Sunday, September 27, 2009

Child Gamer Paper Published

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grimlie's World on Metaplace

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


And lastly, the Classroom:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Canadian Copyright Reform

I wish I had gotten around to this sooner, but alas! There are only a few hours left to have your voices heard in the Government of Canada Copyright Consultation. The hard-working people over at Fair Copyright for Canada have made submitting a response as easy as signing a form letter, so there's still time to add your name to the long (but perhaps not long enough) list of people dissatisfied with the way copyright reform in this country is headed. If you haven't done so already, hop on over to Fair Copyright's "Copyright Consultation Made Easy" page, follow their advice, and send off an email asap. They've also provided a form letter to petition elected representatives to take up the cause - which you can personalize or simply sign and send through an online form...they'll print off a hard copy and send it along to the appropriate offices this week.

There's lots of info on the Fair Copyright website explaining why this is important, including placing much needed limits on corporate-centric (and US-driven) copyright laws, protecting consumer rights and artists' rights, fostering research, innovation, creativity and education, maintaining individual control over our technologies, etc., as well as a ton of background info. You can also find out more about the consultation, analysis of the submissions and proposals at www.speakoutoncopyright.ca. Here's a really brief excerpt from the Fair Copyright site:
Last year, Canadians across the country rose up in protest when our government proposed to change copyright in ways that many found harmful and unfair. Due to mounting opposition, the proposed law (Bill C-61) was delayed and ultimately dropped. The government promises to once again introduce a new copyright law. This time we
can help them get it right. From now until September 13th, 2009, the Government of Canada will be holding a consultation on copyright. In just minutes, you can tell the government what matters most to you.

Having waited 'till the last minute myself on this, I can attest to how easy it really is to write up a quick submission. Here's a copy of the email I sent in to info@copyrightconsultation.gc.ca earlier today:
I am writing in response to the solicitation for feedback on the Government of Canada Copyright Consultations. I am a PhD candidate in communication, which involves a significant amount of media research and analysis. The quality of my research, as well as that of my teaching, relies on copyright laws that allow for fair dealing, particularly as it applies to educational purposes. Canada is already far behind other developed nations when it comes to fair dealing allowances. For instance, although Canadian academics are currently allowed exemptions to copyright for study and analysis, we do not have the same exemptions for classroom use as found in the US and in various EU countries. As a university instructor, copyright restricts the materials and analysis that I can show in class, which greatly impedes my ability to deliver to the students a thorough education in media criticism and analysis. This is particularly the case with newer copyrighted materials. As libraries everywhere struggle with diminishing budgets and rising copyright/licensing costs, their ability to secure the rights to new films, games and other media materials in a comprehensive and timely manner has been enormously reduced. My hope is that the new copyright law will include a more comprehensive and flexible articulation of fair dealing for academic and educational purposes. More flexible fair dealing could enhance education, while enabling better research on key and emerging aspects of our highly (and ever increasingly) mediated society.

Conversely, if fair dealing exemptions are not adequately protected under the new law, I worry about the detrimental impact this would have not only on academics, but also on artists, students, and everyday users of digital technologies and media. It is hugely important that we, as citizens, have access to the core components of our shared culture. This access should not merely include the right to purchase or consume the media, but the right to engage with it as well. Engagement is not passive -- it includes criticism, discussion, appropriation, and re-contextualization. We do this as part of our struggle to make meaning out of a complex, and often contradictory, global mass culture. Occasionally, engagement can lead to creative transformations, which provide invaluable stepping stones between the past and the present, the center and the periphery, the traditional and the new. While it is of course extremely important that artists and producers maintain some control over their creations, this control needs to be balanced with the audience's own right to participate in the shaping of their cultural experience. Copyright exemptions such as fair dealing for criticism, parody and transformative creativity are crucial if we are to ensure continued access to these rights. Given that copyright itself has extended so rapidly in the past few decades, a similar expansion of consumer or user rights would be most in keeping with our democratic ideal of a nation with plural but also shared cultural experiences...Not the elimination of these rights.

I'm well aware that it's far from perfect. And that a longer, more detailed (and thorough!) submission would have been great. But nonetheless, given the huge outcry last year and the momentum that the movement has gained over the past few months, I think that enough fingers pointing in the right direction just might end up being enough to send GovCan down a better path than it's barreled down so far.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Delicious Summer Leftovers, Part 1

Once again, I've allowed my blog to slowly wind down as my intended posts list has piled up out of control. Now that the new semester is imminent, and I'll once again be managing two sites, I figured the best thing to do is another one of those long summary posts that briefly hits on a good assortment of "items of interest". I have so many, I predict another similar post will be in order in the very near future. For now, however, please enjoy some leftover - but still fresh and relevant - posts from the past few weeks that slipped through the cracks of my over-scheduled calendar.



