What Makes Minecraft Work

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 @ 01:57 PM

MinecraftAccording to the Minecraft blog, Minecraft has around 10,000,000 users globally. And it’s no surprise that a game with that kind of following has also taken the tween world by storm.  The game, created by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson and later developed and published by Mojang and now available for play on computers or the XBox 360, has inspired young users through gameplay that includes space for both exploration and achievement. The 2011 “Golden Joystick Award” recipient revolves around breaking and placing blocks, allowing youth to play by themselves or, better yet, with others, to create worlds of their own and to fend off foes. Often cited as an example of “sandbox” or “emergent” gameplay, the game relies on the simple acts of its users to inspire relatively complex gaming dynamics.

What lessons can we learn from Minecraft’s success? We polled players and other experts to identify what Minecraft gets right:

  1. "You can make anything you want." According to one kid expert, Minecraft’s open-ended game design puts kids in control. He notes that "You can build a house any way you want. You can also make statues, mines, and make tunnels." Like loose parts playgrounds, Minecraft gives kids pieces with unlimited functionality and lets them play. This game gives kids the keys to the castle, allowing them to make the world what they wish it to be.
  2. "There are also portals that take you to other places, other worlds." Minecraft combines reality with fantasy, and escape with deep strategy. While part of the game’s appeal is constructing an environment that kids control, the other appealing aspect involves discovering new spaces to explore.
  3. As one of our clients recently noted, Minecraft’s two modes appeal to younger and older kids: explore or overcome. Minecraft nimbly navigates the tricky territory between early childhood and late childhood, letting all play, while upping the ante for the older set. While younger kids might especially appreciate the ability to investigate a world without a virtual “leash,” older kids find satisfaction in anticipating and countering attacks from virtual villains. Constructive play combines with good guy/bad guy play, which piques the interest of boys of many ages.
  4. "You can download characters from the Xbox - your character can wear armor that protects you from enemy characters." Avatars are nothing new, but the ability to be who you want within the context of a world you create makes customization more concrete.
  5. Finally, Minecraft takes gameplay social. For kids, Minecraft takes the constructive play usually associated with solitary activities (think LEGO) to the social sphere.

So what can brands learn from Minecraft?

  • Put kids in charge. Let them create, and inspire them to finish the story (versus completing it for them).
  • Consider entry points for younger kids (explorers) and older kids (controllers).
  • Enable them to make it their own. Let them enter the story through avatars or first-person perspective.
  • Foster friendships. Make social play possible.

Tags: internet, Gaming, digital drugs, free time

Cyber Sincerity: Teens Turn the Tables on Online Bullying

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Jan 14, 2013 @ 12:38 PM

When we think of teens and tweeting or teens and texting, we might tend towards an image that’s far from friendly. The discourse surrounding teens’ digital doings includes a significant strand related to the ways that teens often turn communication tools into ways to tease (to use a euphemism). Over the last few years, bullying has been elevated to the level of national youth crisis. Adults and teens alike acknowledge that social media of all sorts can amplify subtle snipes and can put personal conflicts on the public stage.

But three boys in Iowa City were recently caught in the act of using Twitter in a way that turns the tables on these simple notions of teen torment. 9d006ee4c6e8728d33b589f334f9f94bRecognizing that a tweet can carry great weight, they created a Twitter account from which they send messages meant to lift their classmates up, not tear them down. A tweet from the westsidebros might compliment one’s disposition, a recent achievement, or simply a new element of their style. The criteria that these crusaders hold themselves too is a simple one: the compliment must be sincere. And while three boys began this initiative, many more have paid it forward. Good works, or rather, words, have gone viral at this school, and this feel-good story has gotten noticed by media outlets across the country.

And what does this say about teens in general?

First, the fact that a good deed done digitally has received so much attention suggests that we might, as adults, be underestimating the altruistic tendencies of teens. Of course, we know that bullying or exclusionary behavior happens, and when it does, it hurts. But many more teens use technology to build rather than destroy. This story shows that kindness can be as viral as meanness, even among teens.

