By David Kleeman
June 8, 2021
Today’s children carry the world in their pockets and enjoy instant access to all types of content. They don’t just choose among channels, they think in terms of what exactly they want to do right now–a game, video or app? Alone or with friends? Consuming or creating? Could any development disrupt such vast choices?
David Baszucki, CEO of Roblox, says ‘yes’. He believes the metaverse is “arguably as big a shift in online communications as was the telephone or the internet.” “The metaverse” refers to immersive, global, always-on, omni-experiential spaces for entertainment, learning, play, creation, communication, socializing and more. Its potential dimensions are still emerging, but imagine the convergence of virtual and augmented reality technologies, resulting in a navigable 3D immersive world containing near-infinite content options for any audiences or players. More than in most games and online experiences that preceded this, metaverse users will build and shape the space they use. Given the extensive personal agency they acquire there, creation will be as much a part of the experience as consumption.
Baszucki should know: Roblox, sometimes thought of as the “YouTube of gaming,” is the best current proto-metaverse, with 202 million monthly active users who invested 9.7 billion hours on the platform in the first quarter of 2021. Its growth exploded during the pandemic, while so many kids were at home full time.
The metaverse makes complete sense to kids. Content discovery for them otherwise is incredibly challenging now. I work at Dubit, a research and strategy consultancy and digital studio, focused on young people. In Dubit’s Trends studies, upwards of 60 percent of 2-15 year olds say they have trouble finding their next “favorite thing.”
Children and teens respond well to the metaverse, with its boundless but coherent space for active engagement with brands, stories and characters. Now they are kickstarting it in their digital play and socializing. Among U.S. children, a stunning 56 percent play on Roblox at least weekly. Use of digital ‘sandbox’ Minecraft rose 49 percent from 2020 to 2021. Game and virtual world Fortnite rose 29 percent.
Is the Metaverse Meant for Kids?
The metaverse will have kid-safe and adult-only “neighborhoods.” Uniquely, though, users, including kids and teens, will themselves build much of the metaverse and shape its ethos. Roblox’ Baszucki’s eight characteristics of a metaverse parallel the social and gaming preferences and desires of Generations Z and Alpha:
- Identity – avatars that reflect players’ real or imagined selves and remain present and consistent everywhere
- Friends – the ability to socialize and play with real-world friends but also befriend and interact with others in-world
- Immersiveness – engagement with a fully-formed alternative world
- Ubiquity – the ability to create and play from anywhere, on all types of devices
- Variety – accommodation of diverse user interests and habits, via deep, wide content
- Low friction – easy onboarding and transitions, to encourage trying new things
- Economy – internal commerce (perhaps with real-world items, as well) with the ability to pay those who provide goods and services
- Trust and Civility – a welcoming, equitable, diverse and kind space
Add to these elements the intrinsic motivation of building the world they’ll inhabit, not to mention learning to code while doing so. The metaverse is spawning a new generation of designers and entrepreneurs.
Building from the Ground Up
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is optimistic about the coming “cohort of young people who realize that the world does not have to be the way it is.” Youthful new vision is collaborating with veteran creative experience on an equal footing.
This can only happen, though, Berners-Lee notes, if we commit to globally-equitable access and to resolving online toxicity: “We’re seeing just a fraction of what’s possible. Because while we talk about a generation of ‘digital natives’, far too many young people remain excluded and unable to use the web to share their talents and ideas.” Game director Brenda Romero refers to a betterverse that addresses past problems of gender and race inclusion.
Dubit Founder Matt Warneford believes humanity is the concept’s strength. “Much of the internet is made up of lonely experiences,” he observes. ”We keep in contact, but we don’t feel together. Spending time in the metaverse feels more like hanging out in the mall with friends.”
In April 2021, language affirming children’s rights to privacy, protection, education and play in the digital world was appended to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. And every company is now in the kid business, whether they like it or not, as children ‘hack’ teen and adult platforms to their needs. But the metaverse can’t exist without communication and social play. Whether through law or self-regulation, we need to ensure age-appropriate spaces in the metaverse, and honest commitment to the letter and spirit of privacy and safety laws, regulations and terms of service.
One Metaverse or Many?
As creative tools become simpler and more accessible, we can expect organic microverses to arise around small, passionate fan-bases (as Kevin Kelly explained a long time ago, in his essay “1000 True Fans”). These will exist alongside global franchise megaverses likely managed by large companies. Will these worlds connect, to facilitate commuting among them, or will a massive company acquire its way to a single, behemoth metaverse?
In the metaverse, storyworlds collide. Fortnite is a prime example: players there can buy ‘skins’ or other items from Marvel, DC, the Premier League and many other brands and franchises. On platforms like Minecraft and Roblox, companies’ IP shows up in user-generated content – there are more than 1700 unofficial LEGO Roblox games. Companies will have to decide to what extent they’re comfortable sharing space and ceding some control. Dubit’s ‘fanatomy’ model suggests that allowing fan art, fiction or games can deepen followers’ devotion and sharing.
Will We Watch in the Metaverse?
Immersive game worlds draw huge participation for viewing concerts, film festivals, gamer gatherings, and album releases. Nate Nanzer, Fortnite’s head of global partnerships, says he can envision any of these platforms becoming a regular “tour stop” for bands.
How will the metaverse embrace our day-to-day ‘TV’ viewing, though? On average, 2 to 15 year olds in the U.S. spend almost 30 hours per week watching video. That’s three times as much time as they spend gaming, and five times their non-video internet use. Metaverse TV could evolve as ‘channel’ spaces with aggregated intellectual property (e.g. Nickelodeon) or as narrower deeply-branded spaces (e.g. Marvel).
For Generations Z and Alpha, though, watching a TV show may seem mundane compared with socializing in multiplayer game Among Us, winning a Fortnite Battle Royale, or completing a Roblox ‘obby’ (obstacle course). When they’re not playing a game, today’s youth often watch someone else play on Twitch or YouTube; many make and post their own videos. Expect more interactive video formats and viewing that links to related games.
Conclusion: We’re a Long Way from OASIS, But…
How can companies and brands plan wisely now for a metaverse future, knowing that the space will morph and evolve substantially in the coming years?
- The metaverse will be a great place to launch a brand. The IP owner is the “gatekeeper,” with no need to strike distribution deals to grow or experiment. Fan feedback will be fast and two-way.
- Build from a single point of engagement – the clearest expression of your brand – then expand based on how fans discover and engage with your content.
- Leave space for fan input. Supporting creativity around your IP and sharing inside information will encourage followers to chase your stories wherever you take them.
- Update your economic models. Young people have a keen eye for authenticity and will reject “thirsty” superficial marketing.
Roblox CEO Baszucki is confident that users will do their part to create a new and beneficial type of civic space: “People will know they have a physical identity and a digital identity…We’re not so dystopian in our vision relative to maybe some science fiction. We think people will be able to balance this and use it in a positive way. We think it will be an integral part of learning and working. Just another tool side by side with video and books and other forms of communication.”
Now, we have to do our own part to advance this concept in healthy, responsible ways.
David Kleeman – a 35-year children’s media professional – is senior vice president of global trends for Dubit, a UK-based research and strategy consultancy and digital studio focused on children and teens.