Here Come the Alpha Pups

By John Tierney; John Tierney writes The Big City column for The New York Times.

The New York Times  August 5, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Section 6; Page 38; Column 1; Magazine Desk

Early this year, market researchers headed into playgrounds, skate parks and video arcades throughout Chicago looking for what they called alpha pups. They went up to boys between the ages of 8 and 13 with a question: "Who's the coolest kid you know?" When they got a name, they would look for that kid and put the question to him. The goal was to ascend the hierarchy of coolness, asking the question again and again until someone finally answered "Me." By the end of April, they had found alpha pups in most of the schools in Chicago and made them an offer that sounded too good to be true. Hasbro would pay them $30 to learn a new video game.

One alpha pup was Angel Franco, age 9, whose coolness was certified on his playground in a Mexican-American neighborhood on the South Side. He was invited to an office building near the Loop, where seven other alpha pups were escorted into a conference room; market researchers and executives from Hasbro were behind a one-way mirror. This experiment in viral marketing, as the grown-ups called it, started with a video narrated by a deep male voice.

"They're already here, but we can't see them," the narrator began, explaining that deadly extraterrestrials called Pox had escaped from a laboratory. "Mankind's only hope is to enlist a secret army of the world's most skilled hand-held-game players. Their mission is to use advanced R.F. containment units to create a race of new, more powerful hybrid warriors and test them in battle against these alien infectors." A boy looking like a young Tom Cruise appeared on the screen as the narrator reached a crescendo: "A battle to save Earth is about to begin, and only he can save us. Beware the Pox! Pox is contagious!"

Angel and the other alpha pups could not sit still. They kept swiveling their chairs as the leader of the training session, a hip, young guy named Nino, introduced himself and explained that they were the first humans chosen to be Pox secret agents: "We chose you because you are the coolest, funniest guys in your school. Raise your hand if you're cool." Every hand shot up, and Nino passed out the Pox units, each a little bigger than a cell phone. He demonstrated how to push the buttons beside the tiny screen to assemble a warrior. Then he revealed the great leap forward in this game: a radio transmitter enabling a player to battle any other player within 30 feet.

"Let's say you're at school, waiting in line, and your friend has one," Nino said. "Turn yours on and put it in Battle mode. You could be in this room, and I could be in that room, and we could battle each other." The alpha pups pumped their fists and shouted.

"Whoa!"

"This game is too wicked!"

"This is better than Pokemon!"

"This is the best game ever!"

The adults behind the mirror were psyched too. "Get the name of the kid who said it's the best game ever," one publicist said to another.

Matt Collins, a director of marketing for Hasbro, reminisced about his first encounter with Pox. "It was presented on a storyboard with a simple pitch," he said: "What if there were a game kids could play in two separate cars at a stoplight, and then a third car pulls up, and another kid gets in the game. I've seen a lot of strange concepts at meetings, but never anything like this." Hasbro chose a novel marketing plan. Instead of introducing the game with a national advertising blitz (which won't come until the end of the month), Hasbro decided to start in one place, as if it were an epidemic. The company infected 900 of the 1,400 schools in Chicago. Officially, the game was not supposed to be used at school. Unofficially, everyone knew better. "We're not actually promoting this for use in school," Collins said diplomatically, "but we do want kids talking about it when they're together there."

Each alpha pup left the training session with a day pack containing 10 Pox units to be handed out to friends. Angel headed off with his stepfather, Rick Castro, who was dealing with a delicate situation back home. Angel's mother had recently joined a Pentecostal Christian church that frowns on electronic entertainment. She banned the kids from watching television, except for religious programs, and made Angel give away his Nintendo. She was not pleased when Angel was singled out on his playground for the Hasbro experiment.

Her husband insisted on letting Angel participate. How could they deprive a kid of a chance to earn $30 for playing a video game? Angel's stepfather even tried arguing that Angel might learn something playing the game -- not an easy argument to win in any home. Boys' video games are a cultural phenomenon that unites conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and New Agers. Video battles are considered at best a waste of time, at worst the inspiration for school massacres. Last year, Indianapolis banned anyone under 18 from playing point-and-shoot video games in arcades; this year, the Connecticut Legislature passed similar legislation. Feminists have accused game companies of pandering to boys' worst instincts and ignoring girls' needs. The grand goal among grown-ups has been to get boys and girls who use computers to do something other than kill aliens.

