Archive for the 'Virtual Worlds' Category

10 Years of Kids Virtual World Data

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

10 years of cumulative online uniques to children's virtual worlds in the US

(Click image above to see larger, complete version of chart.)

In the early virtual world days, when Club Penguin and Webkinz were just beginning to be the biggest online destination for kids, I started collecting online data about those worlds. Bit by bit, month by month. Over a few years it became kind of a data archiving obsession, which also included the older NeoPets world, and in the years to come hundreds of other online destinations of interest to kids. Poptropica, WoozWorld, Jumpstart, Wizard101, Roblox, Fantage, Moshi Monsters, Minecraft, and Animal Jam to name some of the most popular virtual worlds. Over time I followed almost 600 virtual worlds that appealed to kids and occasionally some for adults. In those early days I used an online tool called Compete.com to collect my data. It was a rather inexpensive tool, and when I compared the data coming from this product to actual data shared with me by some of these virtual worlds, I found both sets of data to be surprisingly in line with each other.

Fast forward to today. A client recently asked for some historic data on successful virtual worlds for kids, in particular those destinations that are still an ongoing concern. Sadly many worlds despite their earlier success didn’t survive. (More on that in a moment.) So I brushed the dust of of my old data, added in some new data, and much to my surprise I found I had information that collectively told the story of the rise and fall of children’s virtual worlds. That is the rise and fall of many,… but not all.

If you click on the smaller first chart above you will see it will pop open a larger and more detailed chart. This larger chart compares the top 12 virtual world destinations for children over a 10 year plus period of time (2006 – 2016). It contains cumulative monthly unique traffic in the US. Unique user traffic piled on top of other virtual world traffic. You can see in the earlier years of this chart Neopets, Club Penguin, and Webkins traffic combined reached a high collectively at the end of 2007 which is about a third of all traffic you see when comparing it to the many more virtual worlds in the race by the year 2013. Virtual worlds for kids were not only growing in popularity, so too was access to the internet for children.

You will notice some lettered markers placed at the top of this chart (A, B, C, D & E). Each marker notes the growing popularity of Apple iPads over time, starting with its debut in 2010 (A). Once iPad popularity reach a tipping point in mid 2013 (D), with 55% of all 2 – 10 year olds having access to an iPad, things in the online virtual world space started to change. You will note the sizable drop in online traffic over the next two years. What happened to the success of these virtual worlds? Well, most virtual world destinations were built with an interactive authoring tool called Adobe Flash. Sadly, Flash wasn’t supported on iPads. This was intentional on Apple’s part. Whatever Apple’s reason for not allowing Flash to work on its iPads, it was a real processing hog, and back in the day it would usually be the reason your computer or laptop fan kicked on, which if you had a laptop, the fan turning on would start to drain your laptop’s battery.

Virtual worlds that were developed in Flash now had a problem. With kids migrating from desktop or laptop computer to iPads, most virtual world companies had a decision to make. That decision often involved deciding how their virtual worlds would work in another tool, and individually would these companies have the time, resources and money to migrate to another tool. Yes, there were other factors involved as the virtual world space matured, COPPA and privacy concerns for one, but the Flash development issue was a sizable problem for many and one that most couldn’t overcome. The few worlds that were able to cross this chasm were Minecraft, Roblox, Poptropica and Animal Jam. Part of their solution was to develop their virtual world products to work on the iPad, and often later Andriod tablets, while at the same time keeping an online web-based version of their products operational, even if it meant having two different technology solutions moving forward. One for web, and another for tablet.

10 years of cumulative online uniques to children's virtual worlds in the US

(Click image above to see larger, complete version of chart.)

This next chart, when clicked to enlarge, provides additional detail about the overlap in traffic from online uniques to app downloads, only in the US. A couple of things immediately to note. First, the app download traffic is a fraction of the online unique traffic. Online traffic for children’s virtual worlds in its heyday was collectively almost five times that of app downloads of the same product. Also, the Compete.com data ends in November 2016. Sadly Compete.com as a service shut down in December 2016. The online tool I’m using to track app downloads is Priori Data. This data does not provide the full picture of when these surviving virtual worlds originally launched their virtual worlds as an app, but the app data service App Annie does provide that information, and is included as a table on top of these charts.

