Although children are generally excluded from participating in the public sphere (voting, public commentary, debates, etc.), the internet offers users of all ages opportunities to collaborate in the creation of shared cultural artifacts and experiences. But while children's use of information communication technologies (ICTs) has been the subject of numerous policy and legal debates in recent years, their emerging role as producers of digital content often slips under the regulatory radar. Increasingly, however, ICTs are providing children with important new opportunities to create and distribute digital content across a variety of cultural forums, from emerging spaces such as virtual worlds and social networks, to traditional media formats such as television. This is particularly true of children's digital gaming cultures, wherein user-generated content (UGC) is fast becoming a central feature of both the gameplay experience, as well as membership to game-centered communities of interest.
Unlike teens and adults, children's role in the much acclaimed "web 2.0" phenomenon is rarely discussed in terms of authorship, ownership, labour or exchange value. Yet, even during play, children's online interactions are often embroiled in complex economic relationships that raise a number of ethical, regulatory and legal issues demanding further analysis and consideration. And in the absence of adequate regulation or concerted public attention, children's budding contributions to digital culture are frequently exploited for commercial gain. From market research that preys upon children's trust, to viral marketing tactics that exploit children's peer relationships, to corporate claims of intellectual property (IP) ownership over children's online submissions, industry standards of practice threaten to undermine the democratic potential of children's digital cultural participation and engagement.
The introduction of UGC tools specifically targeted to children is a particularly significant development, with far reaching implications for the future of children's cultural participation and rights. For one, the research indicates that young children rarely have the technical knowledge and skills required to engage with complex technological systems at the level of design (such as hacking or programming code). UGC solves this problem by providing accessible, and increasingly child-friendly, tools for both creating and disseminating content. These tools thereby have the potential to greatly facilitate children's entry into media and cultural production. Additionally, despite widespread enthusiasm about the democratic potential of "web 2.0," the majority of venues for creating and sharing UGC have until now tended to formally prohibit users under the age of 13 years through age-restrictions on participation. Oportunities and forums for UGC production and distribution that are not only child-inclusive, but designed with child users in mind, are thus a noteworthy and important development, with the potential to signficantly advance children's online cultural participation, and with a myriad of broader implications (legal, cultural, political and economic) that we must now attempt to understand.
UGC in and as Gaming
The decision to focus the project on UGC games (instead of other digital tools or applications) draws upon the belief that digital gaming, and play more generally, consists of a particularly relevant and prevalent feature of children's digital culture. The majority North American youth play digital games of some kind, and many children report spending more time playing games than any other online activity. While most experts agree that play is an immensely important dimension of children's lives and development, studies into the non-purposive aspects and practices of children's play are surprisingly few and far between. This trend has apparently carried over into digital game studies, where children's games are often discussed either in terms of educational outcomes or other instrumental value, or in terms of their supposed negative effects on childhood development, learning, etc. The current project seeks to buck this trend by emphasizing questions of play, leisure, entertainment, enjoyment, subversion, resistance, and other not-necessarily-purposive aspects of children's digital gaming.
Another factor driving the direction of this project is the decision to focus specifically on commercial games. That UGC is increasingly being incorporated within entertainment-driven, commercially-controlled settings, represents an important divergence from existing educational programs aimed at teaching game design and other skills to children (e.g. Scratch). As commercial games, built to generate profits and cross-promotional opportunities, the UGC games examined in this study introduce a very specific set of issues...including questions of commercialization, ownership, relationships between cultural participation and enclosure, fan communities and fair use/dealings, cross-platform convergence and transmedia intertextuality, among others.
Since these particular UGC games are not presented as "educational", but rather leisure-based, they likely (potentially) invite engagement, and therefore analysis, in a much broader range of settings and contexts. For instance, because previous work in this area has emphasized education and IT skill development, prior research into children's engagements with UGC games has tended to unfold within educational (including university laboratory) settings. By shifting the focus onto leisure and play, this project aims to re-situate the analysis within the domestic spaces of children's every day lives, as well as the liminal spaces "betwixt and between" (playgrounds, commercial spaces, the backseat, the backyard, etc.). In keeping with this emphasis on out-of-school play, a key area of inquiry will be the migration of UGC game tools onto mobile devices (such as the Nintendo DSi and iPhone): is this shift in device associated with a concurrent shift in use patterns (if so, in what ways), does it broaden user involvement or accessibility, does it in any way reshape or challenge existing notions of "UGC"?
By tracking recent trends within digital game design and culture, this study will explore the emerging role and function of UGC within children’s digital games. The project will chart the challenges and opportunities associated with children’s increased access to game design-oriented UGC tools, and how this might enhance children’s ability to determine the shape and contents of their digital play, and thereby transform existing relationships between children's leisure and cultural production processes.
A comprehensive inventory of the contents of child-designed game levels and content will be produced and analyzed. Issues of accessibility and representation will be addressed through design analysis of the tools and action opportunities provided, as well as any tools or tactics that are introduced by the player/player communities. I will also examine how the game tools, design challenges and player practices are both used (and/or transgressed) to inspire forms of meta-participation (including the creation of machinima, fan art, stories, social networks, the creation of tangible artifacts, etc.), as well as forms of user innovation (including mods, hacks, cheats, subversive rationalization, etc.). A number of player communities engaged in these practices will be identified and then explored in depth, for instance through interviews and analysis of digital artifacts.
