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Heads UP: Virtual Environment MMO for tater tots

March 12, 2008 1 comment

There’s certainly money in this targeting children lark, judging by the news that California firm Fluid Entertainment has secured $3.2 million of Series A funding, which it plans to use to launch a new MMO aimed at children.

The company is keeping exact details under wraps, apart from the fact that the MMO will have an environmental theme, engaging kids with green issues as they play. Fluid has been developing games for children since the late 1990s, with clients including Hasbro, Disney, Mattel and The Learning Company.

Trinity Ventures led the funding, and general partner Tim McAdam explains the reasoning behind the new venture:

“With three other gaming investments in our current portfolio, we were looking for the right play in the children’s MMO area, which is an open canvas with only a few incumbents. Fluid has a veteran team, a great history, and a clear and progressive vision that positions the company to become a leader in this arena.”

The announcement cites a recent study from eMarketer claiming that MMOs will be played by 20 million children and teens by 2011.

Fluid Entertainment raises $3.2m to make MMO for kids | VWF blog | Virtual Economic Forum Content Library

Eyes peeled. 
With all the talk at SXSW from people looking for a educational, social conscious VW, this might be yet another example of unique IP. 

Really, what this comes down to is: great idea, but will it (in execution & launch) be able to compete with the entertainment/brand focused mega-worlds like Webkinz, Club Penguin, and Buildabearville? 

The Niche sites are fab, and I’m eager to see how the competition and/or SHARING of multi-world users (or single world players) shakes out.  The market is turning out like a buffet of opportunities, and kids will have full plates no doubt. 

We talked briefly in one of the virtual chat rooms during the SXSW panels about educational virtual worlds, etc, and why there always in need but rarely around.  One comment (probably from me, although I can’t remember) was about the entertainment, enjoyment level vs the hammered-over-the-head-with-learning.  Or perhaps it’s more about MARKETING.  Who gets in the kids faces the most?

Again, this year should prove interesting.

If anyone hears more about this, please pass along.  :)

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Noteworthy: Pixie Hollow

February 21, 2008 2 comments

NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–At the 2008 American International Toy Fair, Disney Online officially unveiled the next exciting addition to the company’s line-up of virtual worlds – Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow, based on the wildly popular Disney Fairies franchise. Visitors to the new online world will be able to explore the homes and meadows that make up Pixie Hollow. Fans will play and chat with Fairy friends, go on quests for Tinker Bell, play games, earn badges, craft jewelry and clothes and personalize their Fairy world. The first phase of Pixie Hollow is scheduled to launch later this year, followed by a continuous roll out of in-game enhancements and product features.

Disney Fairies has proven to be one of the companys most successful franchises and we are excited to give fans the chance to live and play in the magical world of Tinker Bell by bringing Pixie Hollow online, said Steve Parkis, senior vice president, Disney Online. Fans have already created millions of Fairy avatars on DisneyFairies.com, making it evident that there is a strong desire for additional content around these beloved stories and characters.

In 2007, the Disney Fairies franchise generated more than $800 million in global retail sales with a wide range of Disney Fairies products that have captured the imagination of girls worldwide. Also unveiled at the Toy Fair event was an innovative new line of Disney Fairies Internet-connected toys featuring Clickables technology. The products will be the first to link online play within the Pixie Hollow virtual world to play in the real world. The new Disney Fairies line featuring Clickables technology will give girls new ways to extend their online experience by sharing Fairies, creating friendships, earning in-game items and unlocking exclusive content through traditional toys.

In anticipation of the games launch, fans can now visit www.DisneyFairies.com to create their very own personalized Fairy avatar, complete with the ability to select clothing styles and colors, accessories, hair style and more. After creating and naming their Fairy, online guests can share their Fairy with friends and family via e-mail, choose from a selection of approved messages to leave others who have made and published Fairies on the site, and decorate a room in which their Fairy will live. To date, nearly 5 million Fairies have been created at the popular Web site.

Disney Fairies is the latest endeavor in the creation of immersive and engaging virtual online worlds for kids and families that Disney pioneered in 2003 with the creation of Disneys Toontown Online, and followed up with the addition of Club Penguin and the recent launch of Pirates of the Caribbean Online. Leading virtual world industry analyst eMarketer predicts by 2011, an estimated 53% of U.S. children and teen Internet users will visit virtual worlds–up from 24% in 2007. (Source: eMarketer, September 2007)

Disney Online’s Pixie Hollow Takes Flight at Toy Fair; New Fairies Virtual World Officially Unveiled: Financial News – Yahoo! Finance

I’ve known this was coming for quite some time, and I love it. They did a fantastical job on the Disney Fairies page– and if you view my avatars, you see I’ve already started my own collection.

One of my friends who works with the Mod team gets giddy every time she talks about the details within the world (buzzing of the wings like humming birds!), and naturally I follow suit with my giddiness.

I’m looking forward to seeing if there is any difference between “Clickables” and regular buy-able assets and their unlocking capabilities. Is it just a clever name for branding? Or does it have some unique characteristics UNLIKE the webkinz, neopets, bratz, barbiegirls, etc, etc, etc that have the “if you buy this too, you get it in the virtual world too!” yadda bandwagon. Or if Disney is doing something funky with the process. Fingers crossed.

Overall, I’m looking forward to it — as both an industry chick who wants to see revolutionary methods, and a fairies fan who just like Gail Carson Levine, Neverland, and fairies-in-general (plus, I’m enamored with my own disney fairy creations, lol).

