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November 16, 2001

Dear Subscribers:

"The billion-dollar clash of the video game titans" got going this week, as aptly described by a witty San Jose Mercury News writer. The "titans" in question are Microsoft and Nintendo, launching the retail sale of their Xbox and GameCube, respectively. Amid all the hype and marketing gamesmanship, we thought you'd welcome a little reality: the intelligent perspective of three teenage gamers - Jake, Glen, and Sean.

Next week the newsletter will take a Thanksgiving break - our next issue will appear in your in-box November 30. Meanwhile, we give thanks for all of you and wish all who celebrate Thanksgiving a peaceful, joyful time. Here's our lineup for this second week of November:


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Family Tech: Choosing a cell-phone plan

Free long-distance or unlimited local calls only? "Nights and weekends" or just "weekends"? "Prepaid minutes" or 3,500 minutes for the family to share? There are many options for family cell-phone use, writes Larry Magid in his column for the San Jose Mercury News, so it's important to read the fine print to all these plans. Larry helps you sift through what it all means, throwing in his own family's experience to make it all highly readable.

One of these days, we need to get a European family's view on this, as Continent and UK kids are much more mobile-phone literate than US ones. Meanwhile, do send us your own experiences and advice on child mobile-phone use - via

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Gamers on games

"I love this game [StarCraft] because, one, it is science fiction and I'm a sci-fi fantasy nutcase, and, two, its great strategy, offering a great deal of control and options...."

Those are the words of avid gamer Glen, 15, in Utah. We also spoke with Jake, 15, in California and Sean, 19, in Florida - to get a feel for what's really going on with games. Timed to the much-hyped release this week and early next of Xbox and GameCube (see below for a tiny sample of the coverage), we thought you - many of whom have gamers in your homes and classrooms - would appreciate a reality check as much as we did in our interviews with these guys. Kids' views are so much more interesting than marketing data! Because Glen and Jake are under 18, we also spoke with their parents, getting their permission to do the interviews and their rules for game-playing at their houses. [In our next issue, 11/30, we'll give you those rules, as well as the gamers' own advice for parents.]

First we asked the gamers what they thought of Net-based multiplayer games vs. console games, and that led right into why they like multiplayer games....

"I will do console games but only if I'm desperate," Glen told us, adding, "I usually don't like them as much - the controls are ... not as easy to work with and don't have as many options," he said. Sean, though more agnostic about game platforms, echoed that view: "You can do so much more with a keyboard and mouse than with a [console] control pad. On a computer, games can be so much more flexible - you can add patches and expansion packs, adding more areas [for play] and characters, making the experience so much more diverse. You can even edit the games."

Jake told us, "I like all of it" - console games, single-player computer games, online multiplayer games. But he, too, liked the flexibility of keyboard and mouse, then quickly homed in on what makes that last category stand out for all three of the gamers we interviewed: the social aspect of multiplayer games.

"Actually, I'm not a terribly social person," Glen told us, and [online games] is a place where I can interact with a lot of people." Jake described the "LAN parties" he attends five or six times a year ("it increases over the summer"), where around 4-9 gamers get together with their computers and set up their own local-area network (LAN) to play multiplayer games. "That increases bandwidth, so everything goes a lot faster than it would online. I had one last week for my birthday," Jake said, "and I believe we went 24 hours. In between the minor troubleshooting we had to do, we played games from 7 pm till around 7 am. Then we all went to bed, then started playing again from around noon till about 2 pm.... Apparently I'm going to another one tomorrow."

What did they play at the birthday LAN party? "First-person shooter" games, where each player views the "world" from behind his gun and the object is to kill or be killed. "We had food in the room and we'd go get food when we got eliminated," Jake explained. "This is the male-bonding of today," he told us when we asked if girls ever attend the LAN parties, also known as "frag fests," with "shooting and killing definitely the main focus of the game," Jake said. "As much as people like to see that as a sad thing, it seems to be more of a good thing, where you can release your pent up anger virtually."