When looking at the app download data it looks like Roblox is seriously beating out Minecraft. An important distinction to make about the two apps; Roblox can be downloaded for free, whereas Minecraft costs $6.99 to download. Minecraft users have to pay to use the app from day one. Roblox users can try before they buy, though users might enjoy the experience more with in-app purchases. This is also true for Animal Jam and Poptropica, where you can download a freemium version of the app, and convert to a paid monthly subscription after trying out the product or simply purchase in-app items.

If you have any insights to share about this data, or you have any questions, please send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you!

Additional references for the first chart:

Rideout, V. J. (2011). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America (p. 19, 21). San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. (click to view).

Rideout, V. J. (2013). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013 (p. 9, 20). San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. (click to view).

Rideout, V. J. (2014). Learning at home: Families’ educational media use in America (p. 18, 19). A report of the Families and Media Project. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. (click to view).

Rideout, V. J. (2015). The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens (p. 22). San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. (click to view).

Tween Virtual Worlds by the Numbers

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Top 10 Tween Virtual World and MMO destinations which include Wizard 101, Minecraft, Roblox, Pirate101, Club Penguin, Moviestar Planet, Poptropica, AnimalJam, Webkinz, Fantage

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted some data on the virtual world space for tweens. I’ve been curious about a number of worlds and how they have been doing. Some questions that have been on my mind; How has Wizard101 been doing since the launch of it’s newer Pirate101 property? Has Roblox been growing and how has it’s traffic been in comparison to Minecraft? How have the Marvel and Star Wars designs worked out for Club Penguin? These are just a few questions, but what often happens as you start tabulating the data, may more questions start to emerge, along with some interesting findings. Let’s take a look.

A few immediate observations (see chart below). Wizard101 is crushing it! Their unique visitor stats (“uniques”) are off the charts! The big question I’ve had for the last year or so, can KingsIsle maintain it’s growth with two virtual worlds instead of eroding traffic from one to give to the other? In the first six months of Pirate101 it looked like Pirate was cannibalizing traffic from Wizard. Not so for the last three months. Both worlds appear to be growing in traffic very nicely together, and it appears without any cannibalization.

Chart - Top 10 Tween Virtual Worlds Comparing Unique Visitor Data
Chart 1 – Top 10 Tween Virtual Worlds – Comparing Unique Visitor Data. (Click image to see larger version of the chart.)

Another finding, it looks like unique traffic to Roblox has been following Minecraft’s growth pretty evenly. Roblox edged out Minecraft this past December and May, just a wee bit, and now they are neck-and-neck for the month of July.

While Poptropica’s numbers are still very nice, we’re not seeing the usual summertime climb in traffic. I find this a little odd.

Similar flat growth for Club Penguin during this summer, but they broke an all time record this past April, reaching the highest level of traffic ever in their history! The December before they also broke that record. Some nice high numbers, which I would also expect to see in July again.

Animal Jam continues its very steady slow climb. Always nice to see the upward trend here, even if it is small. Slow and steady wins the race!

What’s also interesting about Chart 1 is what it does not say. For the month of July Moshi Monsters didn’t place in the Top 10. Neither did MonkeyQuest, or for that matter the other two Viacom worlds as well, including PetPet Park and NeoPets. (More on Moshi in a moment.)

Chart - Top 10 Tween Virtual Worlds - Cumulative Unique Visitor Data
Chart 2 – Top 10 Tween Virtual Worlds – Cumulative Unique Visitor Data. (Click image to see larger version of the chart.)

From December 2011 to December 2012 unique traffic almost doubled to 50 million uniques across these ten worlds. The cumulative traffic for July 2013 is just over 55 million uniques! Compare that with July 2011’s numbers of just about 21 million uniques and you can see the overall growth in the tween virtual world space. However, the majority of the growth appears to be coming from Wizard101, Minecraft, Roblox, and Pirate101.

