Notes from a ‘Digital Kids’ conference

By Anne Collier

In case parents are interested in what the toy and digital industries are thinking about and designing for kids…

Digital play that’s both mobile and tactile was the centerpiece of what all the adults were talking about at the Digital Kids conference in New York last week, but their insights were like “frozen concentrate” compared to those from a panel of kids aged 8-13.

Moderated by Jori Clarke, CEO of Circle 1 Network, which runs the virtual world, the kids talked about their own play and socializing on phones, tablets, consoles, and computers (seemed like they all used, if they didn’t personally own, all of the above). They play traditional games like poker and Scrabble online with their parents, MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) with friends, all kinds of single-player and social game apps on phones and tablets, and one kids even plays the very undigital Dungeons and Dragons with his friends (though using Skype as the gathering “place”). And if you think kids watch less TV if TV sets are not allowed in their bedrooms, these kids will disabuse you of that antiquated notion. They told us they love watching TV on their tablets while in bed – with the Optimum app.

Kids’ picks

Favorite games and services they mentioned included Jetpack Joyride and Angry Birds on phones and tablets,, Minecraft, LittleBigPlanet, inFAMOUS, Instagram for socializing, Roblox, NBA 2, and lots and lots of YouTube for how-to’s, music videos, funny videos, and game cheats. But that’s just a snapshot of – as you well know – a highly fluid, high-energy situation, kind of like Class 5 whitewater. But the movement’s lateral too, not just linear.

They didn’t go into how they got their safety smarts, but they were very matter-of-fact about wanting to keep the social game play to people they know because “other people are not always there for you – they could hack your account, and they may not be a kid.” Their good sense reminded me of recent findings by researchers at MediaSmarts in Ottawa (see this).

Their free toy stores

The effective strategies they shared for getting money to support these interests from parents and relatives (aunts and grandparents were mentioned too) were a riot – including putting on “a sad ducky face,” “early in the morning, when my parents’ judgment is sometimes clouded,” and grandparents who “spoil me rotten.” They had a lot to say about allowance, babysitting, chores, and other “revenue” opportunities too, but all the questions about money from the adults in the room didn’t completely square with the kids’ interests. Yes, some were playing expensive console games, but they also seem to love all the free entertainment available – though some kids said they “hate in-game purchases” and “fremiums,” which are some strategies app developers have to monetize what is becoming a tough media category for exactly that.

Jane Gould of Nickelodeon’s Consumer Insights department spoke of their work with kids – more kids-in-a-lab than the free-wheeling conversation above, of course. She spoke of app stores like Google Play and Apple’s store as the equivalent of a “free toy store” and sources of entertainment “snacks” (you can download, play and delete in 5 minutes with no risk to the snacker). They gave a focus group of kids $10 iTunes cards to spend on apps in a set period of time and found that the kids had a hard time spending all the money. So when the time was up, the kids were in a panic to figure out how to use up their $10 and just picked games randomly to complete their “assignment.” Gould suggested that app users are conditioned to avoid apps that cost even a little. You can’t get your money back if you don’t like a game, so why pay when you “a never-ending supply of free games,” she says the reasoning goes. Do you find this to be true at your house?

From a teacher’s perspective

Top picks of the one elementary school teacher at the conference, Marianne Malmstrom, were the apps and activities for little kids by 1) TocaBoca out of Stockholm and San Francisco (e.g., Toca Doctor, Toca Robot Lab, Toca Kitchen, and the famous Toca Tea Party) and 2) the award-winning Duck Duck Moose in San Mateo, Calif. (e.g., Park Math, Word Wagon, Peek-a-Zoo, and Superhero Comic Book Maker) and). Marianne’s reason: These companies, the former a startup and the latter part of a giant publishing company, “started with the kids, based products on what kids want, and took their time to figure out what the technology can do that’s unique” in a child’s world. It’s not that these digital games are the all of play – “games are a subset of play the way education is a subset of learning,” she said – but they’re not worth their salt if they don’t use the technology to add something unique to the spectrum of ways kids play.

Definitely not all mobile, though

With so much talk of apps, you’d think kids had somehow migrated en masse to the mobile platform, so it might be helpful to see what’s going on with kids on the Web, where there are digital sandboxes (a newer category that’s all about kid-created content, such as in Minecraft and Roblox), virtual worlds (more social game-like, such as Club Penguin), and massively multiplayer games (with quests and raids like in World of Warcraft). According to virtual world market researcher KZero in the UK, this market is maturing, with fewer startups (more on the mobile platform now), spin-offs from the big companies (e.g., MechMice from the creators of Disney’s Club Penguin), and huge mature worlds such as Poptropica (254 million accounts) in the 5-to-10-year-old category, (212m) and (220m) for 10-15 YOs, and Habbo (280m) and Maplestory (120m) for 15-20 YOs (Maplestory is from Tokyo-based Nexon Games, which has a range of free massively multiplayer [role-playing, action, and shooter] online games, or MMOGs, that make money on in-game purchases such as weapons and other virtual objects). By “maturing,” KZero means that market penetration is high in various regions – for example, nearly 79% of all 7-to-13-year-olds in Australia and New Zealand with Internet connections play online games; almost 71% of kids 7-to-13 YO Net users in North America; and nearly 67% of Net users that age in Western Europe. Here’s KZero’s complete presentation.

But of all those age categories, “tweens [9-to-12-year-olds] rule the virtual world space,” says Scott Traylor, CEO of 360kid, a youth digital products consultancy. Scott, who has played in 427 kids’ virtual worlds in the past few years, says that the Top 10 tween VWs are, in order of unique visitors,, Minecraft, Roblox, Poptropica, Woozworld, ClubPenguin, Webkinz, Fantage, MoshiMonsters, and MonkeyQuest – and they represent half of all 427 VWs’ traffic. Here are Scott’s just-posted top picks from Toy Fair this year.

Related links

* From SesameWorkshop: “The evolution of a Sesame Street iPad app,” and just last month, the Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center released the report “Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis”
* From my friend Anastasia Goodstein at the Ad Council on her couple of hours at Digital Kids and Toy Fair: “Play: There’s an app for that”
* Kids market researcher Amy Henry at on her top picks from the Toy Fair show of which Digital Kids was a part
* Video of the closing panel on the state of toys (with and without technology), moderated by Scott Traylor of 360kid. Some great products on a lot of lips: Skylanders (videogame + action figures + trading cards packaged), Sifteo (little game/computer cubes), and littleBits (snappable robotic bits).

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