Virtual Worlds Are Still Unwritten: Can We Move Beyond Consumption?

natasha-habbo.jpgNatasha Bedingfield’s performing in Habbo’s teen virtual world April 10th and her hit song ironically correlates to the future of this kids’ digital platform, as she sings, “I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined…I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned.”

As the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference wraps up, it’s no surprise that advertisers are “Reaching for something in the distance, so close you can almost taste it…” namely, mining kids for the almighty brand positioning in-game to glean ‘engagement,’ that pays off in “RL” (real life).

At first when I heard Natasha Bedingfield was performing “unplugged” with her acoustic guitarist inside of teen virtual world Habbo (ok, kids, Star Lounge 3pmPDT/6pmEDT Thurs.) I figured I’d better e-blast our teen team or risk the ‘why didn’t you TELL me?’ reverb.

She’s a role model for many girls, being the first British female to score a #1 song on the US Billboard pop chart in 19 years, and scoring a Grammy Award nomination last year to boot, bringing a ‘Pocketful of Sunshine’ (new album name) to her fans…

It sounds like a fun way to immerse myself into the online experience as a fly on the wall to hear what questions kids ask as Natasha’s avatar boogies and answers kids ‘in-world,’ much like Danica McKellar appeared via Habbo radio to give kids exposure to her Math Doesn’t Suck book…

habbo-stationlogo.jpgNo sooner had I blitzed our youth team with trivia/truemors, (e.g. I’ve belted out the song ‘Unwritten’ ever since the Sisterhood of the Travelin Pants movie way back in 2005, finding the lyrics really resonate with my launching of Shaping Youth, and it was wild to read on Natasha’s forum and community site that the song was written for her brother!)…that I found out Double Fusion (mega-ad pros in 2D and 3D environs) have inked a new in-game advertising exclusive with Habbo to manage and coordinate massive integrated marketing campaigns. (full GamaSutra interview here)

Sigh. There goes the neighborhood…

Habbo cites 2.4 million visiting teens per month in the U.S. alone, and 9.5 million monthly worldwide…that’s a LOT of eyeballs about to be ‘integrated’…“with advertisers from the entertainment industry, retail, fashion and sports arenas to create relevant and interactive brand campaigns.”

The initial Bedingfield release said,

“More and more, virtual communities and social networks like Habbo are becoming a primary source of mainstream entertainment for teens,” said Teemu Huuhtanen, executive VP, marketing, ad sales and business development, Sulake Corporation and president, North America, Sulake Inc.

“Established artists like Natasha Bedingfield understand this online transition and virtual performances will be increasingly important for entertainers to reach their fans.”

But with this ad news…well…virtual performances are likely to be drowned out by the sound of cash registers, far beyond self-promotion by the artist themselves. 

Mind you, Ms. Natasha’s quite a marketing pro in her own online community which you’ll note as you delve into her cross-promotions, site videos, teen scene ‘schwag’ (logoed giveaways/branding opportunities) and commercial tie-ins like this one:

natashabedingfield_sims.jpg“Natasha Bedingfield has joined forces with The Sims™ to record the hit single Pocketful of Sunshine from her new album…in the unique language of The Sims, Simlish! (4-min. video clip) This track is only available on The Sims 2 FreeTime, the latest expansion pack that allows your Sims to master all-new activities that make their lives richer and rewards them for doing what they love most.”

So why am I concerned at the rampant level of ad infiltration and sophistication online and in-world? Because if we get away from fun virtual performances, entertainment, appearances and such to default to ‘twitch games’ for coins and consumption to embed branding, we’re losing ground and missing out on the vast potential of this digital platform in favor of a corporate spam-fest. Bleh.

Wired writer and educator Liam O’Donnell sums it quite well in this post on virtual worlds 2008.

kidsworlds.jpgHe cites Digado’s ’10 Reasons Why Kids Worlds Dominated 2008’, posted by Rick Van Der wal of Digado (digital+adoption name coinage) which, by the way, is an excellent resource for virtual world info.

