From February 6-10 in NYC, I attended the iKids Conference and Kidscreen Summit, the largest annual children’s entertainment industry event in the world. Kidscreen Summit, with 1500 delegates representing 800 companies and 43 countries, is part conference, summit, networking event, exhibition and trade show. With every major children’s media industry player (and everyone who very much wants to be a major player) under one roof, pre-conference iKids and Kidscreen delivered a number of highlights, recurring themes and critical questions about the past, present and future of children and digital media. Trying to toggle between industry and academic lenses, I’ve summarized a few key issues raised below:
Transmedia “_____.” At iKids, Stacey Matthias, co-CEO of Insight Strategy Group, presented qualitative research from depth interviews conducted with a small sample of kids (aged 7-14, across 8 US states) on how they would define “transmedia” (abridged version PDF available here.) Two notable points from Matthias’ presentation: 1) Developmental differences in how children ages 7, 10 and 13 described how their experiences with character-driven narratives across different media story worlds “helped them do the work of growing up,” as Matthias described, and 2) That none of the children they interviewed entered the story world of their favorite media property through that franchise’s original media (e.g. Harry Potter, not through the books or even the movies, but through Lego Harry Potter).
In relation to the work I am doing with my advisor, Prof. Henry Jenkins, and Erin Reilly, Managing Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I’d caution that if “transmedia” in its most basic sense means “across media,” then we need to be more specific about what “transmedia” means in very different mediated contexts. Matthias’ presentation primarily focused on children’s “transmedia” as branding and storytelling, but understandably less so (given the setting) on transmedia’s potential applications as learning, ritual, performance or activism (such as the work of the Harry Potter Alliance).
Non-digital game app inspirations. David Kleeman moderated a “hypothetical app” creation challenge between Andy Russell of Launchpad Toys, Jason Krogh of zinc Roe Design, Carla Fisher and Anne Richards of No Crusts Interactive and Juliet Tzabar of Plug-in Media. David’s rules were that the app had to 1) Be targeted to 5-8 year-olds, 2) Promote “pass back and forth” between children and caregivers, and 3) Use as many possible affordances of smart phone and tablet computers.
The result was a number of apps with non-digital counterparts. One type of app was the digital version of the “exquisite corpse.” “Le cadavre exquis” was a parlor game favored by French Surrealists, involving players making a contribution to the whole (be it an image or set of worlds) without having knowledge of anyone else’s contributions. This “pass along” game involves one person writing or drawing on a piece of paper, folding that paper over to hide all but one piece of their creation, and then passing it along for the next person to add, fold, and pass along again. The completed “corpse” (revealed when the paper is unfolded) can be the basis for collective creation and creative communication, regardless of language. No Crusts also drew inspiration from analog games like Telephone, and the panel discussed the possibility of incorporating non-digital elements from improvisational theater games with their “Yes, And” philosophy.
One area into which the panel did not get a chance to dig deeper was the distinct qualities that separate the physical folding and unfolding of paper from the “metaphorical” folding and unfolding of an app (e.g. a child’s fine motor and metacognitive skills needed to choose and fold a select portion of their drawing to pass along.) It is differences such as this that leads me to another note of caution for fellow children’s media researchers. Just because one has knowledge of child development, and even how children learn from pseudo-interactive television, does not necessarily apply whole cloth to an understanding of how children learn from apps, nor how to research and design user interfaces (UI) and user experiences (UX) for this age group. Nor, on top of that, how to account for cultural differences in child development. As David Kleeman stated at the conclusion of the panel (and I apologize for paraphrasing), “The more functionality there is in these devices, the harder it is to separate what’s possible/fun/cool from necessary/usable.”
Monetizing “digital natives” rhetoric. “Co-creation” with young “digitally native” media audiences is a rather warm and fuzzy notion that was shared over the course of the conference, but there needs to be more open and honest discussions about the ethical implications of monetizing crowd sourced user generated content from kids under 13, as well as the serious social, economic and educational consequences for children across the globe who do not fit the ideal consumer profile. Under the umbrella of what counts as “content,” there’s more than just posting YouTube videos. Do children’s anonymous click-through data, collected and delivered to advertisers, count as “user generated content” too? “Gamifying creativity” could end up, and perhaps already is, what Georgia Tech games rhetoric scholar Ian Bogost calls “exploitationware.” Surely, an understanding of children’s media literacy in the 21st century involves a critical understanding of what goes on under the mostly-opaque hood of our increasingly networked society, such as how Wikipedia pages get edited, how data is collected based on each badge-like goal obtained on a website, and how electronics get made in China.
More youth in the US may be viewing video on YouTube (as noted in research presented by Dubit Research at iKids), but that doesn’t mean by virtue of the year they were born that all these young people have the opportunities (e.g. free time to spend on the Internet, informal mentorships) to gain the cultural capital, knowledge and social skills to participate, learn and engage in their world. Young people can find incredibly innovative ways to overcome some of these inequalities, but in order to learn more about these strategies, the first step is to stop pretending that all kids have, or even will one day soon have, iPads both at home and at school.
Readers, do you have any thoughts, comments or feedback you’d like to share below?