Crafting Future Selves

Time-Tricking and the Limits of Temporal Play in Children’s Online Film-Making

in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

Children in Norway increasingly spend time online, where they play games, create and share videos and hang out with friends. Drawing on fieldwork among immigrant families in Norway, this article investigates the use of avatars to facilitate temporal play in children’s online film-making. By creating animated films starring their own and their friends’ avatars, children playfully engage with a wide range of imagined future selves. Avatars constitute on-screen extensions of selves, allowing inhabitants of online environments to explore and experiment with otherwise inaccessible viewpoints and perspectives. Addressing the limits of time-tricking in children’s temporal play, the article shows how offline conventions shape what avatars can do.

‘You can be anything you want!’ Nine-year old Amina spoke with enthusiasm as she navigated the family laptop computer to show me one of her favourite websites. Her statement illustrates a common attitude towards the internet among Amina and her friends. Like her, they found the internet provided them with seemingly endless opportunities for exploration and experimentation. Using avatars, or digital on-screen extensions of herself, Amina spent time online almost every afternoon, playing games, creating and sharing videos, and hanging out with friends and strangers.

In Norway, where more than 95 per cent of the population can access the internet from home (Vaage 2014: 80), many children participate in online environments from an early age. In recent years, as online environments designed for children have increased in popularity, these spaces have also become regulated in new ways. For example, in some online environments communication between users is restricted to exchanging pre-approved messages.1 Restrictions on children’s online activities are put in place not only by lawmakers and web developers, but also by parents and school administrators, who may choose to block children’s access to certain websites. Amina and her friends were unable to access certain websites using the school internet connection, and some parents similarly blocked websites at home using software designed to monitor their children’s online activities. Adults have always put restrictions on children’s activities to reduce risk, yet the emergence of online spaces brings entirely new possibilities for surveillance and control.

As they grow up, children adjust to various forms of time reckoning as they attempt to organize their everyday life. Counting down the days to her upcoming birthday, or comparing her age to those around her, Amina positioned herself on temporal maps by quantifying time. In Norway, one could argue, this socialization into spaces where things have to be counted for them to count is closely tied to capitalist consumption and an individualist ethos. This does not mean, however, that social life is characterized by a single, dominant time reckoning. Instead, this article follows Bear’s (2014: 7) suggestion that we need to take into account the interplay of multiple co-occurring chronotopes in order to make sense of the simultaneity of different temporalities in the present. New technologies contribute to the field of contention among various futures, and there is always a struggle for legitimacy between abstract time-maps and actual experiences with time. As Bear argues: ‘Time-maps will vary in the degree to which they mimic the other of non-human time or human time experiences. For example, technologies of time such as navigational devices will be closely tied to non-human forces’ (ibid.: 16). From this perspective, social practices are not merely responses to a dominant conception of time, but in themselves constitutive of such conceptions. As I will show, despite the strict regulation of online spaces, Amina and her friends managed to find ways to create and share alternative modes of time reckoning outside the protective gaze of parents and teachers.

Approaching children’s play, characterized as it is by ambiguity and paradox (Bateson 2000: 179–80), can benefit from Bear’s insistence on the multiplicity of time maps. Time is often taken as an implicit ground in analyses of children’s play, a view that has been criticized by McDonald (2014: 487), who suggests that play has time as its ultimate object. For example, through the playful practice of juggling a ball while reciting a nursery rhyme, McDonald (ibid.: 482) shows how the establishment of rhythm leads each repetition to point simultaneously backward and forward in time. By establishing particular rhythms through temporal play, an otherwise chaotic future is given a certain expected direction. In McDonald’s words, ‘“temporal play” means that time has become manipulable and that it has been put at stake’ (ibid.: 487). Play is not a matter of simply responding to a pre-existing, dominant time. Instead, temporal play, understood as practices whereby time itself is objectified and manipulated through ‘time-tricking’, offers a lens through which we can understand the multiplicity of time maps that are at stake in social life. Here, I will point to three aspects of temporal play in children’s online film-making, focusing on how online environments allow numerous opportunities for temporal play whilst also being strictly regulated. Implicit rules of appearance and conduct shaped what the children wanted to – and did not want to – become. First, I account for the multiple imagined futures that are actualized in the children’s animated films. Second, I address the acceleration of time taking place when avatars operate as extensions of selves. Third, and finally, I argue that deceleration in montage offers non-human perspectives that are inaccessible outside online environments.