Chart - Top 10 Tween Virtual Worlds - Cumulative Unique Visitor Data
Chart 3 – Top 10 Tween Virtual Worlds – Percentage of Marketshare based on Unique Visitor Data. (Click image to see larger version of the chart.)

This marketshare chart above demonstrates how Wizard101, Pirate101, Minecraft and Roblox control almost 60% of the uniques combined for tween virtual worlds in the US. You can also notice some erosion with Webkinz and Fantage over time.

Chart - Moshi Monsters - Lifetime Unique Visitor
Chart 4 – Moshi Monsters – Lifetime Unique Visitor. (Click image to see larger version of the chart.)

Now let’s take a deeper look at Moshi Monsters. Why didn’t they place in the Top 10? The chart above shows the lifetime uniques for the destination within the US, more than five and a half years of data. You will notice that Moshi had a really great spring. Huge traffic! However, that traffic almost evaporated during the last two months. Let me remind you, the summer months in the US are a time for big numbers, not small. When this happens the first thing I often question is the validity of the Compete data for those months. The trouble is I’ve been using Compete for so long I’ve noticed they rarely get two months of back-to-back data wrong. It could happen, but I’m doubtful that’s the problem. Whatever the reason, it is a surprise to see after such a stellar rise in the spring.

These are just a few of the many stories that could be told with this data. There are many more stories to be told when you look at the data together with the hundreds of other worlds I follow as well. Especially when you break out the data by category (casual gaming, creative expression, education, sports, etc.) Do you see anything of interest with these charts? Do you see a story that needs to be told? If so, be sure to post a response in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

Inside the World of Webkinz – An Interview With Creative Director Karl Borst

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

[The following is an interview I shared with Children’s Technology Review in their November 2012 issue. I’ve wanted to interview someone close to Webkinz/Ganz for a very long time. The first article I wrote about Webkinz was in August 2009. After years of trying I finally connected with someone within Ganz and the rest is history (HT BL!). I’m very thankful for the opportunity, this is a very rare public look inside Ganz, and hope fans will enjoy the piece.]

Karl Borst is the Creative Director at Ganz for Webkinz and their new virtual world called Amazing World

Karl Borst is the Creative Director at Ganz for Webkinz; a position that has given him the front row on the turbulent world of children’s virtual worlds. Last week, Karl shared some insights about the past, present and future of Webkinz, including the latest 3D virtual world from Ganz called Amazing Worlds. Here are some selections of our conversation.

Scott Traylor: How long have you been working on Webkinz? Where did the idea come from?

Karl Borst: Development started in late 2003, and I joined on March 1, 2004. The original idea came from Howard Ganz himself. He loved the toys and wanted a new way to market them. Taking inspiration from Cabbage Patch Kids, he wanted to create an experience where the child “discovered” their new pet. Later we expanded this to the idea that your plush “came to life” inside the virtual world. It was very important to us that the player feel the connection between their toy and the pet online. This was where I was able to really expand the original idea. It was critical to me that the pet feel a part of the experience regardless of where you were in the world. Adding the pet’s image to the dock, along with the multiple emotional states and speech balloons may seem very obvious right now, but back in 2004 none of the pet sites had this. This was a big improvement in Webkinz.

ST: How long did it take to get the vision of Webkinz off the ground?

KB: Well it depends on where we finally got “off the ground.” In August of 2004, after a day of play testing with kids, we realized we were going in the wrong direction. Honestly, we threw out a big chunk of work that we’d done up to that date. This was a very difficult decision to make. The toys were paid for, sitting in the warehouse, and plans were well under way to release the toy that October. Going back to the drawing board meant that we’d miss the Holidays. That said, in our hearts we knew that it needed to be done, so we buckled down and got to it. We ended up launching in April 2005, and it was a tough first few months. Retailers didn’t understand the product. They didn’t get how the world and the toy related. We even made a video that explained the product and gave the retailers televisions to show it on. All the while we were adding features and content to the site. The amount of work we did in 2005 is mind blowing. Realize we weren’t even in the top 100,000 sites at the end of 2005. Yet in 2006 we started to see real momentum. Christmas had given us a lift and then Easter, and the players were coming in at a faster and faster rate. Then in 2007 we exploded, and by the end of that year we were a top 100 site, and the number four Google searched term. If there was anything that I could tell companies that are considering building a virtual world, it would be you need to have patience. None of the virtual worlds have exploded out of the gate – not Webkinz, not Neopets, not Wizard 101, not even Club Penguin. You need to commit to the project and invest in making it better until you’ve got the perfect world for your audience.