His spot-on snapshot of the kids’ digital arena reflects some of the same telltale signs of research data on the damage of commercialism that the CCFC summit showed caused irreparable harm.

He sums, “Here are 10 reasons why I think the marketing money right now is going towards kids:”

  1. Kids are already online, and used to virtual environments
  2. Kids have proven to be capable of providing critical mass
  3. Kids know the value of Virtual Products (status) by nature
  4. Kids don’t object to the controlled, safe environments corporations want
  5. Kids play, play creates content, content captivates and creates lock ins
  6. Kids are not skeptical about branding
  7. Kids worlds are centralized, creating valuable ‘focus points’ for advertising
  8. Kids don’t go bezerk on corporate decisions
  9. Kids want stuff. Adult ’stuff’ such as coffee mugs don’t work, toys do
  10. Kids are harder to reach outside of the internet

He’s absolutely right, of course. But AAAAAAAAAAAUGH! I’ve reached “the next level” of in-game grief!

I’ve written much about Teen Second Life’s evolution, Global Kids’ PSAs and fabulous human rights work via machinima as well as newcomers onto the scene doing good things like Dizzywood and Zookazoo, but wow…the last half of that list smacks right up against the lack of corporate self-rein on the ethical front.

The vapid values of kids beginning to define themselves by what they have rather than who they are is disturbing enough…

…But the fact that we’re trashing kids’ internal landscape, AND our own planet’s external one simultaneously is shockingly myopic. Madness.

As Allen Kanner, co-founder of CCFC articulately framed, we’re selling kids constant “propaganda for materialistic ideology” and the “meta message is even more damaging than the ads themselves.”

Tim Kasser’s research furthers this notion of teaching kids they can “buy their way to happiness.” And the British Heart Foundation’s ‘Don’t Target My Kids’ website and U.K.’s Children’s Food Campaign talk about the influences of advergaming and virtual worlds as if they’re one long, ongoing commercial.

In this U.K. Telegraph article, Ed Mayo, chief executive of the National Consumer Council said, “Parents should be aware that the internet is highly commercial. Every hour that a child spends in front of the computer is like letting them run loose in a shopping center.”

As some of us have been discussing, this doesn’t have to be so!

There’s so much creative juice and ample innovation to turn these virtual worlds into entertaining ways of imparting valuable information and embedding positive cues…

As Natasha Bedingfield’s hit song goes, “Staring at the blank page before you…Open up the dirty window…Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find.”

Let’s turn the blank page into a meaningful canvas of creativity rather than consumption. Virtual worlds are still ‘unwritten’…kids need the digital industry to wield the pen with care.

Wanna help?

Some of us are interested in putting together a coalition/thinktank to bring together thought leaders who see the promise of the digital space beyond coinage and consumption.

We need YOU to make it happen.

Ping me on the blog, or e-mail me directly: amy at shaping youth dot org.

Visual credit Spongebob shot: Digado, digital adoption blog



  1. Great overview of the ad creep (or should I say stampede?) into these new spaces for kids. Right now, it has a real wild west, stake-your-claim kinda feel, with advertisers leading the wagons westward-ho and anyone who doesn’t have a marketing degree wondering what all the fuss is about. I say we change that. Count me in on the thinktank/coalition. Great idea. I’ll send you a msg later today and we can go from there.

  2. Thanks, Liam…I don’t know if Izzy told you, but Kirsten at Dizzywood was trying hard to get a panel of us at Virtual Worlds 2008 to address the “Beyond Coinage & Consumption” issues (educators, child advocates, gaming researchers & such) but they couldn’t seem to fit us in on their very busy platform of Mattel -biggies and other huge mega corps salivating at the prospect.