Ethnographic material for this article was collected between January 2012 and June 2013 in Kristiansand, a city of 90,000 inhabitants in the south of Norway. I spent time with twenty immigrant families in a suburban community with the aim of identifying changes in literacy practices in children’s everyday lives. I soon turned my attention to the children’s interest in emerging textual spaces online. Almost all residents of Kristiansand can access the internet from home, and even in the relatively low-income neighbourhood where I did my fieldwork, nearly all households had an active internet connection at home. In a few cases, the children could not use the family computer because it needed repairing, but this did not exclude them from joining their friends online by using mobile phones or tablets. The children I introduce in this article all attended the same school class. Access to computers at school was limited to certain hours, but online film-making was still amongst the most popular topics of conversation during school hours.

Over the course of fieldwork, the children taught me how to craft avatars and create animated films online, in the process introducing me to a world of online sociality that largely took place outside teachers’ and parents’ sphere of attention. Most parents monitored their children’s internet activity in some way or other, but commonly described their online activities simply as ‘playing games’. In addition to taking screenshots and recording videos of their activities online, I also audio-recorded conversations between the children and interviews with children and adults. I collected 150 films, 40 of which were created by the two focal children in the article, Amina and Tariq. Both were born in the Middle East but had lived most of their lives in Norway, and spoke Norwegian fluently.2

Future Projections

Since its launch in Denmark in 2009, MovieStarPlanet has become one of the most popular online destinations for children in Norway (Liestøl 2014: 41).3 In Amina and Tariq’s school class, all the children had created one or more avatars on MovieStarPlanet, or just Movie, as they usually called the website. Similar in many ways to other popular online communities for children such as Club Penguin and Habbo,4 users of Movie create avatars and spend time hanging out with friends and strangers in colourful, cartoon-like environments. Another commonality between the sites is the ‘freemium’ model of payment, where participation is free, but access to all features requires a paid subscription.

Much research has emphasized how the new possibilities afforded by online sociality have to do with the anonymity of users (see e.g. Meyers 2009).5 Among the children in Kristiansand, however, sharing with friends, siblings and cousins was often the key motivation for going online in the first place. Unlike Club Penguin and Habbo, Movie presents users with a Hollywood-inspired world populated by ambitious actors competing to become famous movie stars. The game element, where users are encouraged to collect ‘star coins’ and ‘fame’ by performing tasks and playing games, allows avatars to level up and gain access to new chat rooms, clothes and film props. Participants can mostly choose to ignore the competitive aspects, and instead socialize with friends or create and share artwork such as posters and animated films. These activities also provided users with star coins and fame, and the children regularly exchanged favourable reviews of each other’s films to boost their progress. Much of Movie’s relative appeal among Amina and Tariq’s friends came from the wide range of activities that catered to different preferences. As Juul points out, players may enjoy ‘the same game for entirely different reasons’ (Juul 2005: 19). To the extent that Movie can be described as a ‘game’, it is so in the wide sense proposed by Juul (ibid.: 193), as a playground where users can experiment with otherwise inaccessible perspectives.