Storybird Revolutionizes Collaborative Storytelling
This post was intended to be a preview of a wonderful new online resource for kids, families, friends, artists, writers and anyone else who's always dreamed of creating their own storybook. Since Storybird actually launched (or "hatched") earlier today, however, instead you can go on over and see for yourself how beautiful and intuitive their collaborative storytelling tools really are. I have high hopes for this site - it's a wonderful idea for families, a great resource for artists, and exactly the kind of responsive, user-centered cultural outlets that media literacy types are calling for. I've been exploring the site for a couple of weeks in Beta, and love what I see so far. I haven't created a Storybird myself, but have some ideas floating around that I'll surely put into e-print soon.

Sign up and start designing your own storybooks over at Storybird, and check out their Storybird Blog for more info about the site and some sense of the founding principles behind it.




Using Strawberry to Sell Strawberries
Via Emily Claire Afan over at Kidscreen, news that earlier this week American Greetings Properties and Cookie Jar Entertainment - co-producers of the Strawberry Shortcake property - are teaming up with the "Produce for Better Health Foundation" to use their iconic red-haired good girl to promote fruits and veggies. Here's an excerpt:
It's Fruits & Veggies - More Matters month in the US and the year-long partnership will see Strawberry Shortcake and friends making healthy eating fun for kids. PBH is working with US retailers to disseminate nutritional information about fruits and vegetables that features Strawberry, including columns for in-store newsletters and magazines, ad circulars, recipe cards, signage in produce and frozen foods departments and activity booklets. There will also be a free Strawberry e-card at www.americangreetings.com [AND] PBH's websites are featuring new Strawberry images over the course of the year and Strawberry-themed kid-friendly, healthy recipes are part of the "get kids involved" section of www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org and www.foodchamps.org.

This might seem like such a no-brainer, but it also finally remedies something that has frustrated me about Strawberry Shortcake ever since her relaunch a couple of years ago. Here, we have a perfect little group of ambassadors for better eating - characters based on fruit-based pastries that could easily be "updated" to focus on fruit instead of baked goods, but for some reason never have been. I've never met a kid who didn't love berries (though I'm sure they exist), and am encouraged by how easy it would be to promote all kinds of wonderfully healthy foods by a simple addition of blueberries or strawberry slices. The fruits themselves are jam packed with vitamins, and set a great precedent for fruit and veggie eating of all kinds. Great move on the part of both American Greetings and Cookie Jar. Now all we have to do is drop the "Shortcake" and maybe see a few episodes that don't offer "baking delicious cakes" as the only way to save the day ;)




Sesame Street Revamp
Lots of news this week about the end of Reading Rainbow, but throughout the summer the focus has been on another PBS fave, Sesame Street. The series is entering into its 40th season with all the fanfare one would expect, including a new set of Emmys to add to their collection along with a special lifetime achievement award. The Sesame muppets are currently featured in an editorial spread in Harper's Bazaar, and everyone's all abuzz about their upcoming Mad Men parody. Much less attention has been paid to the news that the show will be changing its format - for the first time in...hmmm....ever? - to a segmentized, hosted format that sounds a tiny bit like The Muppet Show. Here's the excerpt, drawn from Joel Keller's TVSquadarticle:
Miranda Barry of the Sesame Workshop...appeared here with Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, who is in charge of the show's curriculum. They talked about the show's landmark season and what kids and their parents should expect to see. A new segmentized format, a new host, Murray Muppet, who will take kids through the various segments of the show, and a new segment featuring Abby Cadabby that's the program's first foray into CGI. The curriculum will emphasize science and nature along with the usual cornerstones this year.

Should be an interesting shift, and a move away from the "television flow" template the show has followed since its inception. It will also be interesting to see how the CGI component goes, and if/how it fits in with other Sesame CGI initiatives, for example Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures.




Treasure World: Nintendo's new DS/ARG hybrid
Via Springwise, short and sweet coverage of a game that I find totally and utterly fascinating, Aspyr Media's Treasure World for the Nintendo DS. I've actually written quite a bit about this game, but I'm saving it for a longer article on ARG/digital game hybrids and how they relate to the "free range kids" movement. Through the article, I also found out about Hidden Park, an indie game/app for the iPhone that has similarly captivating features, massive potential, and will be shortly releasing tools that will allow people to create their own real-world/digital world hybrid games. Nice. For now, here's an excerpt of the article description...see if you can figure out why I'm so enthralled:
Treasure World is a game for the Nintendo DS that converts real-world wifi signals into online treasures. The story focuses on Starsweep, a space traveller who journeys through space in his ship called Haley. In the game, however, Haley has broken down and needs more stardust to get going again. A quirky robot named Wishfinder helps players find not just stardust but also treasure during their adventure by tapping the wealth of wifi hotspots available around the world. More than 2,500 in-game items and treasures such as trees, flowers, candy and clothes can be unlocked as players access the more than 200 million wifi treasure spots worldwide that are registered within the game, and those items can be used to decorate in-game environments. Some feature musical qualities; others can be used to dress up the player's unique character. Either way, the stardust uncovered helps move the spaceship along. Only some items are available at each hotspot, however, meaning that the more kids move around, the more they'll find.

