Friday, March 19, 2010

Speaking Engagement: Public Lecture on Children's Virtual Worlds & Rules of Play

Screenshot from Disney's Toontown (2008)

I'm very happy to announce that I've been given an amazing opportunity to deliver a public lecture at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information next week. The talk, entitled 'Playing by (and with) the rules', will provide an overview my dissertation findings and future research plans (i.e. next steps), along with a discussion of the larger social, ethical and policy implications of some of the ongoing trends I've identified within children's digital play culture. Here's the abstract and info:

"Playing By (and With) The Rules"
Thursday, March 25, from 4-5:30 pm
Faculty of Information, Bissell Bldg (Room 728)

Abstract: Virtual worlds are now a prominent feature of the children’s digital landscape, as well as a compelling site of study for exploring children’s evolving relationship with new media technologies. Popular children’s virtual worlds such as Club Penguin and Webkinz appear to epitomize the “web 2.0” emphasis on participation and social networking. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that along with these exciting new opportunities, virtual worlds also present children with a number of important challenges. For one, many of the most popular children’s virtual worlds are owned and operated by media and toy conglomerates, including Nickelodeon, Disney and Mattel. Accordingly, their contents are organized around commercial priorities such as promoting products, avoiding controversy, protecting corporate copyright regimes, and fostering a form of transmedia intertextuality aimed at enrolling children in an ever-expanding, multi-modal, cross-promotional narrative experience. This presentation will examine how these priorities not only shape the design and management of children’s virtual worlds, but also manifest as powerful “rules of play” that children are expected to (but do not always) follow. I will explore how virtual worlds serve as a locus for the ongoing negotiation that occurs between children, parents, corporations, and regulatory bodies about the nature and function of digital play, branded entertainment, and cultural participation within children’s everyday lives. Lastly, I will discuss how the outcome of this negotiation could have significant implications for the current and emerging information practices of younger children, particularly in relation to issues of authorship, cultural rights and children’s participation in the production and sharing of digital content.

Free Admission • General Seating • All Welcome

****Update: You can now view the Prezi slides for this presentation by clicking here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jack Zipes Talks Fairy Tales at UBC

Image still from Fractured Fairy Tales: The Phox, The Box & The Lox (1999)

Heads up, children's media fans in the Vancouver area - you're about to get the chance to hear the wonderful and prolific Professor Jack Zipes (Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota) discuss his ongoing and thoroughly fascinating work on fairy tales. UBC's Green College is currently hosting Zipes as Cecil H. and Ida Green Visiting Professor, through which he will be giving a series of public and community lectures from March 23-27, on various aspects of his research on the evolution and function of fairy tales within childhood and children's media (literature, films, tv). Here's a copy of his bio, as posted on the Green College site:
Jack Zipes is one of the world’s leading authorities on fairy tales, writing about and translating them. An internationally renowned scholar and author of more than 50 books on many subjects, he has through his writings transformed research on fairy tales, particularly with respect to how they function in the socialization of readers. His books include Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (2006), Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling (2008), Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1985, 2006) and The Enchanted Screen: A History of Fairy Tales on Film (coming, 2010). His translations include The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1987), The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995), and most recently Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales by Kurt Schwitters (2009). Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota.

Zipes' work has been an invaluable resource to me, ever since my early days as an undergrad writing about Disney Princesses. I've particularly enjoyed his discussions of subversion and transgression in fairy tale storytelling traditions, and his descriptions of how visionary media creators like Jim Henson have managed to translate these elements (at least partially) into film and television. For example, in Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry (1997), Zipes proposes that whereas many children’s media texts, such as Disney’s fairy tale films, employ “techniques of infantilization, narrative strategies of closure, and the exaltation of homogeneity” (p.96), there are also some that work to challenge hegemonic conventions. As mentioned, Zipes points to the works of the late Jim Henson (including The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, Sesame Street and The Storyteller) as key examples of subversive children’s media texts. Using bricolage, multimedia pastiche, satire and parody, these texts subvert their own authority by transgressing established norms and conventions (such as "breaking the fourth wall” or having characters step “out of character” to question a particular plot development) and reviving pre-Industrial, oral storytelling traditions that invite children “to explore the tale’s manifold meanings” (p.99). Rather than simply promoting conformity to established scripts, structures and consumer behaviours (although these features may nonetheless also be present), these texts can be seen as “challeng[ing] the creative and critical capabilities of young viewers” (p.95).

Reading through next week's schedule of talks, Zipes will likely address this aspect in further detail, along with more thorough discussions of gender, Disneyfication, and the ways in which certain versions of fairy tales get lost while others become the "authoritative" texts. I've reproduced a very brief outline of the schedule below, but if you want to see a more detailed overview, I recommend visiting the Early Romance Studies Research Cluster website, which includes descriptions of each talk/event. I have a major scheduling conflict that will take me out of town for most of these talks, unfortunately (or fortunately, given that the reason for my trip could ultimately lead to major awesomeness, including opportunities to set up similar events in the very near future). But I'll definitely try my best to be at the Tuesday lecture on feminist interpretations of fairy tales and the fireside chat.