    It’s absolutely vital that we shift the track on this train early on to harness the value, the power, and the creativity threshold for the greater good…

    Net neutrality is at a VERY high risk from the stampede for greenbacks, and the entire internet could become a spam-a-thon sold to the highest bidder…and the kids along with it.

    btw, COMPLETELY agree that most people don’t even see what ‘the fuss is about’ so the first thing is to drag out the research, build the awareness, get KIDS themselves on board, and team with social media groups like Chris’ new venture on Facebook called “My Data is My Data” to combat the FB Beacon stampede as well!!

    Highly recommend we hit the privacy issue pertaining to kids concurrently, as they are growing sick and tired of being ‘chum’ in the sea of sharks as well…There MUST be respect of kids from the marketing community, not bombardment and commodification!

    I say we tap into your Ryerson contacts and talk to the Digital Natives everywhere to bring collegiate voices into the fold to mentor the teen/tween awareness factor re: the ‘whys’ and put the tools in the hands of YOUTH to tell THEIR story of the need for net neutrality.

    They can speak to this much more eloquently than we can when they’re caught in the crossfire of ‘opt out’ vs. ‘opt in’ and having every inch of movement tracked and recorded for sale.

  3. btw, it’s not like the gaming industry is NOT aware of the potential here…So on a positive note, a reminder of MediaPost’s Getting Green In Game from last summer:

    And the Chronicle of Higher Education post about Immersive Education Submerging Students in Online Worlds Made for Learning (I think it went behind the subscriber wall, so I’ll pull some relevant paragraphs and post a snippet)

  4. So I guess what I’m saying is…it’s not the virtual worlds themselves, it’s how they are USED for the greater good, and if we can get biggies like Aaron Walsh from Boston College on board this train to speak on immersive education as a platform experience (and how to mitigate this branding bit in VW so that it doesn’t overshadow the user experience on a higher plane…)

    It sure would be a great addition to Virtual Worlds conferences beyond the corp. consumption bit to have a ‘breakout summit’ for thought leaders to think through the CREATIVE appeal to kids in meaningful manners…More soon…A.

  5. I was thinking of you today, Amy. I’m finding that even when star-power is used for “good” (yes, there are always flaws), we can always detect something negative. At times I think we need to recognize celebs and media who are doing something “better” than normal rather than what’s great when it comes to helping the media do better by families and kids. Otherwise, we might just drive ourselves nuts. Don’t worry, I never give up and always know improvements can be made in every area of the media, but when I see improvement or “catch someone being good” (or at least better than normal) I have to recognize it. You know what I’m saying here?

    One parent definitely spoke her mind:

    Talk to you soon-
    Dr. Robyn

  6. Hey, believe me, I’m TOTALLY for using starpower for good…and as long as it’s not greenwashing, pinkwashing, etc. etc. it serves in a win-win imho…(thus my ‘give ’em a break’ awareness focus on Live Aid, Live Earth, the Bono bashing on ProjectRed, etc.)

    That’s why I DO embrace Natasha Bedingfield’s virtual performance in-world, as a healthier role model etc., my rub is this…

    Why do corporations see the need to trade on her fame and talent (and IP/content/promos etc.) for Pocketful of Sunshine and plaster them into a branded ad opportunity for every Coca-Cola toting, stylish sneaker-wearing hipster that wants to piggyback on HER fame to make THEIR fortune from KIDS’ eyeballs.

    Let Natasha be Natasha…that’s plenty of promo in itself for Habbo to hang their hat on, and for celebs to be incentivized to come up with core content/value that appeals to teens and passes the sniff test w/child advocates.

    Why tarnish her own brand with a bunch of ancillary ‘integrated’ advertising to make it akin to a RL concert venue of over-priced tees, banner ads and clutter?

    Eventually advertiser’s greed will risk driving away the very TEEN audience who came for the show and for the experience! They’ll get fed up with being blindsided with why to buys and pop-up banners…n’est ce pas?

    Kids? What do you think?

  7. My thought is– they do it because they can. They throw everything up in the air and see what sticks. Their agenda is not our agenda. They think to themselves; how can we make more money, keep our fans, and still look like stars? It is their job to think to themselves; why walk a mile in tattered shoes when I can get a piggy back for free? Where’s the next pretty pony?