Second, teens transform their tools to fit their needs – not always the other way around. Teens are not mere victims of technology, but they are also active agents, influencing the way that technology affects their lives, and ultimately, ours.

Finally, teens aren’t only concerned with themselves, but feel connected to their communities, their classmates and the culture in which they live. Since the year began, we’ve come across a number of articles on teens and technology (good ones, in fact) that have, alas, reiterated the notion that teens are a narcissistic bunch. Of course, identity development (which can seem like a solo endeavor) is important during this life-stage. And friends can fuel this process by reflecting who they are, and allowing them to experiment with new self-concepts via “sampling” the many possible groups to which they might belong. But friends are far from simple props. Teens are on their way to creating relationships that might not always stand the test of time, but that are real and meaningful, regardless of whether technology takes a part in them.

For brands and organizations, it’s as critical to catch teens on good behavior as it is to bemoan the ways that some can abuse the tools they have.

Tags: internet, cyberbullying, bullying, digital drugs, culture

The Hidden Message Behind Holiday Cards

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Dec 14, 2012 @ 09:52 AM

Holiday Family PhotosTis the season for many a holiday tradition – new and old. And while holiday cards are nothing new, the way we send them now is certainly different than in previous generations. According to the Greeting Card Association, approximately 50 million ecards are sent every year. And, despite anxiety that the many ways that this cohort of digital native uses to keep in touch might make a paper holiday card obsolete, more than 2 billion boxed and individual Christmas cards were purchased in 2011. But outside the box, more and more companies offer opportunities to customize cards to make them your own. Sure, one benefit of these cards is making it easier to send (upload your mailing list once and these services will save you a trip to the post office!). But more often than not, the holiday card lets today’s families say something about themselves. (Holiday style segmentation anyone?) And, since children and families are so central to this genre of self-branding and promoting, we thought we’d examine what families are really saying about themselves through their holiday cards…

  • “We’re still here!” Or, “we’re here!” Far from holiday greetings being replaced by a wink or a poke on a social network, a yearly check-in might be more important than ever for today’s mobile families. It’s not just a holiday hello, but an annual GPS that tells a broad circle of family and friends where you are and that you’re still seeking connection.
  • “We’re okay.” You know those letters that provide a topline summary of the year that was? They might be brag sheets for some…But they’re also ways to reassure and reaffirm that life is good. That college student whose living in the basement? He’s figuring out what makes him passionate. That unexpected illness? A life event that brought everything else in perspective. These narratives are not only stories to tell others, but ways to bring comfort to ourselves.
  • “Holidays are about home.” And of course, for families, there about the “Wondrous Innocence” that sociologists like Gary Cross suggest are indelibly associated with children and that special moment we think of when we think of Christmas morning. Whether your holiday style is matching sweaters, a casually chaotic snapshot, or a photo from a favorite moment of the year, they all remind us that between sleepless nights for parents of newbies, school slip-ups or pre-adolescent pouting, there are times when everything seems innocent and perfect.

Even with family-life more complex than ever before, the most conventional of holiday cards continues to feel relevant. Something about those check-ins challenges our notion that nothing is the way it used to be.

Tags: internet, parents, holiday, culture, trends

5 Youth YouTube Takeaways

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Sep 24, 2012 @ 01:15 PM

In mid-July, Korean rapper Psy’s management made a move that changed his world. The simple act: they posted his video for the now ubiquitous romp, “Gangman Style,” on a little site called YouTube.  Like Justin Bieber before him, this star circumvented traditional channels and took to the same outlet that countless moms and dads, kids, tweens an27989 top 10 psys gangnam style parody videosd teens have used to post their slightly less polished and possibly less entertaining performances. Carly Rae Jaepson may have had a platform on Canadian Idol, but she didn’t hit the big time until Justin Bieber and a few of his pals (including Selena Gomez and Ashley Tisdale) created their own YouTube video for “Call Me Maybe” (triggering a trend that led to viral spoofs by everyone from Barack Obama to the Harvard baseball team). It’s no surprise that some of our most talked about cultural phenoms come from YouTube – not the newest network, but a surprisingly powerful one. According to YouthBeat, YouTube has been rated the favorite site among kids and tweens, and only second to Facebook for Teens, for a few years running. Its youth appeal is evident: it’s constantly new, easily sharable, focused on fun, and a novel boredom buster.  But what does it mean for brands seeking stardom?

