Over the last year, I’ve noticed a new migration pattern among children’s television networks. No longer content with running some of the most popular websites for kids on the net, the kidnets have started launching their own MMOGs. Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis and YTV’s GalaXseeds both hit the ground running earlier this year, attracting players (Nicktropolis‘ population reached just under 4 million in June) and critical acclaim (GalaXseeds won an Octas award ). The Cartoon Network, which has been maintaining a successful massively single-player online game based on the cartoon Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends for over a year now, recently showcased its upcoming MMOG FusionFall at Comic-Con. Even the BBC is getting in the game with CBBC World, which goes live this summer.

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A similar trend is also taking place in the toy industry. In July, Scientific American crowned Mattel’s BarbieGirls.com the “fastest-growing virtual world ever.” The site attracted 3 million members in its first 60 days online and continues to add 50,000 new members every day. Ganz is experiencing comparable success with an MMOG that allows kids to play with a virtual version of their Webkinz. Meanwhile, everyone waits with bated breath for the arrival of NetDevil’s LEGO Universe.

One of the reasons for the sudden growth in the kid-targeted MMOG field has something to do with the fact this market is enormous and untapped. The vast majority of boys and girls play online games, and they spend more time gaming than any other age group. According to last year’s Video Gamer Segmentation Report, 45 percent of “heavy gamers” and nearly one-third of “avid console gamers” (the largest group in the study) are between the ages of 6 and 17.

Oddly enough, until now, there weren’t very many MMOGs that allowed players under the age of 13 (most are rated T), driving kids to either lie about their age or restrict their online play to casual games and online game communities. The one exception is Disney’s Toontown, which launched in 2003 and has a current population of 1.165 million subscribers.

Unlike adult-oriented MMOGs, which for the most part operate on player-based revenue models (via monthly subscriptions or pay-per services and items), most of the new kids’ MMOGs will be supported by other revenue sources, particularly in-game advertising. The trend is so pervasive Disney has decided to release its own free, ad-driven version of Toontown in order to compete, despite its past success with a monthly subscription format.

The going theory is an ad-driven revenue model will allow a greater number of kids to participate. Of course, this ignores previous success stories like Toontown and Club Penguin, not to mention the many analogue examples of kids’ games and collectibles (like Pokémon cards and Beanie Babies) that require ongoing financial investment. It also runs counter to current estimates that kids aged 8-14 have a combined purchasing power of around $40 billion.

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There’s more going on here. It’s not a coincidence that the industries involved in the creation of this new genre just so happen to be the very same companies that initiated the exceptional levels of cross-media integration found within children’s culture since the 1980s. Then, as now, children’s television and toy companies were at the forefront of cross-promotional licensing strategies that significantly reshaped the way children experience both media and play.

In the deregulatory climate of the Reagan administration, new partnerships were made between toy companies and the children’s television industry, establishing what would soon become the prototype for cross-media synergy. These partnerships consisted not just of licensing agreements but full-fledged collaborative ventures, wherein programs were designed from the outset to promote a line of licensed toys. While not an entirely new concept, the levels to which the previously distinct industries of television production, toy manufacturing and advertising became able to coordinate their efforts were unprecedented.

As a greater array of media formats and product categories entered into the mix, children’s culture became dominated by properties engaged in transmedia integration. Film theorist Marsha Kinder calls the process “transmedia intertextuality ,” in that each incarnation of the text not only extends its overall reach but also expands it: contributing new or alternative storylines, character development and so on. Each text promotes the other texts and any associated tie-in merchandise.

When viewed in this context, MMOGs simply represent the latest in a string of frontiers to be colonized by transmedia integration. Yet MMOGs are also forms of play, which puts them in a different category from television or comic books. Like licensed toys and previous forms of licensed videogames, MMOGs represent something of a hybrid, bridging the gap between narrative and play. And because play is such an important part of childhood, the expansion of media brands into its content warrants special attention.

Previous collaborations between toys and the media have been enormously successful. In 1985, television licensing made up 40-50 percent of all toy sales, a market share that continued well into the 1990s. By 2003, a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly all American children (97 percent) under the age of 6 owned toys and products based on characters from television and film.

The meteoric rise of licensed toys has attracted a lot of attention from child psychologists and media scholars. The main issue is whether or not the toys’ associations with media affect the way kids play with them. While the research is inconclusive, studies have shown that in certain circumstances kids will stick pretty close to the scripts provided by media when playing with licensed toys. This is especially true for toys that have deep media linkages and those with highly specified (and therefore limited) features.

Variations in kids’ play experiences suggest that while licensed toys create a bridge between media and play, this relationship is in a constant state of flux. It’s also a process kids themselves will contribute to wherever there is an opening.

From this, we might conclude that some toys are more prescriptive than others. For example, videogames are much more prescriptive than action figures or playsets could ever be. Limitations are designed right into the code, which determines what actions are even possible during gameplay. With MMOGs, however, it’s a different story. MMOGs are situated somewhere between traditional videogames and make-believe play, in that their structure (or code) gives players a lot of narrative openings and agency.

And since the MMOGs are inherently collaborative, kids get a chance to diverge from the pre-scripted media these companies provide. Individually customized avatars furthermore allow players to engage the narrative on their own terms, something mass-produced toys cannot yet provide. MMOGs could represent an important opening for child agency within commercial media culture.

They could, but this greater agency must first contend with the game’s built-in guide rails. After all, transmedia intertextuality is itself a highly structured system, driving consumers toward related media tie-ins. With each new television season, there’s that much more pre-scripted content for kids to sort through.

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Already, kids’ MMOGs have been found directing players toward in-game ads, limiting speech that might conflict with brand identity (while providing lots of opportunities to say positive things about the brand’s products), as well as rewarding players who have purchased tie-in products by giving them access to special items and areas.

For example, Nicktropolis players are encouraged to watch trailers and clips of Nickelodeon TV shows. A special area of GalaXseeds can be opened with a “secret” (i.e. UPC) code found on special packages of Skittles. The Cartoon Network reveals secret codes for its Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends game during episodes of the show and podcasts. And Webkinz can only be accessed by owners of its plush toys.

The lack of advertising regulation online opens the door for a lot more promotional activity than we’ve seen in other media. The prospect of unfettered access to kids and their pocketbooks is another explanation for the children’s industries’ rush to MMOGs. As one DIC Entertainment executive revealed at a recent media licensing conference, “We see the TV show almost as an infomercial for the online.”

Still, kids’ resilience and creativity seem to have a way of expressing themselves. As one scholar remarked about licensed toys, “Barbie can slide down avalanches just as He-Man can become the inhabitant of a two-story Victorian doll’s house.” If the adult-oriented MMOGs teach us anything, it’s that multiplayer games are the breeding grounds of unanticipated developments. Since so much of kids’ play already derives from the realm of the unexpected, it’s only a matter of time before these structures are challenged.

Growing Up Gamer

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