Screen capture of the Webkinz sign in page from April 2007.

Screen capture of the Webkinz sign in page from April 2007.

ST: What do you look for when testing with children?

KB: We try to focus on what the child is doing, not what they are saying. You can really learn a lot from the actions a child is taking, or more often not taking. When you ask questions you find that kids have a hard time describing what they did or why they did it, and many times they really want to please you and aren’t as harsh as you really need them to be. When you see them fail at an action, or skip over a feature you thought was key, it speaks volumes.

ST: How did you shape the online experience over time? What guided your thinking?

KB: I’m sure this is where I’m supposed to say that we closely analyzed user trends and data, but to be honest we didn’t. A lot of the time we went with our guts and with what we were hearing from the players. First we knew that we wanted to make the world as interactive as possible. We wanted every object that looked like it was functional to actually be functional. I honestly think this direction has made the Webkinz room engine the best on the market. We also knew we just needed “more”. More games, more items, more stuff to do. Kids love telling you what they want, so you end up with more information that you could ever really use. The real challenge is taking all of that information and finding the gems to follow through with. Then turning those ideas into features that kids actually want to play. We weren’t 100% successful in this, but we had some real hits, like the Employment Office and the Chef Challenge.

ST: How has Webkinz changed over time?

KB: Adding more and more makes things complicated. Webkinz is much, much larger now than when we started. Tons of sections, thousands of items, dozens of games, multi-player areas… When we started it was so simple. Players could jump in and figure it out. Now we need to help players through the initial few plays so that they don’t get overwhelmed by the options. There comes a point where adding new features doesn’t improve your game. Now we’re focusing on refining our features, and using those features to create engaging events on a regular basis.

ST: Do you see differences in how kids from different countries use Webkinz?

KB: Actually, we don’t. I think that we’re tapping into some universal ideas of play and imagination. The core activities for all of our players are play games in the Arcade, do their daily activities and then play with their pets in their virtual rooms. While we’ve added dozens of features since the launch of the game, these core features which we’ve had since day one still resonate the best.

ST: Ganz has a number of virtual worlds now, can you share a little about each?

KB: We have four. First of course is Webkinz, which has been running strong for seven and half years now. Next is Webkinz Jr. It was designed as a truly pre-school virtual world. It’s highly educational, and requires no reading. While it did not see the success that Webkinz did, parents of children who play absolutely love the site. This year we released two more virtual worlds. In Amazing World you play a “Zing,” helping out the characters you meet, shooing away the nasty Nix, and working together to make the world more amazing. Finally, we’re currently in Beta with another new virtual world called Nakamas. This world has been specifically designed for girls ages 5-11 who love making friendship bracelets and hanging with friends.

ST: How long has Amazing World been in development?

KB: While I can’t say exactly how long we’ve been working on it, the development time was similar to Webkinz. Again we went through a number of iterations. Sometimes building a game takes on a life of its own. Many of the features that are now in the game, like the Nix, were added very late in development. And we’re still improving the game. We haven’t been happy about the interiors of the homes for some time now, so we’re working on making them much cooler – really taking them in a new direction.

ST: What did you do differently in building Amazing World from that of Webkinz? Are there any similarities?