But what really keeps Jake interested in a game, he told us, is storyline, strategy, the brainpower it requires. He and Glen both cited StarCraft and WarCraft games, both by Blizzard Entertainment, as favorites because they require intelligent strategizing - "you have to manage your resources," Jake said, adding that, for him, graphical sophistication takes a real backseat to storyline. Glen agreed: "I couldn't care less about graphics. StarCraft has some reasonable graphics, but it's the game play I'm actually most interested in," he said. He described StarCraft as "set many years into Earth's future" and "many light years away from Earth, however with some Terrans who went out to colonize new worlds." WarCraft is "in the style of the classic fantasy world of elves, dwarves, orcs, men, wizards, and dragons [sound familiar, Harry Potter fans?]."

Console games can have "excellent stories," as Sean put it, but they're static. The story can't change, once the game's out of its designers' hands. And, here, the player is basically interacting with a machine - the console. With online games, players are interacting with the game and other players, both in the game and in the chatrooms and bulletin boards provided by game companies, players, and game info+community site publishers like (e.g., one of Jake's favorites at from publisher Infogrames and from GameSpy). All of this spells a much richer, more diverse, and spontaneous experience. Online games are more "human-driven," Sean agreed when we asked him, thus evolving and open-ended.

Glen does online role-playing games, too, such as a Star Trek "multiuser domain" or "sim" (for "simulation"), in which "people become Star Fleet officers" and develop their own story all in text via Internet Relay Chat. "Sometimes we'll rotate around, sometimes we'll have permanent positions." Have you ever been captain? we asked. "I have been," he said, but not often - "it requires a lot more than any other position. You [as captain] supply the plot and create all the events that happen." Glen also plays games in/with email and instant-messaging (again, text-only games).

Are games addictive? we asked Sean, as the most experienced gamer of the three. "Yes, they can be very addictive." Glen and Jake both said so, too. We asked Sean why. "I guess it's the social interaction where you can meet people from all over the world. That really adds to it - makes it much more challenging. It makes you think harder to play with a real person rather than a computer," Sean said, adding: "Then again, it's just fun." But they all seem to have the gaming under control. Jake said, "Because of school and external things, I spend maybe 5-6 hours a week," but "sometimes I do these gaming binges where I go 13 hours straight, something absurd like that that normal people shouldn't do." Glen said, "I usually try to play every day.... In the average week I probably spend 6 hours" on computer games.

Sean, now out of high school, plans to make a career of game design. His next moves are Microsoft and Cisco certification courses (focusing on computer hardware, which he couldn't get in high school), then a degree in "realtime interactive graphical simulation" at the Nintendo-funded DigiPen Technical Institute in Washington State. "Only 8 out of 100 graduate from DigiPen," he told us. When we asked him what the ultimate goal in game design might be, he thought for a minute and said, "Sega's gotten kind of close to it with its Shenmue line of games (for Xbox). They take place in 1980s Japan, and they're as close to life as a game has gotten.... An online Shenmue would be very interesting to do online, actually. To make a real-life, 100% interactive game world would be the ultimate goal in games, where anything you wanted you could do in that world."

Wait, there's more! For further insights into both kids and games, please see game descriptions Glen, Sean, and Jake kindly took the time to write up for us. Next issue (11/30): Gamers' advice for parents!

For further reading (latest game news & research)

Editor's note: We'd love to get your comments and stories about games and gamers in your homes and classrooms.

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Web News Briefs

  1. From fantasy games to fantasy film

    Of course, Harry Potter is giving video game consoles a run for their money this week. According to Reuters (via Yahoo News), Warner Bros. film studio plans to set box-office records this weekend. Here's a study from NPDFunworld showing that 79% of children 6-17 who have read Harry Potter books plan to see the movie. Here's Warner Bros.'s official Harry Potter Web site, and here are all the Harry Potter links (movie reviews, auctions, products, clubs, and sites for kids) at

    Meanwhile, here's a great new educational resource: Free-speech advocates (aka "Muggles for Harry Potter") say there's no better poster child for an anti-censorship position than Harry, reports Wired News, pointing to a new kids' Web site to illustrate: Kidspeak!, teaching kids about censorship and how to defend freedom of expression.