Here’s a great passage from the Virtual World News: Round Up of Disney News (thanks, Joey Seiler) that might help clear up my confusion about the unique-play pattern of the accessory-buying unlockables:

Connecting Pixie Hollow to the real world are Clickables, a patent-pending technology for Internet-connected toys that Disney plans to roll out to its other brands as well. They sound pretty interesting, actually, just from a pure technology and interaction perspective.

Pixie Dust eJewelry Collection includes a magical jewelry box, a charm necklace and three exclusive Disney Fairies charms powered by Clickables™ technology. When a girl touches a charm to the Clickables center of her jewelry box, Pixie Dust sparkles and music plays as the jewelry box comes alive. Each charm unlocks a unique fairy gift at http://www.PixieHollow.com, including exclusive clothing, and décor. Girls can store their Disney Fairies jewelry sprinkled with magical Clickables technology in this enchanting box where it will be protected by the magic of fairies.

Tink’s eCharm Bracelet is customizable charm bracelet and three themed charms, where each charm unlocks a unique Pixie Hollow item. That’s fairly standard, it Disney is actually encouraging copying and sharing of the digital items by touching the charms Pixie Dust eJewelry box, a physical jewelry box that also tracks the digital items, or Tink Friendship eBracelet. The Friendship bracelet is linked online once a user creates her avatar. The avatar s well as message and gift are stored offline on the bracelet and can be shared just by touching bracelets together. They glow, and the transaction is complete.

Hey, that’s a cool idea.  What a new level of community that makes, right?  Not to mention sharing & caring.  Very nice indeed!!  It’s like they took the idea of trading cards & product-based VWs and tossed in some (dare I say it?) PIXIE DUST!  Can’t wait to see how it works with the audience.

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Ramble: Why I’m Enamored With Club Penguin

February 19, 2008 4 comments

Okay. Honesty here. I used to despise club penguin. I won’t really get into it, but let’s just say I couldn’t understand why boy & girl tweens would be interested in something that seemed to young.

That was quite a while ago. Now, I’m in awe of the community manager/strategist/PM… WHOMEVER it is over there making that gem of a world. Why????

SIMPLICITY. And Imagination.

There seem to be quite a few things in life that make me giddy. GIDDY. I think I’ve established that in the past. But I’ll tell you what– it’s uber-hard to trump how giddy I get when I see kids living out their imaginative play– uninhibited and free-flowing. It makes me proud to be in this industry– whether or not I have a bloomin’ thing to do with the project. Why? Because people like me are attempting to offer quantities of similar opportunities.

But I digress: Back to the splendor of Club Penguin’s progression. About a month (or more) ago, Rockhopper (Club Penguin’s “celebrity” in-house penguin, of piratey nature) was sailing his ship through the seas. Rockhopper’s ongoing storylines have continually brought new levels of realness– or pretend play– to the world, giving kids someone to aspire to meet, greet, be like, hang with, etc. Grounds them a bit more in the surreal nature of the penguin world. You could see good ole Rockhopper sailing his ship in a low-tech flash video by climbing to the top of the lighthouse and peering through the giant telescope. Well… tragedy struck a few weeks back, having poor ole Rockhopper crash his boat. In response, CP provided PFD (personal float device) for penguins to sport around– which they did in droves. Nothing like giving cool-factor to otherwise lamish safety devices (however, that Titanic camp sound about the PFD’s always made them cool for me, and now I’ve the sound stuck in my head, lol if you know it).

Marooned Rockhopper then became a local celeb, hanging out from time to time, greeting penguins and gifting them with avatar backgrounds of himself (signed too– for extra famousness). If a penguin got this background– he/she STILL has this background. It’s a status thing now. Limited and exclusive and now unable to attain. SMART SMART SMART. Fueling the “citizenship” competition, and encouraging penguins to WANT to hang out more often (they don’t want to miss out).

Well, time has passed. They through an underwater-themed party… which they tied into Rockhopper’s tale by the addition of a submarine game for penguins to explore the underwater wreckage. That’s pretty wicked.

All of this is fantastic strategy & planning & tie-ins for the cross-world interaction. But THIS WEE GEM today floored me even more….

While exploring the temp/new party-aesthetics, I went to the ICE BERG, where the free “minors” hat was, and where I suspected the sub game to be… The “room” (iceberg area) was FULL. Took me several tries to enter. Regardless, it was full. When I finally entered I was met with this site:

club-penguins-trying-to-tip-ice-berg.jpg

 

 

(side note: I just wrote a HUGE inspiration piece about this bloody interaction and STUPID wordpress just erased it. Forgive me, but I’m IRRITATED as I just spend ages writing that…. GRRRRRRROWL)

Anyway. Background about the island: the iceberg is a STATIC BACKGROUND. There isn’t a lick of flash or movement or anything. A few months back, and for days on end, this room would fill to the max with penguins trying to FLIP/TIP the iceberg. Let me repeat: static. image. They would all stand in hordes on the edge– encouraging each other to dance or move so that it might do something to the berg. Alas, it didn’t.

Well, here we are, months later, and Club Penguin staged a themed party of “underwater” delights. One of which was the pimpin’ out of the barren iceberg & a future SUBMARINE game allowing users to EXPLORE Rockhopper’s ship wreckage. Pretty darn cool. Once again– this gives kids a sense of cause & action. This world has meaning. If a ship wrecks, one might be able to see it. So, the clever wee penguins (or not so clever, depending on your value of imagination & play) are once again trying to TIP THE BERG… this time they’ve come armed!!

