Technology for parents & kids: Hints, tips, online safety strategies & more.
In a quest to become the main destination for kids online, companies large and small create MMOs and virtual online worlds for kids. These are designed to be place where kids can play games while connecting with their friends, all while staying on one site or location for an extended period of time. Sounds a bit like social networks, no? In essence that’s what they are, just with more emphasis on graphics.
According to research firm KZero, there were nearly 1.2 billion registered users across all virtual worlds in 2011, the largest of which is kids age 10-15.
Most of these virtual worlds are free to access, just like the rest of the Internet. Getting there is as simple as typing the correct address in your web browser, and all of a sudden you’re transported to a medieval land, outer space, or even an island inspired by a fast food restaurant. Many virtual worlds aimed at older kids require a download to play, and run more like a traditional video game, but are still free to play, at least at first.
But as you and your kids will soon discover, not everything in these worlds is free.
What’s proven successful for most online worlds is to provide a “freemium” or free-to-play model. Anyone can access these games free of charge, but in order to access more areas, items and fun stuff within the virtual world, kids need to pay a monthly or even yearly subscription fee.
Major brands spend lots of money and resources to attract players to their own virtual worlds, because it provides a way for them to market themselves and expose their brand to youngsters, all while staying compliant with laws about privacy and collecting information.
Companies and major brands such as McDonald’s, Disney and General Mills provide a place online for kids to spend time, although a few have recently come under fire for their use of a “refer-a-friend” feature which many advocacy groups complained to the FTC was in violation of COPPA laws.
Many of these virtual worlds are aimed at tweens and teens. Games like Wizard 101, FreeRealms, Minecraft and Lord of the Rings Online all strive to be a place where older elementary-aged kids spend their time online, as well as their money.
Other virtual worlds are aimed squarely at younger Internet users. Club Penguin, Animal Jam, Jump Start, Starfall and even Build-A-Bear Workshop are all examples of persistent online destinations created to attract young kids, and many tout their educational benefits.
And there are others that fill in the area between the two. Little Space Heroes, Cartooon Universe, Fantage, Fusion Fall and Moshi Monsters blend elements of traditional video games with the easy access of browser based online games.
There are even virtual worlds for families, like Ohanarama, which allow for family and friends scattered around the globe to connect and play games with each other asynchronously.
The concept of online virtual worlds makes a lot of sense from the perspective of developers, and the proposition can be appealing for parents. Instead of setting kids free in the seemingly wild, wild, west of the Internet, virtual worlds allow kids to spend large chunks of time in one safe environment, where they can find games, activities and chances to interact with others. And that piece of mind is even worth a few bucks a month for some parents.
There are a number of reasons why kids love spending time in these worlds, from feeling like they’re having their own space to being able to interact with friends in a new environment. And here’s where we start to get to some of the potential danger areas.
One of the key features of these virtual worlds is that they allow some sort of contact with others, even if it’s just by comparing scores. But most virtual worlds do include the option for chat with others, and it’s here that the proposition of virtual worlds can start to get dicey for many. While many include some form of moderated or restricted chat, nearly all provide some way to access (with parental permission) chatting with strangers.
We’ll take a closer look at how these virtual worlds manage these types of safety issues, as well as look at some of the other dangers and concerns of virtual networks, in the next part of our series.