  2. IM keeps growing (fast!)

    New data probably reflected in many homes containing teenagers: The total minutes spent instant-messaging in US homes during this past month of September increased 48% over September '00 figures. The actual numbers, reported Jupiter Media Metrix, were 13.6 billion minutes this year, up from 9.2 billion in September '00. JMM said the percentage of IM users using two or more competing brands (e.g., 10-year-old Nick, whom we profiled) increased from 24% to 29%. AOL's IM and ICQ services led, with 41.7 million unique users in September 2001, up 21% over the year. MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger were the fastest-growing, with MSN's increase of 94% (to 18.5 million users) and Yahoo!'s 25% increase to 11.9 million. (Remember, many IM-ers use two or more services!)

  3. Kids' top toy picks

    That's kid picks at least by one measurement - the 14th-annual Duracell Kids' Choice Toy Survey of 4-to-11-year-olds. Here's a list of nine top toys at, with more detail at (their site design doesn't allow us to give you the direct URL): favorite toys by age, gender, and location (15 US cities). As for grownups' toys, here's the New York Times's Holiday Buying Guide to products and to the best Web sites for holiday shopping.

  4. New report on Net filters

    What parents could really use is something "Netmom" Jean Armour Polly suggested before the COPA Commission summer before last: an independent review board testing and reporting on all the online-safety software and services available to families and schools. That hasn't happened (yet, we hope), so we must rely on studies about studies and software makers' own product information. One of the more useful studies just released is that of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) which "surveyed all the studies and tests it could find "on the actual operation of 19 products or software programs that are commonly used to filter out Web sites and other communications on the Internet." What it found was everything from "anecdotal comments to extensive tests applying social-science methodologies," sometimes one or two studies per product, sometimes many. "Nearly every one," the NCAC reports, "revealed massive over-blocking by filtering software." In the online report, you'll find the 19 products listed with the NCAC's summaries of 70 reports about them.

  5. Progress in fight against child exploitation

    The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) praised Romania for ratifying an international agreement on child prostitution, child pornography, and the sale of children, reports Radio Free Europe. Romania was the 10th country to ratify the agreement, "thus making the protocol legally binding to signatories" beginning January 2002. The treaty, the report explains, is a protocol to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the protocol defines the offenses and sets standards for dealing with offenders under countries' own domestic law. UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy said 69 countries have signed the protocol so far, and she urged them all to ratify it before the second World Congress Against the Commercial Exploitation of Children to be held in Yokohama, Japan, in December. "UNICEF estimates that 1 million children, mainly girls, are forced into the lucrative commercial-sex trade every year. It says children are often lured in with promises of an education or a 'good job.' " Our thanks to QuickLinks for pointing this out.

    In other news on the subject, the BBC reports that police in 14 countries "have carried out what has been described as the biggest-ever operation to tackle child pornography: "Operation Eye of the Needle." And ran an update on the ongoing story about the Fort Worth, Texas, company that sold subscriptions to Web sites providing child pornography (the company was shut down and its proprietors prosecuted and convicted). So far, 144 searches of subscribers' homes have been done in 37 states, and 100 arrests have been made, out of 35,000 subscribers in the US alone.

  6. Online auction secrets revealed

    Items auctioned off over the weekend or accompanied with a photo tend to sell better, according to a story at Discovery News. Other "tricks of the trade" are cited in the piece, which also points out that the sheer growth of online auctions like's has its own effect on how auctioning goes.

  7. Awareness Day minutes

    Europe's Safer Internet Action Plan has posted the minutes of "Awareness Day," held in Luxembourg, October 25-26. Just click on "Minutes of the 25 October Meeting" at the top of that page, and you'll find text summaries of eight organizations' presentations (in addition to the PowerPoint presentations linked to from each organization's name on the page). Here's our backgrounder last week on online-safety efforts in Europe.

  8. The dot-kids hearing

    For anyone curious about how the congressional hearings about a dot-kids domain went, transcripts of testifiers are now available at the US House Committee on Energy & Commerce site. Here's our latest coverage on the subject.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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