performativity within individuals' online identity management practices that is being ignored here. But this very critique can also become a slippery slope into dismissing the importance of what Pulse and their contemporaries are doing. A good example of this is found in the article discussed in today's YPulse post about, um, PULSE. The article, written by Shannon Proudfoot for Canada.com, describes the invasive nature of the data mining service but quickly jumps to downplaying its importance by positioning the service within the context of that standard old argument of 'how little it will ultimately matter because you can't really find anything out that way, and people don't post real info about themselves online, and aren't marketers just so out of touch with the youth, etc., etc.'. Not that I recommend starting a moral panic around this or anything, but there's got to be a better way of exploring these things without it coming off as either insanely and unrealistically pessimistic or as insanely and unrealistically optimistic. Luckily anastasia is much more nuanced in her discussion of the article, outlining both the perceived weaknesses of the Pulse methodology, as well as highlighting the need for regulation "when it comes to mining data of internet users under the age of 18."

In terms of the methodology, obviously the corporate description is overly celebratory and vague. anastasia seems optimistic that the data collected won't be all that useful, as do the teen and IT expert Proudfoot interviews in her article. Granted, Proudfoot's interview with Echometrix CEO Jeffrey Greene doesn't reveal much to the contrary, as he glibly dismisses tried and tested qualitative research methods (which the market industry has really perfected over the past three decades) in favour of Pulse's own quantitative approach:
"Services like Pulse are in huge demand because they provide nearly instant feedback in a swiftly changing media environment, Greene said, and fly-on-the-wall results are much more accurate than traditional market research.

"Teens are so clever that people who attempt to do research in the teen marketplace often tell us that teens 'game the system,' " he said. "When teens participate in an online poll or a focus group, they know or think they know what answer we want to hear, so that's the answer they provide."

The company said Pulse predicted Kris Allen's surprise American Idol victory before the results were announced in May. Teens talk about iPods 13 times more than the Zune MP3 player, the program reveals, and the iPhone gets four times more buzz than the BlackBerry."

But the thing is, the data they're collecting includes a lot more than the mere number of times a particular brand name is mentioned, and we would be wise to remember that data mining technology is advancing at lightening speed before assuming that their methods are ineffective just because they're not releasing any "rich" proprietary information to the press. YPulse's anastasia describes PULSE's methodology as lacking in comparison to focus groups and surveys because the data is likely to be decontextualized and misinterpreted...an opinion also expressed by Proudfoot's teen insider. But rather than think of PULSE's market analysts as a bunch of out-of-touch suits, who "at 50-something has no idea how a teenager thinks, saying, 'This is really interesting!'", we should instead suspect that some pretty on-the-ball, tech savvy, youth culture (and behaviour) experts are much more likely to be the ones interpreting the data collected...and rather than looking at solely at frequencies, i have no doubt in the world that they will also be tracking how teens talk and when, to whom and how their opinions change over time, and applying all sorts of rich qualitative methods in their analysis (discourse analysis, trend analysis, profiling, identifying archetypes, etc.). That's the beauty of data mining...the info you can collect is vast and the connections you can make between units of data boggle the mind, and there's always the potential for rich interpretation...even if that's not what Echometrix is currently promoting (or revealing, or even doing).

Proudfoot also interviews an independent technology analyst, Jesse Hirsh, who expresses similar reservations about the efficacy of the system, stating: "Nobody ever posts an honest Facebook photo of themselves. They post the best Facebook photo of themselves, so they're not really being honest, are they?" But then again, doesn't that picture actually tell us quite a lot about what that person wants, even if it's not such an accurate picture of who they are? What they want to portray to others, how they would like to see themselves, what they think of as an ideal or appropriate or funny public display, etc.? And isn't marketing all about identifying and exploiting our wants and ideals?

Overall, what this story tells me is that even if PULSE doesn't succeed with their own attempt to data mine youth-produced UGC, the fact remains that the technology is out there and its ability to exploit kids' online contributions, thoughts and communications is being overtly and unapologetically promoted as such to the public. If there were any lingering doubts that kids' UGC requires some regulatory protection to prevent its misuse and misappropriation by (adult-led) corporations, this newest case study should finally put them to rest. It's in the public domain, but are kids' authorship rights really being fostered and adequately supported in this kind of environment? Perhaps it's time for a Creative Commons-produced terms of service, which teens and children can put on their websites, blogs and forums, explicitly and formally forbidding users of the site (human or automated, including Echometrix's webcrawlers) from appropriating content published on the site for profit without explicit permission of the author...I mean, isn't that how the public domain is actually supposed to work anyway?

On a more positive note, big props to Proudfoot for interviewing a teen as one of the experts on this clearly teen-relevant issue. Awesome!