Worlds like Webkinz, where children care for stuffed animals that come to life, have become some of the Web’s fastest-growing businesses. More than six million unique visitors logged on to Webkinz in November, up 342 percent from November 2006, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a research firm.
Club Penguin, where members pay $5.95 a month to dress and groom penguin characters and play games with them, attracts seven times more traffic than Second Life. In one sign of the times, Electric Sheep, a software developer that helps companies market their brands in virtual worlds like Second Life and There.com, last week laid off 22 people, about a third of its staff.
By contrast, Disney last month introduced a “Pirates of the Caribbean” world aimed at children 10 and older, and it has worlds on the way for “Cars” and Tinker Bell, among others. Nickelodeon, already home to Neopets, is spending $100 million to develop a string of worlds. Coming soon from Warner Brothers Entertainment, part of Time Warner: a cluster of worlds based on its Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and D. C. comics properties.
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But more is at stake than cultivating new revenue streams. For nearly 50 years, since the start of Saturday morning cartoons, the television set has served as the front door to the children’s entertainment business. A child encounters Mickey Mouse on the Disney Channel or Buzz Lightyear on a DVD and before long seeks out related merchandise and yearns to visit Walt Disney World.
Now the proliferation of broadband Internet access is forcing players to rethink the ways they reach young people. “Kids are starting to go to the Internet first,” Mr. Wadsworth said.
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The power of the virtual worlds business was shown recently when Vivendi announced a plan to buy Activision, a publisher of video games for consoles like the Sony PlayStation 3. Vivendi owns World of Warcraft, a virtual world for adults with more than nine million members and revenue of more than $1 billion.
Still, the long-term appetite for the youth-oriented sites is unclear. Fads have always whipsawed the children’s toy market, and Web sites are no different, analysts warn. Parents could tire of paying the fees, while intense competition threatens to undercut the novelty. There are now at least 10 virtual worlds that involve caring for virtual pets.
Privacy and safety are a growing concern, particularly as companies aim at younger children. Some virtual worlds are now meant to appeal to preschoolers, using pictures to control actions so that reading is not required.
So I'm thinking about a re-working of Lord of the Flies in which the main action takes place in an adult-free virtual world and the growing chaos there threatens to spread beyond that particular virtual world and take down the whole net. Until, that is, the Power Puff Girls come to the rescue.