Xbox Live: What do parents need to know about Party Chat

If you own and Xbox or PS4, the chances are your child is playing online with a headset. In the past, the online-stranger-danger centred on so-called ‘internet chat rooms’. These things died ten years ago in reality, but TV and movies tend to talk about them still. Today, it’s not likely your child is live-chatting because there are so many better options such as Snap Chat and Xbox Live.

This post talks about ‘party chat’ as distinct from in-game chat. I am therefore not talking about in-game commands, co-ordination and instructions that players might do to win – I’m talking about the social chat that sits above that. The difference between game chat and party chat.

Should you be concerned about voice chat in a game? Yes. Most parents never sit in party chats and play games, so have no experience of what is going on. It’s like saying you can visit a different culture and apply your own culture’s norm to it and expect it to be the same. It’s not a case of it being bad or good – but to understand that party chat is a pervasive communication layer that defies geography and allows kids to maintain a semi-permanent tie to people they like and share values with. I hesitate to use the term ‘friends’ here as this term is illusory and yet used constantly in games to signal relationships. This post therefore tries to give you some background on party-chat: who uses it, what it is, how it’s used and so forth – you could ‘ban’ it, but that doesn’t actually create more harmony or stronger ties in the family or outside of it.

I’m also saying you (the parent) need to listen and understand it as a layer of communication between kids and not as an extension of a video game at all. So let me get into it.

Party chat is wide ranging. It is more of a hang-out than a tool to improve game performance. The second use is to say “I am here”. This is deeply connected with growing up. I’m not talking about the latter here – it’s too complex for a blog post. But be aware that kids use to tell the illusory world beyond your house – I am here and I’m connected.

Kids are often in a party chat but playing DIFFERENT games or even watching Netflix. On the upside, these tend to be tight-friend based parties in which the same kids come and go. Party chat is a communication layer, much like Skype. It sits over the game. The more sophisticated version being Twitch, where kids broadcast to the web and an audience forms online as a party. Most kids are watching Twitch (lots of F-Bombs) and not broadcasting – but they do mimic what they see in party charts. Little Jonny is probably going to try an F-Bomb in party chat – because, at the dinner table, that would have consequences! This doesn’t make them a bad kid!

Is my kid playing with online F-Bomb weirdos then?

Strangers are not likely and kids don’t leave the party ‘open’ to random joiners. The downside is that kids use this space to ‘shit-talk’ each other. This is complex, but many parents might be shocked to hear the projected persona of their own child. It’s just ONE identity they are experimenting with – don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean they are going one percent biker.

Don’t assume this is teenager issue either. Primary aged kids are among the biggest users as they can connect without needing mum or dad to take them to a friends house. The language in some of these parties can be quite alarming. This is about boundary testing and other developmental reasons – not as they are bad kids – but be aware, kids do swear a lot. They also don’t listen to each other too much. Unlike a real world interchange – shit talking – is almost part of the competitiveness of the game – as kids comment on others, testing relationships and figuring out where they are in the overall scheme of things.

Party Chat‘ allow kids select who they want to talk to. Who is in and out. There are squabbles here, as kids rage-quit the party or group ditches a kid for some reason. In my observation this is not long-lasting and they don’t seem to hold grudges. The party is likely to be a mix of in real life (IRL) and met online friends. Don’t expect this to the same IRL friend group from school. They may party chat online with kids they would not talk to at school. This appear very normal.

This is likely to be a mix of in real life (IRL) and met online friends. Don’t expect this to the same IRL friend group from school. They may plan online with kids they would not talk to at school.

Party chat is wide ranging. It is more of a hangout than a tool to improve game play. It’s mostly about ‘being present’ and socialising and a very casual basis. You teen might be in the party all day and only say three words. The important thing is that want to be connected – and the good news is that party chat is almost always a closed network and the core group quickly vet anyone joining – usually through an invite from someone already in the party.

A note here about ‘friends’. Kids add other players who didn’t suck, or perhaps compromised and helped in the game – where others didn’t. A ‘friend’ is more a ‘preferred player’ in most cases, but Xbox uses ‘friends’ as part of its taxonomy. It doesn’t mean “friend” in the same way it does IRL. The parent just appear dumb when they quiz kids about ‘real friends’ and ‘have you met them’ – kids think this is a ridiculous line of attack.

Furthermore, kids are often in a party chat playing DIFFERENT games or even watching Netflix. The downside of party groups is that kids use this space to ‘shit-talk’ each other. You might as well learn that term. Don’t freak, if a kid ‘shit-talks’ another, the other one usually doesn’t care or even respond. Telling another player “you’re bad” is far worse in the taxonomy of commentary. I’m not suggesting this is the norm, there are some very sensible and articulate kids in game chat – but there are morons – just as there are everywhere else in life. Kids often mirror what’s going on, they test out new identities – and yes, your otherwise angelic boy has probably heard and used language that won’t be alarming at the dinner table.

