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"So Many Ways to Play”: Branded Worlds, Toy Tie-Ins, and the Rise of Transmedia in Children’s Digital Games

SBGames 2013 Keynote - Oct. 17
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Sara Grimes

on 18 October 2013

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Transcript of "So Many Ways to Play”: Branded Worlds, Toy Tie-Ins, and the Rise of Transmedia in Children’s Digital Games

Media supersystems also generate ‘transmedia intertextuality’: "a means of structuring characters, genres, voices and visual conventions into paradigms, and models for interpreting and generating new combinations" (See Kinder 1993).


Each text promotes consumption of other (related) texts; invokes consumerism as the preferred mode of experience.
Shaping Play
For some scholars these processes are seen as providing children "play scripts" - “sequential patterns of action and meaning which children replicate in their play” (Kline, 1995, p.327) - which replace kids' own, autonomous ideas & creativity.
More extreme approach: Media in general is seen by some as inhibiting children's “transcendent imagination...the number of imaginary items supplied by the child, as opposed to what was already supplied in a given situation” (Greenfield et al., p.16).
Some toys, games and media carry lots of “narrative baggage." Some are more linear and structured. Others invite the player into the meaning-making process. Not enough to simply have multiple "products"...
BRIDGING the gap between traditional industry approach to transmedia intertextuality & users' experience of it (media traces, etc.)
Kinder (1993), Fleming (1996) and Zipes (1997) = enormous influence of narrative itself (formal elements, structures, characters, aesthetic conventions and thematic motifs) in determining the forms/ functions of transmedia intertextuality.
Narratives that encourage negotiated readings and appropriations invite the player to enter into an “intermediate space” of “interactive fantasy” (Kinder, 1993)
Transmedia intertextuality CAN play a key role here. Kinder argues that it allows kids to engage in “transgressive identification across other borders of genre, generation, race,culture, and species” (p.39). Cultural empowerment.
Pedagogies of consumption
For media brands like Pokemon, the quest to collect all the pieces is itself presented as a game. Consumption is not just a means to an end, but a source of fun and entertainment in itself, something practiced while playing.
Kids' participation can thus be understood as a form of "immaterial labour." Takes time & effort & skill & knowledge, generates meaning, has value.

Supersystems such as Pokemon: form of consumer training "a means of inducting children into the habits and competencies that are required by our commercially based media culture" (Bukingham & Sefton-Green, p. 394)
There is a notable presence of media themes, settings, characters, narratives & aesthetics (implicit or explicit) within children's play, fantasies, stories and creative expression/artwork.
Gotz et al (2005): Children use the "raw content material" from media-related experiences in their fantasy worlds of make-believe & in their drawings of their "perfect world."
Media Traces
Examples found throughout children's cultures (around the world) of "subversive" uses of media themes imagery. Studies by Gotz and others demonstrate that kids make "significant" changes in interpreting/incorporating media content into fantasy & everyday life.
e.g. Omer: "This world is only mine...here I am the ruler. I can do whatever I want. I am wearing a suit. The red-cloak is like Superman's. The green are my hands so that I can climb on everything like Spiderman, those blue things in my hands are my fire laser-ray weapons. The red is a belt like Pokemon's. The purple are my flying boots, and the horns I took from Batman's mask. I am the master and I also have a sword, like in Star Wars." (cited in Gotz et al., 2005, p.93-4)
"...children use a variety of media texts in diverse and often creative ways...it is clear that the media can play a role that is far from suppressing the fantasy world of children" (Gotz et al, p.99)
Play scripts, Kline argues, assign media brands (or characters, toys,...avatars) with a highly specialized sets of “rules.” These rules limit the “possibilities for pretending” to those that conform with the child’s understanding of the encoded character and storyline.
This contrasts with traditional forms of children's play, where children create and collaborate to discover their own rules and structuring themes, and where the rules can be negotiated or suspended at the whim of the players.
Rather than simply providing children with stifling "play scripts," media, toys, games can actually become important tools for assessing, negotiating and even challenging dominant ideologies.
Design Matters
Specific features, design choices and affordances are crucial - in terms of fostering transmedia intertextuality, shaping the contexts of kids' cultural practice, play, consumption, and experience.
Not separate from the supersystem...Part of the appeal. Kids' participation Used to promote the brand/supersystem to other kids.
Haunted Tales for Wicked Kids
The resulting organizing system is one that privileges and extends consumption of multiple products over time.
So Many Ways To Play
Key Takeaways
Current Research
Emergence Matters
Affordances Matter
Metaphoric narratives: The standard rhetorical strategy where meanings are made static, homogenized. Texts or games that claim authority over meaning, as the "real" story, the ideal version.