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of the people. For this cohort of youth, getting a say, and knowing that someone was discovered by youth like them, goes a long way towards affirming brand/star authenticity.
  2. At the same time, don’t assume that the best videos rise to the top…You could have a great ad or idea, but the YouTube ocean is vast. While we believe that getting your brand on YouTube is a great idea, it’s also important to promote your video across other platforms. If you’re not friends with a celeb with a seriously loyal Twitter following, make sure that you’re using your other assets to draw attention to your YouTube presence.  
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re a brand that wants to use YouTube to appeal to youth, make sure you check your ego at the door. The best and most popular videos on YouTube stay salient by taking on a second (and third, and…you get it…) life of their own. The parody might be more powerful than the first post on this site. Think of it as an endorsement that takes your message to the extreme (see what happened to Psy’s Gangman Style – and wonder if he’s offended).
  4. Don’t oversimplify “participation.” If we evaluated the appeal of YouTube by counting the kids, tweens and teens who actually post videos to it, we would have taken a pass. 91% of online 6-10 year olds have never posted a video online. Only 32% of teens have gotten in the game. But watching, sharing and voting constitute real participation for youth. Don’t build your promotions on the false notion that youth love to share their own videos. Instead, leverage the way they look and pass-along to make your brand famous.
  5. Finally, know the rules. While many brands (including one of our favorites, Old Spice) simply post their TV campaigns on YouTube, the ones that work best have learned the rituals and rules of making a YouTube hit. Humor and irreverence are always paths to consider when promoting an idea to youth, but for YouTube, they’re essentials. Most great YouTube videos are one part provocative. For your brand to sing on this space, consider the messages that might not work on traditional TV, but that may promote lunchroom patter.

Tags: internet, music, culture, youth media

Changing the Conversation About Internet Safety

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, May 31, 2012 @ 03:06 PM

In case the importance of Facebook was lost on anyone in the youth space, the recent IPO reaffirmed that this college-dorm-room start-up has changed the way we lived now – or at least we believe it has. It’s hard to argue that this generation of youth encounters a new set of challenges, driven by their digital experiences, than any before them…But perhaps inevitably, technology that transforms the way we live causes many childrens advocates to ask, “is this doing more harm than good?”

In the “safety” tracks at kids conferences, in blogs and books, and on the sites and speeches of the many, many agencies and organizations that specialize in making the online space safe for youth, advocates and experts have questioned whether the Internet has made our children vulnerable to threats ranging from stumbling on salacious content to exposing too much of one’s self to social networks. For adults, the notion that kids, tweens and teens have access to a tool that allows them to torment another child (or be the victim of vicious attacks), or that a teen might make an ill-conceived comment that isn’t just public - it’s permanent and is troubling to say the least.

But as complex as this conversation might sound, we can’t help but ask, is it complicated enough? The discourse surrounding this topic is saturated with scary statistics and wrought with regret over the simpler childhoods that have been lost. Kids, tweens and teens are simultaneously assumed to have the authority over their own actions that allow them to make major mistakes, and vulnerability that frames them as victims. Advocates voice strong opinions, as is expected, but is there a more balanced approach to thinking about the Internet’s opportunities and offerings?