KB: From the very start of the development of Amazing World, I wanted to build a virtual world that complimented Webkinz. I wanted players to have a very different experience in AW than in Webkinz. This is why you don’t “take care” of your Zing, and it isn’t a “pet”. The player should be able to play Webkinz for half an hour, then jump over to Amazing World and never feel that they’re duplicating effort. The other obvious difference was that the game was working with Unity3D to create a world that you can really live in. This meant that we wanted our games and activities to feel part of that world, and not independent sections. The fact that there is no “arcade” was a conscious decision. It also allowed us to do much more with the Zing’s room. Now the home and the yard provide greater freedom of design, without the restriction of a “grid.” This freedom comes at the cost of some more complexity but I think we’ve done a good job of balancing this out.

Screen capture of the new Ganz virtual world for kids called Amazing World

Screen capture of Amazing World. (Click image to see larger version.)

ST: What are you hoping for with Amazing World?

KB: Naturally we’re hoping that Amazing World captures the imaginations of kids, like Webkinz. While we’ve all seen many toy-connected virtual worlds come and go, Amazing World has the potential to revitalize this space, and most importantly, Ganz is committed to making this world great. Most people don’t remember that when Webkinz was launched that it was quite small, but was teeming with potential. With a dedicated team, we were able to refine, expand and improve the game into what it is today. We have a team that is just as dedicated to Amazing World and I am confident that players who get into Amazing World will stay on board for a very wild and exciting ride.

ST: How challenging is it to manage the needs of a toy product with that of a related virtual world?

KB: Ganz started out as a toy company, so when it comes to creating the products themselves, we’ve got a great system. The challenge comes with creating unique, engaging online play for specific products under a single brand. If you look at any popular toy line, take Polly Pocket as an example, you’ve got small $5 figure packs and large houses for $50 with multiple figures, and special packs with animals, etc. When those are the toys by themselves, the value is right before your eyes and you either like what you’re about to open or not. When you have a connected virtual world, you have to make a decision. What does each item give you? What should a $50 toy get compared to a $5 toy? Despite the fact that the customer can see the value of the $50 toy, there is still an assumption that the online play value will be greater than a $5 toy. Do I think that we nailed it with Webkinz every time? No. We had some real knock out successes with our ancillary products and some real flubs. It was bound to happen as we felt out this uncharted territory. That said, what we did perfectly well was the initial toy purchase itself. The value that we give with a single Webkinz plush toy is exceptional, and has clearly driven our thinking for our new sites.

ST: What do you think of the virtual world space today? How about the toy industry? Any thoughts on where you see either industry going?

KB: Overall I feel that virtual worlds have an inherent challenge to their definition. Virtual Worlds aren’t MMOs in the classic sense, though they have many of the social, multi-player experiences that make MMOs great. They also aren’t game depots, like Miniclip, but are expected to have many, quick-play games to engage players while they work up the virtual currency to expand their homes and dress their avatars. Finally, they aren’t “games” per se. They need to be a sandbox of interactive systems that allow the players to choose the experience that they wish to make, while remaining a cohesive world that isn’t confusing to a new player. It is important to integrate casual games into the world experience itself, making social interaction and cooperation a core part of the player’s day-to-day activities and bringing the player more fully into the world through story and guided play. The future of virtual worlds — including Amazing World — is in bringing these components closer together.

Making it to the Top — Tweens Rule the Virtual World Space

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

[Wendy Smolen is a contributing writer to the KidScreen blog. She is also a friend and co-founder of the annual children’s conference called Sandbox Summit. Wendy asked if I would share with her Kidscreen followers a taste of my forthcoming virtual world report.]

Scott Traylor, head of 360KID, has spent the last few years playing every game he could get his hands on (I know, a tough job!). He’s just finished a comprehensive virtual world report, and I asked him to weigh in on the top 10 Tween Worlds. Download a sample page of the report here or contact Scott for the complete report or more virtual world insights.

Tween friends playing together in a virtual world

Virtual world destinations for children sure have grown. Gone are the days of just Club Penguin and Webkinz. The past few years has seen an explosion of worlds, many specifically directed at kids under twelve. In the interest of assessing data on virtual worlds and MMOs specifically for children, I realized it’s important to follow all virtual worlds. In September, 2011 I had accumulated data for a total of 351 virtual worlds and MMOs. By September 2012, my list included 427 destinations.