But there in Chicago, a quarter-century after Space Invaders hit the arcades, the boys were still off by themselves battling squiggly creatures on screens. Hasbro didn't even bother inviting girls to try out Pox. Video games remain largely segregated by sex, generally unaffected by the movement to get boys playing peacefully with girls. Teachers are no longer supposed to tolerate boys who fight and enthuse about weapons -- even dodge ball has been banned on many playgrounds -- but brutish competition is still the norm on video screens. You could accuse Hasbro of being hopelessly retrograde in ignoring the pleas from child-development experts. You could also wonder if toy makers know something about children that the experts don't.

The search for the next great toy begins at Hasbro with a brainstorming session in which designers and marketers sit around a table and say repeatedly, "Wouldn't it be cool if. . . . " Pox was conceived at such a session two years ago when someone said, "Wouldn't it be cool if I could build a character and send him out to fight you?" Peter Kullgren, a designer sitting at the table, volunteered to try. The character he settled on was an alien with three distinct parts: head, body, tail. "I wanted it to be a little bit mechanical, a little bit animal," Kullgren recalled. "The mechanical so you can swap body parts, the animal so you can get a little attached to it."

Kullgren, a sci-fi buff, came up with the back story about a deadly plague of alien infectors, which turned out to be precisely with the zeitgeist when the mad-cow-disease panic struck. But of course this fear of infection is an old phobia, especially among boys on playgrounds. For centuries, they have been afraid of girls giving them cooties. The name and the concept of Pox tested well with boys. "Alien infectors sound exciting," a fifth grader said at a focus group in New York City. "Gross but good."

Kullgren devised what's called a king-of-the-hill game, although it also borrows from other genres. You start off by going through a sort of ninja boot camp, a solo exercise in which you maneuver a little stick figure on the screen through a series of passageways and rooms. By finding openings in the walls and battling other stick figures, you graduate to higher levels and amass a collection of heads, bodies and tails. When you're ready to fight a friend, you assemble a warrior and program a "battle sequence." You might start by swinging your warrior's tail at the enemy's head, then using the middle of your body to defend against the counter-thrust from the enemy. The battle becomes an elaborate version of the old playground game of rock-paper-scissors: each body part has particular strengths and weaknesses, so victory requires picking those that work best against the ones chosen by the enemy warrior. Unlike traditional battle games in arcades -- known variously as shooters, twitch games or bleed-and-twitch games -- Pox depends not on quick reflexes but on the collection of arcana.

Does this do any good for boys? When pressed, Kullgren can imagine a socially redeeming value for his creation. "Pox teaches creative planning," he said. "You'll do better at the game if you think before you act, just as in a job. If you come in for a presentation and you have your facts in order, you won't be tripped up by a question you didn't expect." But the makers of Pox have never pretended to be on an educational mission. It is hard enough just figuring out what kids want to play.

Toy fads are so unpredictable that the big companies spend most of their time promoting safe bets, either proven toys or products tied to TV shows and movies. True breakthroughs are hard to engineer. Wildly successful innovations -- Scrabble, Tinkertoys and Legos, Cabbage Patch Kids, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rubik's Cube -- tend to come from amateurs working on their own. No one expected Pokemon, which started out as a hand-held video game in Japan, to inspire a worldwide mania for collecting cards. Pox's little warriors had obvious parallels with Pokemon's "pocket monsters," but would kids respond?

Hasbro's market researchers tried to gauge Pox's appeal by interviewing editors of game magazines about kids' yearnings. They chatted with college students who were hardened veterans of video games. They studied customers browsing in game stores. They described Pox's features to child psychologists. "The psychologists told us the appeal of this game is that it lets kids create a little world that's their own," Kullgren said. "They're at this edge of innocence and adolescence, where they're starting to make decisions for themselves -- what to wear, what's cool, what's not cool. Up until now their parents have been doing it. Now they're in control. They're creating characters and making choices that determine the outcome of battles."

The adult theories were tested on focus groups of boys last autumn in New York City and Stamford, Conn. The boys were presented with "positioning statements" summing up the game in different ways, like "the game that you build yourself" or "the ultimate collection" or "the game that you can play secretly anywhere." The big hit was the secrecy. As a fifth grader in Stamford said: "Parents and teachers won't even know we're playing! Only we'll know. That's awesome!" Kids in the focus groups imagined slyly doing battle as they walked around with a Pox unit hidden in the pocket of their cargo pants.

