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May 12, 2006
Here's our lineup for this second week of May:
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'Dollhouses' and other digital games
When you were a kid, did you ever play a role-reversal game with your parents at the dinner table? My brother and I did, and apparently the game hasn't gone away. It has simply gone virtual. The New York Times depicts Francesca, 9, and Richard, 6, "hard at play in Pelham, N.Y., renovating the four-bedroom house they share and picking up after the wayward family they look after." Only that 4BR house is virtual. It's in The Sims, which Francesca and Richard "have been playing ... since last fall." They "have built a fantasy world that looks surprisingly similar to their own. Comfortable suburban home. Parents named Mark and Francine. Children named Francesca and Richard. Antique French sofa in the entry hall. Lots of leopard-skin patterns scattered about the house."
What's news, here, is the little-kids part. "It is the nation's middle-class schoolchildren, particularly girls, who have helped make The Sims [rated "T" for Teen] one of the world's premier game franchises, selling more than 60 million copies globally since its introduction in 2000." Say hello to "the new dollhouse." Maybe like the old-fashioned kind (when several kids were playing), The Sims helps kids figure out their values and priorities - explore identity - the Times cites researchers as saying. The popular alternate-world, or role-playing, game "helps them make that thought process concrete." Plus, with digital dolls, there's even character development, storyline. Kids, in effect, are co-producers and -writers.
What really sets The Sims apart from other videogames is that more than half of its players are female, the Times adds, "a huge anomaly in an industry in which fewer than 25% of videogame players are women; for many of the more violent and intense games that figure falls to less than 5%." Don't miss the whole Times article, which includes comments on all this from The Sims' creator Will Wright (in his "next big game, called Spore [due out in a year or so], players will create an entire species from scratch and guide it through billions of years of evolution").
But all manner of digital games dominated this week's tech news because of "E3" (for Electronic Entertainment Expo), the annual gaming industry extravaganza when everybody - from game producers to device makers - is making big announcements for the coming holiday shopping season. Here are....Games' top stories
- Console wars. Nintendo, with its forthcoming Wii console, and Microsoft, with Xbox 360, are competing hard to draw our attention away from Sony's forthcoming PlayStation 3. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates announced Live Anywhere - gameplay on computers, Xbox 360 and even cellphones, the San Jose Mercury News reports. "Gates said such 'seamless communication' would help Microsoft set itself apart from the rivals." It will also mean more mobile access to the Net and potential contact with unknown fellow players for young users of "Live Anywhere," parents might note (Gates's message is yet another sign that the Net is an ever-growing element of all digital gaming). Nintendo's main message was creative gameplay, like using a controller to conduct a virtual orchestra, the Mercury News adds. Nintendo's also going after the non-gamers at your house, the Detroit Free Press reports. And late in the week, the Washington Post reported that the Wii stole the E3 show, with waits of up to four hours to try it out. Here's the BBC on the console wars.
- The price of PlayStation 3. It's steep at $499 for the 20BG version and $599 for the 60GB-hard-drive model. Sony announced its pricing on the eve of E3, the BBC reports. Business Week says "analysts and industry experts attending this week's E3 show said they aren't surprised by the price" because of the Blu-ray optical drive the $599 model has for playing high-definition movies ("stand-alone Blu-ray players retail for around $1,000" right now, it adds). "But at $599, is Sony pushing - or perhaps even crossing - the line on what consumers will be willing to pay for games?"
- "M" is for Oblivion. Another big game story this week was Oblivion's rating change from T (Teen) to M (Mature) because of a mod (a modification sent around the Internet for gamers to download) that allows players to make some game characters topless. Business Week reports that this could be a turning point for the gaming industry, because modders used to increase sales. But by causing a rating change, they're now hurting game companies' sales. This could make gaming development (not play) much less interactive.
- Gamer discontent. In a first media-covered sign of MMORPG (massively multiplayer online game) discontent, the BBC reports that players are "left frustrated and angry by ongoing problems with online game World of Warcraft," which claims 6 million players worldwide. There have been reports of server crashes, "long delays to get into the game ... countless small hold-ups during play and the disappearance of the interactive parts of the Warcraft world." Blizzard, the creators of Warcraft, "has posted a long explanation of how it is tackling the glitches."
- Louisiana considers videogame law. "After hearing complaints that videogames glorify murder, a House [of Representatives of La.] committee decided that anyone under the age of 18 should be prohibited from buying violent video games," KATC in Baton Rouge reports. "The bill would ban the sale of videogames to the younger buyers if: an average person would conclude that they appeal to a 'morbid interest in violence'; the games depict violence that is 'patently offensive' to standards in the adult community; and the games are deemed to lack artistic, political, or scientific value." Similar laws in other states have been struck down as violating free-speech rights.
