Monday, July 14, 2008
Toying Around With Virtual Worlds
By Seana Mulcahy Last week was like pea soup here in the suburbs of Boston. We had several days of the three H's: hazy, hot and humid. In other words, it goes from a palatable temperature to oppressive, unhealthy air. After work my son and I were visiting with my godson, who is 10. He was walking around in swim trunks, sitting close to the air conditioner register, clearly overheated. "Come on, we'll take you back to the house so you can swim," I said. "No, thanks, I'd rather just hang around and play my game on the computer," was his response.
Without boring you with family life too much, it is important to know that he is low man on the totem pole to a 13-year-old brother and 18-year-old sister. They all share a computer. In essence, the little dude always gets the boot.
Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but it's summertime in New England. It was the time of day where you have to hurry up and get in all you can before the mosquitoes come out and before it gets dark. Playing a game on the computer is not an option. But then again, he's not my kid.
The "game" he referenced was some kind of virtual world. A sales and marketing person's dream; he's an addict. According to a recent Interbrand article, Neopets, the virtual pet community bought by Viacom last year, now boasts "54 species of Neopets, 16 lands, hundreds of characters, stories and plotlines, 200 games, a virtual economy based on 'Neopoints,' daily and weekly creativity contests, Neovision video player, discussion boards, quests, and virtual items to collect, and most recently, NC Mall, where users can purchase upscale tchotchkes for their pets." As of 2008, it is the largest global kid-focused virtual world.
It no suprise to me after talking to my godson. He'll be sure to feed and care for his virtual pet, but gets in trouble for forgetting to bring out his real-life 5-pound Maltese every few hours.
When I asked about Webkinz, he told me it was for "little kids, Aunnnnnnnnnnnntie" with a smirk on his face. All I remember was looking around stores for these stuffed animals so he could go online to the site to register and play with them in the virtual world. Now it's like a graveyard of poor Webkinz, as he's far too cool and too "old" for them.
Kudos to the makers and subsequent owners of these virtual worlds that cater to kids. The stats behind the sites are some of the most impressive. Many have really smart marketing. They've launched brand extensions, offline product lines such as stuffed animals. etc, and best of all they've branded the heck out of the virtual space. Look around one of these worlds and you'll see a host of toy manufacturers with virtual toys. See apparel companies with branded assets that kids can either win, "buy" with virtual points or buy with a parent's permission. The flip side of this I am a parent and a caretaker. I have a huge problem with a kid choosing to sit inside wanting to stare at a machine versus going out and getting some exercise and a reprieve from the heat by swimming.
So what's the catch? Well first off, if I represent a virtual world (which I have) I would productize such brand assets. Why not? It's an amazing thing. If I represented a toy company, I would, too. [Also from the Interbrand article: "Joey Seiler, editor of Virtual Worlds News, told the BBC back in May 2008, 'Successful virtual worlds encourage creativity, imagination, and fun."' It also seems to help when kids' (and parents') favorite brands participate in the virtual act. When you ask parents about their feelings about virtual worlds, you are sure to get mixed reviews. No one wants to admit virtual worlds are the new part-time babysitters. Nonetheless, the smart parents say they are aware of the virtual worlds their kids are on. And not surprisingly, they say if they trust a brand, they trust the environment.
EMarketer predicts that by the year 2011, 53% of all American child and teen Internet users will visit virtual worlds at least once a month.
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