Club Penguin has continuously added customizations that are action-bound. The fireman costume can spew water from the hose, and the construction worker penguin can jackhammer– complete with jackhammering animations. The users (as you can see) have collected at the bottom of the iceberg and are collectively trying to “break” or tip the berg.

“Why are we doing this?” asked a lemming penguin
“Because it’s fun!” replied four others.
“Rockhoppers ship is down there!” shouts another penguin.
“We’re going to free the ship” adds another.
“Dance or move to do something to help!”
“Get your friends!”

And they continue on– collectively pretending & hoping & interacting. Awesome

Have you ever seen a group of day camp kids @ the beach? I was a summer camp counselor for nigh on 14ish years (ten of which I spent at a day camp for the park district). It doesn’t matter WHO you are– if you’re a kid, you are welcome to join in the mayhem– especially the boys. They build and create worlds in the sand– and the waterfalls they make never stay right, so they build dams, and yell for help, and recruit bucket kids whose sole job is to run back and forth from the water, bringing in water reserves. They don’t even look you in the face, they just include you in the emotional-story-creation.

One of my favorite campers ever– a nine year old named PAYTON decided one day that she HATED this plastic baby toy truck she found on the beach. She and her 4 friends decided to bury it, all the while spewing their wrath on the poor toy, building story lines about the infamous “Farmer Brown” who was painted as the driver of the truck. Oooo, that Farmer Brown! So, I came along, checking in on her and the girls, and they told me of the burial. I suggested that we build Scotland on top of the buried Farmer Brown and then we could have a proper funeral afterwards. So, that morning we spent nigh on 2 hours building mountains and lochs and valleys, etc. We started with six total ‘builders’ (myself included, naturally). When we finished we had forty-three children working with us– some were just locals, not even campers. We each made up folktales about the wilderness and how Farmer Brown was attached to the story. Oooo that Farmer Brown. When it came time, I gave the sermon of Farmer Brown’s funeral. Payton gave testimonials, as did a few others who wished to join in, and then we all… and I do mean all, gave the most faux-miserable, loud-sobbing version of “Amazing Grace” one could ever hear. At some point during the “service” we attracted a HUGE crowd. I couldn’t give you numbers– parents, campers, public, etc. And they laughed and cheered and faux-cried along.

Afterwards, the kids set to “destroying” scotland by trampling it, as a uber-sandcastle should be trampled. I went to grab lunch. When I came back– all the kids were at it again. Burying Farmer Brown & getting into the stories & history of it.

Basically– kids want to be included on the magic, they want to build empires from scratch, they want to emotionally invest themselves in seemingly-silliness, etc. It’s fun. It’s a release. It’s escapism– all the while feeling included and excited.

I see this play pattern/behavior all the time on Club Penguin. From “snowball” wars (which are much more fun in the making then the actual war part, which is why “retreats” are so much fun too), to parties in the igloo (again, much more fun in theory and planning and rounding up than the actual dancing part). Club Penguin provides tools… triggers… that allow the users to “go to town” — making up their own rules & play. Club Penguin tries to support by facilitating pieces of storyline — just enough of a taste that the users will run away with the end.

The staff gives real credit to the power of their community, and the innovative nature of this demographic, and I just dig it. Other Virtual Worlds you see out there have to hard-sell all the brand elements, and try to “knock you out” with their high tech awesomeness. I “get” that in regards to catching enough attention to even COMPETE in this market these days– I do. But, Club Penguin… man, they get a WHOLE LOT out of very little (at least in regards to flashiest of the flashy). It reminds me of the good ole days– a large cardboard box, time, and loads of imagination. I’m not sure anyone could really compete with Club Penguin’s level of simplicity & community any longer because it’s all about the differentiating of “big sells” and catchy 2.0 intensiveness or beat-head-with-education that the corps peeps are looking for– and no longer about the simplicity of the play…

But in the now: Bravo, Club Penguin Staff. I salute you proudly.

Social Networking, Youth, Brands, and evil IMs

February 6, 2008 Leave a comment

Parents, don’t just talk with your kids about social networking – chat sites and instant messaging really need to be in the conversation too. Despite the news media’s focus on social-networking sites as the locus of online child exploitation, it turns out chat sites and instant-messaging are where most sexual solicitation and cyberbullying is happening. But even in those “places” online, “only 15% of children [aged 10-15] experience unwanted sexual solicitation and only a third report being harassed online,” reports HealthDay News, citing a new study in Pediatrics.

NetFamilyNews

Monday I stumbled upon Sara Grimes latest post about Virtual Worlds. It’s brills. I finally was able to locate and eloquently acknowledge my worry about virtual worlds, ads, marketing, and branding. Overall, the combination of branding & virtual worlds = fantabulous (from a play perspective): users getting to not ONLY continue their appreciation for a branded world, but also become a part of it– a citizen of the imaginary world they want to escape to… It’s another step of furthering the impossible. Making magic attainable, or at least allowing for the opportunity to interact with “magic”.

However. There is a dark side too– taking advantage of innocence, curiosity, and exploiting imaginations. That scares the living CRAP out of me. When we build these worlds and then get so ‘hopped up’ on how to wring the worlds of every avenue– every unique epiphany. Mmmm. It’s such a thin line between great intentions and intended spoils.

