Friday, October 16, 2009

New Article in The Escapist

Be sure to check out this week's issue of The Escapist, which explores the various acronyms associated with gaming and the game industry, under the theme title "Alphabet Soup". Alongside some great articles on MMORPGs, IGDA and TGI (Triangle Game Initiative), is an article I wrote on the ESRB and the many challenges it will need to overcome if it is to remain relevant in a web 2.0, technologically converged, digitally distributed game environment. Here's an excerpt:
Through partnerships with the National PTA and a website overhaul, the ESRB has made real inroads toward helping parents make informed choices for their gamer children. Awareness levels are higher than ever, and current studies show that most parents find the ratings "useful." A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only eight percent of parents list videogames as their main source of "concern about inappropriate content," whereas 32 percent list television.

All signs seem to indicate the ESRB has hit finally its stride, but that's likely not the case. While it's commendable that the ESRB has rectified its past mistakes, here in the present the unaddressed challenges keep on stacking up. Current trends in game technology, design and distribution pose serious threats to the ESRB's newfound relevance. Many of these challenges have already been discussed elsewhere, but when you put them all together you start to appreciate their immensity.

The main challenges I explore in the article include the spread of online content and UGC, converging game formats (though a large section of this portion unfortunately didn't make it to the final version), and new distribution systems. I had also hoped to have enough space to talk about indie gaming, but it ended up as just a tiny footnote, and something that I will definitely need to elaborate on in a separate post or article in the future. Not that I needed more fuel for the fire in this particular piece - it attracted a sizable response on the article's "Comments" forum, as well as the forums of a couple of other sites where the story got picked up, most of which reveal just how controversial and touchy this particular subject still is within the game community.

Unfortunately, much of the feedback I received communicated a fundamental misunderstanding that I was trying to promote an expansion of the current ESRB rating system to online interactions...which couldn't be further from the truth. As I've argued before, the current system does not have the flexibility and responsiveness required to keep up with contemporary trends in gaming, and slapping an E or M onto an online game (or online features os a game) would be pretty pointless (and potentially misleading). But that doesn't mean the ESRB itself couldn't try to come up with some sort of new approach to help parents make informed decisions about the different types of online/chat moderation systems available, the varying levels of freedom afforded by different UGC games, or at the very least enable parents, children and designers to exchange information in a more direct and adaptive way. They do, after all, have the full cooperation of the mainstream game industry, and unique access to mechanisms and programming that are otherwise (supposed to be) off-limits to would-be raters. But anyway, as the title of my article ("Obsolescence Pending") suggests, with all the time and energy that has been spent defending the current framework, it's doubtful that a massive restructuring is likely to occur anytime soon....leaving the door wide open for an alternative service or system to come in and provide something a little more comprehensive and hopefully much more responsive to technological advances, evolution of the player community, etc. Especially as a larger and larger portion of games and game content are not rated by the ESRB, and the ratings are restricted to a shrinking proportion of the overall games market (although as one commentator, SaintPeter, rightly pointed out, as long as there are single-player games there will be a place for the ESRB ratings, which is very true and highlights the technological determinism of my overall argument).

By far one of the most interesting and useful outcomes of the article for me and my own thinking about these issues was the feedback I received that provided preliminary sketches and suggestions about how this alternative system might work. While the article attracted a LOT of disagreement and challenge from the forum communities, I also received some great feedback on additional issues that would need to be included to make my assessment of the ESRB more exhaustive, as well as a number of ideas for alternative systems. For example:
slopeslider:
I have a few Ideas.
For online interactions there could be a new rating category.
Moderated/unmoderated user-generated content.
Moderated/unmoderated player chat
For multiplayer online games maybe a special moderated chat line for kiddies. It would be moderated, but the rules would be soo strict that it wouldn't be a problem moderating 2% of the overall game chat. I know if they had this most people A. dont want to talk to little kids and B. don't like super strict speech guidlines. That means they wouldn't have to moderate 1 million people chatting online at once, more like 10,000.

I agree - even a simple system of moderated/unmoderated would be a great place to start. I know that individual games often include a self-description, but a standardized categorization system would be much more immediately useful to parents. This theme was taken up and elaborated upon by BehattedWanderer:
BehattedWanderer:
That actually doesn't sound like a bad Idea. If they were to display a prominent warning about 'User made un/moderated content', specifically stating that 'users of varying ages can createj online content, which may result in inappropriate content being generated and played before it attracts moderator attention', then it would go a long way towards helping to assess the interactions that they cannot (but probably can hazard a guess) predict.

What they would need to do is put out a psa, or something, a short commercial, to be aired on the big channels--wouldn't have to be long, just a minute or so, alerting parents to the new type of content, and to look at the rating on the box, and that they should use their judgement when purchasing--Games rated T and M might feature more mature subject matter in the online play from both adolescents and adults, which would expose their children to such.

To which I responded:
So clever. What would you think if the system also enabled users to actively submit their content for some sort of peer-reviewed or moderator rating? For instance, if you think your game level should be rated E, you could flag it so that it gets some special (or more immediate) attention - perhaps through some kind of volunteer (or nominated, if the community is large enough) parent-gamer group. Parents could then set up child accounts that can only access content confirmed as appropriate. Or something along those lines.

