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Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Spore metaphor

A perfect illustration of the mix of positives and negatives - mostly positives - that is the user-driven Web: the debut of Spore. There's a whole lot to Spore - entertainment, education, strategy, creativity, savagery.... And everything's represented in its media story: a gamemaker's (Will Wright's) world-class creativity; old-style mass-media marketing; social Web viral marketing; and users' creative ways of playing with marketing features - creativity that producer Electronic Arts had in mind and creativity it definitely did not have in mind.

In Spore you start as a microbe but you also play God and create whole worlds. Part of its genius is creator Will Wright's collaboration with evolutionary biologists and other scientists in developing the game (don't miss this fascinating New York Times piece about that science/entertainment cross-pollination, including the video on that page). In Spore, Scientific American reports, "gamers must make crucial decisions that affect the entire world in which they operate, and must then deal with the consequences of their actions. Whereas the Sims series [designed by Wright too] focuses on what happens in societies created by gamers, Spore also gives control over the evolution of an entire universe."

In the "Give Them an Inch, They'll Take a Mile" Dept. of the user-driven Web, there were the unintended consequences of Spore's pre-debut marketing tool, Creature Creator. MSNBC games editor Kristin Kalning reported that in among all the creative little organisms spawned by users of this free activity were some that violated Spore's Terms of Service: "fantastical creations of a less imaginary, more [humanly] anatomical nature" created by "pervy 13-year-olds" (developmentally speaking), Kristin wrote, and falling into a new category dubbed "sporn" (EA says it takes these illicit creatures down upon notification but of course EA has to depend on the Terms of Use and customer-service departments of other sites such as YouTube for deletions in those sites). I suspect EA may wish at times that all creature creation were tied to the actual game, where its storyline has a role to play in creature development.

Meanwhile, "there were over 400,000 creatures on SPOREpedia," the creature showcase, Kristin reports, "coming in at a rate of 1,000 per minute."

MSNBC's Kristin had fun creating three creatures herself, "my favorite being Jinx, named after my cat. It’s blue and spotted, with wings (my creature, not my cat). It has 'palmwalker' feet, a fierce bark and horns to ward off enemies. I enjoyed making it do the hippety hop." A tech educator friend of mine is already using the Creature Creator in his classroom. He reported on Twitter this week that he just installed it "on my 26 lab PCs. Can't wait to see what the kids do with this thing!"

Related links

  • In MTV's Multiplayer blog, Will Wright's reaction to Spore reviews
  • "'Spore': The evolution of gaming" in USATODAY
  • Mobile Spore ... for iPod and phones
  • Spore's own FAQ

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  • Friday, September 12, 2008

    Piracy fear campaign

    Fear tactics persist in the education of youth and parents about digital issues. This time the "be afraid" message is echoed by the National Center for State Courts, Wired blogger David Kravets reports. In this case it's packaged into a 24-page leaflet in the form of a comic book which is being distributed to 50,000 students nationwide. One of the storylines is about how "criminal" teen file-sharer Megan's grandmother has to "fight eminent domain proceedings to keep her house while Megan ... deals with the charges against her." The story goes that Megan had learned "to download music from a friend. About 2,000 downloads and three months later, a police officer from the fictitious City of Arbor, knocks on her door, and hands her a criminal summons to appear in court." In fact, Kravets reports, "criminal copyright infringement is when somebody sells pirated works and not sharing on a peer-to-peer network. And it’s the federal government, not local cities, which prosecute the criminal cases." For perspective on this issue, see "Cyberethics: Downloading Music from the Internet" from University of Missouri-based eMINTS and "Young People, Music & the Internet" from London-based Childnet International.