Anyway, I digress. Basically– I was reading Sara’s fab post, ruminating on my own professional fears, when I started the good-ole click-a-link, ending up in Sexual Safety for the Price of a Teddybear. Having spent a good amount of time in Buildabearville for competitive market research (and genuinely thinking it’s a solid step into VW’s– btw, their artwork from the world into the flash games = fantasmical), I was kinda disturbed by the title of the article. But, overall, it was a nice review of the site, bringing out some of the more social aspects about what kids say to each other.

It’s the comments section that got my attention. Loads of people worried about U12 kids participating in MMO’s and VW’s– saying that they’re not ready for that level of socialization. Wha…what? Cos, ya know, kids don’t have conversations, opinions, attitudes, desires, friends, language…. Okay, I’ll stop being snarky. Naturally– being the “soap box harpie” I am as of late (many apologies for the abundance of my rambling rants), I rang in with the following:

Forgive me from hopping in from the peanut gallery, but I think it might be good to remind everyone of the behaviors displayed (flirting, interacting… TALKING) on playgrounds and junior high hallways, at camps and malls, in notes passed and school dances. Not that this behavior is “great”, but it’s everywhere, and it’s part of the learning experience. Social exploration.As a community professional for preteens, it’s up to US to create the right kind of environment that promotes better engagement, as well as continuous staffing that keeps the “less” than acceptable behaviors off our social world atmosphere, or at least under control.I’m glad many of these virtual world experiences exist. Why? Because they garner some of the precious computer-time they spend on Perez Hilton & surfing Youtube– both locations not appropriate for U13, period. Plus… everyone forgets about chat programs like aim and msn messenger– those are free-ranging chat programs with NO supervision, filters, etc. Adults can “Find” kids, kids can “find” kids, harassment, engagement, chatting– all of it. Most of the youth I speak to about online media get their first “aim name” around 8 or 9– and it’s like a right of passage.

Standard Izzy-fair, and typical anti-band-wagon rant seen around these parts of the blog-o-sphere. So, having made my point, I was PSYCHED to see Anne’s post in the NetFamilyNews RSS feed this morning. I can’t wait until people remember what kids are seeing elsewhere– on youtube, chat programs, etc.

We don’t have to ID check all the time– that’s not what I’m saying. It would BEHOOVE Youtube and chat programs to find a way to BETTER ADDRESS u-13 tater tots from feeling “at home” in their programs… it would behoove ME, anyway. But the word needs to be spread to parents. At least in these VW’s there are filters/programs/ADULTS constantly trying to safeguard the audience. There ain’t no coppers hangin’ ’bouts them youtubes and instantoneous messanger programys.

Like this poor kid… who is now a favorite item of fodder over at Bestweekever.tv. WHERE ARE HIS PARENTS??? I’m sure he’s like 14 years old (god help us if he’s younger), and well in COPPA/Youtube’s good age graces… but still. That kid is getting blasted on the net and laughed at. Star Wars Kid, anyone? That community pressure really, really gets to you. Or how Australia’s very own Party Boy, who rose to instafame thanks to throwing a party while ma & pa were gone and posting it on the web, who now has to “defend his title” in real world fisticuffs which also was posted on the web.

These are things we’re SEEING. What about the things we aren’t? When I was in college, I would talk to strangers ALL THE TIME who randomly popped up on my aim to “chat” while I was procrastinating some paper or another– and I was a (naive) adult! Who know what folks are popping up on tweens? Granted, they understand safety 10 folds better now than I did at 20, and good on ‘em– let’s keep that good work up. But do parents? I soon hope so.

UPDATE: Le Sigh… As I was kinda alluding: Online Predators Prefer IMs over Social Networks. Thanks Anastasia, Ypulse, for that link.

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Browsers, Filters, Kids, and "the talk”

February 4, 2008 Leave a comment

The time has come in our house to find a good child-friendly web browser for the Macintosh. Our choice, so far, is Bumper Car. Is this the best brower for us? Perhaps.

High Tech Parent: Child-Safe Web Browsers on the Mac

I was asked today about when is the “right” time to introduce web filters into the household?  Well, I went into a typical izzy-ramble for fifteen minutes, beating the topic to a fine powder.  Afterwards, low and behold I found this wee gem on High Tech Parent‘s blog.  What luck!

Anyway, it occurred to me that I’ve not rambled online about this in a while… so I thought I’d bring out my points:

  1. Whenever you think to yourself “is now the time to get a filter?” – regardless of your child’s age (2-18)- do it.  Why?  Because something in your head threw a yellow flag of caution.  Trust your gut, peeps.  Besides, is safety ever too soon?
  2. But my kids can’t type yet!  It’s not only the typing, my friends.  It’s the mouse.  Point, click, roam.  Kids click, click, click– half the time they’re don’t even know what they’re clicking on.  And remember those wacky interactive ads (Pumble the President and what naught)– those look like games.  All it takes is a click click and you’re down the rabbit hole.
  3. TALK TO YOUR KIDS, TWEENS, TEENS, SPOUSE.  Explain.  Give reasons and concerns and rationalizations and understandings and *non-finger-pointing* worries.  Be open and honest and work through it together.  You are NOT the Emperor of computer-ville.  You are NOT the prince of Laptopia.  Sorry to burst your dominate bubble.  You may have bought it, you may rule the family when an iron fist– but the minute someone else goes wandering through internet frontier, you are no longer in control. 
  4. Filter programs are there for protection for everyone.  They’re not the “answer to all web-worry prayers”, but they do add an extra layer of customizable help. 
  5. Filters are not punishment.  Filters are insurance.  Having one to protect against accidents and mishaps is SMART.
  6. Tip: Don’t make it a “us vs you” thing with kids.  Filters are there to protect the family.  Kids aren’t the only ones wearing a seat belt, right?   Mom and dad get strapped into the death-mobile too. 
  7. Let’s be honest… those filters are jut as valuable to web-exploring parents as they are kids.  Pop-ups, accidental clicks… you name it.  Dark alleys are around every shiny happy buildings, ya know?
  8. If you give kids solid, rational reasons as to WHY you have filters… they will understand.  If you DON’T give solid, rational reasons as to WHY– you’re just creating a exciting/naughty mystery. 
  9. Plus: Kids, tweens, teens will rationalize to THEMSELVES the reasons if you don’t share yours, and that never really ends well.  Why?  Because most kids do not develop that section of the brain until their late teens, early twenties.  Curiosity & cats, people… not a good combo.  Either you’ve created The Beast’s wing for curious Belle (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), or they’ll immediately assume it’s because you don’t trust them– and that NEVER bodes well.
  10. Do not WORRY WORRY TIZZY TIZZY about it.  Be chill, but firm.  You want kids to hear you and accept it, not think about it or focus on it.  You wear a seatbelt because you don’t want to fly through the window or smash into the dashboard.  You have a comp filter because you don’t want a creep in your comp, talking to your family or stealing your private information (credit cards, yadda). 
  11. FIND THE BEST FILTER PROGRAM FOR YOU.  Personally, I believe- the easier the customization, the more customizable the customization of the filter program… the better.  

Okay– anyone have a great filter they want to recommend?  Do so at the beep.  Thanks you in advance.

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Happy Trails: Kids Next Door Season Finale

January 21, 2008 1 comment

This just in from numbuh eleventy billion (aka mr. warburton):
after 6 seasons…78 massive episodes
an earth-shattering TV movie
a ridiculous crossover special
tonight… monday, january 21st… is the sooper triple mega giant premiere of the hour long codename: kids next door finale:
OPERATION: I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.S.  (It’s Now The Extra Really Very Interesting End Wrap-Up Story)
cartoon network will be showing KND episodes all day, including my top 5 episodes (as if i could only pick 5), and then at 7pm the final KND story to end all KND stories will air.
it’s an awesome one… and if you don’t cry at the end you’re a mean, heartless person. but i still love you anyway!
so one last time:kids next door…BATTLE STATIONS!

Frederator Studios Blog

KND (although not one of my tippy top faves) was brilliant– the honesty & imagination into the KND storyline was amazing.

So, good luck, KND!  You did good, kid.

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Noteworthy: Woogi World

January 21, 2008 1 comment

Woogi World™ is a joint venture of the Family Home Foundation—a 501(c)3 organization and the Children’s Way Foundation. Both organizations are dedicated to helping kids achieve balanced living—teaching kids to use the Internet as a resource to build family strength and serve in the community. Woogi World™ educates, motivates, and engages children, but more importantly encourages them to get off the Internet often and participate in the real world.Woogi World™ teaches children the dos and don’ts of the Internet, which can be easily supplemented by involved parenting. Woogi World™ also provides kids practice for common Internet scenarios and even real-time coaching for those moments when problems arise—all within a safe, controlled environment.

Woogi World – About Us

Here’s a new elementary-based virtual world. It has filtered chat (selective word), educational games, and promotes safe online behavior.

Over all, there are elements with this world that give me the giggles– which, in this case, means it’s well done.

The world is 1 part virtual world/community, 1 part board game, 1 part edutainment. It’s great for the 2nd – 4th grade kids looking for a gateway VW & a edutainment experience. So far– this is my ulta-favorite in all the VW’s for the kids.

In their own words, here’s their safety additions.

1. We have parental controls allowing parents to limit the days, times, and duration their child can be in Woogi World™.
2. All children learn and agree to certain rules of chat before being able to use it. Every time a child chats they are constantly reminded of those rules.
3. Woogi World™ uses a safe chat dictionary, which limits the information a child can share.
4. Parents can disable the chat completely, should there be any concern.
5. A chat history is kept of everything typed and the child chat history is made available to parents.
6. Kids are able to mute (hide) another user should that user be bothering them.
7. Kids are able to report other kids to the Woogi World™ staff for abusing or breaking the rules of Woogi World™.
8. Our staff monitors the chat logs and is able to ban children who break the rules. Children must write an apology essay to return to Woogi World™. If the behavior continues, they are permanently banned.
9. We ensure the Woogi Name the child uses does not contain their real name, protecting their identity.
10. We require secure passwords for parents and children and make sure all log in requests are handled using SSL encryption.

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What to Look For in Safe Online Destinations for Kids

January 4, 2008 8 comments

Registration Processes:

  • Personal information
    • What do they collect? Do they collect your child’s real name? Your child’s email address? Address? Any type of information that can identify your child?? If they collect this information they should ALSO ask for your child’s DOB (Date of Birth) or Age.
    • And if your child is under the age of 13, the site should ask for your (THE PARENT’S) email address and EMAIL you promptly regarding your child’s online registration process (either a “head’s up, your kids on our site, and here’s some info about why we’re safe” or “Your child signed up and here is your child’s login information, have questions? ask” emails).
    • If they DO NOT collect any private/identifiable information (they only collect: username, M/F, DOB, and/or zip code) that’s fine. They do not need to email you– but personally– if they’re under 13 years of age, it’s my preference to see the site always email the parent. But again, in this case, not necessary for the information attained (yet…)

