Like most of my generation, I grew up playing video games with a healthy dose of physical activity thrown in. Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that more than 80 percent of Canadian children between the ages of 6 and 17 play video games regularly. However, my concern is not how long they play, but what they are playing.
Looking at the video games available (for both children and teens), it’s easy to spot stereotypical gender roles being perpetuated through branding and graphics. Putting aside games meant only for adults, and focusing instead on games marketed directly at kids, we can see the trend more clearly. We can also see that it is reinforced through design.
A brand character is a type of visual content marketing that is repetitively used to get consumers familiar and comfortable with a brand. This can be used within the logo of the company itself (i.e. Wendy’s, Aunt Jemima), or can be an active and independent facet (i.e. Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald).
More often, we see the second approach being used when marketing games towards children – especially those of a certain gender. Take, for example, the Nintendo DS game series Cooking Mama. They are primarily targeting young females, made evident by the colour choices on the package, and the brand character “Cooking Mama” represented as an apron-wearing woman. She oversees the player as they attempt to create various dishes in the game.
Despite the cooking industry being male dominated, the creators’ felt the need to make their brand spokesperson a woman. And instead of “Cooking Woman” they chose “Cooking Mama”. It may have been simply a marketing strategy, but the brand is still putting a mother at the forefront, a mother whose only responsibility is to cook and perform domestic tasks.
Yet Cooking Mama isn’t the only series that pushes stereotypical gender views of women. Game franchise My Baby continues to portray them in age-old roles. The series has three games thus far: My Baby Girl/ My Baby Boy, My Baby First Steps and My Baby 3 and Friends. All of these games focus on the player acting in the maternal role of child rearing.
Conversely, games that are directed at boys see a substantial content shift. It’s no longer about domesticity and chores around the house; it’s about adventure, adrenaline and a show of prowess. Take Mario Kart 7 for example. Compare the game cover designs and it’s easy to spot huge differences. Cooking Mama and My Baby use bright, saturated colours like pink, purple, blue and green, while Mario Kart 7 relies on the stark contrast between red and white.
Many colour theories state that red is often associated with fire, blood, energy, war, danger, strength, power and determination. Many of these keywords can be seen in Mario’s virtual adventures; maybe not the blood, but there is definitely fire, power struggles, and overt tests of Mario’s strength, power and determination. Mario as a brand spokes-character gives male children the perception of adventure and danger – a polar opposite to the gendered content for females.
This past summer, celebrity personality Kim Kardashian released a mobile game for both iPhones and iPads. For those 12 and up, the game allows players to simulate a celebrity lifestyle wherein they can create their own character and do things like travel, walk the red carpet, shop, and date other celebrities. To me, the game is pointless and gives youth unrealistic expectations, especially in terms of money. After all, outside the game, not many of us can afford a $5,000 Gucci bag. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this marketing trend is going to change anytime soon; in fact, it’s getting worse.
Children really brighten up a household — they never turn the lights off.
As adults, sarcasm is one of our favourite forms of socially accepted comedic expression. We use it to blow off steam, we use it to indirectly mock each other, we use it to get laughs, and we use it as a defence mechanism to hide how we are really feeling (angry, sad, disappointed). Although my parents restricted my TV intake, most of my friends were raised on The Simpsons. And if that example isn’t appropriate for you, take a look at almost any television show you’ve watched in the past 20 years. Will and Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Chandler from Friends, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, Joey from Dawson’s Creek, Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lucille from Arrested Development, and everyone from Married with Children; and that’s just naming a few.
While I am now able to recognize sarcasm (well, most of the time), kids have a harder time with social cues and often sarcasm can appear apathetic, indifferent, cruel, or just plain rude. Basically, it hurts their feelings. It also has to do with miscommunication. Kids take things more literally than we do, everything is taken at face value, and the subtleties of sarcasm go right over their heads. Anyone who has ever been at the receiving end of a child’s sarcasm are more than aware that it comes off as hurtful instead of funny. Sarcasm originates from the Greek word sarkasmos, which means “to tear flesh”, so, here’s my question: Should we teach kids about sarcasm?
Did you ever play with LEGO as a kid? I remember using the coloured bricks to construct buildings and intricate vehicles and robots, to make my imagination come to life. I also remember carefully tiptoeing around my living room to avoid the agony of stepping on a stray piece. LEGO is still one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers, but LEGO toys today look a whole lot different than the LEGO I remember.
