Apple and Google don’t really care about game content.

This week, a mobile video game has received a lot of media attention. The game has now been removed from Apple and Google’s online stores after a social media based campaign  highlighted the outrageous material, which deliberately named and represented in game characters ‘aboriginal’ and required the player, at some point in the game, to ‘kill’ them. You can read about this, and what Google and Apple did here.

This is a failure of governance. Apple and Google are under no obligation to ‘review’ any game against the Australian Classification board associated with film, television, consoles and computer games. Secondly, the material content in this game plays out in numerous other mediums such as film and television quite differently. Numerous TV drama’s have shown people from different cultural and social groups beaten and killed for entertainment. For the cowboy to save the day, there have to be ‘bad guys’ to shoot and we watch the hero put down ‘bad guys’ from first person angles constantly.

The outrage against this game is of itself part of the interactive entertainment discourse in which interactive entertainment has been represented as MORE dangerous than other media.

Social media – and the public sphere is now in a constant state of outrage. Most people in Australia have watched a TV show and seen a movie where anti-social behavior is amplified to a point where they find it repugnant and vile. Of course TV and film have avenues of complaint, but will push the moral and social boundaries in pursuit of their art. For example, the BBC seem to relish drama which boarders on the horrific and sick, shot in moody half-tones, where animals and humans are tortured and abused. Robson Green is an actor who appears time an again in this ultra-violent dramas – but no one’s running a petition to ban Robson Green or have him reform his thinking. Apple and Google similarly claim they are ‘actors’ and not the producers.

At no point am I suggesting that this game has any merit at all. But this outrage should be applied to ALL games which Apple and Google publish, circumventing scrutiny and responsibly with what I’ll call the “Robson Green clause”.

While I think the correct decision was to remove this game (which is not a BAN in the sense that it has broken any law) the issue remains that media violence in other media is pervasive and remains the biggest concern of parents when it comes to allowing children to watch TV or see movies. In fact parents are far less worried about video games than film or TV – a point the media often gloss over in pursuit of an easy panic-piece.

The evening news offers thin warnings before launching into highly graphic images in order to ignite particular fears and responses, just a TV drama casts the audience as passive observers or all manner of horrific acts — as part of leisure time ‘fun’.

Last week I watched a panel presenter on  entertainment show #theprojecttv ask a woman (who filmed her now deceased baby, coughing with whooping cough). In the live cross, he asked the woman – what it was like to watch her baby in that condition?  — clearly inferring, – watching your baby die?. The director had already cut to the woman to capture her emotional response. Why did he ask this and not some other question at this time? Because it’s high drama to see the poor woman’s eyes well up when re-visiting a traumatic and devastating moment. This is entertainment, with a superimposed #theprojecttv hashtag silently asking for responses – but for what useful purpose?

I found it at best ignorant and at worse – violent. The premise of the bit-piece was that a “woman released a video of her baby with whooping cough to raise awareness” – the Robson Green clause again.

To me, the biggest question here is why Google and Apple are not subject media regulation in their ‘apps’? After all, they want to be part of society and cannot simply expect to profit from it without being held accountable – like the rest of us.

Apple and Google avoid it, because ‘video games’ are simply ‘software’ and stand outside legislation. Banning the game is simply a response to both companies expending social capital in the backlash — and so seek to reduce it and of course, avoid any comment. In fact, neither company report statistics on ‘game sales’ at all. They don’t have to, so while you read about the market-size of video games — these figures don’t include anything more than a guess or a a tidbit of data dropped by some marketing guy.

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, collaborated with the ESRB to largely apply ESRB’s rating system to mobile devices. It was launched in 2011, with Apple and Google being notable abstentions from subscribing companies.

The question now becomes: why are these media giants avoiding their corporate responsibility towards mobile games – at the whole of market level – and what can the public sphere do to make them provide transparent vetting of games?

Don’t be fooled, this is not an oversight. Both companies make (but are not reporting) a lot of money from mobile games. Both companies have created their own ‘rating’ guide and refuse to participate in any third-party regulatory body. Therefore, the content of any game (which children and adults can access) goes though no useful ‘vetting’ as the ‘spokesman’ puts it. — And I’m talking here about the MATERIAL — whereas there are clearly some games which promote alarming behavior in players – such as habitual use, paid leveling and in-game purchase regimes.

It would be great to see ‘journalists’ try and put this debate to these corporations — and not to take the easy story about material content, which no doubt they picked up on from the re-share rate on Facebook and Twitter.