The reasons for this are complex. Don’t assume ‘shit-talking’ is teenager only, primary aged kids are among the biggest users as they can connect without needing mum or dad to take them to a friends house. Younger kids are full of bravado and mosy of the time, they provide a running, high-pitched commentary on the game. They verbalise their thoughts – not caring if anyone’s listening. Broadly speaking, older gamers call them mic-squeakers and mute them. Mic-squeakers are prolific trash-talkers to other mic-squeakers. Most of them don’t swear, but plenty does.The language in some of these parties can be quite alarming. This is about boundary testing and other developmental reasons – not as they are bad kids – but be aware, kids do swear a lot. They also don’t listen to each other too much. Unlike a real world interchange – shit talking – is almost part of the competitiveness of the game – as kids comment on others, testing relationships and figuring out where they are in the overall scheme of things.

My point here is that friend based party chat DOES often contain swearing – shit talking – and at the same time, this does NOT MEAN your child would do it outside of the party. Overall, party-chat is well meaning and players can come and go – which they do often. To me, it doesn’t appear a persistent space where systematic bullying might thrive – unlike Snap Chat and Facebook – which are far more permanent in terms of digital footprint.

My suggestion is to get in a party chat – the one your kid uses – and play. Figure out what is going on. You might find your kid is spending time with some GREAT kids and that they are very responsible. You might also discover shit-talking isn’t an idicator of much more than the advancing media culture in which F-Bombs and slagging off others isn’t now seen as Taboo.

Either way – Party Chat isnt going away …

Advertisements

Minecraft vs Minecraft Story Mode

Minecraft Story Mode is not Minecraft, but an example of the increasing interest and ability of game developers to engage children in what amounts to a neo-novella.

Neo-novellas are interactive, animated, short stories written for adults (which children also enjoy). It’s a game, but it’s not Minecraft. If you want a review of Story Mode, I suggest Meta Critic here. This post is about why Story Mode is new cultural move for the brand.

It’s been widely accepted that the uptake of digital media doesn’t divorce the user from older media. New iterations become part of the  cultural aesthetic and processes carried on by society. Story Mode brings a new set of adventures to the Minecraft brand, finally being more recognizable as a text type than the original game to parents. It actually has a story and characters that deliver on the narrative.

While this ‘port’ from one popular cultural artifact (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead) might not be a more than another remediation, it provides a key bridge between the original sandbox game, which is mostly autotelic in nature, to one which is clearly a consumer-driven product that expands the franchise. For parents who didn’t see the ‘point’ of Minecraft, this new title presents itself in a much more recognisable form. Unlike the developers other titles, Minecaft Story Mode isn’t bound by it’s original ‘show’. It’s likely that they can sell ‘new adventures’ to players for the foreseeable future. The hardcore Minecrafters will carry on with their creative labours and server-owners will continue to farm ‘mini-game’ players. Story Mode isn’t Minecraft. It’s a game which is based on Minecraft, paying closer attention to YouTube popularity than the original game.

Story Mode is a potential gateway game from endless hours of personal creativity and mini-gaming (which comes with many issues for parents) to a game which leads kids into the well-established narrative-games. It remains to be seen if Story Mode has any new ‘literacy’ value to children, but it certainly has tremendous cross-platform economic value to the developers.  It also serves to mask some of the concerns parents have over Minecraft “over use” and the kind of trading, collecting and behavioral conditions present on mini-game servers. Minecraft has effectively had a sizeable PR overhaul in Story Mode as well as another injection of cash for its owners.

What makes Minecraft a highly motivated community

A lot of the discussion about why teachers might use video games in their class has centred around the belief that video games are motivating. It’s also the central controversy about children playing games at home — they are so motivating that they are reluctant to put them down. Education often puts forward the theory of flow — to suggest that once motivated, children are in an optimal learning zone, a view presented by Jane McGonigal (2012) from which she claimed games are optimal learning environments, which predicated the launch of her book – Reality is Broken. It’s a compelling story, bursting with emotion, pop culture and ‘common sense’ – a way to rescue the shallowing of society and death of childhood. I don’t believe this is the case, or rather that video games have somehow found secret success factors no one else has.

For most people, tweenager and above, the construction of success is now deeply linked to their construction of themselves. This is partly visible in the identities, routines and rituals that they engage in. This engagement is also one based in consumerism, where material objects are part of personal expression and communication – their Y-Phones, Tablets, Game Consoles etc., These things all combine to influence their overall motivation towards everything. For example, it influences what they say and how they behave when told to get off the Xbox in the same way it draws them to it. Parents and teachers are not dealing with opposing forces — good and bad machines, books, games, behaviours and so on, but with one behavior.