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    Google Street View fear campaign

    This campaign falls into the large "Predators" category of national anxiety. I'm referring to's campaign against Street View, the new photographic part of Google Maps. The organization is calling it "an entirely new threat to our families and children." We feel strongly that parents' fears about kid safety need to be reduced and understanding increased, so I'm pointing out a comment from my ConnectSafely co-director, Larry Magid, who wrote, "I admit, there may be some privacy concerns as a result of Google taking pictures of homes and businesses around the country but’s campaign to highlight child safety concerns over Google’s ‘Street View’ strikes me as absurd.... There is plenty of research [though there are many indicators now that people aren't that interested in facts, unfortunately] to show that trolling online for victims is not the way predators typically find young people to exploit. In about 80% of child sexual abuse cases, the victims and the perpetrator know each other in the real world.... If anything, campaigns like this actually increase danger to children by alarming people unnecessarily and distracting us from dealing with real risks."

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    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Online video's huge numbers

    This gives us a feel for how Web video-viewing happens to be coming along: Americans viewed more than 11.4 billion online videos for a total duration of 558 million hours this past July, comScore reports. Another way of looking at it: More than 142 million US Internet users each watched an average of 80 videos per viewer. A few more interesting findings:

  • 75% of all US Net users viewed online video.
  • The average viewer watched 235 minutes of video.
  • 91 million viewers watched 5 billion videos on (54.8 videos per viewer).
  • 51.4 million viewers watched 400 million videos on (7.8 videos per viewer).
  • The duration of the average online video was 2.9 minutes.

    As for kid stuff in this category, a snapshot from Disney: Its site's July video traffic - 186.7 million video streams - "broke its all-time online video record," the company announced, a 39% increase over June. Hmm, did it have something to do with school being out? Disney says it had a lot to do with High School Musical 3, the Jonas Brothers, and Miley Cyrus. [See also "Watch this video, parents."]

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  • Direct video-uploading on MySpace

    Now MySpace users can do what amounts to live video blogging. As CNET explains, direct video-uploading means "you can now sit in front of your Webcam, navigate to MySpace, and hit a 'record' button, blab on incessantly about how the Jonas Brothers are ruining American youth, and you've got yourself a piece of Web video." YouTube and other video-sharing sites have this too, but "the real advantage" where MySpace is concerned is that these little video blog posts can be embedded in your profile and comments and pointed out in bulletins to friends, CNET says. The online-safety aspect of this is that users might make a nasty verbal slip about someone or reveal some intimate part of their thinking or anatomy and .... well, guys, this is a live recording. I think it can be deleted (and not embedded) later, but that's something every user will want to check out in advance, right?

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    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    Microsoft's age-verification concept

    Microsoft has created a euphemism to go with its age-verification plan: "digital playgrounds," where kids get digital ID cards so they can hang out in adult-free places online. It's part of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative that has involved other companies in a consortium aimed at tackling the Internet identity problem. The problem is "how to make the Internet safer not just for children, but also for adults wanting to conduct business, make transactions, and communicate with the confidence that the people they are interacting with really are who they say they are," CNET reports. What makes it so tough to solve is the need to authenticate people's identities without jeopardizing their privacy - especially children's, whose personal info is protected by US federal law. "Under the [Microsoft] scenario related to children, digital identity 'cards,' or credentials, could be based on either national identity documents created at birth or on identity documents schools use to determine age and identity for school registration, with parental permission. The data could be limited to age and proof of authenticity, and the credentials should be encrypted and require use of PIN numbers. As Internet News points out, dozens of other companies and groups will be presenting their proposed solutions to the Internet Safety Task Force later this month. [See also "Age verification: Key question for parents," "UK data security breach & kids," "Social networker age verification revisited," and other items on the subject.]

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    Videogames: 'Hotbeds of scientific thinking for kids'

    They may be "tuning out of science in the classroom," as a Wired News commentary puts it, but gamers are still learning and (avidly) practicing science, Prof. Constance Steinkuehler at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found in a soon-to-be-published study, "Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds." She and her co-author, Sean Duncan, "downloaded the content of 1,984 posts in 85 threads in a discussion board for players of World of Warcraft. What did they find? Only a minority of the postings were 'banter' or idle chat. In contrast, a majority - 86% - were aimed specifically at analyzing the hidden ruleset of games. More than half the gamers used 'systems-based reasoning - analyzing the game as a complex, dynamic system. And one-tenth actually constructed specific models to explain the behavior of a monster or situation; they would often use their model to generate predictions. Meanwhile, one-quarter of the commentors would build on someone else's previous argument, and another quarter would issue rebuttals of previous arguments and models. These are all hallmarks of scientific thought," according to commentator Clive Thompson. The study will appear in the Journal of Science Education & Technology next spring. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that, for the first time in two years, game sales growth has slowed to single-digit.

