Generation Why?

Generation Why?
Expanding Universes

Sara Grimes | 21 Aug 2007 12:21
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From this, we might conclude that some toys are more prescriptive than others. For example, videogames are much more prescriptive than action figures or playsets could ever be. Limitations are designed right into the code, which determines what actions are even possible during gameplay. With MMOGs, however, it's a different story. MMOGs are situated somewhere between traditional videogames and make-believe play, in that their structure (or code) gives players a lot of narrative openings and agency.

And since the MMOGs are inherently collaborative, kids get a chance to diverge from the pre-scripted media these companies provide. Individually customized avatars furthermore allow players to engage the narrative on their own terms, something mass-produced toys cannot yet provide. MMOGs could represent an important opening for child agency within commercial media culture.

They could, but this greater agency must first contend with the game's built-in guide rails. After all, transmedia intertextuality is itself a highly structured system, driving consumers toward related media tie-ins. With each new television season, there's that much more pre-scripted content for kids to sort through.

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Already, kids' MMOGs have been found directing players toward in-game ads, limiting speech that might conflict with brand identity (while providing lots of opportunities to say positive things about the brand's products), as well as rewarding players who have purchased tie-in products by giving them access to special items and areas.

For example, Nicktropolis players are encouraged to watch trailers and clips of Nickelodeon TV shows. A special area of GalaXseeds can be opened with a "secret" (i.e. UPC) code found on special packages of Skittles. The Cartoon Network reveals secret codes for its Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends game during episodes of the show and podcasts. And Webkinz can only be accessed by owners of its plush toys.

The lack of advertising regulation online opens the door for a lot more promotional activity than we've seen in other media. The prospect of unfettered access to kids and their pocketbooks is another explanation for the children's industries' rush to MMOGs. As one DIC Entertainment executive revealed at a recent media licensing conference, "We see the TV show almost as an infomercial for the online."

Still, kids' resilience and creativity seem to have a way of expressing themselves. As one scholar remarked about licensed toys, "Barbie can slide down avalanches just as He-Man can become the inhabitant of a two-story Victorian doll's house." If the adult-oriented MMOGs teach us anything, it's that multiplayer games are the breeding grounds of unanticipated developments. Since so much of kids' play already derives from the realm of the unexpected, it's only a matter of time before these structures are challenged.

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