Here are just a few habits that we hope to see adopted by the future contributors to the conversation about Internet safety:

  1. Take stats seriously. Peruse any of the websites for advocacy organizations related to online safety and you will find plenty of statistics to support how much time youth spend online, and how devices have come to dominate their daily existence. Yet many claims (especially those that compare how kids used to be and how kids are now) come from first-hand experience versus hard data. Many of these data points are disseminated without doing the due diligence of revealing sample source, size or method.  In short, if we want to ground the conversation in reality, we have to give each other the information necessary to understand the reality.  
  2. Define terms. If you’re like us, when you hear commonly used heuristics like “screen time” coupled with an average number, you cringe just a bit. Is it just us, or do the numbers cited (often 8 hours in a day), seem just a bit unrealistic for kids who are in school for most of their day? Each study chooses how to calculate this number, grappling (we assume) with how to treat multi-tasking, whether to ask about time spent or use another means to ascertain time spent, how to treat background viewing versus attended viewing, and whether texting counts as screen time. And how about Skype? Is that a chance to connect with relatives who live far away, or just another instance of screen time, lumped in with gameplay and TV? But these decisions – which greatly affect how the ubiquitous screen time stat should be understood – are able to be revealed in a sound bite made for media. To have a real conversation about Internet safety, media addiction, and even media as a learning opportunity, we have to compare apples to apples and strive for transparency when we’re using ambiguous terms.
  3. Reexamine nostalgia. “When we were kids…” How many conversations about tech in general, the Internet specifically, and Facebook for sure start out this way? For us, this signals less a pending history lesson and more a sign that some serious revising is about to begin. First, not all of our childhoods were the same. I know mine included no Atari – unusual for a kid of the 80s – but plenty of TV. My town wasn’t wired for cable until eighth grade, but I did watch more than my fair share of Mork and Mindy, The Facts of Life, Different Strokes, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. I spent Saturday mornings watching Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny. These shows – viewed by kids if not intended solely for them – certainly had content that wouldn’t be deemed appropriate for today’s children.  And screen-time wasn’t a concern because this kid – like all the kids in my neighborhood – watched, but also read, played sports (organized and pick-up) and ran around til the lightning bugs came out and flashlight tag began. Childhood has been complicated for a long time, and we do a disservice to today’s kids when we suggest that they’re missing out on a pure existence that might not have been. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply what we know now, and continue to create better content for kids (my own son doesn’t get to watch Tom and Jerry, but Mike the Knight, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and The Kratts Brothers are tune-in TV for him). But it does mean that we should be realistic and not overly romantic about children’s culture of the past.
  4. Include parents in the conversation. We conducted our own online poll last week in response to this question (n=217 parents of kids ages 2-17) and found, not surprisingly, that these parents are largely split, but as a collective, have a harder time dismissing the Internet than some experts do. With the exception of a few, most parents temper their critiques of the Internet with an acknowledgment of all the ways that the Internet has served their children well – helping them explore their passions, efficiently and effectively complete homework, play stimulating and challenging games, and more. And for many, it’s not a matter of being “good” or “bad,” but how they can make the most of it for their children… YB Blog   internet pie chart 02
  5. Listen to kids. At a recent conference, countless speakers noted the importance of preventing children from getting on social networks too early, supported by statistics that suggested that they were on before the legal age of 13. They suggested that teens were ill-prepared for handling the sticky social situations that these networks facilitate, and that they can’t handle the gray area between public and private. But at the end of the day, a group of youth filed onto stage for the requisite “live” focus group. When asked about social networking and online experiences in general, many rattled off strategies for handling online strangers (disengage and walk away), for negotiating the “out-there” nature of the space (remember that mom has friended you and don’t reveal where you live), and for avoiding cyberbullying (don’t do it). This prep might be more easily spoken than practiced, but it told us that teens are capable of learning strategies and rules (like the New Media Literacy Skill and Cultural Competencies identified by MIT professor Henry Jenkins) to help them navigate the murky waters of the Internet. 
How would you like to see the conversation about Internet safety change?

Tags: internet, Youth, culture, youth media, tweens