User Generated Content:

  • User Generated Content (UGC) is ANYTHING your child creates of their own free will (and then shares online). Whether it be a screen name, a blog/forum comment, a blog/forum post, chat comments, a drawing, a story, and uploaded photo, etc.
  • It is my professional opinion that all UGC from U13 users should go through filters & screening processes. Always. But that’s not necessarily always the case.
  • This goes ESPECIALLY for usernames. Registration processes always ask for username identification. The uber-safe sites provide a mix&match screen name builder. Others screen moderate.
    • Eyeballing the usernames: are they screened? How to tell:
      • Freshly created usernames that haven’t been approved yet have four processes:
        • 1) the user is dubbed “Guest” (or similar) until the screen name is viewed by staff (sometimes the user can see his/her own name, but others cannot– they see “guest”);
        • 2) the username has gone through a filter and deemed appropriate by passing through without hitting a blacklisted word/phase (this is NOT my ideal method of screening names);
        • 3) the user cannot play (only set up profile, etc) until approved by staff;
        • 4) the site is stupid and has no corporate responsibility (aka, they don’t care about personal safety or inappropriate content appearing live on their premises)
      • In my HUMBLE professional opinion… filters DO NOT ACCURATELY SCREEN USERNAMES… EVER. Why? Because kids… they are clever. Like the Raptors in Jurassic Park. They’ll find a way. If you have filters first & human screening before a user name goes live? That’s a lot better. Spelling, phonetics, numbers, etc make it very easy to make things look/sound like inappropriate content (remember “80081355” on a calculator? If not, go ahead– stick that in your ancient calc… we used to come up with words like that in 3rd grade)
  • If you– the parent– agree to a child’s participation online, you agree to all that the site has to offer. Technically, once a site gets your sign off, the kid can do anything– because you gave your permission. SO, if the site hasn’t done its darnedest to make you feel safe and assured by their obvious practices… you might want to take a closer look at the site’s offerings, privacy policy, and TOS (terms of service).
    • Further clarification: if you agree to your child’s registration process, you MAY be agreeing to your kid participating in unscreened, unmonitored viewing & uploading of personal photos, sharing information, speaking freely, etc.
    • Most sites for kids make sure that they cover your basis and protect the kid… but some are lazy and do not. So it’s good to double check.
    • If the site DID NOT take any of your child’s personal information, and then they ask for UGC, three things happen
      • 1. The UGC is screened (a moderator/screener– adult– looks at the content and scans it for inappropriate behavior, personal information, etc)
      • 2. The site NOTIFIES you of the child’s wish to display UGC on the site, and either gives you a link TO the child’s material (if already screened and deemed appropriate by staff) or keeps the UGC in a queue until you approve it yourself.
      • 3. They suck: aka they post the information without screening and/or notification (which is shady)… and basically just expect the fact that the child is “nameless” in the registration process to be enough for protection & to appease COPPA legislation (which it isn’t… kids sometimes slip email addresses, phone numbers, pictures of them & their best friends, etc into UGC to make or sustain friends). This again goes back to my humble professional opinion that UGC should ALWAYS be screened by moderators & adults.

Staff and Q&A

  • Something I like to check is:
    • how readily available is the staff? (24 hour?)
    • Are they roaming the site visibly? Or are they the “flag&come” sort that appear when a whistle is blown?
    • Does content go live, or is it screened first?
    • Where do I contact the site’s staff? And how easy is it to find that info?
    • How do I report inappropriate content? And is it visible for kids to use quickly, simply, easily, etc

    Look: you don’t have to bombard the staff with these questions (especially, since then you’re taking the time away from their jobs). Just cruise around and see for yourself. If they don’t bother to share this info with you in a parents-corner or in FAQ, etc… then maybe think again about how you feel regarding the site & your child. Chances are, they’re safe & sound… but really, it’s something to think about. It’s ALWAYS your choice. If you don’t like it, find someplace better. The market grows by day.

Ads & Content

  • If you are paying for your child to play in a site… Banner Ads, well… they tend to be very uncool.
  • If there are going to be ads, I’m a bigger fan of static ads than clickable ads (static = just a picture, clickable = go to another website)
  • Clickable ads (like banner ads) should ALWAYS warn kids, letting them know they are being jetted AWAY from the site.
    If banner ads, or clickable ads, do NOT give you a “Heads up, You’re leaving” page (usually the time count is 20 seconds before automatically sending the user along)… that is wrong. Not everyone agrees with me… but as a parent, you might.
  • Sometimes free sites for kids have less-than-desirable ads flashing by. Why? Because ad revenue systems sometimes slip a non-child-friendly link through. Personally– if a site is going to have ads, I would rather THEY be the middleman, picking and choosing ads for the site instead of someone like Google Ad Sense, yadda, doing it.
  • Off-Site Links: like ads, if it leads you FROM the site for kids, it should have a “heads up you’re leaving us” page attached. Kids click, click, click. Like buttons in an elevator, they tend to press them all. Better to warn then assume the kid knows what he/she pressed.
  • Links: It is IN MY opinion that if a site SHOULD place exterior links on their site, they should know exactly what kind of content is available on ALL PAGES within 2 or 3 site link/page clicks. What does this mean? Well… if I link my site to your site… i better know exactly what content is on every page of your site. And if you link to your brother, well it’s my business to know exactly what is available on his site too. And if either site besides mine has inappropriate content or links or ads… well, perhaps it’s time to stop that webring, yes? Yes.
  • Look for Forums:
    • Forums are a FANTASTIC way for kids to continue conversations & state opinions & explore typing skillz, etc… but, if not properly addressed, they become worse than an unmonitored school yard.
    • Do forum moderators participate?
    • Is the content live or screened to live?
    • What kind of commentary is being passed & chatted about?
  • And sadly… I know it’s wrong to say (and some people might call me out on it)… But i truly do subscribe to the DO JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. If a site looks less-than-stellar in aesthetics, doesn’t look well established or taken care of, seems to make the important information hard to find… then chances are, it isn’t a great site. The people who really do care about the kids & the community & the site will work their fingers to the bone– rolling with the times, improving, and providing.
  • As for safety– always check it out for yourself:
    • Registration process
    • Privacy Policy
    • Rules & TOS
    • Content: UGC, Ads, and Moderation (Staff)