Motivation is bound by two things for the ‘screenage’ generation, expectancy and value. Expectancy is comprised abstract elements: confidence, experience, importance and success. Value is perceptive: extrinsic motivation, social motivation, achievement motivation and intrinsic motivation. These things are so complex and variable, that video games are not universally motivating, nor are they a way to engage the disenfranchised or isolated members of society. Reality is not therefore broken, but variously experienced — particularly outside of the snow-globe of TED Talks.

People enjoy games because game-designers put ‘community’ to work. To me, this is at the heart of games-based-learning and project-based-learning. Community has numerous subtle components, however four main archetypes need to be considered when we’re talking about motivation and what spaces kids are in that might tap into that: Participation; Cohesion; Identity and Creativity.

Consider Minecraft not as a game but as a community space: it’s physically located on a device, but conceptually located in media consumer culture. It has the necessary attributes of a ‘good community’ and therefore is more likely to motivate players to participate. This is what all game designers are learning to do, and is critical to the commercial and every day pop culture discussion of those games inside their respective communities.

Now ask yourself, how connected is my kid to the local corporeal community: re-visit the four factors and ask yourself are they participating in ways that are sustained over time, have they become part of a core-group and do they have an emergent role in that group. Do they find cohesion? Is the group supportive, tolerant, allow turn taking, responsive, funny and playful. Do they have an identity? Is the group self-aware, does it share vocabulary and language, does it give them a personal space and brand … and finally, is the community creative?

I’d argue some schools have massive community and others are people-factories that pretend they are a community. The thing with games is, there is no pretending. Games which are motivating have communities that are motivating … which is why gamification at school or work is not about points, badges and rewards — it’s about community.

Negotiations of Play

negotiations_of_play

I’m pleased to say that I’ve posted my project website for my thesis, called Negotiations of Play. This is designed to support parents and to capture the experiences of Australian parents and caregivers of children aged 4-12. Right now you can leave your email address if you want to notified of then the study commences. I expect that this will take about 12 months to collect.

Overall, there is no research into what parents and children think about online games or how parents mediate them in Australia. Much of the reports in mass media tend to discuss statistical data which they use to inductively to tell parents what they should or should not be doing. The dominant literature which voices concern focuses on, and extends the long running negative ‘media effects’ debate by experimental psychology. The positive often focuses on theories of ‘flow’ and the design of games and player behaviours, especially fun, motivation and enjoyment.

My approach is somewhat different in that I am interested in the broad negotiations between the media and families and inter-family conceptions of the role video games play in family life as media markets, which to me plays a key role in developing both adult and childrens literacy. The market benefits though reproductive process helping expand what games can do. Evidence of this can been seen in the rise of new forms of games which negates much of the ‘violence in games’ claims these days. I see what games do as establishing what I’m calling a neo leisure class. People in constant negotiation with game designers and media producers through the cultural production of their avatars and game-identities. In particular, I’m interested in network mediated culture which I think is largely ignored or overlooked in game-studies, yet as every Steam or Xboxer knows is an essential site for identity, socialising and play.

I have many people to thank for getting me to this point: Not least: My wife and kids and our household’s game characters – Vormamim, Vorsaken and LollykingOMG each of whom have played an important role in developing my interest in the issues and controversies of parenting the gamer generation. Then there are those whom I know in-game by gamer-tag (anonymously represented here). Next, those whom have contributed significantly to what I now call ‘work’ – the ones who I ‘talk to’ on Twitter, but also those who have been working on using games for over a decade in Australia: Judy O’Connell, Bron Stuckey, Jo Kay, Kerrie Johnson, Westley Field and countless others in Australia and overseas such as Derek Robinson and Peggy Sheehy, two people I see as key critical thinkers in what games can do to improve kids lives, especially those kids who are increasingly being marginalised by educational technology’s neoliberal-elitism.

Finally, and not least my PhD supers Professor Catharine Lumby and Dr. Kate Highfield who have been amazing in the last year of my life and lit the darkest of days when I’ve needed it most. A few more essentials, Dr. David Saltmarsh who has really expanded my thinking and coffee drinking and Mal Booth at UTS Library who shares a love of ink-pens, Alfas and innovation.

The Screen Time Pandemic

I gave an interview this week about children and videogames and in it I sensationally described ‘screen-time’ as the first digital pandemic which constitutes nothing less than an expanding public health problem. In someways I was reacting to a repeating concern questioners have about games and childhood. The media, as I’ve said many many times (as have many many other) perpetuate public anxiety among parents about the ‘potential’ harm videogames cause which is broadly based on scientific claims.