Of course you’re not just getting bricks, and gears when you buy a LEGO product – you’re buying the instructions to build a Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter, re-enact a chase scene between Batman and Two-Face, or act out Disney Princess Rapunzel’s Fairy Tale. This is an example of a growing trend in the children’s toy industry toward commercialized toys: toys that are based on licensed characters and tied into other branded media products, like TV shows and movies. Commercialism has crept into our children’s toys and is changing how they engage in play. Play is one of the most critical parts of child development, but does commercialized play – vs unbranded play – allow children the same opportunity to imagine, explore, and learn?
Maria Montessori, an innovator in education, is known for advocating that “play is children’s work.” For kids, play is an essential part of physical and social development. Creative play is how children learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It is through make believe that kids explore, experiment, express themselves, and make meaning from their experiences.
In Susin Nielsen’s popular middle-grade novel, Word Nerd, 12-year-old Ambrose ends up in the hospital after three boys from his school put a peanut in his sandwich, triggering his peanut allergy. Troy, one of the bullies, says, “For six years, I’ve eaten peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch. Then you show up, and suddenly our school’s declared a peanut-free zone.” For this reason, among many, Ambrose’s mom pulls him out of public school. Obviously, this is a nightmare scenario, hopefully pretty rare in a time when most public schools are nut-free zones. It doesn’t change the fact that dietary restrictions can be a cause for feeling different when you’re a kid.
I recently sat down to talk to cookbook author and food blogger Amanda Orlando, whose book Allergen-Free Desserts That’ll Fool Your Taste Buds: A Book for Kids and Parents is coming out in spring 2015 from Skyhorse Publishing. I had every intention of getting her tips and tricks for writing about food for kids in an exciting way. She had some great insights, but the longer we talked, the more we kept on the topic of what it’s like growing up with food allergies.
“When I was really little, allergies weren’t a common thing,” Orlando, who has allergies to dairy, nuts and legumes, told me. “So if there was any kind of food, like a party or lunchtime or whatever, they always sat me in the corner by myself.” One thing’s for sure: this isn’t the greatest way to get kids excited about food and cooking.
It’s no secret that book-to-film adaptations have become all the rage. Take a look at some of the most popular movies in the past few years: you can find novel adaptations in almost every genre and category. From serious Oscar heavy hitters such as 12 Years a Slave and Wolf of Wall Street to more mainstream hits like The Hunger Games, there are countless movies that started off in the pages of a book.
If you look even closer at the page-to-screen trend, however, another pattern seems to emerge, and this pattern takes the form of 22-year-old Shailene Woodley. While her breakout role was back in 2008 with ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she’s rapidly evolved into something of an It girl in the past year. For the most part, you could argue that her success started with a book – or more accurately, many books. Four of Woodley’s biggest movies (The Descendants, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Spectacular Now) and even more of her smaller projects are all novel adaptations.
Upon noticing this pattern, I couldn’t help but wonder: what it is about Woodley that just seems to work with adaptations of great novels? More specifically, what is it about her that seems to work with adaptations of teen novels? After watching a few interviews with Woodley and reading a feature article or two, it became abundantly clear.
A little over a year and a half ago, a few friends and I had an idea – one that, though we couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, would go on to irrevocably change the way we looked at art, technology, and, most of all, each other. For 20 years, we’d each been fascinated with different aspects of cinema and television, but never knew how to actually make something of it. Our big idea? To just do it. It was hardly revolutionary, but prior to reaching that revelation, I’m not quite sure any of us grasped how incredibly ripe the times were for independent content creation.
We live in a world where, largely due to the presence of YouTube, the lines between producer and audience, or creator and viewer, are becoming increasingly blurred. That duality, simultaneously inherent in all our online interactions, has given rise to a decidedly reactive community of creators, whose unique stories and voices now exist heavily in response to perceived lacks and faults in the entertainment industry at large.
See, now more than ever, we ourselves have the ability to develop the content we demand, and distribute it through a platform that actively thrives on the DIY attitudes of its users without discriminating against the raw aesthetic and quality generally associated with low-budget independent productions.