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    Tuesday, September 09, 2008

    E-coupons new in the UK

    Family coupon clippers may be interested in this news. The British just got coupons - digital ones, that is. Only they're not called coupons across the pond. These are called e-vouchers. The VoucherCodes site says users can "simply enter a code into the checkout of participating [online] stores to receive an instant discount." You probably already know of some US ones: e.g.,,,,, etc., etc.

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    Multitasking myths

    A new study has found that multitasking during homework can slow things down but doesn't harm the performance of an academic task. "Students who send and receive instant messages while completing a reading assignment take longer to get through their texts but apparently still manage to understand what they’re reading," Education Week reports, citing the study by psychology Prof. Laura L. Bowman at Central Connecticut State University. For the research, students were divided into three groups – one that did no IM-ing while reading an assignment; one that answered IMs first, then did the reading; and a third multitasking group that chatted in IM while reading. "The third group took about 15 minutes longer than the other two groups to complete the reading - roughly 50% more time than the other two groups took. See also what "digital native" blogger Diana Kimball says about other recent research on the subject and what to do about "switch tasking," one of the types of multitasking discussed in The Myth of Multitasking, by Dave Crenshaw: "The key," she says to parents, "lies in laying out the facts and discussing strategies.... Writing a stellar book report might not be a cause compelling enough to warrant total focus, every young person will at some point find a pursuit worth paying attention to. Maybe it’s writing short stories; maybe writing music. Maybe it’s making art. But when that pursuit comes along, they’re going to want to know how to firewall their attention, focus their efforts, and - for once - stop switching." She says limiting teens' Net access doesn't work.


    Monday, September 08, 2008

    58% clueless about social-networking

    Well over half - 58% - of 13,000 people surveyed in 17 countries said they don't know what "social networking" is, Chicago-based research firm Synovate found. Respondants' ages were 16 to 65. More than a quarter of them, 26%, are actually members of social networking sites, cited the study as showing. And the most socially connected country? The Netherlands at 49%, according to a ZDNET blog post about the study, followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE - 46%), Canada (44%) and the US (40%). As for knowing what social networking is, the Dutch topped that list, too, at 89%, followed by the Japanese (71%), and Americans (70%). Where risks are concerned, "overall, just over half the respondents who are members of social networking sites (51%) agreed that online social networking has its dangers. Brazilians were the most nervous" at 79%, followed by Americans (69%) and Poles (62%). "Least concerned are Indians [19%]. Nervy networkers’ biggest concerns were lack of privacy (37%) closely followed by lack of security for children (32%)." ZDNET, which got the number wrong in its headline, nevertheless has a great chart showing the 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-ranked social site in each of the 17 countries. I love the unpredictable diversity: Facebook is No. 1 in Canada, France, Serbia, and South Africa; MSN Spaces in Germany, Taiwan, and the UAE; and MySpace in Bulgaria and the US.

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    5, er, 6 new 'worlds'

    More signs of where virtual worlds are heading. The new "worlds" (defined loosely as such by Virtual World News) are a service that blends social networking and a virtual-world-like (3D) online environment; two new MMOGs (massively multiplayer online game), one for peer-to-peer learning and one sort of like a World of Warcraft with a twist; a 3D-world feature for the Web browser; and technology that turns a digital camera aims into a tool for "merging the virtual and real worlds." They're being unveiled at the TechCrunch conference this week (you can watch presentations live on that Web page). In, I watched the presentation by a founder and two young users of a sixth world,, a soon-to-be-launched competitor to ClubPenguin that claims to be safe and have features not found in any other kid sites. There are so many of these popping up - Tweegee's not even on Virtual Worlds Management's list of 150 live and developing worlds for youth (see this).

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