"We originally thought Pox's appeal would be more around the battling and collecting aspects of the game, like Pokemon," said John Chandler, Hasbro's senior vice president for marketing. "What actually appealed the most was the ability to play the game using a stealthy technique. You could put it inside your locker and let it battle whoever was coming down the hall." A kid could savor the joy of a sneak attack against an enemy, and if he lost he wasn't instantly humiliated in public. "There's no pressure," a fourth grader in New York happily told the market researchers. Hasbro executives summed up the appeal of the game with a motto: "Win loudly, lose quietly."

The next question was how to provide the first Pox players with enough enemies to battle. Hasbro hired Target, a Boston-based marketing company, to create a critical mass of players. "Pox is a viral product, so we hit on the idea of viral marketing," said Tom Schneider, Target's president. That meant starting in one city with what marketers call "key influencers," although Schneider used a term inspired by his recent purchase of an English spaniel. "The breeder warned me not to take the alpha dog of the litter because it would run my life," Schneider said. "It seemed to me that was just the kind of kid we were looking for." Teams of field workers in Chicago found 1,600 alpha pups by interviewing kids, teachers and coaches and by administering a five-page questionnaire to parents with questions like, "Does your child like to be the first one to see a movie when it comes out?"

By the time Angel Franco sat down in front of the one-way mirror, Schneider and the marketers at Hasbro had watched hundreds of kids learn the game. They knew that Angel and his fellow third graders would shout more than the fifth graders in the next session because fifth graders were too cool to show emotion. The marketers knew precisely when the kids in Angel's group would first shout -- when told they could battle someone in another room. "I love the group concept of this game," said Schneider, smiling as he watched the fist-pumping among Angel's group. "It just sounds so cool. You play all day at home, and you get the payoff the next day at school when you go into battle. It will be hard for some of these kids to sleep at night."

When he fell asleep on his first day as a Pox secret agent, Angel was already up to Level 3 of the game. The next morning, he emerged from his home, an apartment above a little grocery and liquor store named La Providencia, carrying four of the units in his day pack. When he reached school and pulled out the packages in the cafeteria, his alpha-pup status was more secure than ever.

"You create your own alien and battle other kids," Angel told his friends as they ripped open the packages. They started creating monsters without glancing at the instructions, the classic male approach to video games and computers: keep punching buttons until something works.

As a test of diligence, Pox proved to be a problem for Angel, because his mother wouldn't let him play as long as his friends did. Within two days of getting the game, some of his friends were up to Level 6, but Angel had reached only Level 5. Sitting in his living room after school, he was trying to catch up, but his mother, Elsa, was not looking pleased. "When are you going to start your homework?" she asked.

"I just have to get to the next level," he said. He tried to argue that his electronic quest was just as important as homework. "The game gets you smart. You have to, like, find treasures and figure out a way to open doors to get to the next level. You really do learn something on your own." These seemed to him essential skills for his intended occupation of explorer ("I'll climb mountains and find stuff"), but he realized that the argument didn't go far with his mother. He knew, as researchers say, that video games are a "gendered" phenomenon. "Girls don't like these games," he said, putting down the Pox unit. "They like to play with little babies -- yuck!" He grabbed a doll from the floor and absent-mindedly flattened its plastic head between his hands as he talked. "My sisters like to pretend they have babies and live in a house. They use Monopoly money to go shopping. Boys like to play with cool stuff. Boys like aliens. Boys are like, more, I don't know how to say -- more mature."

That is not the word used by his sisters. Patty, 10, had spent a couple of hours playing Pox, but she was hardly enthralled. She didn't even know what level she had reached. "I'm not really interested in levels," she said. "I just like to play the game to see how much fun I get." Angel's 15-year-old sister, Jessica, didn't bother trying Pox. Asked to explain Angel's obsession with it, she came up with the same theory as a number of academic researchers: "I've noticed that guys like these games so they can go searching for special places."

Male wanderlust has been documented as early as the womb, where male fetuses move more than females do. At age 1, boys tend to crawl farther away from their mothers and stay away longer, and they are more interested in toys that move, like trains and cars. On playgrounds, boys tend to roam at the edges, while girls tend to stay put at the center. A study in the 1970's found that boys playing after school spent more time outside and covered nearly three times as much ground as girls. For Tom Sawyer, a good day meant fleeing Aunt Polly by hopping over the fence and going off to play war.