On most Saturday mornings, you can find me in a dance studio teaching ballet. The kids I’m lucky enough to spend my time with are a lovely, energetic group of girls aged 2 to 6. Like most kids their age and countless other older kids at heart, the smash hit Frozen has ruled their universe for the past few months. At least one of the girls comes to each class with Elsa-inspired braids, and they all request that I play “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” at least once every half hour. It’s safe to say their love of Disney’s latest flick is bordering on obsession.
Within that obsession, though, I’ve noticed a pattern. Whenever I ask whom the girls’ favourite character is, the answer is unanimous: Elsa, the older of the two sisters, with the magic power to control ice and snow. At first I was baffled – with all the other hilarious characters (Olaf and Sven, anyone?), why was Elsa the automatic first choice? And what does this mean for the new variety of female role models kids are looking to these days?
When I first watched Frozen in December, I assumed that Anna would be the more popular of the two sisters. She’s an undeniably imperfect character, but that’s what makes her so likeable. There’s an approachable and familiar quality to her: she’s awkward, a bit clumsy, and relentlessly optimistic (sometimes to her own detriment, as in the case of her blind trust of the surprise villain, Hans). I figured her accessibility would win kids over, encouraging them to believe that it’s okay to be imperfect. Still, Elsa seems to be the crowd favourite.
“I want to make my own car and race it down the street!”
A typical request from kids nowadays. But those dreams can now come true. Well sort of.
I recently discovered a new interactive app called Crankamacallit, a digital storytelling experience enabling kids to build an imaginary vehicle in an inventors’ workshop. The story lets kids proceed in a step-by-step process to create a vehicle with the guidance of a narrated voice.
This app lets kids explore their inner inventive state, providing tools such as: a drawing widget, mechanical sounds, unique illustrations, rotational objects with panoramic views- all incorporated to make the experience more “realistic” and enjoyable.
With exposure to subjects such as engineering and automotive education, I wondered what it would mean for kids in this generation. Does this mean kids are now smarter in this generation than in the past? They can now learn the importance of mechanics and building in a virtual world, a skill that would be useful as they apply their knowledge and creativity growing up.
I was able to read comics growing up because of my brother’s fascination with super heroes; however, they were never my main source of reading material. For some young minds, comics might be the only thing they choose to read and all things considered, comics can be a great source of intellectual stimulation. Not all comics can be classified as good reading material and the Archie Comics are more offensive than educational.
In the issue I read, the teenagers of the comics are reduced to a series of obtuse stereotypes. Archie, at times, leads Veronica and Betty to believe he’s interested in both girls and both girls are reduced to tantrums over Archie’s affections. Reggie has a menacing undertone directed to his female classmates and Moose Mason resorts to violence when he sees his girlfriend talking with a male classmate. There are no direct resolutions to these instances, the conclusions only address the broader narrative and ignore these behaviours.
This brings us to the problem of representation in media. Children, young adults, and teenagers are all more complex than the Archie Comic’s representation. The reality of a teenager’s life may very well include instances of violence, jealousy, misplaced affections, and general immaturity. But that is not the entirety of a teenager’s emotional or intellectual capacity and it is unfair and harmful to ignore the complexities of a young adulthood in a comic created for young adults.
Reading is an integral part of development and considering the overwhelming amount of material available it is essential we scrutinize the content geared towards younger readers. I do understand that Archie comics cannot focus solely on the difficulties of life as a teenager. But teenagers shouldn’t be the punch line of every joke; they deserve to be taken seriously, even in a comic.
Harlem Shake. Grumpy Cat. Nyan Cat. Psy. Cinnamon Challenge. What do all of these things have in common? They all have millions of views on YouTube. They have also all been featured on the popular YouTube series, “Kids React.” In the series, created by sibling duo Benny and Rafi Fine of Fine Brother Productions, a panel of kids aged five to 14 are shown watching viral YouTube videos. Afterwards, the Fine brothers ask them questions about the videos, starting with “What did you just watch?”
React videos have been an Internet fad since before the Fine Bros started making them. The appeal comes from witnessing someone’s genuine first impression to a video clip, meme, .gif, or anything, really. Benny and Rafi have gone on to produce “Teens React,” “Elders React” and “YouTubers React,” but “Kids React” is special for its focus on a generation that has grown up with YouTube. As Michael Sullivan pointed out in the 2011 Variety Youth Impact Report, it would be easy to turn “Kids React” into a sort of “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” but Benny and Rafi sidestep this trap simply because it’s not the point of the show.