Monster High as a Virtual Dollhouse: Tracking Play Practices Across Converging Transmedia and Social Media
by Karen E. Wohlwend — 2017
Background: Today, children play in transmedia franchises that bring together media characters, toys, and everyday consumer goods with games, apps, and websites in complex mergers of childhood cultures, digital literacies, consumer practices, and corporate agendas. Recent research on youth videogames and virtual worlds suggests the productive possibilities and tensions in children’s imaginative engagements on these commercial playgrounds.
Purpose: Transmedia websites are conceptualized and analyzed as virtual dollhouses, or assemblages of toys, stories, and imagination that converges digital media, popular media, and social media. In this framing, transmedia websites are not texts to be read but contexts to inhabit. Are virtual dollhouses safe places where children can reimagine the worlds they know and play the worlds they imagine? Are girls doing more than playing simple repetitive games, dressing up avatars, caring for pets, and decorating rooms in virtual dollhouses?
Research Design: Nexus analysis tracks the histories and social functions of traditional dollhouses, then examines the monsterhigh.com website for these functions and converging practices. In nexus analysis, when practices repeat or support one another across imaginaries, shared normative expectations for ideal players and performances are thickened and amplified. Similarly, conflicting practices create ruptures that disrupt expected trajectories and usual ways of doing things. Nexus analysis of website and game designs and children’s YouTube videos identifies repetitions of social practices with the dolls in the commercial website and in child-made films on YouTube social media, making visible the resonances across converging cultural imaginaries as well as ruptures that open opportunities for player agency and redesign.
Conclusions: As children engage the pretense of virtual dollhouses, they play out blended activities that are at once both simulated and real: dressing their avatars, creating imagined profiles, shopping, playing games, purchasing in-app goods, watching and “liking” videos, recruiting followers/friends, and affiliating with the brand and other fans. These lived-in practices align with particular visions of girlhood that circulate naturalized and normalizing expectations for girls that also converge in these concentrations of media. However, examination of the digital dress-up and online doll play that children produce and share on social media shows that players also make use of the complexity that convergence produces. Children remake imaginaries for their own purposes in ways that both reproduce and rupture these expectations. The analysis points up the need for (a) nuanced and expanded research on children’s transmedia engagements, (b) productive play and digital literacies, and (c) critical media literacy in schools.
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