- Chinese parents' lawsuit. "The parents of a 13-year-old boy who jumped to his death from a building in 2004 [after playing a videogame 36 hours straight in a videogame hall] are suing the US-developed game's" China-based distributors, Aomeisoft, for $12,500, TechNewsWorld.com reports. The boy left a suicide note saying he wanted to "join the heroes of the game he worshipped."
- News roundups & gambling data. Here are the L.A. Times's wrapup and CNET's all-E3 page. CNET elsewhere publishes a Reuters report that "the number of Americans who gambled online doubled to about 4% of the population last year, as people were lured by its convenience."
* * * *Web News Briefs
- Teen social-networker 'tethered'
A 13-year-old in Detroit who lied about her age online and ran off with the 25-year-old man she lied to, was charged this week with "home truancy," the Detroit News reports. "Home truancy is considered a 'status offense,' or an offense where a crime is not committed, but where behavior of a minor warrants court action," the News explains. In this case, the court action includes requiring the 13-year-old to wear a tether (a GPS-enabled ankle strap) and stay off the Internet until her pre-trial hearing later this month. This is the first case I've seen in the news where tethering was applied to a Net-related runaway case. The Indiana man whom the girl "met" in MySpace "was freed Thursday morning from the Macomb County Jail after officials decided he did not commit a crime by driving the girl across Michigan." The girl had given his number to a girlfriend, who got worried and called the girl's mother, who called the police. Here's the Detroit Free Press's coverage. Cases like this certainly contribute to the "culture of fear" Reuters refers to in "As freedom shrinks, teens seek MySpace to hang out" (also in the Washington Post).
- Federal social-networking law proposed
Rep. Fitzgerald (R) of Pennsylvania has just proposed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), a law that would require US schools and libraries to block social-networking sites and would require FTC and FCC involvement in public education and regulation of "commercial Web sites that let users create public 'Web pages or profiles' and also offer a discussion board, chat room, or email service," CNET reports. "That's a broad category that covers far more than social-networking sites such as Friendster and Google's Orkut.com. It would also sweep in a wide range of interactive Web sites and services, including Blogger.com, AOL and Yahoo's instant-messaging features, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, which permits in-game chat." CNET adds that the bill "is part of a new, poll-driven effort by Republicans to address topics that they view as important to suburban voters."
- The new Netiquette
It's developing organically, has both online and offline elements, and - as you can imagine - is complicated. As you would expect from any representation of multiple relationships. Of course I'm talking about social-networking Netiquette. It is taking shape among millions of teens and 20-somethings as I write, and it's growing out of a formula that looks something like this (thoughtfully boiled down and reported by the Los Angeles Times): "First, name the eight most important people in your life - friends, family, rock stars. These are your Top 8. Now rank those people in order of importance. Finally, send a copy of this list to everybody you know, including people who didn't make the cut. Be careful not to hurt the wrong feelings, or you may end up getting bumped from other people's Top 8s. Go ahead and bite your nails. Realize the magnitude of these decisions." This is the kind of thinking the social-networkers at your house or school are going through. It just might interfere with homework. ;-) But isn't it great to know that etiquette rules are developing? Example: "Number of friends: Too many, you're deemed a 'MySpace whore,' too few, a loser. (Caveat: If you're in a band, or you're a middle-school kid who lied about your age to get on MySpace and are competing with friends to see who's most popular, 'too many' is a good thing [but then that would mark you as underage, right?].)" The article's a great read, and - for people who think "kids have no manners these days" - essential reading. Wasn't etiquette always based on civilization's social realities and necessities? Social-networking is a fledgling but real part of civilization now, and good behavioral thinking is in process.
- FTC's social-networking advice
The US Federal Trade Commission this week unveiled its "Safety Tips for Social Networking Online" for parents and tweens and teens. If all your kids do is absorb and act on the "Quick Facts" right at the top, they'll go a long way to doing their own good protective work online. Because the Web is now so accessible in so many places and on so many devices, increasingly we need to empower our kids to think for themselves online - stay alert in public social sites and situations, think before they post, and protect their privacy and reputations. Here are our own 6 tips for teens at BlogSafety.
- Female screennames riskier
Tell online girls you know that if they choose screennames that give away their gender, they're much more likely to get "threatening and sexually explicit messages," the Associated Press reports. The AP is citing a study by Michel Cukier, a professor at the University of Maryland's Center for Risk and Reliability. "In the study, automated chat-bots and human researchers logged on to chat rooms under female, male, and ambiguous screen names, such as Nightwolf, Orgoth and Stargazer. Bots using female names averaged 100 malicious messages a day, compared with about four for those using male names and about 25 for those with ambiguous names. Researchers logging on themselves produced similar results." Professor Cukier told the AP that writing software code that can tell the difference between male and female online shows the offending messages weren't automatically generated.
- MySpace passť?