For several of the children, including Amina and Tariq, much of their time on Movie was spent creating and sharing animated films. The film-making feature gave users access to various film-editing tools, allowing them to take the triple role of scriptwriter, director and actor as they crafted elaborate stories starring their own and others’ avatars. Many of these films drew inspiration from Norwegian and American TV shows, such as talent contests and sit-coms. The basic selection of backgrounds, props and animations was modest, but the use of text in speech bubbles and thought bubbles allowed for a near endless range of scenarios to be imagined and stories to be told. For example, Amina created a new version of the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen, with her own avatar playing the role of the princess. Making the finished films available to their friends with a few clicks, the audience could respond by giving the film a star rating, writing something in the comment field or simply clicking a ‘Love’ button. Movie is a persistent world, meaning that posters and films are available to other users regardless of whether the creator is logged on. In this sense, the films were never fully finished but entered into new constellations as other users engaged with their creations. By using the avatars of close friends from school as actors and characters in their films, the films became collective rather than individual enactments. Walton has coined the term ‘collaborative daydream’ in a discussion of children’s make-believe more generally (Walton 1990: 18), a term that can usefully be applied to the children’s online film-making. Amina and Tariq’s films can be described as projections, understood not in the narrow sense of prediction, but rather in the wide sense of something thrown forth.

In many of the films, apparently mundane scenarios took idiosyncratic and sometimes spectacular turns. For example, in a film called The Big Secret, Tariq tells the story of a friendship that turns into a large-scale conflict involving betrayal, hate and murder. Such escalation of conflicts to their extremes was a common plot element, indicating how the children used Movie to push the limits of the safe and recognizable towards the unknown. One such commonly found unknown was the future. Extending their imaginative reach through the avatars, many of the films constituted enactments of various futures. In one film, Tariq dressed himself and his friends as high-school graduates, having a party in the school hallway. In a series of films, Amina and her friends took turns performing dance moves in front of a panel of judges, enacting their dream of one day participating in the popular TV show Norske Talenter (Norway’s Got Talent). These projections on the computer screen illustrate how time-tricking can be a matter of bringing futures into the present moment.

Romance in Temporal Play

In addition to action-packed films involving gunfights and exploding cars, many films involved more experience-near issues related to family, friendship and romance. Often, the films were set in familiar locations such as the school hallway or the local youth club. After a fight with his mother, a boy in Amina and Tariq’s class created the film Kill Mum then We Can Watch TV Forever. In the first scene of the film, two boys are watching TV in the living room as their mother enters and tells them to turn it off. The two boys briefly discuss how to stop her from bothering them, and decide to beat her to death. The film then develops into a massive police chase, with the boys finally being arrested for murder after unsuccessfully attempting to escape. The subversive nature of the film illustrates how the combination of text and moving images made it possible to enact almost any thinkable scenario.

Amina created several films where she addressed upcoming events. Two months before moving to a new school, she produced the film My Boyfriend. The first scene takes place in the school hallway, where her avatar overhears four girls in her new class calling her ‘weird’ behind her back (Figure 1). A boy intervenes, and tells the other girls to leave Amina alone. In the next scene, the following dialogue takes place between the two as Amina is sitting on the floor, crying:

Boy:

What is wrong?

Amina:

Why do you think everybody hates me?

Boy:

How do you know everybody hates you?

Amina:

How do you know everybody doesn’t hate me?

Boy:

Because I liked you from the first time I saw you […]

Amina:

Okay, so why do many people hate me and now you say you like me.

Boy:

I do. I promise I like you. Not just that. I love you.

Amina:

I love you too.

The two then go on a romantic date to the beach together. In the next scene, they are back at school, and Amina is again confronted by the girls:

Girl:

Wow, who is that, Amina?

Amina:

What’s that got to do with you? It’s my boyfriend.

Girl:

Nooo, I don’t believe you.

Amina:

Then ask him.

Girl:

Are you two together?

Boy:

Yes, of course. Do you mind?

Girl:

No, but I don’t think you are a good match.

Boy:

That’s just because you’re jealous of Amina.

Girl:

Nooo!

Boy:

Okay, come on Amina, let’s go.

Amina:

Okay.

In the final scene of the film, which takes place in Amina’s house, the boyfriend has bad news for her:

Boy:

I want to tell you something.

Amina:

Just say it.

