Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I've Got a Lot of Plain Friends

Yesterday Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield gave a talk about "Digital literacy and play in MMOs/Virtual Worlds for children." She described children who generally had about two hours a day of media use in which family may "scaffold children's emergent digital literacy," but children also show "growing independence" and are even able to map their own literacy practices for researchers. She noted that other researchers, notably Sonia Livingstone, have demonstrated that children may move from one media platform to another as computational media become more popular in patterns of displacement rather than aggregation of hours spent. Marsh showed a broad continuum of digital media behaviors engaged in by young children, who may be pretending to text in pre-school, from "playing" to "controlling," although many forms of behavior are not ones of "productive and analytic media use." She also criticized the notion of the "digital native" and asserted that research had shown that "access and use was not just about class" because birth order and more complex forms of socioeconomic interaction could play a role.

Marsh's research focused on Club Penguin and BarbieGirls, although she noted that "children are always aspirational" and may quickly outgrow sites perceived as juvenile in favor of more adult virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel or migrate to ones that are seen as more trendy like Moshi Monsters. She defined basic characteristics of these virtual worlds, which included a "customizable avatar," a "home for the avatar," a "persistent space," an "in-world currency," and -- in the case of such kids' sites -- "chat," "moderators," and "link to an offline world of toys and texts." She cited the 2009 work of Maaike Lauwaert about the "geography of play" and the link between online and offline friendship. She explained how many of the sites rely on user policing of behavior, which she described as "cheap," because in playground play kids are eager to report on each other.

In discussing Club Penguin, she talked about various forms of capital, which have been enumerated by Pierre Bourdieu, which she demonstrated by contrasting the split-level igloo of a paid member of Club Penguin with the iglo of a participant limited to free services. She also discussed the "logographic capability" of children who recognize icons, although they also engage in more sophisticated literacy practices involving postcards, books, and newspapers.

These themes continued in her discussion of BarbieGirls, although she said this world -- which was in pink rather than primary colors -- had no even tokenistic mentions of boys as potential members. She showed the "butchest you can get your avatar to look" and noted the lack of choice in skin color and the fact that you might be frequently reminded that you are not a member during play. She also expressed her bemusement at the "heteronormative" character of "my crush" or fortune-telling forms of interaction that seemed strange to her as a "fifty-one year old lesbian." In this world she said, "children and parents are co-constructed as consumers," and companies like the Mattel empire make their pitch to parents by marketing their anti-predator credentials and their trustworthiness as a "safe" brand.

Marsh explained that she had conducted a small study in comparison with the giant Whyville study, which included 175 children from the ages of 5 to 11 who were surveyed, 26 interviewed, and 3 eleven-year-olds who were filmed. Shopping and consumerism were big themes for girls, while boys were concerned with games, but she said that some children did have critical thinking about the constraints of virtual worlds. In one example, a child complained about not being able to wear a wig and tiara separately, and another expressed distress that virtual pets could run away so easily. Many children found workarounds both playing solo and with siblings, relatives, and classmates. In thinking about playground rhymes and games and the potential for a more comprehensive study of play practice, Marsh observed that it still was not clear how virtual parties and other social rituals online functioned: if they only thickened existing social ties or invited children who would not be otherwise included into play.

One of her informants, Sally, age 11, explained that it wasn't all about "clothes, hair, and posh houses," since "I've got a lot of plain friends." Marsh described may genres of play, which included fantasy play, games with rules, rough and tumble play, and social drama play. She also described their delight in transgressive discussions of discos and getting drunk or throwing mudballs at security cameras. She cited the work of VP friend Tom Boellstorff (on disinhibition) and online friend Constance Steinkuehler (on rituals and performances) for related findings about the pleasures of doing bad online.

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