Jack Zipes, Folklore and Fairy Tale Scholar at UBC
March 23-27, 2010

Green College and ISGP Weekly Lecture
Green College Coach House,
6201 Cecil Green Park Road, UBC
5 – 6:30 pm, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, with reception to follow

Piano Lounge, Graham House, Green College,
6201 Cecil Green Park Road, UBC
8 – 9 pm, Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Special Lecture
Dodson Room #302, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre,
1971 East Mall, UBC
12 – 12:50 pm (followed by discussion), Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Co-presented with the UBC MA in Children’s Literature Program

Arts Wednesdays Public Lecture
UBC Robson Square Theatre,
800 Robson Street, Vancouver, BC
6 – 7:30 pm, Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable
The University Golf Club,
5185 University Blvd, UBC
9 am, Saturday, March 27, 2010 (Registration and coffee from 8 am)
* TICKETED EVENT: For prices and details, see the VCLR website

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Looking Awry at My Little Pony & Other Precious Things

My Little He-Man Pony - Original artwork and photo by © Mari Kasurinen.

A quick post today, to point you towards some of the fascinating work that STS scholar, MIT professor and "big thinker" Sherry Turkle is currently working on. Turkle is well known within new media/internet/game studies for her early work on online identity, particularly The Second Self and Life on the Screen. Her more recent work, however, which is captured in a series of edited volumes published by The MIT PRess, provide an elaboration of Turkle's ongoing inquiry into the relationships between people, technology and material culture...with an emphasis on how "things" - tangible, material, physical objects - mediate and shape both our usage and relationships with technological forms, digital practices, etc. My interest in this work was ignited by a recent post on BoingBoing, relaying a cute and thought provoking story contained in one of Turkle's edited volumes, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (as discussed in an interview Turkle gave a few months ago). This particular volume is a collection of interviews with MIT students and established computer/scientists about the material objects that provided an initial entry point into developing a personal interest in science, tech, or math (STEM).

What captured the attention of BoingBoing contributor Maggie Koerth-Baker, and mine as well, was computer scientist Christine Alvaradoa's story about the crucial role played by My Little Pony in inspiring her interest in math (and, I would assume, programming). As Alvaradoa writes (in Falling for Science):
I had several small plastic Ponies that I used to play make-believe with my friends. But I had one larger, plush My Little Pony, a bright-green stuffed horse with a vivid pink mane and tail that I played with all by myself. I would sit for hours on my own, braiding and rebraiding its tail. I developed a system for braiding the tail of my Pony that taught me about mathematical concepts-- from division to recursion.


When I started, I took the hair on the Pony's tail and divided it into three pieces for braiding. Soon I became bored with a single braid. I then divided the tail into nine pieces and made three groups. I braided each group of three until I had three braids, then took these three braids and braided them together. Soon I was up to starting with twenty-seven pieces (nested down to nine braids, then to three and then one) and then on to eighty-one. All the while I was learning about math: I saw that division is the process of taking a large number of things and grouping them into a smaller number of groups. In order to end up with one even braid at the end, I had to be able to divide the initial number evenly by three, then by three,and then by three again, until I ended up with just one braid.

Her description is very reminiscent of the Sadie Plant's comparisons of weaving and computer programming. What's particularly fascinating is how Alvaradoa transformed the pleasures of manipulating the tangible features of her My Little Pony doll into a new form of emergent, educational play.

This article led be back to Turkle's website, and then to the other two installments of the"objects" series, which sound just as fascinating. The first, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, makes the argument that "We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with," featuring writings, memoirs and essays by scientists, humanists, artists, and designers that explore the power of everyday things. The second, The Inner History of Devices, features chapters applying a variety of methods (with an emphasis on "intimate ethnographies") to explore the ways in which the things "we make [are] woven into our ways of seeing ourselves." She's now taken the discussion to another level with a new solo contribution, Simulation and Its Discontents. Here, Turkle takes on some of the larger philosophical questions raised by the shift from tangible objects and systems to digital/virtual simulations. An impressive body of work - all published within the last three years. Incredible.

While I obviously haven't had the chance to make my way through the collection as of yet, I'm really looking forward to figuring out where Turkle and her collaborators situate themselves within the field of technology studies and the parallel discussions of these same issues that have been unfolding within the realm of philosophy of technology. In any case, this work is sure to be compelling and worthy of focused exploration.

For an overview of some of the themes and theoretical paradigms that Turkle is engaging with in this series, be sure to watch her TechTV Big Thinkers interview from last summer.

And for more examples of transformative and interesting My Little Pony appropriations, you should definitely check out Mari Kasurinen's awesome sculptures, as seen in the (borrowed) image above.

[For those of you do watch the interview = On a personal note, I was struck by how profoundly I related with her comment about how irrational childhood fascinations with stationary stores were once said to be a sign of a lifelong passion/talent for writing. Who knew!?!]