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Friday, July 17, 2009

More on virtual world growth

Heard of Spineworld? I hadn't. But a 10-year-old I know told me he's seeing it everywhere in his circles. Now we know from UK-based market researcher K Zero that its population (registered users) has more than doubled since first quarter '09, from 1 million then to 2.8 million now, according to VirtualWorldsNews. Overall, "the total number of registered accounts in the virtual worlds sector totaled 579,000,000 in the April-June quarter, 2009. That's an increase of 38.6% from the prior quarter when the tally was 417,000,000." K Zero adds that 60% of all virtual world users are between the ages of 10 and 15, "followed closely" by 5-to-10-year-olds, reports in its 2nd-quarter '09 update The problem is, its eye-grabbing chart is pretty imprecise, making it appear that more than 75% of the total VW population are 10-15 years old and that 5-to-9-year-olds represent about a quarter, with nothing left over at all for users 16+. As for individual kid worlds, besides Spineworld's, some of the biggest gains were seen by Stardoll, which added 8 million users; Club Penguin (6 million); Nicktropolis (3.1 million); and UK-based Moshi Monsters (3 million). The reports says Poptropica gained 36 million users, but that must be a typo, right? [See also "Undercover Mom in Poptropica" and in Stardoll, and our complete Undercover Mom series.]

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Play, Part 2: Violence in videogames

Last week I looked at what psychiatrist Stuart Brown says about the power of play and how it can mitigate aggression. This week a look at the videogame part of the picture....

Asked by a middle school teacher about violence in videogames at a recent media-literacy conference, Prof. Henry Jenkins said, "Every storytelling medium throughout the history of the world involves violence – the paintings in art museums, Shakespeare's plays, the Bible – have images of violence.... The question isn't 'Can we get rid of violence'" in art, civilization, or life? "We can't," said Jenkins, who has traveled around the US speaking at schools and talking with students, parents, and educators about the place of violence in the entertainment part of their lives, led research, held workshops for the videogame industry, and testified on Capitol Hill about videogame violence.

"What we need is for this storytelling medium to make sense of our aggression, trauma, loss, and violence in the way that art does this. We have to create a climate where the images of violence are not trivialized, where violence has an impact." Because the teacher was asking specifically about violence in World of Warcraft, which is set in medieval times, Jenkins mentioned a friend who's a medievalist, who told him that people "hacked and slashed all the way through medieval culture, but periodically medieval tribes would gather their dead and mourn them. That sense of mourning and loss gives awareness of the consequence of violence. We need to be asking, 'How do we build mourning into the games we play, how do we put ethics into them?... The deepest research suggests that media are least powerful when they seek to change our beliefs and behavior and most powerful when they reinforce them - those are the criteria we need to look at."

So I've been looking for signs of videogames becoming more compelling and sophisticated in that way - moving beyond random violence and shooting sprees for their own sake to story lines, character development, scenarios and conditions that powerfully convey the impact of violence. I saw one sign last year while reading a thoughtful review in Slate of Grand Theft Auto IV. He wrote, "I get the sense that freewheeling killing sprees will no longer be the main draw. This is partly because the central missions and story are so well-conceived and well-written compared with previous iterations of the game and partly because the violence is far more disturbing.... What makes Grand Theft Auto IV so compelling is that, unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done" (see this for more).

The key consideration, Jenkins said, is whether the violence in a game, film, or any art is meaningful (again, does not trivialize the violence but rather gets the player or viewer thinking about its meaning and impact) or just a "media effect" (which has no educational value). "A focus on meaning rather than effects has helped us to identify some pedagogical interventions which can help our students develop the skills and vocabulary needed to think more deeply about the violence they encounter in the culture around them," Jenkins wrote in his essay, "The War Between Effects and Meaning."

Related links

  • Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, who I blogged about last week, recently told public radio host Krista Tippett that the research on videogame violence is "not very solid" and there is evidence that "a limited amount of videogames probably increases imaginativeness and skills."
  • Videogame numbers. US online gaming, which is growing at 10 times the rate of US Internet population, "attracted 87 million visitors [in May], representing a very healthy 22% increase over last year," comScore reported.
  • "Good game?: The behavioural effects of video games" in The Economist
  • Professor Jenkins's full talk, given at the New Media Literacies conference at MIT in May, is here.
  • Study on videogames and aggression released last year
  • New Media Literacies Project at MIT

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  • Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    Filtering critics, issues in 3 countries

    Teachers, not students, are the people most affected by school filters, according to a commentary in the Washington Post - even though the US federal law requiring filtering by schools receiving federal connectivity funding (the Children's Internet Protection Act, or CIPA) is aimed at protecting students from inappropriate content. "Walk the halls of a public school, and students will readily share tips for evading filters, some of which would be good work-arounds for the Great Firewall of China," writes Justin Reich, a former high school teacher working on his PhD in education at Harvard. He tells of a high school student who recent showed him a Facebook group called "How to access Facebook from school" that has 187,000 members and offers simple methods for filter-free surfing and profile updating. A teacher told me once that, when she needs to get to a site that her school filter blocks, she just asks one of her students to help her.