Children's experiences playing and creating UGC games will also be explored, with special attention payed to the emerging, situated practices associated with UGC gaming/designing. As UGC games are increasingly appearing on mobile, portable or handheld devices - such as the PSP and DSi - this aspect of the games/design process will likely yield some important new findings about the spaces and places of children's play, creative collaboration and other cultural practices.
In addition to producing critical scholarship and contributing to the emerging bodies of work in the areas of children's game studies and children's cultural rights, one of the project goals is to construct a multi-leveled response to these developments, by outlining a set of industry guidelines, policy recommendations, and resources for parents and children. Each of these deliverables will be aimed at assisting key stakeholders in both protecting and advancing children’s burgeoning cultural rights (and responsibilities) within the deeply ambiguous, hybridized contexts of UGC games and similar forums.
My interest in UGC games derives in part out of questions that arose out of my previous work on children's digital gaming culture, including my recently completed doctoral research. My dissertation, The Digital Child at Play, examined virtual worlds designed specifically for elementary school age children. This work represents one of the first examinations of virtual worlds designed specifically for children under the age of 12 years (see ongoing projects led by Yasmin Kafai, Jackie Marsh, David Gauntlett et al. for other - some earlier - examples). My research analyzes the formal and informal "rule systems" contained within a representative sample of game-themed virtual worlds developed in Canada and the US. The study considers the type of rules that are enforced in the design and management of children’s virtual worlds, and the ways in which children negotiate these rules in their play and peer interactions.
Through this research, I was able to explore how interactions between players and technological (game) design can both reproduce intended outcomes (which are formally established within the design and rules of the games), as well as enable unanticipated forms of player innovation, informal learning and ‘emergent play’ practices. My study demonstrates that children's virtual worlds contain more limited design features and higher levels of commercialization than those created for teens and adults. Yet despite this, child players utilize these virtual worlds for a variety of playful and creative practices. Children's use the worlds to stage plays, tell stories, create characters, and design virtual homes. They also use the tools these worlds provide to produce their own cultural content, including videos, fan sites, artwork and online discussions.
Over the course of completing my dissertation, it became clear that opportunities for direct cultural participation are a crucial component of children's experience and engagement with ICTs. Since conducting my doctoral research in 2007 and 2008, the significance and prevalence of UGC and cultural participation within children's gaming have become even more apparent. As in other areas of digital gaming culture, a growing number of children's games feature tools for social networking and for producing and distributing UGC, or "player-generated content" as it is sometimes called in this context. Coinciding with the "web 2.0" phenomenon, as well as recent advances in game design and multiplayer technologies (such as the emergence of web-based MMOGs), the emphasis within the children's game industry has now shifted toward providing players with greater opportunities to interact with one another and to contribute directly to the games’ contents.
The introduction of child-friendly forums for UGC within multiuser online environments such as virtual worlds is just one manifestation of this shift. As mentioned above, a number of console games (played on dedicated gaming systems, such as the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Xbox 360) now feature tools for creating game items and characters. Examples of this can be found in two highly acclaimed UGC games released in 2008, Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet for the Sony Playstation 3 and EA’s Spore computer game. Both games are heavily marketed to children and center almost entirely around the creation and manipulation of UGC, enabling players to create content, characters and entire levels of the game. Microsoft has since launched Kodu Game Lab, an easy to use game design program developed and targeted to children as young as 6 years of age. Kodu Game Lab is ‘played’ on the Xbox 360 console, and has already been integrated into a number of elementary school computer clubs and after school programs.
Because these games are internet-enabled, players can share their finished products (game levels, creatures, songs, planets, etc.) with other players, contributing to vibrant networks or 'communities' of user-creators. Each of the major console manufacturers (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) now provides online services, which include direct access to console-specific online stores where players can purchase games and upgrades, and download content submitted by other players. Potentially, they can also use the service to sell their own original creations to other users. The introduction of UGC into digital games thus has important implications for established distribution channels, as well as existing regulatory frameworks.
While these systems are still in the early stages of development, this aspect of UGC raises numerous questions about whether and how user-produced content will be rated, how authorship and copyright issues will be resolved, and the need to minimize the potential for exploitation in transactions involving minors and other novice producers. In addition, it poses new challenges to the game industry’s existing self-regulatory systems. For instance, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has not yet adapted its system to account for UGC or online interactions within digital games. Meanwhile, children, parents and caregivers are left wondering how to navigate the opportunities and challenges that UGC brings, often with very little support or guidance.
Early Think Pieces on the Subject:
The Hidden Playground at The Escapist (in relation to mobile gaming, play and creativity).
Digital Games, UGC, and the Mainstreaming of Virtual IP Conflicts at IP Osgoode (in relation to intellectual property in UGC games).
Kids’ Digital Creations: Who Owns The Content? at Shaping Youth blog (in relation to authorship and ownership issues).
And: Grimes, Sara M. (Forthcoming). "Child-Generated Content: Children’s Authorship and Interpretive Practices in Digital Gaming Cultures." In Coombe, R.J. and D. Wershler (Eds.) Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online.
Related Blog Posts:
UGC Games Go Portable
Reimagining Learning Puts LittleBigPlanet in the (MacArthur) Spotlight
Marvel's LittleBigPlanet - Product Placement or Player Generated Content?
LittleBigPlanet Online Hits the 2 Million Mark
The Harry Potter Lawsuit and CGC
Child-Generated Content as Media Fad or Technologized Play?
Main Research Questions
Timeline, Sample (Size, Criteria, etc.)
Research Project Blog
Links of Interest:
Knit Your Own Sackboy
Dream Track Nation
Other UGC Sites (also of Interest):
Game Design Programs-of-Interest:
Adventure Game Studio