A New Approach To Online Safety


This Wednesday, Washington, D.C. hosts the third annual Family Online Safety Institute Conference. Nearly 400 web safety experts from around the world will be attending the event, which aims to address a range of issues children face when they use the internet.

What’s most intriguing about this years conference is the new perspective many experts are beginning to have when it comes to keeping kids safe online. The danger of online predators are being dialed down, but while this obviously still remains a pressing concern, research by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force indicates that a more immediate problem lies with children encountering peer-to-peer bullying and self-destructive online behaviors.

Instead of increasing the fear factor for children staying safe online, conference speakers, including CNET safety blogger, Larry Magid will be placing an emphasis on media literacy and digital citizenship, encouraging kids to be positive internet users.

The two-day conference will also feature a range of workshops and sessions on subjects such as playing online games responsibly and how to use mobile devices safely. Find out more about how to register for the event, here.


The Chicago International Children’s Film Festival


The Chicago International Children's Film Festival

The Chicago International Children's Film Festival

For ten chilly fall days each year, the Windy City becomes the center of my children’s media world. Starting today, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival will celebrate, not just 26 years of world-class children’s entertainment, but 26 years of empowering kids to become media literate and aware of the influence television, magazines and the internet can have on their everyday lives.

I interned for the CICFF in 2004. It was my big break into the world of children’s media, and I’ve never looked back. When I started working there I was full of energy and totally on board with all the hopes and expectations of a typical fresh-faced little media darling; the glitz and the glamour and the chance to be creative for a living – cool!

But there was more to it than that. I started to hear all kinds of things about the impact on-screen violence has on children; about consumerism and pester-power and the general dumbing-down of a generation or two of kids.

I didn’t believe a word of it. In fact, I resented such a crazy notion. If you’re reading this and you grew up in the 80’s like I did, you’re probably thinking the same thing as me – I grew up with He-Man/G.I. Joe/Ninja Turtles, and I turned out just fine.

For most of us that’s true, but we didn’t spend our childhoods in an instant information world where every kind of media format, both good and bad, bombards us almost every minute of the day. Let’s be honest here, nobody’s quite sure what effect this state of being “always-on” has on growing children.

Before you say this is alarmist, I’m not asking for a blanket ban on any kind of media nastiness. I don’t believe our youth are doomed to become sociopathic vegetables, numbed to scenes of violence, or slaves to consumerism. As broadcasters, it’s our responsibility to share information, tell a story and entertain. I’m just asking you to think about what effect that ad your writing, the show your animating, or the online community your developing might have on impressionable minds.

Ok, enough with the serious eyebrows. This year the CICFF will be showing over 200 films from 40 countries and will also host 25,000 kids as well as a wide range of activities and interactive workshops to get involved with. There’s something for kids of all ages, and plenty of filmmakers and celebrities show up too. There I go with the glitz, again!

If you’re anywhere near the Windy City over the next few days, I can totally recommend taking the kids for a visit. Even if you’re not in town, take a look and see if there’s a film fest for children in your area. You’ll see the magic of the big screen in a whole new way.

Happy film watching!


Play Time: FarmVille


Do you remember when poking someone on Facebook was fun?

I know, it’s been a long time for me too. It didn’t end there though did it? The poke gave way to the super-poke, which begot the pillow fight before mellowing into a hatching egg. By this point most of us got wise to the semi-sneaky ways of the Facebook ap; namely, if you send the virtual item de jour to every living person you know you’ll be rewarded with even more virtual items, presumably for you to hand down to future generations.

FarmVille

Still, even though we’ve been there and done that before, the new wave of older users all the social media trend setters have been talking about; the grandma’s and great uncles of the world, caught onto Facebook and the cycle started over again. The trouble is, it’s one thing to click the ignore button on the stuff that intern who used to work for you sends (be honest, you didn’t really want to add her on FB anyway) but, damn it, if Great Auntie Ethel challenges you to a state capitals quiz or needs you to know what Beatle you’re most like, you kind of feel obliged. What I’m saying is, there’s always a handful of announcements to let you know some irritating distant acquaintance has unlocked, powered-up, or generally felt the need to notify you of their interactive activities.

Thanks to FarmVille, I have become that irritating person.

FarmVille, in a word, rocks. And it’s addictive, but not in a “playing it 24 hours a day” kind of way, no, it’s more of a “waking up at 2am, because I forgot to milk the cow” addictive.

You’re given an isometric plot of land and some cash to buy stuff like crops, trees, and buildings, and that’s about it. There’s no defined goal, but the initial hook of the game lies is in the sheer amount of pixelated goodies you can choose to fill your little farmstead with. I’m still a relative newbie, but I already have a choice of fifteen or so veggies to grow, ten fruit trees to pick from and countless hay bales, fences and the like to decorate my little plot with. Customization is a driving factor in a lot of popular games these days, and FarmVille offers it plentifully.