Find out more and watch the trailer at the official Club Treasure World website, and be sure to check out The Hidden Park as well. After three decades of dismantling playgrounds and effacing green spaces in our urban and suburban centers, a little digital re-enchantment might be just what we need.




Fat Princess
This summer, a well-reviewed, interesting looking, tongue-in-cheek game attracted the objections of some feminists and a bit of bad media, but for the most part the Fat Princess "controversy" (if it even DID qualify as one) seems to have died down. The capture-the-flag based game plays on the whole "Save the Princess" theme that has pervaded digital games (and films, cartoons, comics and fairytales) since the early Nintendo years ("Sorry Mario..." and all that). The game graphics are cartoony, quirky, violent, and silly...but is the theme of fattening up your princess so that the enemy will have more trouble carrying her away to kidnap her really offensive or sexist? The debate unfolded over a period of several days (preceded by a few months of negative and reactionary speculation) - which you can read all about over at Game Politics and Joystiq. Two gender-politics-inclusive reviews that I particularly appreciated took somewhat oppositional stances, though both reviews were quite tempered and overall positive. The first was posted over at Feminist Gamers and included the following analysis:
Instead of running out into the forest to find cake to fatten up the princess with, why not go out and find gold (which is a lot heavier than cake) to stuff into a treasure chest. The more gold in the chest, the heavier it would be, and the harder it would be to carry. Oh, but that’s not as “cute” as cake and fat chicks. Right.

The second, and by far my fave, was written by Winda Benedetti, official "Citizen Gamer" for MSNBC, and falls more on the side of supporting the game's originality:
"I’m a pro-woman kinda woman (Go women!) who would happily pay the dues to join Club Feminist (we do pay dues, right?) And yet, there’s not a single pro-woman bone in my body that is offended by this game. (Does this mean my membership application is going to be rejected?)

As video games go, “Fat Princess” is fun, funny and well-crafted. It’s done in a playful style and has a wicked sense of humor about almost everything. And while it does star two adorable and, yes, sometimes chubby cartoon princesses and does feature buckets of cartoon blood, I can’t say that it seems particularly hurtful or harmful to anyone."

I'll have to play through the game and think about this a little more before making a firm decision, but am currently exploring the idea that the game's themes are actually quite progressive. I mean, the fact that the princess is rotund doesn't make the armies desire her any less...and we already complain so much about the limited portrayals (+stereotypes) used in representations of women in games...I feel I'm leaning toward a Bakhtinian reading, but we'll have to see.




Shaping Youth Takes on Privacy Issues
Child advocacy maven Amy Jussel has been writing up a storm over at Shaping Youth, and has some comprehensive and thoughtful things to say on the whole kids + online privacy discourse that has re-emerged this summer (in no small part because of Maine's Act to Prevent Predatory Marketing Practices Against Minors). In particular, her two recent posts on "keeping kid safe from...marketers" includes a plethora of links and resources useful to anyone interested in helping kids and parents protect their data while protecting their rights to information and freedom of expression. I highly recommend checking out Amy's toolkit/overview in Part 1 here, and her interview with Privo Privacy Vault Executive Denise Tayloe included in Part 2 here.




Kids' Virtual Worlds Continue to Mushroom
With SOE's Free Realms claiming 5 million players, Club Penguin raging on into its 4th year of operations, and new titles announced and/or launched almost weekly, it's no surprise that market analysts have recorded some massive spikes in the popularity of virtual worlds this summer. According to an article published in Virtual Worlds News this past July (2009), vw consultant K Zero estimates that the "total number of registered accounts in the virtual worlds sector totaled 579,000,000 in the April-June quarter, 2009. That's an increase of 38.6 percent from the prior quarter when the tally was 417,000,000."

Perhaps more surprising (though not to us kids' media types) is the finding that the average age of the virtual world user is now 14. As Virtual Worlds News reports:
A breakout by age bar chart...shows the bulk of users -- 334,000,000 accounts, or nearly 60 percent of all virtual world users -- are between the ages of 10-15. The second largest group are users in the 5-10 age group [WOW!!!!], followed closely by those between the ages of 15 and 25, with a steep drop-off in the over-25 age group.

The article also gives some numbers to go with the stats, which is great (remembering that these are estimates based on averages). According to K Zero there are current 114 million vw players between the ages of 5 and 10yrs, and 334 million between the ages of 10 and 15 years. Incredible. They also provide some details about where these kids are playing, listing the sites with the biggest gains in registered users this past spring:
Nicktropolis which increased registered users by 3.1 million, Moshi Monsters' jump of 3 million registered users, Stardoll which increased registered users by 8 million, Club Penguin's additional 6 million registered users, Spineworld's more than doubling of its number of registered users -- going from 1 million last quarter to 2.8 million this quarter, and Poptropica's additional 36 million registered users, according to K Zero.



Phew! That's all for now. More to come soon, including some thoughts on Disney+Mattel and driving media literacy (and media education) through comics, some resources for studying player-generated content, and some thoughts on Treasure World.