Boy:

I have to leave tomorrow

Amina:

What? What about me then?

Boy:

My mum died yesterday and my dad is in the hospital. They were in a car crash yesterday. And you can’t come with me.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Still from Amina’s film My Boyfriend on MovieStarPlanet. Reprinted with permission.

Citation: The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34, 1; 10.3167/ca.2016.340109

Amina:

Why not?

Boy:

There is no room on the plane. Even I had to wait sooo long until they found a seat for me on the plane.

Amina:

Okay, when are you coming back?

Boy:

I don’t know. But I have to go now. Bye.

Amina:

I am going to miss you.

Boy:

I love you more than you think.

As her boyfriend leaves, Amina again sits down on the floor and weeps before the film ends. In the course of just a few minutes of film, Amina here deals with three distinct yet overlapping forms of abandonment. First, being socially excluded by her new classmates was a real fear, which Amina voiced in several conversations we had before she started the new school. Second, the brutal death of her boyfriend’s mother in a car accident mirrors a topic she had addressed earlier, in a poster called ‘Sad for Me’, where she told the story of how her cousin died in a car accident when Amina was younger. Third, although Amina showed no explicit interest in having an actual boyfriend, the fear of one day being abandoned by a romantic partner was a real concern. The projection of future abandonment in the film illustrates how online time-tricking enables the creation and sharing of otherwise inaccessible perspectives. In sum, film-making offered Amina a space where she could voice her fear of the near future, with little or no interference from parents or teachers.

Both boys and girls created romantic films, where their avatars went on dates and got married. This was also a popular topic in the dolls’ house corner of the school’s common area. Boys were rarely to be seen in the doll’s house corner; playing with dolls was considered girl stuff, and the boys avoided romantic themes in the school playground. On Movie, however, the boys addressed issues such as dating and marriage without fear of sanction from their friends. Tariq created several posters and films where he portrayed himself going on dates and getting married. Partly hidden behind the mask of his avatar, he comfortably addressed issues that were otherwise out of bounds among his friends. After showing me one of the romantic films he was working on, he told me, ‘I want all my friends to see it’. In the four-episode film he portrayed his avatar – also named Tariq – as he leaves home, falls in love and gets married. He created his girlfriend avatar specifically for the purpose of the film, carefully choosing among hairstyles, make-up and clothes for the wedding scene in the final episode. The wedding ceremony took place in the school hallway, decorated for the occasion with colourful lights and giant loudspeakers hanging from the roof. Several of Tariq’s friends were in the film as wedding guests, witnessing the couple exchanging compliments and his future wife telling him ‘I love you’. Both boys and girls in his class commented on Tariq’s film, with statements such as ‘How cute’, ‘How romantic’ and ‘Aaaw, look at those two’.

Tariq’s and his friends’ preoccupation with romantic themes differs from what is commonly found in interview-based studies. For example, in a study among Austrian ten-year olds, Zartler found that ‘boys mostly do not frame their future within the context of relationships, and their depictions remain short, vague and noncommittal’ (Zartler 2015: 4). When online, Tariq and his friends engaged in what would otherwise be considered a girl-only domain, namely, ‘to develop concrete, detailed and richly embellished imaginations of their family lives’ (ibid.: 4). As the first two sections have shown, online time-tricking allows for a wide range of future projections. In the next section, I will show how the future can be prefigured in ways that put limits on temporal play.

Accelerated Selves

The avatar, a digital extension of the user, plays a significant role on Movie. In the children’s films, leading roles were usually given to their own avatars. Whereas the screen effectively separates actors from the audience for TV shows, online film-making challenged this distinction by allowing users to become the main characters in their own stories. Tariq named his main avatar after himself, despite the many warnings from teachers and parents about the dangers of using one’s real name online. Amina had grown particularly attached to her main avatar, Sandra23, whose appearance she spent considerable time adjusting and refashioning. She once told her friends in the school playground, ‘I want to take care of my user, if it doesn’t disappear, and give it to my children’. The close identification of users with their avatars also surfaced in chat rooms, where participants tended to move their avatar away if other avatars stepped too close to them on the screen (see also Wolfendale 2007: 114). Offline conventions of bodily proximity can also apply to avatar interaction. Conversely, online conventions also affected offline interaction, such as when Tariq and his friends pretended to be their avatars in the playground, playfully performing animations. In sum, the children developed close relationships to their main avatars, as avatars did not simply represent users but also helped produce accelerated selves.

