When Sony Playstation announced their "Home" service as its player networking strategy, it only validated the fact multi-user gaming environments and social networks are becoming more mainstream.
As I mentioned in last month's column, sophisticated Web users are interested in 3-D environmental spaces. (Second Life alone is nearing the 6 million user mark.) While Second Life is a wonderful story and we're all impressed with our amateur avatars and our million Linden entrepreneurial friends, our kids who may be gaining from these environments the most.
From Club Penguin, Disney's Toon Town, There, Nicktropolis, WebKinz, and many others, children (ages 8 to 14) are exploring multi-user worlds and environments while learning on— and offline life lessons. They're quickly evolving into a web--savvy user base that will form and shape the next generation of Web user and—eventually—your future customer.
Let's take a look at what they're learning about, and how these environments educate them:
Economy and value. Coins, coins, and more coins. Most of these sites have a fictional economic system that rewards players for their efforts. Club Penguin and WebKinz allow users to redeem their earnings for avatar enhancements and upgrades to personal items, living spaces, and more. In order to earn more coins and increase their spending power, kids look for hidden treasures, share tricks and tips, and in some cases, get jobs to help other users and contribute to the online universe. This desire to learn and share eventually leads to e-mail communications between classmates, often the first time these children use e-mail.
Saving versus spending. Once they have their coins (or whatever monetary unit is in place), they begin to make buying decisions. Some kids spend right away and buy small things to sate their need for something new. Others save and save, hoping to one day buy a split-level igloo to call their own. If your kids are on Club Penguin, ask to see their friends' igloos, then ask if their friends save or spend. These retail simulations help teach kids the value of a dollar. Recently, my 8-year old daughter had a big change of heart about how she handles her allowance. Once she learned to save for things she wanted on Club Penguin, she applied the same strategy to her allowance, just as she was lured into the world of Webkinz.
Security and password sharing. As they employ user names and passwords, these sites are often a first experience with security and authentication. To children, passwords are secrets they want to tell everyone. When they tell, things predictably go awry. Most of the time, a friend logs in to play with a user's avatar and then changes the appearance of the avatar, spending all its money. Often, this results in a fit of panic and anger, followed by tears. It happens, but it usually never happens again. The lesson of password and security is learned and remembered.
Leveling up. Children realize that the more time they spend at a site, the more they'll be rewarded. Their avatars tend to "level up" based on the time spent on these sites. This eventually turns into a loyalty program that strengthens the bond between the user and the growing competitive environment of tween-oriented multi-user sites. Kids are learning about loyalty and what it means to get something in return for their time. Club Penguin rewards users by changing their level based on the duration of their membership. For example, after 30 days, you become a "Secret Agent" and can embark on special tasks available only to other agents.
Customization. As mentioned above, users want to spend their earnings on items that can customize and differentiate their appearance. Players want unique appearances in order to be recognized by friends and the community, and to be first with a new look. The quest for social currency starts at an earlier age.
Offline to online. The WebKinz craze is does more than frustrate parents. The product, with its limited availability, is driving this generation to e-commerce Web services to find alternative means to buy products. Much like adults in 1998 who sought hard-to-find replacement auto parts, kids are discovering their first "eBay need," and gaining understanding of the global electronic marketplace. More important, they understand the economy behind a scarce product. In order to determine how rare a particular WebKinz is, kids are now discussing the eBay prices of a Dalmation in classrooms. This chatter has come a long way from the urban myths that the Pepsi Challenge "n" bottle cap was only available in Missouri.
We all know are kids are smart. Now, they're getting smarter. How do your plans accommodate this developing user base?
Chad Stoller is the executive director of emerging platforms at Organic Inc., a leading digital communications agency with clients such as DaimlerChrysler, Sprint, and Bank of America. In this role, Chad leads Organic's strategy on client communication platforms and Organic's Experience Lab. Prior to Organic, he spent 13 years at Arnell Group in various roles, including director of communications solutions, and was responsible for branded entertainment, new media, branded gaming, and marketing alliances. He has developed a series of award-winning programs, including the Cannes Lion winner, "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker," for Reebok and Jeep Evo 4 x 4 for DaimlerChrysler. Chad is also a regular contributor to Organic's blog, ThreeMinds.