The mobile game market is a huge problem and needs far more scrutiny than it’s getting.

 

 

 

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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.

Cultural Jet Lag and Phoning it in

cultural_jet_lag

These are two problems I see facing me as classroom teacher. I am living among nice people who suffer cultural jet lag and attempting to teach students who are often just phoning it in.

As much as I, or anyone in education likes the idea of using media and technology is pursuit of allotted tasks driven by system orientated education, I can only subscribe to the idea that in all sectors of education, students will have virtual and actual contact which range in quality, experiences and culture. Most will have has exposure to a hit and miss experience of media and technology as a classroom resource and a few will have encountered learning about media and technology itself. I’d guess that the latter would be down to an on-the-ball library and/or librarian in the majority of those instances.

The one inescapable fact is that media and technology socialises society. Our society is made up of people who are unique, yet share cultures among other things. Inside an era of profound social change, the ‘masses’ are increasingly seeing themselves as important enough to take on (and maintain) individual identities online. A decade ago, the Internet was really only about institutions, governments and brands. Today we’re each engrossed in our devices and connections which makes the Internet so big, it carries vast amounts of information though its layers at such a pace, we no longer wait to sit at a desk or even stop in the street to ‘check in’.

Even if children have access to digital media and technology in school — and the teacher knows how has time to blend it into the allotted tasks demanded by the curriculum. The vastness of the Internet and the mediums it supports: news; video; radio; videogames; photography; art; automated-systems and so on has separated us emotionally from the natural world. Imagine delivering the same new’s to three hundred people in row – and half have heard it moments before from someone else. The more we reproduce information and predicable behaviours in response, the less invested and interested we become. I’d argue that in classrooms, plenty of kids are suffering from cultural jet lag — and often simply ‘phoning it in‘ when it comes for formal education. I’m not at all anti-technology or media, but I am against the kind of blind assumptions made by people who claim kids are simply “growing up digital” as though there is not a pre-existing demand by children to live with parents who can’t leave their phone on a table for five-minutes without tapping it.

This resource is something I’ve used to provoke group-discussion among students in an effort to provoke and gauge their critical understanding of media (as a literacy) and it’s socialising effects on them.

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.

 

First person vs third person media experiences

One problem I see with assumptions about ‘going digital’ in education is that so far, it almost always means using technology and not understanding media. For example, few online commentators talk about ‘media education’ or ‘media pedagogy’, they hook their discussions to the technological wagon and then point out ‘pedagogy before technology’. As I’m going to show this is because their are using FIRST person media experiences and taking ‘protective action’ against what they see as harm. Arguably this hard includes: loss of status; employment or promotion opportunities; connectedness to students and social inclusion. Their drive to be online may well have little to do with education at all.

TWITTER and EDU-TYPES

A gaggle of educators joyfully re-tweeted an assertion by Twitter itself this week that educators ‘dominate’ the Twittersphere. That’s quite telling really, given anyone who spends time with educators would put the discretionary-voluntary-user-base at under 5% (a generous guess on my part). This of course appealed to the FIRST person Twitter users. It made them feel correct in their own choices and most of all SAFER. Theres no way of knowing how the other 95% of educators reacted to this announcement (if they even knew). They are more concerned with their own FIRST person experiences of media — political rhetoric about budget cuts; casualisation of the workforce; media announcements by their institution and so on. Twitter to them is at best another THIRD person media experience.

If educators are the ‘alfa-group’ at the fore of using social media for civic debate, it indicates that there is little cohesion of thought for society as a whole in social media. It strengthen’s support for media theories which suggest topics (called trends) come and go very quickly — and that these trends are at best ‘temporal’ settlements. Even teachers who use Twitter fade away get bored as soon as they realise this reality. In short people are drawn to issues and events, not civic structures such as education or professions such as teaching. For example, there is no #ActorChat or #SoapOperaChat. There are of course new versions of IRC happening like #edprimschat but arguably people participate here out of self-identity and being seen rather than solving any actual deeper issues in education itself. There’s nothing wrong with IRC, people have been ‘chatting online’ since the mid 1970s about it’s potential for education … welcome to the party finally. So why don’t these people use Second Life or a Google Hangout — why do the ONLY participate in a form of TEXT IRC? — the answer lies once again in FIRST person media and protective action.

