PhD Dissertation

The Digital Child at Play:
How Technological, Political and Commercial Rule Systems 
Shape Children's Play in Virtual Worlds


Over the past three decades, digital gaming has become an increasingly significant part of children’s culture. While this development has attracted significant academic attention, much less attention has been given to the technological dimensions of the games themselves. As critical theories of technology demonstrate, however, technological artefacts are far from “neutral”. Rather, technologies embody and at times reproduce the social, economic and political conditions within which they are constructed. Through the inclusion of certain technological affordances (and not others), design decisions, industry norms, legal/regulatory requirements, and programmed game rules, this thesis argues that corporate priorities and dominant discourses about children’s digital play become embedded within the very technical code of digital games. Focusing on game-themed virtual worlds, or massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), this thesis uncovers the political and social dimensions of children’s MMOGs, and identifies the conditions these new game systems introduce into children’s play.

Drawing on a multidisciplinary theoretical framework, the research methodology follows a two-level approach to children’s MMOGs as sites of struggle, in which children are in constant negotiation with the games’ formal and informal “rule systems,” which include industry trends, design choices, game rules, and government policy. A general overview of the children’s multiplayer online game environment is provided, and major trends are identified. In-depth analysis of six case studies is provided, which include Nicktropolis, BarbieGirls, Toontown and Club Penguin, Magi-Nation and GalaXseeds. Through design analysis, political economic analysis, and in-game observations, this examination reveals how systems of regulation, social assumptions and power relations are reflected within the rule systems contained within the design, management and configuration of the games and their players.

The findings reveal that the games’ designs are much more restrictive than what is allowed by MMOG technologies, and that these games have adopted a rigid rule system aimed at aligning children’s play with commercial interests. The games contain a heavy emphasis on commercialization, integrating cross-promotional content and enlisting child players in marketing initiatives. Concerns about children’s online safety are frequently used to justify the removal of opportunities for self-expression, which are then replaced with corporate-friendly discourses or other branding initiatives. With their emphasis on the collection and display of in-game “commodities,” the games are consistent with larger trends found within children’s “bedroom culture”, producing new subjectivities of consumption that configure play as a commercialized culture of practice. Although players are able to workaround and occasionally subvert the games’ many rule systems in their online play, user initiative is limited by reflexivity and a narrow margin of manoeuvre. The discussion concludes that the privileging of cross-promotional interests enforced by the underlying technical code of children’s MMOGs has lead to a dramatic reduction in opportunities for cultural participation, player creativity and collaboration. 

Chapter Overview:

In order to understand the larger context within which child-specific virtual worlds and MMOGs have emerged, the discussion will begin with a review of the previous literature examining the relationships between the commercial children’s culture and children’s play. The contemporary trends driving this study will thus be situated within a larger socio-historical context that encompasses licensed toys, branded media and the commercialization of children’s play. Chapter 1 will also provide an in-depth description of the theoretical framework and establish some of the underlying assumptions or premises driving the current research.

Chapter 2 provides a detailed mapping of the commercial children’s MMOG market, as well as an exploration of the argument that MMOGs represent a particularly important area of focus within discussions of children’s virtual worlds. An overview of the case study selection process will be provided, followed by a brief introduction of the six case studies identified for in-depth analysis (Disney’s Club Penguin and Toontown, Mattel’s BarbieGirls, Cookie Jar Entertainment’s Magi-Nation, Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis, Corus Entertainment’s GalaXseeds).

 In order to uncover the implicit rule systems contained within children’s MMOGs and to begin to determine the particular set of “interests” they represent, Chapter 3 examines the GUI designs of the six case study MMOGs. A detailed overview of dominant features of the gameplay design and contents of the case studies is provided, and a preliminary typology of kids’ MMOGs is delineated. Out of patterns identified among the six case studies, four key “types” are identified and described, which I have termed Conventional MMOGs, Parallel Multiplayer RPGs, MMO Playgrounds and Social Arcades.

In Chapter 4, I attempt to deconstruct some of the ideological, political and social underpinnings of children’s MMOGs. The goal of this chapter is to examine some of the texts that are used within the six case study MMOGs to delineate and articulate the socially and politically embedded rule systems, including terms of service (TOS) contracts, the games’ privacy policies and regulatory considerations, as well as their official rulebooks. By uncovering the visible remnants of the “technical code” (Feenberg, 1999) through which the games are constructed, I also begin to contextualize the design features examined in the previous chapter with the other types of ‘rule systems’ present within these digital spaces. 

Drawing upon findings uncovered within the first three chapters of analysis, Chapter 5 focuses specifically on the recurring theme of commercialization. Through a critical exploration of the promotional and intertextual dimensions found within the case studies, this chapter examines the ways in which commercialization, corporate priorities, and promotional interests operate within these games as implicit rules of play. Primarily, this is accomplished through a discussion of play script theory, and how an adapted and expanded interpretation of play scripts may be used to better understand the way in which the technical code comes to operate as its own form of rule system. 

Chapter 6 provides answers to some of the major questions raised over the course of the study, and addresses one of the primary research questions outlined above through a focused examination of user interactions within two of the case study MMOGs Club Penguin and Barbie Girls. Drawing on a series of in-game observations, this chapter explores the relationship between rule systems and game play, and describes some of the ways in which “digital children” negotiate game rules, conditions and possible play scripts. Major findings from this section include that although players are indeed able to workaround and occasionally subvert the games’ strictly designed rule systems in their online play, user initiative is limited by reflexivity and a narrow margin of manoeuvre.

The last chapter, Chapter 7, draws together the findings and discussion of the previous chapters in order to formulate a number of conclusions about the function of rule systems and branding mechanisms within commercial children’s MMOGs. By focusing on how the various rule systems contained within the case study MMOGs “configure” their users. I explore the idea that the games exhibit an underlying tension between corporate governance goals, design decisions, and player norms, which manifests as a series of contradictions. In contrast, the notion of commercialization as the only viable (and desirable) resolution to these and other underlying tensions associated with children’s virtual worlds use presents itself as a recurrent theme throughout the games and their various rule systems. So too is the consistent and overarching pattern of removing opportunities for player interaction and creativity so that these may be replaced by and confined to cross-promotional content.

The discussion ends with some concluding thoughts about the implications of these findings for the “children’s bedroom culture” framework, put forth by Bovill and Livingstone (2001) and currently at the heart of much academic research into the role and impact of “web 2.0” in children’s digital lives. I propose that although virtual worlds technologies contain enormous potential for transformative play and cultural participation, in their current form this potential is sacrificed in the interest of producing new subjectivities of consumption that configure play as a commercialized culture of practice.