When I sorted out the top ten virtual world destinations for tweens, some surprising trends emerged. This past September, the top 10 tween sites made up almost 50% of all virtual world and MMO traffic. Last year, only 36% of all traffic went to the same top ten. While the entire virtual world and MMO space grew 8.5% in that time period, the tween virtual world space grew almost 14%. The tween virtual world space is becoming increasingly stronger and more important.

What do these top worlds have that the others have missed? I have a few theories of my own:

1.) Find that secret sauce. Simply tying together a bunch of games will not do the trick. Find out what motivates your user base. Do kids in your target audience love horses? Or nurturing a pet? Maybe it’s all about sharing something creative with others. When you define one singular item, everything else will stem from that idea. Without it, your world will become just another virtual ghost town. Every successful world has something special. One great example is Club Penguin, where there are constant celebrations going on. What child doesn’t like to go to a party! Once you recognize parties are a driver, everything you do around that theme drives the engagement, including the games, custom costumes, even conversation.

2.) The real work begins after launch. Most new worlds fail within three to four months after launch. The initial peak in traffic is often followed by a giant decline. I see it over and over again with the data I’ve collected. “If you build it they will come” may be true at first, but if you don’t update it they will leave. Users constantly expect something fresh to be happening. New content needs to be added on a regular basis. While too many virtual world teams spend most of their development dollars getting to launch, the successful worlds spend half of their budget getting to launch, and the other half afterwards. Poptropica started with one island in 2007; 30 additional islands have been added to the world over time. Each island enriches the experience and keeps users coming back for more.

3.) Users know best. When I talk to people who work at the top ten virtual worlds, again and again they say: listen to your users. Many of the best improvements often come from players. And it’s not only important to listen, but to share that you have heard their suggestions. While it will probably be impossible to implement every idea, some may have the strength and validity to automatically rise to the top. Wizard101 solicits feedback from active users who have made a virtual purchase in the last 30 days. This sizable group has access to test realms and new content updates for two or three weeks in advance of them being posted to the entire community. During that time, they share feedback with the development team, offering real suggestions for increasing the engagement. And of course, feel empowered as loyal users.

As crowded as today’s virtual space is, it’s only going to get more so, before new worlds and ideas bubble to the top. Don’t jump in and expect things to be easy. You need to watch, learn, ask lots of questions, and, most importantly, play. Here’s hoping to see you on the top ten list next year.

Send comments to Scott (at) 360KID (dot) com or wendy (at) sandboxsummit (dot) org.

Will Wright on Game Design, Play and Learning

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

[The following is an article I wrote for the January 2012 issue of Children’s Technology Review. A PDF reprint of the article can also be found here]

Will Wright, video game developer extraordinaire, takes questions from the audience while sitting on stage

If somebody asked you to name the masters of interactive design, chances are good that Will Wright would be on your list. He created SimCity which led to SimAnt, The Sims, and Spore, and he’s currently working on a new social game called HiveMind. Last year in New York, I heard him speak and was struck by his thoughts about the learning opportunities he brings to his players, and asked him about it. What does he think about when he makes a game? What are some key influences? (Note that this was a long interview, and edits have been made for clarity).

Scott Traylor: In your presentations you often refer to learning theory, including your own Montessori education. It seems you have a passion for the topic.

Will Wright: Learning theory is certainly one of the factors that shapes my talks and my work in general, but it’s only one element. For me, making a game or a talk is a process of continual self-discovery.

Scott: Can this be attributed to your Montessori background?

Will: Montessori is good for self-discovery and exploration, but Montessori didn’t invent it. Self-discovery and exploration have existed for millennia before Montessori. it’s the way the human brain works. The whole constructivist approach to education simply leverages hardware that’s already built in.

Scott: When you say “constructivist” is it fair to say that you are thinking of Piaget and perhaps Seymore Papert?

Will: Oh, yes, and Alan Kay as well. This formalized approach to learning has really only been around for maybe a 100 years. We can go back hundreds and hundreds of years before that and see people understood this as the primary mode of learning. Consider the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci. At some point the pedagogy got wrapped around that inherent process. It’s something that has remained, almost becoming more relevant in terms of its implications with modern technology, or our imaginations, and our creativity. It’s almost more relevant now where people can approach a wider range of endeavors creatively, because of the tools we have, for gathering information, for creating things, for sharing things.

