Monday, April 12, 2010

Jackie Marsh on Digital literacy and play in MMOs/vws for children

Live Blogging alert - I'm writing this post from Jackie Marsh's keynote address on "Digital literacy and play in MMOs/virtual worlds for children," at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub workshop on kids' virtual worlds. Jackie' is presenting some of her findings from a larger ongoing project on Children's playground games and songs in the new media age project, in collaboration with Rebekah  Willett and Andrew Burn.

Key points:
  • Young children in Sheffield, UK, average 2 hours/day of media use
  • Family scaffold kids' emergent digital literacy
  • Growing independence among even younger children - 64% of 3-5 year-olds can use a mouse, 37% can turn on a computer by themselves and 56% have used a computer by themselves.
  • Place of the child in the family (older siblings) very important to children's use - how they are introduced, when, etc.
  • Key features identified in commercial vw's for children: customizable avatars, avatar homes, games which earn in-world currency, free chat and safe-chat servers, moderators, links to out-world toys and texts and tie-in products. 
  • On this latter point - highlights the importance of online/offline linkages as the products themselves move to mobile technologies. Highlights the importance of market-based hierarchies.
  • Her own data derived from a very specific case - "primary school serving a primarily white, working class community in an area of socio-economic deprivation" - 175 kids aged 5 to 11 surveyed, three 11 year olds selected for a series of interviews and online sessions (taped and observed). Much of the more detailed data about Club Penguin and Barbie Girls came from these 3 respondents. 
  • 52% of the kids surveyed used virtual worlds on a regular basis. Average of 2 visits per week.
  • Most popular CP and BC
  • Gender patterns in terms of preferences and choices of virtual worlds - none of the boys surveyed reported going to Barbie Girls
Jackie's most recent work focuses in on Club Penguin - a vw that was particularly popular among their subject group at the time of the study. Jackie did a great job of summarizing the contents of the site, identifying the carry-over that occurs between traditional playground behaviours and in-world activities, opportunities for literacy (of various kinds), the importance and emphasis that is placed on commercial relations (disparities between paying and non-paying members. 

She also looked at Barbie Girls (oh no! just like my thesis!!), and the lack of diversity in terms of gender (female only) and ethnicity (depictions of which are limited to skin-tone, and only a few options are possible) of the avatars, and the enormous linkages made between commercial content/branding of Barbie texts and the game - emphasis on shopping, emphasis on V.I.P. memberships and emphasis on Barbie products.

Key Points about these case studies:
  • Marsh identifies evidence of the subjectivities of consumption that are constructed in these sites - many examples of children describing themselves in consumer terms & enjoying consumption play (shopping, browsing catalogues, trying on items). But also frustration about purchases of pre-fabricated goods that offer little flexibility or affordances. Key complaint that wigs and hats couldn't be combined on Club Penguin, frustration that the Puffles run away if not taken care of. 
  • Online/offline networks - children played with siblings, relatives and classmates, often in pre-arranged sessions. Also played with unknown others. 
  • The children interviewed expressed using a range of criteria for accepting in-world friends (if the avatar name was "weird" or "normal" - if the player's igloo was "posh" or "plain"). This latter point shows the integration of social and economic capital in children's negotiation of social relations in-world.
  • Classmates who played together online and offline tended to have larger friend networks (around 9 vs. 7). 
  • Genres of play: fantasy play, games with rules, "rough and tumble" play (snowball fights, other play that uses avatar movement for contact), socio-dramatic play. In this last category, Marsh noticed a lot of adult-themes, going to the disco, having parties, pretending they're getting "drunk". Ritualized play - playing at flirting, trying to tip the iceberg in CP. 
  • Various instances and types of digital literacy - reading the CP Times every day, reading postcards from other players, keeping up with the game lore (reading the books in the reading room, reading the instructions), using CP as an instant messaging service (definitely a chat room). Reading, comprehension, following instructions, etc. 
  • She went over 6 different types of literacy identified in CP - she has a paper coming out shortly that describes and explores these, so I won't bother reproducing them here (but I will link to the article once it's available). Suffice to say that many of the forms of literacy identified revolved around social relations and identity construction/expression.
  • Among the kids surveyed, Marsh found that many used/viewed Club Penguin-based machinima on Youtube 
  • For example, David Cook's  "Time of My Life" - created by a young girl Ineuit2, a self-described 13 year old girl who runs a Club Penguin fan site). Kids use other forums to discuss and coordinate these - for instance, a player advertised for extras for his upcoming CP machinima on a Shaun The Sheep discussion forum, much to the dismay of Shaunthesheep purists.
  • Frames that these vw's introduce - the implications for education (as well as some implications that certainly carry over to policy and ethical decisions), including the need for recognition of online activities outside of school, firewall considerations, critical digital literacy - esp. as children are now co-authoring new forms of multi-modal texts (which I'm very interested in myself).
Jackie's talk was followed by a response by Heather Horst, who is a member of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, and has done work on kids' digital culture - including Neopets. Among other things, Heather highlighted 3 themes she wanted to raise for further discussion:
  • The first, a series of questions involving time and temporal dimensions of virtual worlds - the transience that many kids' express in terms of the worlds, new media use, and their lives/life changes, schedules, age, etc.
  • The second, space and geographies of play - particularly as this is influenced by the various affordances of the devices/worlds, etc., involved. What guides children's movement between the various genres, sites, technologies, platforms and usages they engage in. For example, getting around design limitations or parental restrictions by moving on to a different device.
  • The third, the issue of agency and change - as children age, develop forms of literacy, etc. What's the relationship/role of the low barriers to entry that are usually contained within sites like CP, or within popular culture/commercial culture more generally. How do these worlds contribute to children's agency and dignity - opportunities/challenges, barriers, etc. Are the worlds subject to workarounds, resistance, remixing, do kids actively attempt to change the worlds?
A great talk all around - very enjoyable and comprehensive. I'm very much looking forward to the discussion that will ensue, as well as tomorrow's workshop.

Sources of interest: kzero.co.uk: Virtual Worlds Universe Reports, which lists user populations for a large number of virtual worlds for kids, plotted by age. Very cool data and data visualizations. 


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