Kids' online games present a particularly rich case study for understanding the mechanisms of advergaming because - for the most part - they have been allowed to flourish there unchallenged. Even though children's personally identifiable information, like their names and addresses, is protected in many regions under national privacy legislation, there is currently no legal framework in place that regulates the online collection of other types of data - even though consumer trends and opinions are often what interest marketers the most. And unlike the realm of adult MMOGs, where intellectual property (IP) ownership has become the issue of heated debate as a result of real money trade, children's advergames are very rarely thought of in terms of IP and authorship issues.
Instead, public attention to children and online games is usually concentrated on the moral panic du jour. Most recently, politicians in the U.S. and Europe have begun targeting junk food-themed advergames for their possible contribution to the growing childhood obesity problem. As with similar campaigns against violent and sexual content, the focus always seems to stay fixed on the possible effects of exposure to said content while ignoring the two-way dynamics of interaction. This oversight reflects a deeper dependency on portraying children as "helpless victims," which comes up whenever conflicts arise (as seen repeatedly in the game-ratings cases). Meanwhile, kids are left to fend for themselves in regard to their potential rights as the collaborative producers of game content.
As a result, norms are being established within these sites that are extremely industry biased. I decided to take a look at the games' terms of service (TOS) contracts and end-user license agreements (EULAs), since these have been so central to the IP conflicts with MMOGs. What I discovered was most kids' advergames require their players to agree to many of the same clauses in adult-oriented MMOGs' EULAs, including transferring ownership of any and all contributions they've made on the game's site - everything from direct feedback and avatar customization to uploaded materials and forum replies. If these items are to be data-mined and used for business purposes, it's better to secure ownership first, right?
The agreements themselves are long and complicated, written in a mix of legalese and hyperbole, with sentences like: "We exclusively own all now-known or hereafter existing rights to Submissions of every kind and nature throughout the universe until the end of time, and are entitled to unlimited use of your Submissions for any purpose we can think of." If it's difficult for a layperson to make sense of TOS contracts, you can imagine how impossible it is for a kid - assuming he reads the thing in the first place (which, let's be honest, hardly anyone does).
Admittedly, a number of the contracts I reviewed did list the parent as an assumed agreeing party, but none of them did any follow-up to ensure the parent actually read and agreed to the terms. In the one case where written parental consent was mandatory (Neopets!), very few details were provided about why kids' information was being collected or how it might be used. And yet these contracts are clearly supposed to stand in for the informed consent procedures that are normally required when enlisting a child to participate in research activities.