There's hearts, checkers, chess, Texas hold 'em, Dolphin Olympics, a form of Scrabble, and on and on. Which – if you're a game aficionado – can make the social Web a 24/7 party (it can also give young gamers 24/7 access to communities of players of all ages, but more on that in a moment).
"Online social gaming has been around for years, available on Yahoo and other sites. But its popularity is surging, piggybacking on the success of Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and other social networks," the San Jose Mercury News reports. There are now business conferences gathering the corporate players and advertisers in the social gaming space. Kongregate.com alone has more then 4,500 games, the Merc adds, and "more than $30 million in venture funding has been invested in Silicon Valley start-ups that specialize in social games." This is distinct from the multibillion-dollar digital gaming industry dominated by Electronic Arts, Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, it adds. The difference between social gaming and the "old" kind is that you're interacting with people, not software (multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft-type worlds and the real-time chat of Xbox Live always did involve real-people contact). Interacting with people adds mostly fun and unpredictability but also an element of risk that gamers need to be alert to, if a game is associated with chat and other means of non-game communication with other players.
Social gaming, kid-style
Virtual worlds are social-gaming environments for kids, and they're multiplying like rabbits. The BBC calls this "boom time for virtual playgrounds." "Worlds" such as Webkinz.com, ZooKazoo.com, and ClubPenguin.com and services such as AddictingGames.com are "places where your children can interact with other children, and they are becoming a central part of the business plans of the people who make TV programs, toys and cereal," the New York Times reports.
Disney's newest world is "Dgamer," part virtual world and part social-networking site for kids, accessible via computer or Nintendo DS, the Washington Post reports. The Post says Dgamer gives parents a lot of control by allowing them to sign up for various levels: "At the most basic level, they can only message one another with preselected words and phrases. On higher levels, they are allowed more freedom, but there are filters for profanity." But the service is free, so it's not clear how parents could control kid workarounds. Dgamer joins Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, and recently acquired ClubPenguin. "According to research firm eMarketer, 12 million kids between ages 3 and 17 will regularly access virtual worlds this year. The firm expects that figure to rise to 20 million by 2011."
Worlds to watch for
Coming in the next six months or so, according to the New York Times piece: Spore (which will be playable via computer, phone, or NintendoDS), BarbieGirls.com, World of Neopia (Neopets' world), LegoUniverse, and PixieHollow.com (to go with Disney's soon to be released animated film Tinker Bell).
Downsides & how to deal with them
There are many positives involved in online gaming, we see in the research: e.g., the collaborative action in World of Warcraft guilds, individual and collective strategic thinking, thinking under pressure, and the informal learning associated with group activity involving multiple ages.
But there are downsides too, usually associated with the real-time chat around online gaming. For example, Doof.com, a brand-new UK-based social-gaming site. Have its creators thought about what parents might think about their kids participating when they read this heading on its About page: "Connect with Friends and Strangers," under which is listed Doof's "Private Messages" feature?
With household rules or in family discussion, parents might consider advising their gamers to make sure that…
* Chat sticks strictly to game-related topics, nothing personal
* No private one-on-one chat with people unless about it's just about the game and they tell a parent about it
* They turn off their headphones or stop chatting if the trash talk gets to be too much
* They come talk to you if anyone starts getting too abusive or tries to get uncomfortably close or overly friendly.
Kids need to know that getting lots of compliments can potentially be worse than trash talk and other abusive online behavior. Flattery can be one form of online grooming (see "How to recognize grooming," "Police on gaming community risks," and "How social influencing works."
Virtual worlds are by definition highly immersive. So parents may also want to be alert to signs of obsessive play. Besides the risk factors involved in real-time communication, there are concerns about something called "videogame addiction." Here's the US News & World Report's focus on younger gamers in this area (see also "'SIGNS' of Internet addiction."
* "Are ads on children's social networking sites harmless child's play or virtual insanity?" in The Independent
* "Fair game? Assessing commercial activity on children’s
favourite websites and online environments" from Childnet International and the UK's National Consumer Counsel
* "Building social currency in online games" at ClickZ.com.
* "Notable fresh videogame findings" at NetFamilyNews