In addition to a main avatar, many of the children had created several others for use in their films. In 2014, a MovieStarPlanet representative reported that the website had ‘more than 160 million user profiles worldwide’.6 This figure is exceptionally high, and can in part be explained by the fact that many users create multiple accounts. Amina, for example, told me: ‘I’ve got one user called Sandra23. And I’ve got one that I almost never use. I’ve made lots of other users since I made this one, with funny names and stuff’. She had created more than a dozen accounts altogether, in order to populate her films with a wide range of avatars with different styles and personalities. The ability for one user to control several avatars and, conversely, for several users to jointly control a single avatar, illustrates how online time-tricking does not emerge from individual agency but contributes to shaping such agency.

Whereas children’s actual bodies grow at an irreversible and imperceptible speed, avatars can change their appearance with the single click of a mouse. From one day to the next, Amina’s avatar was often difficult to recognize. As a result of her rapidly changing appearances, only the name tag below the avatar made the user recognizable to her friends. During one afternoon, Amina created three versions of Sandra23, naming them ‘The old me’, ‘The new me’ and ‘The new me … again’. She later told me: ‘I always get bored with the styles I had before. And then I just change to a new style’. Never fully finished, Amina’s avatars were always transforming from one state to another. This rapid transformation and acceleration illustrates how avatars operate across several temporalities, rapidly changing but without growing older.

There are, however, limits to temporal play. Online spaces are strictly regulated, not only by lawmakers, web developers and other adults, but also by users themselves. Although the children in Kristiansand remarked on several occasions that they could become ‘anything’, there were several explicit and implicit rules regarding how avatars could appear and behave. For example, both offline and online, the children would use the term ‘cool’ to refer to avatars, films and specific clothes or props. Whereas objects such as toys and props were labeled either as ‘cool’ or as ‘not cool’, people, avatars and clothes were categorized according to whether they were ‘cool’ or ‘weird’. Portraying themselves as ‘cool’ avatars, the children wrote messages such as ‘I am cool and I know it’ on their profile pages. In one film called Who’s the Coolest?, Tariq’s avatar competes against his friends on a talent show. He wins the contest, and goes on to become a cool, famous pop star. His own idol, Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, also made several appearances in Tariq’s films. Justin, he told me, was an ordinary boy until he was discovered after putting his music on YouTube. Tariq created several Justin Bieber avatars, who showed up in his films and provided his main avatar with advice and encouragement. For example, in one film Justin Bieber tells Tariq, ‘Maybe you will be a celebrity one day’. The heavy emphasis on coolness among the children illustrates one of the limits to temporal play, as the quest for coolness was primarily a matter of conformity rather than subversive experiment.

For many years, the internet was thought to provide a tool for overcoming social problems such as bullying and racism, by rendering physical features of human bodies invisible and therefore irrelevant. In recent years, however, research has also pointed to how online sociality can reproduce racialized spaces (Nakamura 2013: 188–89). Both Amina and Tariq, and many of their friends, had brown skin. Skin colour was seldom an issue at school or at home, and appeared largely to be irrelevant in everyday life. On Movie, however, the children consistently crafted white avatars. Users could choose among a wide range of skin colours and tones when creating a new avatar, including brown, black, pink and green,7 yet whiteness seemed to be the only predictable and stable characteristic in the flux of rapidly shifting attributes and subject positions. The issue of whiteness surfaced through what the children chose to become or, rather, what they chose not to become.

