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Toys, Games, and Media

Toys, Games, and Media. Jeffrey Goldstein, David Buckingham, and Gilles Brougere, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 249 pp. $69.95 hbk.

At first glance, Toys, Games, and Media appears a bit unfocused. Its title suggests three different topics. Its subdivisions-Toy Culture, Children and Digital Media, and How Technology Influences Play-also suggest different foci. Its three editors are affiliated with organizations whose names suggest divergent interests: the International Toy Research Association and the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth, and Media at the University of London Institute of Education.

Yet Toys, Games, and Media works as a unit, largely because of the excellent introduction provided by its editors. Its real topic, as the editors point out, is convergence, a subject often discussed but too seldom investigated. Here, "convergence" refers to the seamless blending of toys, games, and media, both in the commercial marketplace and in children's lives. In today's world, traditional play has not lost its appeal, but digital technology is increasingly applied to the pursuit of pleasure. Many computer-mediated activities and games are driven by purposeful goals, such as education in the form of "edutainment." At the same time, games and activities are promoted through webs of "integrated marketing," which link books, movies, television shows, and other media with toys of many kinds. Toys, Games, and Media focuses on the interconnections between traditional toys and play and those mediated by or combined with digital technology.

The book has much to recommend it. Its perspective is multicultural. Its seventeen authors represent universities and research institutes in eight different countries. Its scope is broad. Most of the research is cutting edge, some based on prototype and new hybrid toys, such as electric toy vehicles with global positioning systems (GPS) that adapt scooters and tricycles for use by seeing-impaired children.

Less appealing is the book's heavy reliance on qualitative research. Observations, interviews, etc., are appropriate in the initial investigation of an issue, when such information can help frame questions for subsequent studies. Such is the case with Christine R. Yano's fascinating "Kitty Litter: Japanese Cute at Home and Abroad," which addresses the marketing of "Hello Kitty" items in Japan and other parts of the world. In several other chapters, however, quantitative methods could have added depth to the analysis of issues that have been studied previously. Also disappointing is the uneven quality of the writing. In a few chapters, traditional elements of research papers, such as literature reviews and descriptions of research methods, are sketchy or missing entirely. In others, the writing is unclear or imprecise, possibly because English is not the authors' native language.

Not all of the chapters relate to mass communication. Several would be of interest to readers from other disciplines, including teachers, child psychologists, and toy and game manufacturers. In "Tangible Interfaces in Smart Toys," for example, author Mark Alien makes the case that the design of most smart toys has neglected children's sense of touch, a message clearly intended for manufacturers.

Still, communication is a central theme of the book. And for those who study media use, Part II, "Children and Digital Media," is wonderfully relevant. It provides much-needed insight into how children and adolescents use computers, video games, and other new media and shows how children and adolescents integrate these new media into their lives.

Ellen Setter's contribution, "The Internet Playground," explores the consequences of computer use among workingclass children in California. Based on a three-year study at an after-school media laboratory, the chapter describes two favorite pursuits among the children who use the lab: game-playing on a Web site called Neopets.com and communicating with peers via instant messaging. Seiter shows that while the children were well aware of the commercial motivation of other media, they were significantly less attuned to advertising and market research on the Internet. And while instant messaging helped older kids communicate more easily and disrupt cliques within their schools, most knew that outside the media lab, the cost of the appealing technology placed it beyond the means of their cash-strapped families.

Part II also includes notable chapters by Magdalena Albero-Andres and Stephen Kline. Albero-Andres found that Spanish adolescents used the Internet primarily for entertainment and communicating with friends but seldom visited educational Web pages, except as part of a school assignment. Kline, who studied the media diets of Canadian children, found that interactive media have not radically altered children's culture or displaced television and books. Instead, video game play has become an attractive alternative play form, especially for boys.

Overall, Toys, Games, and Media provides a fascinating picture of the ways in which computer-mediated play is transforming the lives of both children and adults in the twenty-first century. It both raises and helps to answer important questions about our rapidly changing media environment.