Let me take a swipe at science for a moment. I mean they are totally asking for it right? Imagine for a second that a clash of theories and ideas exists between artisans and scientists. Not too hard to imagine is it? and if you’re still not convinced … why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip? To get to the other… eh? Hang on… You get my point, science is not to be trusted absolutely and of course can claim vast amounts of ‘crazy’ themselves. One of the most alarming was (and still is) giving children electro-shock ‘therapy’ because the daydream too much. Thanks science, but just because you invent a therapy clearly does not mean you also found an actual problem and as an artisan I’m of such free will as to find some of the methods being used to demonize games (and build an even bigger therapy industry) suspect.

But there is a digital pandemic. We see it everyday and it demonstrates how little interest and emphasis there is on public policy and education on dealing with it. While it might not be as physically destructive as passing round Benson & Hedges to adolescents, screen time is treated very much like gambling. We know it is a serious social problem for families and individuals, but it’s not as important as other things like buying fancy new fighter-jets.

The big social difference is that ‘screen-time’ is notionally free and doesn’t require betting in terms of wining and losing money. However, like gambling technology doesn’t favour the punter but the owner of the networks, devices and software that ‘screen timers’ use, just like card tables and race-tracks. The amount of time people spend using ‘screen time’ is much more important than focusing on individual applications of that screen time. In a way, we are more worried about smoking effects in the home than we might be in public spaces like trains, schools or cinemas. The concern about ‘screen time’ is almost the inverse of common public heath issues such as smoking or gambling.

As I said today, there has been a call for a more robust and cohesive approach to media education, which is going to be no less of a long hard slog than convincing people that gambling or driving when tired has experienced. And let us not be coy about the deadly effects of screen-time. We are seeing plenty of social issues related to individual use of media (trolling, prank calls, bullying) as well as people using their phone while driving with fatal results. We are beginning to see some efforts to raise awareness of screen time, but like smoking was in the 1950s the companies profiting cannot be allowed to self-regulate the solution, or co-opt selected areas of medical science to rebuke public concerns.

It makes for interesting conversation, perhaps even a topic for a PBL class:

Should we be concerned about the screen time and public heath: and what should be done about it.

This is the essentially the popular media-proposition that was leveled at film, television, video recordings, the Internet and videogames … except now the device in your pocket can do all of this. I can be a weapon of mass: consumption; consumerism; communication; destruction; deviation; deprivation and much more … I am sure you could create an A-Z of the potential issues to public heath and civic society that ‘screen time’ presents — and there are now very very few devices which exclusively play videogames.

 

Tandem Learning

I’ve been involved with an ambitious accessibility project in Indonesia. In short, if you have accessibility needs in Indonesia, even being colour blind, you will find it almost impossible to attend any form of consistent education, not least University. As many as 59% of Indonesian children with any sight impairment get no education at all.

MQAS is working hard to improve this. It’s not easy, but it’s massively rewarding to learn that our partner – Brawijaya University – has enrolled 10 students in under-graduate courses with disabilities – the first time ever. This is of course achieved by lobbying for funding, something that groups who work with disabilities know all about.

If you have ever met MQAS’ Sharon Kerr, you’ll know that there is no dream too big, and no high office that can’t have it’s doors opened. Getting students into University was step one. In the next few months, we’ll be working with 33 provinces, teaching teachers how to work with and teach people with disabilities. As if that wasn’t enough – we’re also starting generating ideas on how to get children with disabilities to school – even if that school is actually a University using technology.

One idea is “the tandem project”. If we can get 20 tandem bikes (lots of bikes in Indonesia, not many tandems), we can use them to get people with vision impairment to school in a peer-mentor program. This is perhaps the opposite of what might be expected from a technological solution. Perhaps we could just give them iPads – but they don’t have electricity reliably or the Internet in many cases.

The idea is to create geographic “bike-hubs” which act as classroom, perhaps makeshift, perhaps not. The essential ingredient is to have a socially inclusive classroom where fully able child can help another get to a place of learning. They not only learn together – they learn about each other shoulder to shoulder.

In many cases this might be for the first time ever for both of them. This makes it all the more remarkable that 10 students have been able to get into a University at all on their own merits – they have been taught by their communities alone and the photo here shows the volunteer mentors. That’s the key ‘volunteers’.

If we could get 20 tandem bikes in communities , it would  allow 40 students to study for less than the price of 10 iPads. So that’s one of the next missions – how to make this a reality for kids.

If you want to help, then get in touch – saving the world is a multi-player game.