    So one question is, if this view of filtering as blunt-instrument solution is or becomes widespread, what replaces it? One idea might be school-network monitoring. More than 1,000 UK schools have monitoring software running on their networks (probably mostly alongside filtering software). Are US schools using this technology as much? Should monitoring become more of a focus in schools - to allow administrators to identify problem spots, have the "evidence" they need to work through cases of cyberbullying and harassment? What do you think? Is the choice blanket filtering (that's less than effective as a student-protection measure) or dealing with situations as they come up? See my slightly related post, "Zero tolerance = zero intelligence: Juvenile judge." (Post comments here or in the forum, or you can always email me at anne (at)

    And questions about filtering aren't being aired in the US only, of course. The BBC reports that, over in the UK, school regulatory body Becta just released a report which found that Net technology and devices is getting more sophisticated than the filters UK schools use, which often filter what's being downloaded only to computers (rather than mobile phones, iPod Touches, and other portable devices) and based solely on keyword, not image, detection. The report also pointed out that filters just block - they don't alert anybody to efforts to bypass the filtering. And in Australia, children's advocacy groups are criticizing the government for spending $33 million on mandatory nationwide household filtering, Australian IT reports. "Both Save the Children Australia and the National Children's & Youth Law Centre believe the resources could be better spent on law enforcement agencies battling to eradicate child pornography on the Internet."

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    Tuesday, July 14, 2009

    Kids' expanding time online

    The time children aged 2-11 spend online has grown 63% in the past five years, MEDIAWEEK reports, citing Nielsen Online figures. They spent seven hours a month online in 2004, compared to 11 hours online now, "with boys spending slightly more time on average than girls (7% more this past May)." Of course, everybody's online time has grown since 2004; the average Web user is spending 36% more time online now. The number of kids using the Web has grown too - by 18%, compared to the 10% growth in the number of all Web users, all ages. This past May, the 2-to-11-year-old age category reached 16 million, or 9.5% of the active online universe, Nielsen added. "That growth spurt is particularly noteworthy, since it happened during a period where the number of kids under 14 in the US declined by 1% ... per the U.S. Census Bureau." I think a good part of the explanation is the growth in virtual worlds, with kids 5-9 being the fastest-growing age group in a recent study about that (see this).

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    FL school district's plans for sexting ed

    The Miami-Dade school district aims to be a leader in teaching students the risks of cellphone sexting, the Miami Herald reports. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wants to work with government and law enforcement to develop a curriculum for the coming school year, and he plans to put forth "a cutting-edge School Board policy" on the subject, the Herald adds. It looks like the superintendent is taking a solid multi-disciplinary approach; if the policy's approved, the district "will also begin conversations with local law enforcement and government agencies to review the existing laws." In the Miami-Dade district, students can have cellphones in school, but they have to be turned off during class. Here's UPI's coverage. Here's a little insight into one mother's tough experience with a school sexting incident. reports that school officials are being urged to develop such policies and programs, and School Library Journal recently zoomed in on some intelligent thinking on the subject in Pennsylvania. Here are's tips for dealing with sexting (see also "Meaty perspective on sexting").

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    Monday, July 13, 2009

    Morgan Stanley teen intern on peers' media use

    Though Morgan Stanley says its report by 15-year-old intern Matthew Robson on his friends' media habits got "five or six times more feedback" than its European media team's usual reports, the investment banking firm "made no claims for [the report's] statistical rigour," the Financial Times reports. It did offer clear, "thought-provoking insights" to all the hedge fund managers and CEOs who the FT said called and emailed Morgan Stanley the day of the report's release, but I'm not sure any of the young Londoner's observations would surprise my readers. Robson "confirmed" that teens don't use Twitter (though we've seen one created a Twitter worm to test its security - see this); don't watch much TV or listen to much radio, preferring music-focused social sites such as; "find advertising 'extremely annoying and pointless'; and, as in newspapers, "'cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text'" instead of "summaries online or on television." What is interesting in the report is that - at least in the London area - teens' "time and money is spent on cinema, concerts and video game consoles which, [Robson] said, now double as a more attractive vehicle for chatting with friends than the phone." Sounds like he's talking about Xbox Live and other gaming communities (e.g., those within and associated with virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft, maybe). Is that an early warning for mobile phone operators and an indicator for parents that the texting wave may crest at some point? [Meanwhile, here's a US 16-year-old's POV on why teens aren't taken with Twitter. Basically, he suggests they're less in control of who sees their updates in Twitter (I don't think he knows that you can make your Twitter profile private). For Twitter privacy, go into "Account" under "Settings" in the upper right-hand corner of your home page and click "protect my updates" at the bottom of the page so that only people you approve can see them; then click "Save" at the very bottom.]

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