To which BehattedWanderer replied:
I agree with you up to the point of peer review--that's all well and good, and could work pretty well, as long as there is unbiased review as well--it randomly picks someone from the review board (whom you don't know), and gives you a rating and a review from there, if not a quick chop from the cutting axe for trying to post an overly sexually-themed level in the 'E' category. Each review board is accompanied by one moderator, just to ensure fairness. After two or three of these random and anonymous reviews by the peer review or moderator groups, the rating is affirmed, and put into it's appropriate category.

The part I have a bit of issue with, however, is the latter part--specifically the child accounts. Parental settings are fine and dandy, and work on occasion. But the issue with that is that children are devilish when the want to be, and most can figure out how to either get around the parental controls, or flat out just change the parental control settings so that they have their own access. What's more, for every child account that is created and ahered to, dozens more won't even be created, leaving unfiltered settings for the child to browse. Most parents (I'm talking about those not that familiar with online play, mostly the older parents) wouldn't know to filter the content online, not expecting there to be such content so readily available within the game. It's for that reason I propose the ads--just to draw attention that their children might be accessing this kind of content without their knowledge. It's that age old idiom of "knowing is half the battle"--most aren't even aware there's an issue of unrated and unfiltered content.

Very insightful points and nuanced understanding of the parent-child-technology relationships involved. Another really great recommendation that draws on the idea of crowd-sourcing was provided by Nutcase, who describes:
Nutcase:
In this day and age, you could derive a quite accurate community rating by picking a number of people at random who have bought the game, and asking them to fill a ratings questionnaire. This job would naturally fall to game vendors because they are the only ones who know who has bought what. To increase confidence in the ratings, stores like Amazon could offer this only to people who have bought the game two weeks ago or more. Steam could go further and actually observe that the person has played the game for X amount of time.

Well, this kind of rating might have trouble catching spikes of content that come late in the game (70 hours into a JRPG...) or by random (an unmarked location in a sandbox game you might find or not...) but it would produce good ratings for the great majority of games. One can think of additional mechanisms specifically to deal with these cases.

This system would follow the actual audience attitudes closely without getting "stuck" in the morality of any given group. Also, the system would not need to flatten the results in one rating (though it could also do that for at-a-glance reading). Most of the actual data could remain browsable online with various filters, with only identity-compromising information stripped. The implications of half the audience rating something AO and half rating it T are quite different from everyone rating it M, though dumb averaging would make these two cases look the same. It's also to be expected that ratings vary depending on geographical area; for most people the ratings would be more accurate if they could use ones from their own area instead of all ratings.

Very true - getting the vendors/distributors involved would be key, and since it involves building consumer involvement and potential loyalty, and providing a service to both players and developers, it may not be all that difficult to get them on board. There may be more, I haven't had the time to go through the last batch of comments, but I think there's enough even here to begin envisioning an alternative framework. As Sal Humphreys posted on my Facebook wall:
I also think in the world of user-generated content - which is too vast to monitor - it might be that user-generated ratings have a role to play - if you develop a culture of rating, and have enough people rating, then you have a system that generates the information necessary to make informed choices.

Indeed!

Interestingly, this is all in harmony with a model currently being developed/promoted by independent game designer Daniel Kinney with his TIGRS rating system. I'm sure there are other models out there as well, just waiting to be taken up by the player community and industry. For instance, a number of non-indie developers are also working on incorporating user-based moderation systems and game reviews into online communities/hubs for certain games...an expanded version of these systems that includes more of a focus on tagging content as kid-friendly (or not), in a more systematic way, is another step in the right direction. Even something as simple as the self-rating system that Metaplace is using, which in fact does draw on ESRB-style ratings categories, seems viable as a starting point (no way to rate people/chat, however, as my students were unlucky enough to experience firsthand during a group discussion a few weeks ago). Most of these solutions do leave room for mistakes, of course, but could nonetheless provide an initial bedrock of advice and support for parents to make better informed decisions. What I'm particularly interested in are models that draw on kids and parents as well to provide content ratings and evaluation of ratings...after all, they're the ones actually using the ratings (and not just as a political tool either). This whole experience has given me a lot to think about, sprouting some wiggly little project ideas in the back of my mind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Kids' Comic Space

Part of the digital literacies discussions that I've been following of late have centered on the long-discussed (but not always applied) potential associated with using comics for intertextual, heavily visual, narrative formats through which kids can explore cultural themes, literature and learning. It's a fascinating idea that draws on the long history of comics, picture books, and transmedia intertexts within children's culture...while tapping into children's actual leisure practices in a way that transcends the usual boundaries between cultural categories (high/low culture, literature/entertainment, etc.) and gives some serious consideration to the value and possibilities contained within the re-emergence of comics as a literary form.