FarmVille

Money doesn’t grow on trees, at least not while I’m still at level ten. Some of the more extravagant varieties of flora and fauna cost money, and what better way than to sell your crops? Different crops take different amounts of time to harvest; raspberries will be ready in a couple of hours, but wheat, for example, will take three days. The subtle beauty of this mechanic is really what makes FarmVille so ideally suited to the millions of casual gamers out there, because unlike other games with a virtual nurturing element that essentially demands your attention every day, you can happily set up your farm to take care of itself for a few days and not have to worry about it. This means if you’ve got time on your hands you can plant a bunch of seeds with a rapid turnaround, but if you’re not going to be near a computer for a few days (eek!) you can plant some artichokes and not lose any sleep over your precious produce withering away.

For users who just have to have that little extra something in their farm, the game also has an extensive selection of virtual goodies that can be paid for with micro-transactions. It’s a shame that the only way to pay for the seriously cool stuff is with real money – I think it’s enough that I’ve invited goodness knows how many people to play FarmVille, but the fact that virtual goods spending is set to reach one billion dollars this year, significantly shows this is a winning model.

Uniquely, FarmVille is also a rare example of a social media game that appeals to nearly everyone. So many games are released these days with strongly defined target demographics, be it ninjas for boys or fashion designers for girls, that it’s refreshing to find a game with almost universal appeal. I got my FarmVille invite from a distant cousin twice my age and you know, I kind of felt obliged…


Disney’s Digital Reading Magic


Eric and I were lucky enough to be treated to a sneak preview of Disney Digital Books last week. Just imagine having an interactive library of over 500 Disney stories, both classics and new adventures on your computer, and you’ll be on the right track. I’m not talking about the plain old grayscale Kindle kind of ebook – these are beautifully illustrated, full-color books, with pages you can turn on-screen just an inch at a time or virtually flip through with a sweep of the mouse.

As well as being able to choose books featuring a ton of Disney characters, the subscription based service also gives young readers a bunch of extra bells and whistles to play with. You can store a personal library of favorites, and share them with your friends, using the simple selection of pre-written messages to send along with your suggestion.

What I really like about the website and the reading experience, is that even though the core of the site is built around Flash animation, it really doesn’t go down the road of being overly animated and distracting. It could have been so easy to add countless little instances of characters winking, waving, and generally making a hubbub, but instead the focus is totally on the reading experience. That being said, the page turning animation of the book itself is very clever, and a large dictionary of words can be clicked on and listened to.

Of course we’re talking about books on a computer here. It’s hard to envision reading bedtime stories with it, even with a laptop. I’m sure many parents will be concerned about the physical and emotional experience of reading together with their child, but from a young users perspective, the content medium doesn’t matter.

You can already preview a bunch of books for free on the Disney Digital Books website, so take a look. The service just launched today, but I’m already certain it’s going to be something special.


Play Time: Meet Milo


If you’ve been following my Tweets lately, you might have noticed I’ve been fretting over the lack of creativity in console gaming these days. There are still great games being made, but it feels like no matter what the next big release is, it’s all been done before.

Looking at the current generation of consoles, I can appreciate the Xbox 360 bringing online gaming to the masses, the Wii offering a new level of physical interactivity and the PS3… er, being shiny and expensive, but fundamentally, we’re all still playing platformers, FPS’s and beat-em-ups.

Judging by the video below, however, we might be in for something revolutionary in the form of Microsoft’s Project Natal. Some of the scenes are obviously scripted, but the ideas behind the technology are inspirational enough to warrant watching all the way through.


“When I Grow Up…”


The other day my wife and I were standing in line at Target, waiting to buy some G.I. Joe figures. As some of you may know, of all the brands that were a part of my childhood, the one that stands above all the others as my absolute favorite in the whole wide world is G.I. Joe, so naturally, it would seem, I’m kind of excited about any new Joe-themed products.

Try explaining that to the elderly lady standing behind me in the check-out line.

“Someone’s in for a surprise” she commented with a friendly tone. Assuming she thought I was probably buying them for my little nephew, Timmy’s birthday party at Chuck E Cheese’s, I just grinned and said, no, they were for me. “What, you’re going to play with ‘em?” the lady asked, half bemused, half making sure I wasn’t some sarcastic wise-guy. Already feeling this was going to take way too much explaining, I told her I just wanted to have them on display at home. We didn’t say much more, but the elderly lady’s assessment was clear – either I was incredibly tall for a second-grader, or the woman next to me wasn’t my wife, she was my social worker.

Between the big-screen G.I. Joe adaptation being released last Friday, and the annual Joe-Con in Kansas City this weekend, I’m being treated to a rose-tinted renaissance of toy collecting and cartoon watching. Combine this with all the other nostalgic re-visits being lavished on people my age lately – new Transformer and Tron movies, Ninja Turtle anniversary celebrations, and talk of A-Team and He-Man re-makes (no doubt “more dark and edgy”) for instance, and you start to see a trend.

