The Habit of Fun

The New York Times ran a piece on girls dressing up their dolls online called, “Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play.”

Here’s the opening of the article:

Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaving the real world and joining a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon Doll Emporium.

The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls, by placing blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.

“With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money,” she said. “You can do it on the Internet for free.”

Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon, the growth of a new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls.

Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be getting its first exposure to the Web.

Most of the Web chatter was about whether or not girls should be doing this at all, encouraging girls to have play dates and general hand-wringing. In general it was decided this was A Bad Thing ™ *.

But the point is this: It’s happening. If you had told someone a hundred years ago that most people in the country would have their eyeballs glued to images on a small box broadcasting game shows and soap operas for 2 to 6 hours a day, they would have called you nuts.

Is humanity worse for Television? Are we doomed? I have no idea. I do know most people seem to like to distract themselves, don’t like to think too much about matters at hand, and enjoy shiny pictures.

The Internet only provides new means of doing this.

As the rating slide continues at the networks, as cable stations continue to get ratings that bottom-tier network shows would love, as kids move from expecting to get their entertainment from Club Penguin, I think everyone should take a breath and realize that The Habit of Fun is changing.

The Habit of Fun is what I call what people think is fun. There are a million ways to have fun. But we can only have fun so many ways. There are only so many hours in the day. And novelty inspires us to drop one kind of fun and migrate to another.

It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time people had to get used to watching Television. It took time for the networks to develop effective programming. It took time for people to buy TVs. It took time for people to get in the habit of showing up to watch TV. It took time for a critical mass of audience to make talking about one show or another at the water-cooler a given part of the day.

Now, there will always be Theater. And there will always be Movies. And there will always be Television. But I think it’s important to look at what’s happening with kids, because they are the audience that in 15 to 25 years will be defining what the future of entertainment is going to be about.

And I think it’s clear that what kids are doing is finding their entertainment on the internet. There’s more stuff. It’s on 24/7. It’s social.

I was talking about all this with a friend, and she said, “No, not really. Because parents have a big influence on those habits.” I thought to myself, “No, not really. Kids influence kids on this stuff much more than parents.”

And then in the New York Times article I came across this:

Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity, and they are doing so thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.

“They’re spreading rapidly among kids,” Mr. Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. “It’s like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets.”

Kids will migrate to the Internet because that’s what other kids are doing. It’s that simple.

I know many adults will view this as sad, strange or unfortunate. A horrible denigration of attention span. Or whatever. But it is going to happen. And as they get older I don’t think they’re suddenly going to say, “Well, now it’s time to start watching TV or go to Movies.” They’re going to say, “Well, what else is here that I want to look at?”

Children simply will get used to the idea of going to their computers first before turning on a TV or going to a movie. (This doesn’t mean people will stop going to large, face-to-face social events. More on that in another post. But in short: people like people.)

What’s particularly interesting to me is that what we consider “entertainment” will most likely change, too. The verse play vanished with the arrival of the printing press (we moved from verse to pros — and there was no going back). The sitcom arrived with the roller-mounted video camera.

We are so used to seeing “storytelling” these days through fourth-wall, actors on a sound stage that we forget that once upon a time theater ruled the earth, and later the novel. Each of these forms of storytelling had very rich traditions and techniques very different from the “make it as real as possible” traditions we no expect from TV and Film.

As we mine the Internet for new ways of engaging an audience, I expect we’ll find fascinating methods of engagement that don’t look at all like TV and Film. Entertainments like World of Warcraft and Disney’s new “Pirates of the Caribbean Online,” a new massively multiplayer online game based on the “Pirates” movie franchise might confuse older folks, but it won’t confuse a generation of kids growing up on it.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live depends on this. And in a bold move (or maybe not so bold!) FASA Studio’s new Shadowrun game is being release only as a multiplayer online game–there will be no single player version of the game you can play alone.

I believe audiences will expect this kind of entertainment in the future. There will be plenty of variations on this idea, but I think a couple of people interviewed in the Times article have it right:

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the social aspects of technology, said that the participants on these sites are slipping into virtual worlds more easily than their parents or older siblings.

“For young people, there is rather a kind of fluid boundary between the real and virtual world, and they can easily pass through it,” she said.

For some children, the allure of these sites is the chance to participate and guide the action on screen, something that is not possible with movies and television.

“The ability to express themselves is really appealing to the millennial generation,” said Michael Streefland, the manager of Cyworld, a virtual world that started in South Korea and now attracts a million users a month in the United States, according to comScore, a research firm. “This audience wants to be on stage. They want to have a say in the script.”

(*A side note here: It always amazes me how naive most Americans are about the variety of ways of life that exist in their own nation. Some people commenting on the article said essentially, “Of course you get the neighborhood kids to play together face to face.” It took some folks who live in both rough urban areas and low-density rural areas to point out that life for some folks is not as simple as that.

The fact that kids can play safely inside with other kids without having to let them wander out into high traffic areas or without negotiating long drives seems to have escaped folks who live in the suburbs as A Good Thing.)

1 Response to “The Habit of Fun”

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