Not that comics have ever really gone anywhere, but they've certainly resurfaced within the mainstream in a big way these past few years -- a way that hasn't really been seen since, well, i'm not really sure when! (golden age? silver age?). I remember that Scholastic initiated a big push toward graphic novels and comics a number of years ago (e.g., click here to find out more about the launch of their Comix line back in 2005). And certainly, the emerging research on kids' reading habits within digital games and online environments is relevant to this discussion as well (e.g., Jackie Marsh's work on kids reading and writing in virtual worlds). Obviously, there are many more connections between this body of work and the research I'm doing on kids' games, and some cool possibilities of merging the two areas...not just thematically (which has been done before), but "ludic"ally as well. I still have a lot of catching up to do, and until my PhD is "in hand," this is definitely on the back-burner. But as a former comicbook collector and current reader of graphic novels (well, TPBs in my case), this whole realm definitely draws my attention.

Some neat places to start for finding out more about the kids' "comics space," and exploring its increased presence within both educational curriculum and kids' digital culture:

James Bucky Carter's En/Sane World - a repository of info and resources on "Sequential Art Narratives in Education (SANE)". His site includes lots of links and ideas for educators, as well as a variety of sources on "multigenre, multimodal, or otherwise "New" literacies."

The Online Visual Literacy Project - not just about comics, but appears to have some interesting background literature.

A short but sweet archive of comics-related posts on Media Macaroni, which includes a list of comics that the "cool kids" read and a great post about (as well as my first introduction to) Babymouse.

This excellent reading list of kids' comics posted by Jonathan Liu on GeekDad, in which he provides some great "off the beaten path" alternatives to the usual big name titles put out by Marvel and Disney (and yes - it was written in response to their partnership announcement this past summer).

Some of my own favourite kid-friendly titles (which I also posted in the comments section on GeekDad), that I would love to see more of within kids' digital culture:

Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin (think Harry Potter meets Hellboy meets Angry Little Girls)

Mike Kunkel’s Herobear and the Kid (actually anything by Astonish Factory is unique and all ages)

Jacob Chabot’s The Mighty Skullboy Army

And, although not always for kids, I really like the artwork and concept behind Roy Husada's Opera Manga, which he creates for the Vancouver Opera as a way of communicating/summarizing the storylines of upcoming performances to audiences. Very cool.

Of course, the renewed academic/press interest in comics, visual literacies and interactive storytelling is also in part being driven by kids themselves. For example, according to an article published last August in Publishers Weekly by Ada Price, web comics are being produced/created by younger and younger artists and writers, who are in turn benefiting from online distribution systems and exposure to land publishing deals with traditional book publishers. Again, nothing exceedingly new here...but the increased access (to younger age groups) and viability (in terms of potential for creators to actually generate an income from their artistic labour) are certainly keeping the topic relevant. I wonder how many actual "kids" are getting in on this, and I want to find out where they distribute their UGComics, and what the audience or community is like. I'm glad to see that this topic hasn't faded away and in fact appears to be gaining momentum. More links to come as I find them.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Roller Derby Grabs the Spotlight (and won't let go)

Today, the much-lauded and much-discussed film Whip It finally premieres in theaters across North America. The movie, which was directed by Drew Barrymore and stars Ellen Page, explores the wonderful and bizarre world of all-female roller derby. I had an opportunity to delve into this world a tiny bit last year, after attending a derby bout and then writing an article about where and how this particular breed of roller derby fits in (or doesn't) with the larger entertainment sports culture, women's pop culture, feminism, and above all play. In honour of the Whip It premiere, I've decided to repost the link to the article itself, which you can find in full over at The Escapist. Here's an excerpt to give you a sense of the general tone and topic:
Entertainment sports are often described as "spectacle sports" because they rely so much on the theatrical and stylistic elements that surround them. The hyperbolic displays of aggression, elaborate props and staged interpersonal conflicts all become part of the "bigger picture" of how viewers experience and understand the event.

The athletes (or performers) play a key role in creating the spectacle. They are the main characters in an open-ended drama, the bodies upon which the story plays out. But not all spectacle sports are as heavily staged as others. Many unfold like any other sporting competition, without a predetermined script or outcome. In these sports, players toe an incredibly fine line between athleticism and roleplay, between adhering to the game's rules and conforming to the over-arching narrative.

Roller derby exemplifies this delicate balancing act. Recently resurrected by grassroots, all-female leagues in the U.S., roller derby is an unmatched display of female aggression, parody and subversion. Beneath its hot pink "riot grrrl" exterior, however, roller derby is also a high-speed, full-contact team sport. For the women who participate, roller derby provides a unique opportunity to dress up, ham it up and play rough. Really rough.

If you're interested in finding out more about this very unique, and by all accounts incredibly fun, phenomenon, this weekend is a good time to try. Roller derby leagues everywhere are planning events to commemorate the wide release of Barrymore's film, including a free derby at Robson Square in Vancouver hosted by the Terminal City Roller Girls. (A number of similar events have been taking place all week, for e.g. in Manhattan and Montreal, as well as in Toronto during the film's TIFF screening). Since so much of the culture is already the byproduct of media depictions (the Rollergirls reality television series is an oft-cited source of inspiration for current leagues), we might want to anticipate a bit of a roller derby explosion (or more specifically Tipping Point) after this, and maybe a trickle down into younger age groups.