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Virtual Games -- Massively Multiplayer Comes to Kids

If you've ever watched or read science fiction stories about parallel universes, you will understand where this topic is headed. Perhaps you are already aware of Second Life, an activity that is best described as a simulation rather than a game. It's a virtual world of enormous proportions that is accessed through a Second Life "Viewer" -- a computer program similar to a web browser (often referred to as a "client" in computer terms).

Second Life falls into a gaming category called "Massively Multiplayer Online Game" or MMOG -- a popular acronym that is peppered across the Internet. The basic idea behind these games is to create virtual worlds that are populated by real people who usually are represented by animated characters (human or otherwise) within the game. Players come and go, as they log in and out of the simulation, and while they are in the simulation they are able to interact with each other in real time. They can walk, run, chat (through text or sometimes voice), and even exchange physical gestures and -- in the case of some games, including Second Life -- can participate in virtual sex.

If you're raising your eyebrows, you may be surprised to know that these worlds are growing and expanding at a phenomenal rate. When Second Life debuted in 2003, only the most avid online destination seekers took part and paid the fee for admission. However, now you can visit and participate in most activities (including the above mentioned diversion) for free. This has caused a rush of new signups over the past couple of years, although it is hotly debated as to how many return and visit their second life on a regular basis.

The possibilities for revamping your life within the virtual realm are arguably more endless than even in your real life. Individuals, companies and institutions are able to literally purchase virtual land and use it to sell items in the game's currency, which can actually be traded for real world money. Yes, it is possible to earn a living playing this game, although I think a job at the local supermarket might be a better bet.

Obviously Second Life isn't a playground where you would want to set your kids loose. The greatest issues of risk involve the usual problems of revealing real-world information to strangers and the fact there is explicit sexual content with no real way of blocking these areas for underage (or adult) participants. While Linden lab, the company that offers the virtual universe, says they are working on an age verification system, at this writing it was still not in place.

(The company has an alternative world called Teen Second Life, that is available to the 13 to 17 demographic. Supposedly it is free of the aforementioned sexual content.)

Naysayers aside, MMOGs will only grow more popular as technologies allow for faster Internet connections, higher quality graphics and more natural mechanisms to control your virtual being. In the case of Second Life, mainstream companies are jumping on board, along with real-world education institutions that are dabbling with the idea of using the simulation as a virtual campus.

In the real world, other companies are planning on playing virtual gods and creating their own universes. Most notably is Disney's recent announcement in January 2008 of their intentions to create worlds for children based on the company's many movies and properties. Club Penguin is one of Disney's early entities and recently they introduced a Pirates of the Caribbean online destination. This latter entry, like many other MMOGs, is available in a subscription or a free version. The catch to the no-cost option is limited playing abilities and your child will be subjected to advertising sold within the virtual world (another popular way for virtual entities to fund their operations).

According to a January 28, 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times, Disney is only beginning to unveil their out of this world ideas. At a reported cost of $5 to $10 million each, the company plans to create as many as ten virtual theme parks built around their popular characters and franchises.

While Disney will likely be careful to create scenarios that are kid-friendly, parents will soon recognize the monthly fee involved in these activities may be hard to ignore once their child has invested time and effort into building a "presence" in the virtual world. Once the account is closed, everything is lost, putting almost certain pressure on moms and dads to pay up regularly and keep the lights on in their little one's alternate universe.

While this short article can't even begin to discuss all the ins-and-outs of MMOGs, it is certain your children will become more familiar with these emerging technologies and the tempting pull they will have on wallets and time commitments.

Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.


Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org


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