An interesting exception to this pattern occurred when users got ‘hacked’ by others who took over their account after figuring out their password. Often, hacking was the result of friends playing pranks on each other, and entailed changing the looks of the avatar from ‘cool’ to ‘weird’. Typically, this would involve baldness, shabby and dirty clothes, and changes in skin colour, such as by adding freckles or turning the avatar brown or black. Boellstorff argues that whiteness is often – quite literally – the ‘default’ position when creating new avatars online, whereas brown and black avatars are considered ‘part of a costume or masquerade’ (Boellstorff 2008: 145). The use of brown and black skin colours to turn ‘cool’ avatars into ‘weird’ ones illustrates how online spaces are already racialized, putting limits on temporal play by reproducing a form of whiteness that is seen to be synonymous with coolness. Illustrating this point, Tariq decided to turn his avatar into a ‘cool white user’. Now dressed completely in white, and with white make-up around his eyes, he put the following message on his profile: ‘I love white. I am in the clouds. White is always on my side. I will always be white’.

Over the next few days, Tariq created several films where his avatar performed similar monologues on whiteness, such as the film The Power of White. Here, his all-white avatar is standing alone in the school hallway, addressing the viewer directly. First, he says, ‘I like the beam of white, the power of white’. After a short pause, he continues by saying, ‘I will gladly help you’ and ‘I think I’ll stay here for a while’. His avatar then stands completely still for another thirty seconds, before the film ends. In the comment field, a friend has written ‘I need help’ in response to Tariq’s offer to assist others who want to turn their avatars white. Whiteness, which was usually an implicit and taken-for-granted dimension of coolness, surfaced through his white avatar. Here, coolness and whiteness were intertwined and operated according to a similar logic, illustrating how children’s temporal play takes place in spaces that are already racialized. As such, online environments can sometimes limit – rather than expand – the range of selves that can be produced.

Deceleration in Montage

Creating a film was a time-consuming task. Most of the children’s films lasted between thirty seconds and three minutes, and larger projects were usually produced as film series with numbered episodes. After choosing a suitable background for each film scene, they would add avatars from their list of friends. Amina’s list included not only her friends from school, her sister and her cousins, but also the avatars from other user accounts she had created. Choosing which avatars to include in a film was no easy task, as it required careful attention not only to the plot of the film but also to how the original owners of the avatars would respond to the way they were being portrayed. Distributing roles to avatars was only the first step in what usually developed into hours – and sometimes days – of editing, as film-makers adjusted and replaced images and text again and again before making the film available. Amina once meticulously placed more than twenty different avatars wearing party hats on the screen, as part of a poster she made a week before her ninth birthday. As she later told me, ‘It took a long time to do all that stuff’. In addition to drawing paths of movement for each avatar in every scene, film-makers also added lines of dialogue in speech bubbles above each avatar. Thought bubbles were used to provide meta-comments on the film to the audience, either to fill in plot holes or to direct attention to particular objects or events on the screen. Amina would mark the passage of time in her films by putting lines like ‘The next day’ in her avatars’ speech bubbles. When a boy in her class complained in the comment field that one of her films was ‘too long’, Amina swiftly responded with the message ‘It took a long time to make the film’.

In the one to three hours it usually took to create a three-minute film, the on-screen control panel was used to continuously play, rewind, pause and fast forward while making changes and correcting mistakes. Keeping track of the different perspectives of the characters was a demanding task, and several children described the film editing process as chaotic. Amina told me: ‘You do a lot of things at once. You have lots of thoughts and you don’t know which one to choose’. Synchronizing the avatars was a tedious process, and several film projects were abandoned after days of work because they had become too complex for the film-maker to handle. The complexities of time in film-making was not only, however, a source of confusion. Tariq, for example, experimented with non-linear narratives in his films. He told me, ‘Once I made a film, and it was kind of like, it started at the end of the film, to the beginning of the film’. Film editing entailed a form of time-tricking, where the deceleration of time made it possible to rethink and readjust every segment of the films in minute detail.