Today, though, Tom would probably not be doing much carefree roaming. He would probably be in a city or suburb with his day's activities fully scheduled. Half the day would be spent trying to sit still at a desk. "It's boring when you're in school," Angel said. "The boys got to be calm, but we want to run around and play. The girls like school, because they get to talk to friends. Boys like to talk a little, but we like to play-fight more." The tiny playground at school gives him no chance to run, not that there is much time for it, anyway. Angel doesn't even get a chance to run at recess because his school is one of many that have eliminated recess. After school, Angel goes either to a program at a city recreation center or back home, a two-bedroom apartment for six people without a yard to play in. For this would-be explorer, the closest equivalent to Tom Sawyer's fence-hopping is turning on a video game -- if his mother doesn't stop him.

Angel's conflict with his mother is a familiar situation to Henry Jenkins, the co-editor of a book of scholarly essays on computer games, "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat." Jenkins, the director of the media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has analyzed the Mom problem. He argues that video games, far from being a corruption of traditional childhood, actually embody the classic boyhood themes celebrated by previous generations and writers like Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. Video games offer boys a chance to explore, fight, master manly skills, make scatological jokes and act out fantasies that would appall their mothers. But whereas boys used to hop the fence and play away from home, today Mom can always look over and see what they're doing on the computer. "Mothers come face to face with the messy process by which Western culture turns boys into men," Jenkins writes. "The games and their content become the focus of open antagonism and the subject of tremendous guilt and anxiety."

Not so long ago, critics used to accuse toy companies of promoting "gender apartheid" among the nation's children because they sold plastic guns and swords to boys and doll houses to girls. The criticism intensified when it was observed that boys were drawn to computers to play violent games, while most girls stuck to their old play routines. Worried about a "digital gender gap," philanthropists and investors poured money into what became known as the girls' game movement. Girls, it became clear, did not share boys' desire to explore "fantasy microworlds" with simple moral codes. "Most girls can't get interested in the lame characters or puzzles in boys' games," said Brenda Laurel, a Silicon Valley veteran whose video-game company interviewed more than 1,000 children. "They don't want to master a skill just to reach a higher level. Mastery for its own sake is not very good social currency for a girl." Laurel designed a game, Rockett's New School, in which the heroine must navigate her way through the first day of eighth grade in a new school. It became one of the more popular girls' games, although sales never rose high enough to keep Laurel's company in business.

It took a more traditional approach to bridge the digital gender gap. The first huge hit in entertainment software for girls was Barbie Fashion Designer, in 1996. Since then, Barbie has been ruling the girls' software charts along with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the television twins, who lead a computerized trip to the mall. Meanwhile, boys are still battling aliens.

As Angel was working his way through the early levels of boot camp, I sought out a more experienced group of alpha pups: sixth graders who had been playing Pox for more than a week in the Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich. We met at a large shopping mall. My warrior, which I had painstakingly constructed and named NYTMAG, won its first battle, against a kid standing near the central fountain. I headed toward the Disney store with my victory booty -- the body parts of the enemy warrior -- and put my unit into Battle mode as I approached a kid standing at the entrance. He glanced at his unit in dismay.

"I got a virus!" he said, and I eagerly looked down at my unit expecting to see more fruits of victory. Instead, there was a dire message on the screen: "INTRUDER COOOOL." It was the same message on the other kid's screen. The two of us had been infected by the COOOOL warrior, which was now in the process of killing our warriors and transferring the body parts to its owner's unit. But where was COOOOL's owner? There were no other players in sight. Then we heard a cry from above.

"I'm COOOOL!" We looked up to see a kid at the top of the escalator. He had been standing above us, battling invisibly through the floor. "I got your body parts!" he shouted, raising his arms in victory as the escalator bore him down to us at a stately pace. It was not a bad approximation of a Roman general's triumphal procession, except that he had on a T-shirt and the crowd could not see the captured enemies in chains.

This victor, who was 12 and named Michael Cyganek, cheerfully showed us a secret way we could have saved our guys even after COOOOL had won the battle. (This secret turned out to be a surprise even to the game's designer, who was impressed to hear that Michael had found an unintended feature.) We watched an instant replay of the battles, observing which body parts were vulnerable to which attacks by which other body parts. There were thousands of permutations to consider, an exercise that delighted Michael and his friends as they sat around the fountain. Michael was sure that there would soon be a Pox television show, and he was imagining a toy version of the warriors -- action figures with interchangeable body parts, maybe, or radio-controlled little robots. Michael had turned down offers of $50 (twice the retail price that would eventually be

charged) from classmates desperate to get a game. Kids were playing on the school bus, in the halls, in class.