    Dr. Robyn

  8. ugh, don’t mention ‘pretty ponies’ ever since that ‘whorses’ post of the sparkly sexualized beasties in platform shoes. 😉

    Seriously though, we really DO need to overhaul the models and really maximize forces with all the net neutrality folks that are making big headway here.

    Come to think of it, it’s high time I do an interview with Jeff Chester and his great resources at the CDD. He’s got a list of emerging models for change in the digital sphere and ways diff. orgs are implementing new apps and positive uses…

    Check it out here: (vast amount of my faves!)

  9. Hey, now here’s some uplifting news to balance things out a tad…check this out from UC Davis:

    “Computer Games Can Make Kids More Social, Not Less”
    March 24, 2008, UC Davis

    Contrary to common education wisdom, computer games and other technologies can foster community-building, a strong sense of identity and higher-level planning even in very young students, UC Davis researchers report.

    “There is a lot of hemming and hawing among educators about the introduction of technology in the early grades,” said Cynthia Carter Ching, associate professor of education at the University of California, Davis. “But the worst-case scenarios just don’t pan out. Technology can facilitate creativity and social awareness, even when we don’t design the use of it to do so. And when we do design technology activities with these things in mind, the possibilities are endless.”

    According to Ching, early childhood educators often argue that technology can squelch young children’s creativity and social interaction in the classroom.

    But in two recent studies of kindergarten and first-grade students, Ching has observed that children find ways to transform their experiences with technology into fun, highly organized group activities. She also found that technology-based activities can be explicitly designed to foster social reflection and advanced planning among young children.

    Ching and her collaborator, X. Christine Wang from the University at Buffalo, SUNY, presented the research today at the annual meeting of the American Association of Educational Research in New York City.

    In their first study, Ching and Wang observed children who chose to play a computer game during their free time. Though only one child could play at a time, the children negotiated turns and gave each other advice about how to play the game.

    “Though this is hardly the ideal setting for social interaction and higher-level thinking, the children exhibited a great deal of executive planning skills and complex social negotiations without any guidance or interference from adults,” Ching said.

    In the second study, children were given digital cameras and told to create digital photo journals. The students displayed creativity and engaged in complex planning at every stage of the assignment, from how they framed their shots to how they chose to organize them to tell a story, Ching found.

    “This study shows that rather than technology being something that children merely use, it can be a creative tool for increased reflection on social networks, friendships, relationships with teachers and a sense of self within the world of school,” Ching said.

    Ching and Wang received the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies at last year’s AERA meeting.”

  10. All: Want to be clear that Natasha’s performance ‘in-world’ in Habbo was NOT linked to advertisers and such (yet) —my framing was the ‘what ifs’ of new partner Double Fusion and its impact on the vw experience.

    In other words, my purpose was to put across a ‘just don’t do it’ thought (to chew up a brand tagline) because it alters the user experience shifting from a virtual performance to a ‘branding opp’ with tons of ‘sell.’

    Anyone in Second Life could speak to how different things would be if the platform was less role play and more brand-driven. Sure there’s ‘integrated advertising’ in there, building names, kiosks, college fairs and such, but I guess what I’m saying is we all need to be aware that the VW platform could be exploited for hawking stuff if it becomes just another ploy to get lingering teen ‘eyeballs’

    To me, there’s a big diff. btwn. creative entrepreneurs selling virtual goods of their own making (custom clothing, jewelry, ‘skins’ whatever in SL, and some trend-trackers interweaving namebrands on every avatar tee to cross-promote and seed peer influence for ‘must have’ consumption…Am I wrong here?

    Gentle…now, folks…civility, please… 😉

  11. Ok, gang, this is exactly what I wrote about in terms of fouling up cool applications to alter the user experience with ad/spam interference…

    As David Armano twittered, “ugh, Twitter was testing ads last night, I feel like I was cheated on!”

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