Metonymic narratives: Meaning is seen as something that is fluid, mutable, plural and open-ended. Allows for difference, for messier forms of identification and interpretation.
Branded Worlds, Toy Tie-Ins, and the Rise of Transmedia in Children’s Digital Games
Sara M. Grimes, PhD
Toy Tie-Ins
Not limited to traditional, narrative-intensive media. Can extend to toys and, of course, games. Through "mediatization" - ties with narrative (movie, book, TV) - toys become enrolled in media supersystems. Reproduce and ADD TO meaning, narrative and practice (e.g. play). (See Fleming, 1996)
Kids' Games &
Transmedia
Although only a small % of overall (let alone successful) videogames produced over the past thirty-odd years have tied into existing media brands, a significant number of the most popular and best-selling children’s console games are based on toys or media brands.
From the Lego Star Wars games (which sold over 30 million units between 2005 and 2012 ) to EA’s numerous Harry Potter titles, children’s games are often populated by familiar media characters and storylines.
Concurrently, there are now a number of highly successful children’s media brands that have emerged out of original console titles, the most celebrated among which is Nintendo’s Pokémon.
BarbieGirls World - MMOG for children/tweens - 4 million users in 2007
Four titles released between 2005-2011:
Sold over 30 million units by 2012
Sold 294,000 starter pack units in the US alone in its first two weeks on the market (August 2013)
"Kids' Media Supersystem"
Promise that purchase of ancillary products will enable more intimate access to the narrative and its characters. Affective element here that's extremely important.
Example from Gotz' study:
Contradicted by large body of research refuting direct/causal links between media consumption & behaviour. Also, numerous studies show subversive, creative aspects of children's play and meaning-making.
Different from controlling meaning-making, this is about presenting and controlling resources, objects, symbols.
Here, owning (or at least accessing) the Multiple objects and texts in a supersystem becomes associated with (affords) optimizal play, insider knowledge, deeper engagement and "ownership" over the media brand.
Increasing shift to incorporate "participatory culture," i.e. opportunities for kids to create, share and shape the content. Recognizes the value and importance of these activities to kids' experience (and potentially to the media brand/property). See Jenkins, 2008.
Historietas Assombradas (para Crianças Malcriadas)
Kids and producers = engaged in collaborative construction of media brands - what they mean within broader cultural contexts.
Supersystem as business model
But also much more
Buckingham, D., & Sefton-Green, J. (2003). "Gotta catch’em all": Structure, agency and pedagogy in children’s media culture. Media, Culture & Society, 25(3), 379-400.
Fleming, D. (1996). Powerplay: Toys as popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Götz, M., Lemish, D., Aidman, A., & Moon, H. (2005). Media and the make-believe worlds of children: When Harry Potter meets Pokémon in Disneyland. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Greenfield, P. M., Yut, E., Chung, M., Land, D., Kreider, H., Pantoja, M., et al. (1990). The program-length commercial: A study of the effects of television/toy tie-ins on imaginative play. Psychology and Marketing, 7, 237-255.
Grimes, S.M. (In Press). "Child-Generated Content: Children’s Authorship and Interpretive Practices in Digital Gaming Cultures." In Coombe, R.J. & D. Wershler (Eds.) Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online. University of Toronto Press.
Grimes, S.M. (2013) “Playing by the market rules: Promotional priorities and commercialization in children’s virtual worlds.” Journal of Consumer Culture. [status: currently available OnlineFirst.
Grimes, S.M. (2010) "The digital child at play: How technological, political and commercial rule systems shape children’s play in virtual worlds. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Simon Fraser University.
Grimes, S.M. (2008) “Saturday morning cartoons go MMOG.” Media International Australia (126), Special Issue: Beyond Broadcasting: TV for the Twenty-first Century: 120-131.
Jenkins, H. (2008). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st Century. Chicago, IL: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Kapur, J. (2005). Coining for Capital: Movies, Marketing, and the Transformation of Childhood. Rutgers University Press.
Kinder, M. (1993). Playing with power in movies, television, and video games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Kline, S. (1993). Out of the garden: Toys and children's culture in the age of TV marketing. Toronto: Garamond Press.
Mateas, M., & Stern, A. (2006). Interaction and narrative. In K. Salen & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The Game Design Reader: A rules of play anthology (pp. 642-669). Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Zipes, J. (1997). Happily ever after: Fairy tales, children, and the culture industry. New York: Routledge.
Works Cited:
Children’s media is rarely limited to a single form or platform. Consist of whole collections of texts, objects and activities: media brands or supersystems that only reveal their full meaning when positioned together. (Kapur, 1999)

Similar patterns online...
In a study of US & Canadian children's virtual worlds I conducted in 2008-2010, I found that the majority were at least in part designed to promote tie-in products, media, toys or food.
These activities position children as both consumers and producers... of transmedia intertextuality, of content, of meaning.
Acknowledging the value of kids' role in this process = first step toward respecting it, envisioning the relationship as (potentially) reciprocal (give & take, mutually beneficial).
Enforcing corporate copyright regime, and/or limiting access to those who pay for it.
Expanding control & monetization of the transmedia/play experience. e.g. Disney Infinity, where every element (even building blocks) must be purchased separately.
Multiple Literacies
Engaging with shared cultural texts can enable learning/engagement with dominant cultural motifs, genres, norms, archetypes and stories. Promotes cultural literacy.
Narrative Matters
In the field of interface design, the term "affordances" describes, “the opportunities for action made available by an object or interface” (See Mateas and Stern, 2006, p.652).
e.g. GalaXseeds incorporated player-driven "black market" back into official game
Even simple designs contain complex, unpredictable possibilities. Emergent play = defies or diverges from the programmed game rules. In some cases reveals the “special disconnect between the rules of the system and the ways those rules play out” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p.160).
e.g. "Story" pieces, character histories, fragmented across texts, that must be consumed together to get the "whole story."
Not just self-referential
Often draws on themes, archetypes found in broader culture.
July 2013: over 200 million registered accounts
Diary of a Canadian girl dated July 14, 1881
Cultural Literacy/Agency
In 2011, 55% of UK children owned at least one toy based on a virtual world like Club Penguin (32%) and Webkinz.
Lack of explicit instructions, designed emergence, makes Minecraft "feel" endlessly open-ended & flexible.
Participatory Culture

1. Transmedia intertextuality is deeply dependent on player participation.
2. Players behave in unexpected ways.
3. Design, text and context matter. A lot.
4. Drive to control/monetize player conflicts with research/success stories.
5. Additional ethical questions involved when dealing with kids.

Over 8 million player-made game levels as of 2013.
Full transcript