If you like a good conspiracy theory, it’s almost like the entertainment industry is wise to the fact my current demographic is at the peak of it’s money-to-burn ability and wants nothing more than to pay for the luxury of feeling eight-years-old again. I’m being sarcastic, but I do quite seriously believe that a lot of people in their late twenties/early thirties go through something of a post-college crisis.

From personal experience I can share that after several years of senior school, four years of exams, going to college, and then the pressures of getting a foothold in a career, the thought of taking a trip to Toys R Us to buy Nerf blasters, or sitting around in my P.J’s watching Saturday morning cartoons, sounds pretty inviting. Ok, so both of those activities could be classed as audience research in the industry I’m lucky enough to be a part of, but you get my point. Many of us don’t want to grow up.

When did this happen? Is it a good thing? Is it even healthy?

It’s easy to point the finger at rapid increases in consumerism, advertising and media outlets as proponents to this trend, but there’s something deeper. My Grandfather’s generation didn’t grow up with SpongeBob on the television, SpongeBob cereal in the shopping cart and SpongeBob: The Video Game under the Christmas tree, but they did have childhoods and I don’t recall ever hearing of anyone in their 80’s having the urge to build a tree house, shoot tin cans with a slingshot, or some other wholesome activity that doesn’t require activation codes or an extra gig of RAM.

Sure, the desire to look or feel younger is practically part of our genetic makeup; Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey to stay young, and nowadays there are a plethora of age-defying creams, lotions and potions available to turn back the clock. None of them promise to make you feel like you’re back in single digits though. Not yet at least. No, this isn’t necessarily about being in any kind of physical shape, it’s more of an emotional need.

Does this urge to mentally regress into a cozy, sugar-coated shell pose any kind of problem though? It’s difficult to say. Like with any hobby or interest, there’s always going to be people who take it to the extreme. I remember not-watching an episode of Dr. Phil about a woman who’s fiancé had taken over the house with his Star Wars toy collection. True, the guy was absolutely obsessed, but Dr. Phil had the same kind of condescending derision you’d expect a bully to level at a little kid who just peed his pants. He just. Didn’t. Get it.

For now, looking at the situation analytically I can see this kind of self-indulgence as a money-sink and the result of having too much time on one’s hands, but those are only relative. For now it seems the trend is here to stay and I expect twenty years from now re-makes of classics like Hannah Montana and High School Musical will be highly anticipated. Zac Efron will be pushing 41 by then, so he’ll be a shoe-in for a teacher cameo.

And I’ll still be collecting G.I. Joes.


Mattel Announces Augmented Reality Avatar Toy Line


The San Diego Comic-Con is in full swing. I’m not there, but all is not lost. By combining all the Tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr streams and RSS feeds I’m getting from there with a little bit of imagination, it’s almost like I got caught smuggling a bunch of fireworks into the San Diego Convention Center and have been locked in the security office for later interrogation – I can almost see and hear everything that’s going on… but not quite.

In among the Twilight discussions and Johnny Depp appearances, this press release for Mattel’s upcoming Avatar toy line caught my attention. For the first time in toy industry history, the action figures based on James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar film, will feature augmented reality technology. Each figure comes with a unique little code tag, called an iTAG that you scan with a web-cam on your computer. This reveals extra content on screen such as character bio’s and animations, and the deluxe figure versions will be able to battle each other when two are scanned together.

Developed in partnership with AR specialists, Total Immersion, the action figure line might be a must-have on Christmas lists this year. Here’s the catch that nobody else seems to have picked up on yet though; Total Immersion have already made a similar concept with Topps 3D Live Baseball Cards. It’s still the first time this technology has been incorporated into a toy, but you can already see an example of what it looks like in action below, next to a sneak preview of one of the Avatar figs at Comic-Con.


Play Time: Augmented Reality Games


***Warning*** To fully appreciate the futuristic coolness of this post, you ARE required to wear a Tron suit.

First of all, what’s all this Augmented Reality business about? Wikipedia says it’s basically a mix of real-world images and computer generated graphics, brought together in real time. Think of the old Playstation iToy and you’re on the right track.

The reason Augmented Reality is causing a stir right now is because the technology involved in creating this kind of experience is gradually becoming available on mobile platforms, like cell phones and Nintendo’s new DSi handheld. This means instead of users being tied to their bulky Playstation and television in the living room, they can go out and explore the big wide world, consequently making AR much more interesting.

There’s more detailed info here, but let’s get to the fun stuff! It’s still early days, but here are a few examples of Augmented Reality games in action.