That’s my tidbit of the day.  If you have MORE info you’d like to share… please don’t hesitate in the comments.  Thanks ;)

Noteworthy: Xivio

December 18, 2007 1 comment

New Kids World Xivio Looks for Partners and InvestorsWe first looked at Xivio in September when it launched its open content rating system for its Flash-based kids world. Now the company is seeking investors and partners. “Xivio is looking to partner with a company for cross promotional opportunities. We are offering at least 50% of profits achieved from referrals from our partners. Investment opportunities are also available,” wrote President/CEO David Wisotzky. Xivio has previously been self-funded, and when we spoke with Wisotzky at the Virtual Worlds Fall Conference and Expo, he said that investors had been interested, though he wasn’t at the time. But with all the new kids worlds prepping for launch, that investment market might start heating up. [via Digg]

Virtual Worlds News: New Kids World Xivio Looks for Partners and Investors

I dig Xivio. It’s not your usual VW these days. Why? While most VW’s are heading to casual gaming worlds, Xivio is a chat-based world in 3d where kids can give each other gifts, earn points by hanging out and chatting, and explore their profiles & media consumption. Overall– it’s not like anything out there for the U13 set (sometimes it reminds me of weeworld or zwinky, etc), and it’s great to see a site attempt something like this for the entire U18 set.

When I first read & visited the site, I was a bit thrown off, thinking it wasn’t necessarily for the tater tots. But when I dug into the privacy policy, I saw the error of my misinterpretation. Well done, izzy. Sheesh. It’s clearly the holidays.

PRO’S:

  1. Uber in-world Safety conscious
  2. Users can have a blog, listen to CD’s (or buy itunes?), upload videos, etc– all are screened before live.
  3. Parents have the ability to connect to the account.
  4. The aethetics are cool (3d & reminds me a bit of some of the kid characters in Zelda: The Ocarina of Time)
  5. The way in which they approached space (further back = smaller av) is unique
  6. The way in which they incorporate multimedia is also unique. Kids can listen to CD’s already in the system, or listen to their own through the system.
  7. Gifting (user to user sharing, etc) is encouraged and easy & new gifty elements will be added during events (they’ve a calendar of activities planned out).
  8. The menu system is interesting (the user’s avatar menu surrounds the character’s head and/or body and reminds me of an ipod for some reason– it’s fun to see the way new VW’s are attempting to make the interface less obtrusive and more inventive)
  9. And there are Moderators in all chat rooms — interACTIVE moderator (awesome!!!)
  • They’re quick to warn for language & behavior: AWESOME!
  • They’re quick to ban: Behavior = no tolerance (or a 3 strikes you’re out theory)
  • You can actually see how Moderators moderate (if they add a word like ‘balls’ to the bad word list– thanks to some other VW research person exploring) a text bubble pops up and notifies the group.
  • But they also play & gift & encourage which makes for great experiences

Interesting choices:

  1. No immediate Avatar customization (and if there was, I missed it completely?). Which is fine, I’m just an avatar chick who loves her look-a-likes, lol. At least there is HEAVY customization once you rack up the points (earned by spending more time there & inviting friends– very inventive way to encourage users to hang out more often and to bring in more traffic/users, nice).
  2. Webcams (The word strikes fear in a OCM’s heart… luckily everything about this site has reminded me over and over how safe it is, so the webcam experience is probably the same? Plus, I don’t have a webcam so I can’t tell you, lol.)
  3. The icons don’t have roll over words– so if you’re unsure of the picture, it’s a guessing game (example: maybe that isn’t a webcam icon and I’m an idiot? That’s probably the case. lol)
  4. The User’s profile page (where they can upload content & write their blog) is a bit confusing and there’s no “help” button to explain what to do or how to do it.
  5. I can’t tell if User’s can lock the content on their profile. Like if a 10 year old uploads pictures of herself– can she hide it from others? < re: how penguins can lock their igloos in Club Penguin.
  6. Pop Ups. You must unlock the pop ups for this site to be able to see much of the content.
  7. Quick link ads. The ads are parts of the world (like a balloon) and not so clear that it’s an ad (and therefore will open up a new webpage in a pop up). They DO INDEED warn anyone looking at their privacy policy that ads are within the world. In a month like this– where the eye of mordor has been firmly planted on youth sites & ads, I wonder how the general public will take to it. I get ad branding– but usually you see ad branding in a site as product based. Like a cameo for a cocacola can in a TV show. Time will tell.

Other than all of that– it’s definitely a new way to envision virtual worlds for the kids. I’m eager to see how it grows!! And I can’t tell you how psyched I am about the mods. Awesome!