Hardly. But young interests do move on, and here's an early sign: "MySpace is just so last year" in the Wichita Eagle. The Eagle leads with the experience of high school sophomore Lula Larios, who has moved on to Bebo.com, a more closed social-networking site along the lines of Facebook.com. The key is that her peer group appears to be at Bebo too. Teens don't switch services individually, it appears - it's a group migration, which makes any social-networking site, including MySpace "stickier" than your typical Web site. The Eagle looks at other such sites, including Buzznet.com (though for people 18+, its Terms of Service say) and FriendsorEnemies.com (which looks more like an online party, or social, game than mere social-networking). Further evidence, too, of how amorphous social-networking is - it's sprouting all kinds of offshoots, and getting grafted into media-hosting and social-bookmarking or -tagging sites like YouTube.com and TagWorld.com (which the Eagle also mentions). The one concern about the more closed sites that's just beginning to surface is whether they provide a false sense of security - I'll address in more detail soon.
- Mobile uploads
Just as social-networkers soon won't need computers to use MySpace, video and photo uploaders won't need computers either. Now young video producers can upload their homemade films to YouTube.com with their cellphones, CNET reports. "A growing number of handheld devices are capable of recording video. YouTube wants to disconnect users from their Web cams and computers," according to CNET, which is likely to spell "greater numbers of spontaneous and candid clips." Something for users and their parents to think about. Spontaneity is a two-edged sword, with a big potential downside for the subjects of spontaneously uploaded video clips. The Register in the UK mentions a fairly graphic example involving a phone-distributed still photo: "Teachers at a school in Newcastle upon Tyne are being balloted on strike action after a pupil who snapped a picture of a female teacher's cleavage on his mobile phone was allowed to return to class. The snap was taken as the teacher leaned forward, and subsequently sent to other pupils." It's not a great leap to think about videos posted to a Web site.
- Next social-networking issue
To my mind, the big three concerns where young online socializers are concerned are predation (by adults), bullying (peers), and marketing (marketers and peers). Predation has the highest fear factor, of course, but probably the lowest across-the-board impact; it's also where most of the media attention is stuck at the moment. Bullying, which covers everything from gossipy meanness to harassment to threats of school violence, is definitely on schools' radar screens (so it's the No. 2 SN topic in the media) and needs more parental mindshare. The media are only just beginning to look at the marketing piece. Today, CNET gives a great example of what social-networkers can expect on the viral marketing front. "Viral marketing" is the very cost-effective practice of marketers using users as "co-marketers" (instead of one-to-many mass-marketing, it's peer-to-peer, much more personal - a message from a friend is much more influential, the theory goes). The potential, in other words, and what we'll be hearing more about from psychologists and watchdogs, is impressionable kids being used to promote products. "Using special tools, marketers and people seeking fame on MySpace [for example] can game the system and take advantage of what experts call 'unintended features' allowed by the Web site," CNET reports, referring to techniques like data-mining people's profiles (to target ads and users) and automating messages to "Friends" lists. See CNET for details. Of course, politicians get this, too. California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides has a MySpace page, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
- Safe search for kids
The Washington Post says "the next target for fed-up parents" after parental-controls software is "Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo," but I think parents have been thinking about what young Web researchers can stumble on with search engines for a long time. Before social-networking and blogging came along, that was a big reason why there were (and are) parental controls - especially for kids and tweens. Certainly it's true that "the upside of the modern-day search engine - an index of Web sites on the Internet - is also the downside": the bad stuff that's accessible along with the good. The Post features NetTrekker, "a child-safe search engine featuring 180,000 sites that are regularly reviewed by 400 volunteer teachers" and being used in some 12,000 schools. A home version is now available. The Post doesn't mention Kidsnet parental controls (described in this newsletter a couple of years ago), also drawing on a database of only human-reviewed Web sites and with its own kid-friendly search engine, Hazoo.com. But there's also something to be said for a simple, one-task product like NetTrekker that can work with any filtering software (the company says). For other options, see "Kid-friendly search engines."
For kids who just want to get their homework done - find some sites that describe black-footed ferrets or list all the native American tribes in English a 4th-grader can understand - these safe search engines' biggest selling point is relevance. Even filtered Google turns up way too many results irrelevant to kids in K-6.
- More Mac attacks?
Of course, it seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest when a computer security company says computers are at risk, but Macs are reportedly increasingly vulnerable. Antivirus provider McAfee "claims that Macs are 'just as vulnerable' as Windows PCs, but admits there is no significant risk to Mac users at the moment," ZDNET reports. McAfee now sells VirusScan for Mactel. To back up its announcement, "McAfee cited the release in March of a patch that fixed 20 vulnerabilities in OS X. But although a proof-of-concept worm that targeted the OS X platform was also discovered earlier this year, many more flaws were discovered in Microsoft products over the same period," ZDNET adds. Here's coverage from Internet News. On May 12, Apple issued a patch that fixed "some 25 different vulnerabilities," Internet News reported.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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