Online film-making offers tools through which users can experiment with and reflect on time in new ways. In this sense, new technologies have ‘enlarged our imaginations’ (Moore 2013: 29) and have expanded our experiential horizons. For children, who may find the abstract qualities of time difficult to grasp, the camera on Movie affords the materialization – and manipulation – of temporal processes. Suhr and Willerslev point out that the camera is ‘no inferior imitation of the human eye’, but should rather be seen as a device that assists in overcoming ‘the limitations of human vision’ (Suhr and Willerslev 2012: 283). Filmic montage, according to Suhr and Willerslev, ‘pushes the frontiers of the observable world into uncharted regions’ (ibid.: 285) through the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory frames. This was the case when Tariq created a smaller version of his avatar, called Mini-Tariq, who accompanied his main avatar on several posters. Amina once created an extreme close-up image of herself, followed by a comment from a friend, ‘How did you do that?’ The camera provided Amina and Tariq with new ways of seeing that challenged ordinary, everyday perception. In other words, film-making offered alternative viewpoints by presenting images that were literally impossible yet simultaneously real. For example, in one poster Amina lined up fifteen identical versions of Sandra23 (Figure 2), illustrating how filmic montage allows avatars to be present in more than one place at a time. Both Amina and Tariq were considered expert film-makers by their friends, who often asked them for assistance because of their well-known film-editing skills. Amina had picked up some of her techniques from her older sister, but also spent much time experimenting on her own by clicking around on the screen, as she put it, ‘just to see what happens’.

In popular usage, ‘virtual reality’ refers to digital environments that emulate the world. Applied in a broader sense, virtuality can refer to that which is real without

Figure 2
Figure 2

One of Amina’s posters on MovieStarPlanet, showing fifteen versions of her avatar Sandra23. Reprinted with permission.

Citation: The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34, 1; 10.3167/ca.2016.340109

having a tangible existence (Shields 2006: 284). Thus understood, virtuality is a central dimension of human sociality and not restricted to digital representations of the world. Speech and text, for example, partake in the virtual by conjuring up entities and perspectives that are intangible yet real. With the exception of e-mail addresses and certain swear words, users could equip their avatars with any imaginable combination of letters and words. Through text, time could be accelerated or decelerated, making the virtuality of text a crucial aspect of online time-tricking. According to Braidotti, the virtuality of text is a matter of how text can operate as ‘a relay point between different moments in space and time’ (Braidotti 2013: 166). Although MovieStarPlanet compels users to create certain kinds of Hollywood-inspired films involving money and fame, using text allowed Amina and Tariq to include idiosyncratic and sometimes highly personal elements in their projections and enactments of imagined future selves. Temporal play, although limited by conventions regarding coolness and whiteness, is a key site through which children navigate temporal limits in contemporary Norway.

Conclusion

In this article I have suggested how online environments both facilitate and restrict the creation and sharing of imagined future selves. In online environments, children playfully navigate and experiment with imagined future selves through avatars. This temporal play cannot be reduced to a mere response to adults’ attempts to control and contain them. Rather than identifying a single dominant time, the article has explored three aspects of time-tricking in children’s film-making. First, the ambiguous relationship between users and their avatars enabled enactments of imagined futures that were usually out of bounds in offline play. Second, the rapidly changing appearances point to how avatars constitute extensions not only in space but also in time, by accelerating beyond human capacities. Third and finally, film editing allowed for a direct manipulation of time, where pausing, rewinding and repetition contributed to the deceleration of time. I have also pointed throughout to how online spaces impose limits on temporal play, and how practices that appear to be subversive can instead reinforce existing conventions. The article as a whole contributes to the anthropological literature on temporality by pointing to the importance of the interconnections between time and play in children’s lives.

Notes
1

See for example Disney’s Superbia, where users can only exchange emoticons such as smileys. Available at: <www.disney.no/superbia>.