"Why do you like it?" I asked.

"Because it's, like, battling and fighting," Michael said, prompting a chorus of assents from his friends.

"We like violence!"

"It's fun to beat your friends."

They sounded bloodthirsty, but they didn't look at all menacing. I never saw them or any other Pox players in Chicago come to blows. They teased and bickered, and they got frustrated at the defeat of a prized warrior, but I never saw anyone seriously threaten anyone. They played the way Hasbro had predicted

-- Win loudly, lose quietly" -- and the winners' gloating didn't seem to bother the losers as much as it pleased the winners. I watched only a few dozen players, but my unscientific observations jibed with the results of a classic playground study conducted in 1976 by Janet Lever, a sociologist. The fifth-grade boys she observed often interrupted their games to argue about rules, but the argument never lasted more than seven minutes, and the game always resumed. The girls argued less, but when they did, the game usually ended.

Boys keep the peace through confrontation and competition. Like other young male primates, they learn to get along through rough-and-tumble play. They resolve conflicts with challenges that clearly establish rules and a hierarchy, enabling them to play and work in large groups. Their stoicism enables them to be defeated without losing face, thereby defusing potentially violent situations. Like Robin Hood and Little John, most boys emerge from confrontations as better friends.

But what about the boys who played Doom and then killed their classmates at Columbine High School? What about the Mortal Kombat player who shot his classmates in Kentucky? The makers of those games were blamed for the tragedies and sued by the parents of victims. But while this was happening, the news media all but ignored a larger trend that has been evident since those two graphically violent games were introduced -- Mortal Kombat in September 1993, Doom four months later. Up until that point, the national rate of youth violence, as measured by arrests of juveniles for homicide, had been rising for nearly a decade. Then the trend promptly reversed.

"Just as violent video games were pouring into American homes on the crest of the personal computer wave, juvenile violence began to plummet," said Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Juvenile murder charges dropped by about two-thirds from 1993 to the end of the decade and show no signs of going back up. The rate of violence in schools hasn't increased, either -- it just gets more media coverage. If video games are so deadly, why has their widespread use been followed by reductions in murder?"

In an adult's ideal playground, there would be no violent fantasies, no aggression, no hierarchies or cliques, no sexual segregation. By playing with girls, boys would pick up some of their verbal gifts and emotional savvy. Girls would pick up boys' techniques for competing and working in large groups. But in a real playground, most boys and girls don't do that. On my last afternoon in Chicago, I accompanied Angel to a playground near his home, and it was no different from the scene described by social scientists decades ago. The boys were running around in a large group playing dodge ball (still legal in this park); the girls were standing around or using the swings, chatting with one or two friends.

Both sexes were still ignoring grown-ups' advice to play together, and maybe they knew best. Certainly they had been right about computers. Grown-ups' angst over the digital gender gap looks quaintly irrelevant now that teenage girls are addicted to instant messaging and the majority of Internet users in the States are female. Girls had no trouble adapting to computers once the machines did something that interested them. While academics plotted to get boys and girls playing together on computers, the kids seemed to recognize all along that it was a lame idea.

Angel played dodge ball for a while, then pulled out his Pox unit to take on another boy. They stood literally head to head, their foreheads touching, as they punched the buttons, oblivious to the shouts of the boys gathering around to watch the alpha pups.

"Man, this is cool."

"I'll battle you, Angel."

"Give it to me!"

"You can't even start it."

"I got up to Level 9."

"My brother got to 18."

"I play under the desk in class."

"You put Sound Off mode?"

"No sound. The teacher doesn't know."

"Can I try that, Mister?"

The last comment was from a kid who had spotted my Pox unit. He was looking up at me with such desperate eyes that I handed him the game and told him he could keep it. I may never again make someone so happy. As he worked his way through Level 1, it occurred to me that I was now complicit with Hasbro's marketers. Should I feel guilty? Would I want my own son playing Pox under the desk at school?

Well, it was probably no worse than shooting spitballs. Pox seemed benign, and maybe it would help him somehow. Maybe the discipline of memorizing all those permutations would prepare him for battles as an adult. I could imagine more constructive and entertaining ways to pass time -- Pox was too tedious for a middle-aged guy like me. But this boy was entranced, just as the makers of Pox had expected, and that seemed justification enough for giving him the game. He and Pox looked very cool together.

Thomas Haigh -- email tdhaigh@colby.edu.    Home: www.tomandmaria.com/tom. Updated 04/27/2002.