NY Times does Virtual Worlds on Youth

Published: December 31, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Forget Second Life. The real virtual world gold rush centers on the grammar-school set.

Trying to duplicate the success of blockbuster Web sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz, children’s entertainment companies are greatly accelerating efforts to build virtual worlds for children. Media conglomerates in particular think these sites — part online role-playing game and part social scene — can deliver quick growth, help keep movie franchises alive and instill brand loyalty in a generation of new customers.

Second Life and other virtual worlds for grown-ups have enjoyed intense media attention in the last year but fallen far short of breathless expectations. The children’s versions are proving much more popular, to the dismay of some parents and child advocacy groups. Now the likes of the Walt Disney Company, which owns Club Penguin, are working at warp speed to pump out sister sites.

“Get ready for total inundation,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.

Worlds like Webkinz, where children care for stuffed animals that come to life, have become some of the Web’s fastest-growing businesses. More than six million unique visitors logged on to Webkinz in November, up 342 percent from November 2006, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a research firm.

Club Penguin, where members pay $5.95 a month to dress and groom penguin characters and play games with them, attracts seven times more traffic than Second Life. In one sign of the times, Electric Sheep, a software developer that helps companies market their brands in virtual worlds like Second Life and There.com, last week laid off 22 people, about a third of its staff.

By contrast, Disney last month introduced a “Pirates of the Caribbean” world aimed at children 10 and older, and it has worlds on the way for “Cars” and Tinker Bell, among others. Nickelodeon, already home to Neopets, is spending $100 million to develop a string of worlds. Coming soon from Warner Brothers Entertainment, part of Time Warner: a cluster of worlds based on its Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and D. C. comics properties.

Add to the mix similar offerings from toy manufacturers like Lego and Mattel. Upstart technology companies, particularly from overseas, are also elbowing for market share. Mind Candy, a British company that last month introduced a world called Moshi Monsters, and Stardoll, a site from Sweden, sign up thousands of members in the United States each day.

“There is a massive opportunity here,” said Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group, in an interview last week.

“All the stars are aligning for virtual worlds to become a mass-market form of entertainment, especially for kids and families,” Mr. Yanover said (Disney).

Privacy and safety are a growing concern, particularly as companies aim at younger children. Some virtual worlds are now meant to appeal to preschoolers, using pictures to control actions so that reading is not required.

And critics are sharpening their knives. “We cannot allow the media and marketing industries to construct a childhood that is all screens, all the time,” said Susan Linn, a Boston psychologist and the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit group that has complained of ads for movies on Webkinz.com.

Operators shrug off worries about fads and competition. “Are features like creating an avatar a long-term advantage for anyone? Probably not,” Mr. Yanover said. “The viability and sustainability of this business comes from the shifting behavior of kids and how they spend their leisure time.”

As for privacy and safety, companies point to a grid of controls. For instance, Neopets restricts children under 13 from certain areas unless their parents give permission in a fax. Several Neopets employees patrol the site around the clock, and messaging features are limited to approved words and phrases.

“Parents know they can trust our brand to protect kids,” said Steve Youngwood, executive vice president for digital media at Nickelodeon. “We see that as a competitive advantage.”


Web Playgrounds of the Very Young – New York Times

…Interesting. See the link above for more about Disney’s future (referring to PIXIE HALLOW– which i’ve been tickled pink about for MONTHS since a friend told me about it… I’ve had to keep the silence for far too long… but it is going to be GLORIOUS).

Funny how Neopets mumbles about being uber safe. I give a mighty HARRUMPH to that.

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