2

In the text I have translated their spoken and written Norwegian into English. I have also replaced the children’s names as well as the names of their avatars with pseudonyms to ensure their anonymity.

3

MovieStarPlanet: available at <www.moviestarplanet.no>.

4

Club Penguin and Habbo are respectively available at <www.clubpenguin.com> and <www.habbo.com>. Other popular online communities included <www.gosupermodel.com>, <www.happystudio.com> and <www.stardoll.com>.

5

See also Burley (2010) for an exception to this pattern.

7

It was also possible to change the skin colour of the avatar at a later point by paying star coins.

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  • MeyersE.M. 2009. Tip of the Iceberg: Meaning, Identity, and Literacy in Preteen Virtual Worlds. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 50(4): 22636.

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  • MooreH.L. 2013. Avatars and Robots: The Imaginary Present and the Socialities of the Inorganic. In Sociality: New Directions (ed.) N. Long & H.L. Moore2542. New York: Berghahn Books.

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    • Export Citation
  • NakamuraL. 2013. Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft. In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (ed.) T. Scholz187204. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ShieldsR. 2006. Virtualities. Theory Culture and Society 23(2/3): 28486.

  • SuhrC. & R. Willerslev. 2012. Can Film Show the Invisible? Current Anthropology 53(3): 282301.

  • VaageO.F. 2014. Norsk mediebarometer 2013. Oslo: Statistics Norway.

  • WaltonK. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • WolfendaleJ. 2007. My Avatar, My Self: Virtual Harm and Attachment. Ethics and Information Technology 9(2): 11119.

  • ZartlerU. 2015. Children’s Imagined Future Families: Relations between Future Constructions and Present Family Forms in Austria. Childhood 22(4): 52035.

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    • Export Citation

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Contributor Notes

Espen Helgesen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. His most recent publication is ‘Miku’s Mask: Fictional Encounters in Children’s Costume Play’, Childhood: A Journal of Global Child Research (2015).

  • View in gallery

    Still from Amina’s film My Boyfriend on MovieStarPlanet. Reprinted with permission.

  • View in gallery

    One of Amina’s posters on MovieStarPlanet, showing fifteen versions of her avatar Sandra23. Reprinted with permission.

  • BatesonG. 2000. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • BearL. 2014. Doubt, Conflict, Mediation: The Anthropology of Modern Time. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(S1): 330.

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  • BoellstorffT. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • BraidottiR. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • BurleyD. 2010. Penguin Life: A Case Study of One Tween’s Experiences inside Club Penguin. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 3(2): 313.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JuulJ. 2005. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • LiestølE. 2014. Barn og medier 2014. Barn og unges (9-16 år) bruk og opplevelser av medier. Fredrikstad: Medietilsynet.

  • McDonaldP. 2014. For Every To There Is a Fro: Interpreting Time, Rhythm, and Gesture in Play. Games and Culture 9(6): 48090.

  • MeyersE.M. 2009. Tip of the Iceberg: Meaning, Identity, and Literacy in Preteen Virtual Worlds. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 50(4): 22636.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MooreH.L. 2013. Avatars and Robots: The Imaginary Present and the Socialities of the Inorganic. In Sociality: New Directions (ed.) N. Long & H.L. Moore2542. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NakamuraL. 2013. Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft. In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (ed.) T. Scholz187204. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ShieldsR. 2006. Virtualities. Theory Culture and Society 23(2/3): 28486.

  • SuhrC. & R. Willerslev. 2012. Can Film Show the Invisible? Current Anthropology 53(3): 282301.

  • VaageO.F. 2014. Norsk mediebarometer 2013. Oslo: Statistics Norway.

  • WaltonK. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • WolfendaleJ. 2007. My Avatar, My Self: Virtual Harm and Attachment. Ethics and Information Technology 9(2): 11119.

  • ZartlerU. 2015. Children’s Imagined Future Families: Relations between Future Constructions and Present Family Forms in Austria. Childhood 22(4): 52035.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation