Play sites offer safe fun and lucrative advertising space
 

By Matt Richtel and Brad Stone
International Herald Tribune

 June 5, 2007
 

SAN FRANCISCO: Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaves the real world and joins a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon Doll Emporium.

The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls by placing blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.

"With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money," she said. "You can do it on the Internet for free."

Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon the growth of a new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls. Millions of children and pre-teens are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication.

While some of the sites charge subscription fees, others are supported by advertising. Some critics wonder about the broader social cost of exposing children to marketing messages, and the amount of time spent on the sites makes some childhood experts nervous.

Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity and they are doing so thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.

"They're spreading rapidly among kids," Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. "It's like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets."

And many of them had their starts in Europe and Asia, far from the U.S. hub of the Web in Silicon Valley.

Even as the children are having fun, the adults running the sites are engaged in a cutthroat competition to be the destination of choice for a generation that is growing up on computers from day one.

These sites, with names like Club Penguin (Canada), Cyworld (South Korea), Habbo Hotel (Finland), Webkinz (Canada), Piczo (Britain), WeeWorld (Britain) and Stardoll (Sweden), run the gamut from simple games and chat to virtual worlds where children can visit fantasy lands.

When Evan Bailyn, chief executive of Cartoon Doll Emporium, created the site, he said, "I thought it would be a fun, whimsical thing." Cartoon Doll draws three million visitors a month. "But it's turned into such a competitive thing," he said. "People think they are going to make a killing."

Even Barbie herself is getting into the online act. Mattel is introducing BarbieGirls.com, a dress-up site with chat features and commercial links.

In recent months, with the traffic for these sites growing into the tens of millions of visitors, the entrepreneurs behind them have started to refine their business models.

Cartoon Doll Emporium is free for many activities but now charges $8 a month for access to more dolls to dress up and other premium services. WeeWorld, a site aimed at letting 13- to 25- year-olds dress up and chat through animated characters, recently signed a deal to permit the online characters to carry bags of Skittles candy, and it is considering other advertisers.

On Stardoll, which has some advertising, users can augment the wardrobe they use to dress up their virtual dolls by buying credits over their cellphones. At Club Penguin, a virtual world with more than four million visitors a month, a $5.95-a-month subscription lets users adopt more pets for their penguin avatars (animated representations of users), which can roam, chat and play games like ice fishing and team hockey.

Lane Merrifield, chief executive of Club Penguin, which is based in Kelowna, British Columbia, said he decided on a subscription fee because he felt advertising to young people was a dangerous proposition. Clicking on ads, he said, could bring children out into the broader Web, where they could run into offensive material.

Merrifield also bristles at any comparison with MySpace, which he said is a wide-open environment and one that poses all kinds of possible threats to young people.

To make Club Penguin safe for children, the site uses a powerful filter that limits the kinds of messages users can type to one another. It is not possible, Merrifield said, to slip in a phone number or geographic location, or to use phrases or words that would be explicit or suggestive. Other sites are also set up to minimize troublesome interactions or limit what users can say to one another.

"We're the antithesis of MySpace," Merrifield said. "MySpace is about sharing information. We're all about not being able to share information."

Other sites are more open, like WeeWorld, which permits people to create avatars, dress them up and then collect groups of friends who type short messages to one another. The characters tend to be cute and cartoonish, as do the home pages where they reside, but the chatter is typical teenager.

"There's a lot of teasing and flirting," said Lauren Bigelow, general manager of WeeWorld. She said the site had around 900,000 users in April and is growing around 20 percent a month.

Bigelow said 60 percent of WeeWorld users are girls and young women, a proportion that is higher on some other sites. Stardoll said its users are 93 percent female, typically ages 7 to 17, while Cartoon Doll Emporium said it is 96 percent female, ages 8 to 14.

Some of the companies are aiming even younger. The Ontario company Ganz has a hit with Webkinz, plush toys that sell in regular stores and are aimed at children as young as 6. Buyers enter secret codes from their toy's tag at webkinz.com and control a virtual replica of their animal in games. They also earn "KinzCash" that they can spend to design its home. The site gets more than 3.8 million visitors a month.

Sherry Turkle , a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the social aspects of technology, said the participants on these sites are slipping into virtual worlds more easily even than their older siblings.

"For young people, there is rather a kind of fluid boundary between the real and virtual world, and they can easily pass through it," she said.

"The ability to express themselves is really appealing to the millennial generation," said Michael Streefland, the manager of Cyworld, a virtual world that started in South Korea and now gets a million users a month in the United States, according to ComScore, a research firm. "This audience wants to be on stage. They want to have a say in the script."

But Turkle expressed concern about some of the sites. She said their commercial efforts, particularly the advertising aimed at children, could be crass. And she said advocates an old-fashioned alternative to the sites. "If you're lucky enough to have a kid next door," she said, "I'd have a play date instead of letting your kid sit at the computer."