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If you have a young niece or daughter, you’ve almost certainly seen her puttering with Zwinky, the pop-eyed cartoon avatar-based social network– sort of a cutesy MySpace for kids, run from a browser toolbar interface. Techcrunch just reported that InteractiveCorp, the company behind Zwinky, will launch a virtual world tie-in. Transitioning from toolbar to interactive world is an obvious technology leap; it’s also a savvy and unsurprising business move. Considering the impressive growth rate of Gaia Online, Club Penguin, Webkinz, and many others, virtual worlds for kids are exploding. The real surprise is how long it’s taken the tech and game industry to recognize how big this space has grown. (In March, Zwinky had 4.7 million unique visitors; Gaia Online, 2 million.)
At present, they’re actually the only reliably expanding niche in online worlds. After all, World of Warcraft remains the uncontested traditional fantasy MMORPG, dominating all its competitors (except in Asia), while Second Life remains unchallenged in the user-created 3D world sub-genre (though a number of rivals are coming soon.)
How did they become so popular?
Short answer: By being fast, cheap, and totally in control. Almost invariably, online worlds for kids are web-based
Java apps, and don’t require a large client download (like Second Life and There), and are free, eschewing monthly subscriber fees (as with Warcraft) preferring advertising, virtual item purchases, and other alternate revenue models. More crucial to parents (as today’s WSJ reports), they’re tightly regulated safe zones for kids. (In Club Penguin, the Journal notes, “Penguins… [have] two chat modes: ultimate safe chat, which is limited to a predefined menu of greetings, and standard safe chat, in which all messages are subject to filters that screen for inappropriate language and personal information like phone numbers.”) Nothing worse than a foul-mouthed penguin.
Image courtesy Zwinky.com.