Sony’s new virtual world, parent guide

Is Sony's Free Realms, now in beta testing, a virtual world or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG)? The latter is what Sony calls it, but I think it's both. Available online through a Web browser, the free version is more virtual world (with eight environments to choose from) which includes mini games in 14 categories (e.g., cooking, kart racing, mining, demolition derby, and music conducting). The $4.95/mo. version is the MMORPG involving quests and leveling as in the multi-million-player World of Warcraft. With both versions, you choose an avatar or "job." Member jobs sound a bit like some of WoW's – wizard, blacksmith, medic, archer, and warrior; free ones to be available at launch ninja, brawler, chef, miner, kart driver, card duelist, pet trainer, and postman (the game includes trading cards). Both members and free players can buy virtual goods for their avatars through "micro-transactions" with credit cards. Since the game's for all ages (likely starting at age 7 or 8), there are pretty robust-sounding parental controls (if kids are truthful about their ages). If you or your child would like to beta test Free Realms, email me at anne(at), and I'll forward your request. Meanwhile, Sony has just released its "Let the Kids Game" guide for gamers' parents. The free booklet, downloadable here, offers advice for healthy gaming and pulls together third-party research about the positives of videogaming, saying it "can help kids socialize, improve cognitive abilities, and strengthen family ties."

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