WHY PEOPLE TAKE ACTION (or not)

Educators use of narrow bands of discussion by choice. They always have enjoyed the privilege of being self-selecting and the major selector for everyone else — the power of being ‘the teacher’. For example, when teachers say “I’m working towards using games” they actually mean, I choose the media-text around here and I don’t choose that — why? because they can and always have seen this as a fundamental ‘right’ of being a teacher. Nothings changed – now they ‘allow’ Google Apps or Twitter perhaps — but media-choice is not in the hands of students as a FIRST person experience as teachers see students in the THIRD person — despite being life-long learners themselves of course.

TEACHERS are concerned about their own safety

Media selection (and rejection) is related to teachers personal sense of safety. It’s not primarily about identity (which is just a feel good). A common finding in studies of societal use of media since the 1930s has shown this to be true –and Twitter is just a form of media-text and sort of procedural rhetoric (which is why Twitter is also game like). The aim of the game is to survive, to predict the intention of others and to take protective measures. Those measures can be defensive (I don’t use X, I don’t agree with Y and so on) or offensive (I’m running #edChat or I endorse M over K app and so on)  from a FIRST PERSON experience.

Most teachers experience this media via the THIRD PERSON (observing colleagues, being told at a seminar and so on). They arefar less likely to take action — and it actually reinforces them not to each time someone bangs on about it.

Why people don’t participate (the 95%) is not because they are ‘boring’ or ‘old’ educators but because those who do are not focused on how media works, but on the effect they want to see — more teachers talking about digital literacy, knowledge networks and such – on Twitter itself. If it’s happening in a school, off line or because people are studying it in a course — they can’t see it.

This somewhat rails against the popular opinion of adopter/lurkers or literates/illiterates which thrive in the edu-twitter cultures — but when you think about it in terms of harm and protective action as a media psychology it makes much more sense than inferring some teachers are laggards or irrelevant. They are taking action — they are not buying into this particular media-text (Twitter) because people’s concerns for their own safety rather than for others’ predict their intention.

 

Why Minecraft is better than Blues Clues (and school)

There is substantial disagreement and controversy about video games and childhood. Common criticisms of children’s media use is that it displaces other activities believed to be beneficial such as outdoor play; homework and leisure reading. Video games are subjected to claims made about television such as they lower academic achievement, to which scholars have plausibly argued academically challenged children are drawn to television and as a leisure time activity in the first place. In addition the correlation between TV and achievement has also been shown to include another significant variable – household income. Lower income households tend to watch more TV and also score lower of tests compared to higher income counter-parts.

Media has been used to address this before and it works. I’ll use the example of Blue Clues as most parents will recognise it. The creators’ and producers’ goals were to “empower, challenge, and build the self-esteem of preschoolers”. Admittedly Minecraft didn’t set out to do this, or even be played by pre-schoolers — but I’d argue it is achieving exactly the same goal though it’s enthusiastic media-based community. At the same time, there are more paths to follow than the MinecraftEdu one (not that it’s a bad path). I’m amazed that Mojang hasn’t called me, but hey I totally get why. They stand in a unique position to do some serious social good here, as well as make even more money. Call me fellas, seriously.

Video games are routinely associated with television as though these devices are comparable because of ‘time spent’ in front of the screen. I’m arguing that time-spent with screens promoting learning and improving childrens’ creativity and computational thinking is never a waste of time or resources. It just dry minds that consider fun and entertainment as separate from learning and school. Parents don’t — that has been shown over and over into research about parent belief towards what is ‘good for kids’ – Blue Clues certainly — and Minecraft … well maybe … if parents understand how to regulate it and put it to work and not use it to babysit. Using Minecraft to babysit is a really BAD idea by the way — and not bad addictive bad, bad because it creates high levels of the stuff Blues Clues aims for in a matter of weeks.

Minecraft discussions cannot overlook that many kids from lower-income families are using it instead of television — and if we are to maintain that TV and Games are the two big uses of screen time, then like watching Blues Clues has shown these pre-schoolers may well have higher levels of school readiness than those who do not — and those who only watch Blue Clues or other TV material. Are you with me here Mr Robertson?

When TV when is being used to deliberately to teach though fun and entertainment has positive effects on kids. It been shown that this positive effect is MOST beneficial to kids from lower-income backgrounds. Access to TV has been seen as a cheap and effective way to ‘educate’ those who are at most disadvantage.