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Webkinz WITH Non-Webkinz Ads? Hmmm…

December 14, 2007 3 comments

So the ever-Brill “MOM” over at Outside the (toy) Box ping’d me on an interesting question regarding Webkinz & it’s decision to add ads to the site:

First CCFC and Lisa at Corp Babysitter are all over Webkinz for adding ads to their website, on the sly.  Bastards!  We’ve discussed the need for ad free virtual worlds here before, so this is an important update.  CCFC let’s you email Ganz and tell them that they are scumbags. I highly suggest you do so – it takes 2 secs.  Izzy, you’re the VW queen – comments, new ad free ideas to add?

outside the (toy) box » Quick Links – Webkinz, McCarthyism, and My 2 New Favorite Blogs

Hmm.

It’s a reasonable issue…

Here’s my wandering thought process regarding Webkinz & Ads:

A. What is their rational behind the 2nd need for income? No doubt it’s purely to grow their cash cow profits… but they HAD to know that people would find offense to it. In the customer’s eyes, they officially became a paying subscriber the minute they purchased the stuffy. And one of the unwritten understandings of web interactivity = paying subscribers shouldn’t have to be bombarded by ads. period. end of story.

So, what is the PR rational? How will they spin this? I understand that it can be pricey to retain a virtual world (staff especially)… and growth? Staying UP with the VW times (because I’ve seen some pre-beta VW’s that will be fantastic and much edgier than Webkinz). But Webkinz is doing QUITE well in the population department. So, what’s the dealio?

B. What will their AD policy be? Warning pages? Will they make it quite clear which are OUT of world ads, and which are webkinz cross-promotional ads? I ask this because– if you’ve been tooling around Neopets any time recently, you’d notice how badly they SUCK at Ad policy. I clicked a t-shirt button, thinking it was for my avatar, and was brought WITHOUT ANY NOTIFICATION out of the Neopet’s realm, to a IRL t-shirt shop that had skinned their page to look identical to Neopets… and I was TICKED. They’re going on my blog’s naughty list for the holidays (stay tuned). I find it more disgusting to be on kids websites that have such a low standard of ad policy than the idea of having it to begin with.

C. Ads are everywhere. They’re on just about every page. Why? It’s like the only real way (outside of subscriptions & microbuys) to make any income– and let’s be honest, with the time & effort needed to run a website, it’s not cheap. Billboards line highways, spam litters mailboxes, and ads adorn sites. They all suck. And it’s sad. But really… I can’t fight that because I do work in the industry and realize why such things are done. Blech. I hate to have said that. But, ads are just one of those things… like weeds in a garden, or morons on the highway.

Personally– it’s not the existence of ads, but the type of ads. Ads that are inappropriate for children should not be on or NEAR sites children may attend. Every site I’ve worked with has a 2 or 3 click policy– within 2/3 clicks of a page must be kid-friendly. It’s a toughie to follow because that’s a lot of constant maintenance (esp when google ads sometimes screw up and slip naughtiness into their links by accident). The decision to have ads to begin with is a HUGE decision. That’s a relationship you have to build with your ad departments & clients, etc., and maintain on a regular, attentive schedule.

D) I agree with the hatin’ on the ad on an ad idea. Which is why I’m glad people are standing up for what they believe in (campaign for an ad free childhood). But then, if you’re going to battle Webkinz… Disney is in that path too. Disney is an ad wrapped in an ad, dunked in an ad, soaked with ad, and regurgitated as an ad. And then it’s placed in another ad, which is incorporated into an ad, which is shown as an ad, which has an ad itself. Not too much said about that, right? I grew up a Disney-a-holic. Ate, drank, slept Disney.  And yet… none of us had a problem with that until we were old enough to see the approach of the Disney train towards are children.  Mama Bears are a particularly keen, sensitive lot.  We don’t take too kindly on those who step into the bubble around our wee cubs.

And yet, it seems to be a horrible trend at the moment: like there.com’s new coke world. Pay to play in an ad. Weird.

E) But all in all it’s a choice. If webkinz has made this move, and I don’t like it or how they approach it– personally I move along.  Webkinz isn’t that great to begin with. Their mainpage looks like a traffic accident of colors & ideas, and the tone in which they approach their audience is babyish and insulting. Their plus is the pet-user-care experience… it’s larger and has more opportunities than say… club penguin (which is sooooo yesterday, lol). Webkinz may currently be the pack leader of kid VWs, but I don’t think it will take much to pull them from the king-o-the-heap position. At least I hope not.

Personally– i like the “Subscription” sites the best (like Club Penguin & Pirates of the Caribbean Online).  Parents are actively setting up accounts WITHIN the world.  Less of a blink eye, and more direct.  Plus, you are CLEARLY purchasing a membership, instead of getting some 1/2 entry ticket/ 1/2 stuffed animal combo, which can blur the lines of responsibility & ownership rights.  With “Online Subscription” sites– you are IMMEDIATELY a customer (are you a customer of the world when you’re a customer buying a doll?  Who does the company support more?  The idea of the product or the idea of the virtual experience?  Gotta be only one Highlander in the end, yeah?), and there for have a stronger voice regarding your experience.  The product route leaves far too many excuse-filled barriers (well, with the doll you bought the doll and the entry, but we need money through ads to sustain the site since you don’t pay a subscription… yadda yadda).

So, thems my apples. 

I hope some of that made some sense. LOL. My rambling ways can be a bit intense when I’m unsure of a rambling direction.

Leave comments at the beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. (beep)

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