4-300x182Going back to the iPhone again, The Hidden Park offers a fairy-hunting, riddle-solving family day in the outdoors. With the help of magical guide, Trutton, kids follow map directions and clues to different landmarks, taking photo’s along the way. At the end of the outing, young adventurers are left with a photo album of their journey, with lots of creatures appearing on screen, where that hadn’t in real life.

As an aside, for those interested in social media, take a look at the comments left on the Boston Globe article written about this game. There’s more than a hint of trolling involved, but beneath the flaming, the argument between one person’s disinterest in new technology and another person’s assumption that they’re just too old to get it, caught my eye.

Seek N’ Spell is a new game designed to run kids ragged and get them to learn something at the same time. It’s not all good news though – they have to be holding your shiny new iPhone at the same time, so you might want to get that insurance plan AT&T tried to sell you after all. Anyway, if I explain that the game scatters virtual letters of the alphabet on a football field-sized area, and that your kids have to run and collect them to form words, you can skip the first two minutes of the video and get to the cool part.

It’s behind you! For the more braver gamers amongst us, take a look at this creepy trailer for Ghostwire on the DSi. I’m on the fence whether this is suitable for little ones; the music in the trailer is pretty creepy, however the game itself looks like a fun puzzler/collect-’em-up. I believe there’s a phone-based version of this coming out too.

There are lots more examples of this growing technology out there, however these were the best ones I could find that were suitable for children. If you’re interested in some of the wider possibilities Augmented Reality might be capable of, take a look at these other demos or check out this specific one for the iPhone. Exciting stuff!


Six Children’s Books That Need The Hollywood Treatment


Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article has been causing a lot of talk in my Twitter-verse lately, regarding the best kids’ book ever, and what with the recent announcement of two of my favorite children’s reads being adapted for the silver screen, Eric and I have been thinking about some more books that need making into films. Here’s our list – tell us which books we’ve been crazy for leaving out!

Young BondYoung Bond

These James Bond prequels are begging to be shown on the big screen, but writer, Charlie Higson wants to wait until he’s finished the series before thinking about it. Surely putting the written exploits of a film character icon on screen is inevitable, but in the meantime we’ll have to make do with Alex Rider in Storm Chaser.

BusytownAnything by Richard Scarry

File this one under nostalgia if you like, but the unique and instantly recognizable style of Richard Scarry’s classic collection of Busytown books would make for some fab animation.

TintinThe Adventures of Tintin

Yes, I know the coifred French reporter may have already caught the attention of Msr. Speilberg, who’ll be releasing a 3D rendition of Tintin next year, but I’m impatient. Hey if the on-screen adaptations stays true to the series of books (Ha!) there could be 24 of these films made. Blistering barnacles!

DragonologyDragonology

Pirates, Wizards and Vampires have all had their fair share of film and book attention lately, it’s high time dragons were the in-thing. And no, Eragon does not count. Dragons may not have the same depth as Harry Potter, or the coolness of Edward Cullen, but they’ve got lots of scales and can breath fire – see, the script writes itself!

cyoaChoose Your Own Adventure

This one takes a little explaining. Years ago I saw a spooky movie in a small theater in Sea World, where the audience had to vote on key points of the story by pressing a button on their seat – I guess the majority vote decided. I’m surprised this didn’t catch on more widely, and I think this style of collaborative storytelling would lend itself ideally to a film version of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. Who’s with me in trying to create a script with a democratically evolving plot?

Where's Waldo?Where’s Waldo?

Or “Where’s Wally?” if you grew up in England, like me. I’m typecasting here, but Daniel Radcliffe needs to hold on to those specs for a few more years and play the part of the stripy-togged traveler, Waldo, don’t you think?

Thanks also to Matthew at Nugget Island for finding this list of 10 Kids Movies That Were Better Than the Book. Be sure to take a peek at that too.


Play Time: Orisinal


orisinal

Anyone who’s worked with me in the past five or so years will tell you, as soon as I find an online game I like, I won’t just email you the link, I’ll chase you down and make sure you play it. Thankfully I don’t find games that are mass-email-worthy that often, but for those of you who I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting me yet, this post represents me sitting on the corner of your desk, begging you to stop what you’re doing and play, play, play!

I’m sure for some of you seems like a no-brainer, or old news, but Eric informs me this site isn’t complete without a post dedicated to the timeless, tranquil pleasure that comes from playing a game on Orisinal: Morning Sunshine.

Whether you’re blissfully bouncing a star off a bubble, or making a bunny hop from one tinkling bell to another, the combination of simple game-play, elegant visuals, and ambient sounds makes Orisinal a pleasure to visit over and over. The site has no online multiplayer features, no hidden rewards to unlock, and no leveling up, but when it comes to enjoying a pure gaming experience, Orisinal is one of the best examples out there.

What are you waiting for? Just play one round of Winterbells and you’ll be hooked!


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