When pre-schoolers are playing Minecraft and not watching Blues Clues, Dora or other TV-edu-material — do you think it is making them less or more ready for school? And what about our own ABC? What are they doing in the Minecraft (or other commercial game) space … well aside from Good Game Spawn Point MC maps — not a lot which is shame, all be it a temporary one I hope.

Now here’s the kicker Mr Robertson. Those kids arriving in school at the age of 5, from low income and media poor families can get an accelerant from Minecraft that they wont get from Blues Clues or other edu-watch-me media. They don’t need to have the cognitive and kinaesthetic skills needed to operate network (I can’t log in! Where’s the start-menu! I cant read the letters!) computers Just put an Xbox in the room and a set of well thought out activities and suddenly those kids are capable of rising to the levels of literacy, design and computational thinking that we’d normally attribute (though the literature) to high quality educational programs enjoyed by the better off in society. Not developing Xbox (or other) programs for kids (especially poor kids is brain-missing. Tapping into cultural literacy which is fun, entertaining and cheap makes a cubic world of sense.

The problem is that school culture continue sto connect media-research with gaming effectively and buy-into over simplistic (and unproven) rhetoric around ‘app culture’. The price of one fly-in-fly out powerpoint jockey to tell us about blah blah apps would seed some serious funding for development and research. Oh yes we want video games in schools … because so far the other option hasn’t worked for those kids who are at most risk.

Yes I’ll move to Dundee.

How hard is being a game-kids parent?

Technology is produced faster — and with less ‘need’ than society can resolve what to do with it — beyond what marketing companies tell them. We are bomarded with media messages. Whether parents like it or not, the largest form of media which makes more money today than last week is the game-entertainment industry – and it’s made it very easy to purchase and keep purchasing it’s products (also called games).

Teachers who “like” technology have bought into the marketing circus with such enthusiasm for the same reason. Those “selling the future” online via Twitter — for profit — tell them what to buy and make it easy for them to buy it.

Let me be really clear about why this is a growing problem for parents. Educational technology is saturated with brands, and people seeking to improve their status though brands. To do that they need your children. Most of them operate on dogma and rhetoric, few know the first thing about games as a media form.

As parents, we know the BIGGEST area of  anxiety and conflict in the home is VIDEO GAME USE. At school – the solution is to ban them. This is what I’m calling “the Vegas solution” — you simply move things you don’t like off the strip. The main aim is to keep teachers buying into the same crap that people have peddling for a decade — which has no evidentiary positive impact on kids or society so far. But it keeps the Casino boss happy.

So back to games. Why are they more of a problem now that a few years ago?

No longer stuck with the burden of physical delivery or tethered to permanent power-outlets, the game-entertainment industry (don’t separate them) — has worked out not only what people like to do most with technology — interact with media socially using romantic fantasy — but how to keep them paying attention, and spending money. If they are not doing that, they are watching NetFlix or YouTube according to the statistics.

Game-kids do a tremendous amount of emotional work both in the game as a player, and in the home as consumer being bombarded with messages to consume more. When many parents themselves lack the kind of mental executive function to PUT THE SMARTPHONE AWAY for more than a few minutes (they certainly can’t ride a bus or train without one) why on earth would they think kids can manage it? When kids see one rule for them and another for adults — then lines are drawn and the war begins.

It is hard being a game-kid parent because we don’t have mental models of what to do (from their parents). We have media models of what good and bad parents are, related to commercial interests. Our friends are also conflicted on what to do — leaving mass media tell us don’t use that, but this!

Then there is the false journalism which tells them they are bad parent. For example, the ABC News yesterday said “video games were named as a factor in the Sandy Hook Shootings” … then moved on with no explanation — to another story. In case you missed the actual report, video games were explicitly ruled OUT as a factor — and indeed the shooter played Dance Dance Revolution for 4 plus hours a day when and if he could play games. When the main public-funded news can’t bother to fact check, it’s no shock that parents get false messages, and no real advice.

Games are hard to live with if you treat them as though they are akin to TV or watching a DVD. But when going for a bike ride involves putting 4 bikes the Toyota, driving 30 miles to find a decent parkway … then there’s something wrong with how we live which can’t be solved by trying to work out which are the good and bad games — they good and bad kids — or how to extract the games-entertainment agenda from our media saturated society.

How hard is it — VERY hard. What is happening in public education — nothing, unless you could the dubious claims of clinical psychologists that games are addictive – which is also a marketing message.