Scott: So you’re saying we’re at a point, technically speaking, where we are empowered as creators, as explorers, in anything that might interest us?

Will: Yes, especially in things like the social dimension. I can create something and put it up on the web and then by tomorrow 1,000 people might’ve seen it. Think back 100 years ago what it would have taken for that to happen. It just wasn’t a possibility then, but now it’s a possibility for anyone.

Scott: While these theories have become more formalized in the last century or so, good teachers and good facilitators of learning have been aware of these things for ages. Now there’s the opportunity for learning to be amped up through technology and through participation in a way we have never experience before, in such an immediate way.

Will: Yeah, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay were among the first people to realize the impact that modern technology was going to have. Nicholas Negroponte, as well.

Scott: When you talk about games, or video games, you often refer to these things as playful objects. Is that intentional?

Will: Let’s take a look at that. People like to call the things I make games, but I tend to think of them as toys. There really needs to be more open-ended play experiences and that’s a broader world than the formal definition of games. I think a game is really a subset of the world of play. In substance it’s really just semantics but it’s cultural as well. A lot of people think of games, video games, as this brand new thing that’s popped up. But of course games have been around forever. Most games are based on some fundamental play experience that at some point becomes formalized. There are different connotations to play, and with that formal rules. You might play with others, or by yourself, the play might be a zero sum game, or not. These are just a few specialized versions of play in my mind.

Graphic displaying Will Wright's learning model, comparing the universe of play and games.

Scott: Are there any play experts you follow?

Will: Not really. There have been a lot of attempts in the game design community to come up with more formal structures of frameworks to understand this. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. They’re looking at the different perspectives on play coming from cognitive science or sociology or evolutionary psychology. I don’t think any one of these things is going to capture the subject completely. You have to triangulate from all these different perspectives.

Scott: Do you think the vocabulary around play and around games is evolving?

Will: In general, yes. A game is like the nucleus of the experience, but it’s not the whole experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about the meta-game, the experiences we’re having around the game, experiences that are the larger iceberg. For example, The Sims is a game on some level, where you can play with goal structures and rules. However, there’s a larger game where people make things and tell stories about the game. Then they try things with online communities. These are the things that people do outside the game. It is what I call the meta-game. To me, the more successful games are the ones that spark these larger meta-games.

Scott: You mean bringing the play or the game experience outside of the game, in some kind of social context, where people can talk about and interact around the game?

Will: Yes, in some sense the game in the player’s minds goes from being a specific entertainment experience to becoming a tool for self-expression. At first they were playing for the fun, just exploring. Then they start realizing they can be expressive with it. It’s almost like playing a musical instrument. At first, you experiment and press buttons. At some point you realize you can compose music. You might even start to perform. Eventually this toy becomes a tool to express one’s self.

Scott: Is it accurate to say that the opportunity for creative expression is also a central part of your games?

Will: it’s one of the more powerful benefits of technology. We can do things now that allow people to come in and craft more interesting experiences and share them with others. Somebody can take something from their imagination, create an external artifact, and then share it. They can even collaborate on larger imaginary structures. This is something that used to be confined to a small number of people that had very high skills in language. These individuals could write a book and describe some imaginary world, like Alice in Wonderland. But not many people had that skill set. Now average people are getting these tools that empower them, to create entire worlds, external to their imagination, to share with other people.

Scott: You have this amazing ability to translate complicated systems into successful play objects. What is your thought process?

Will: First, how much are these things representations of the real world? When I get started it’s usually with something that contains some aspect of the real world that fascinates me. I’ll start to imagine if I had a toy planet, what kind of things would I want to do with it? What kind of processes would I like to see? By connecting the toy to real world, it maintains a relevance. Later that toy becomes the scaffolding for building a more elaborate model. When people get to the point where they realize the toy’s limitations, they start discussing and debating what their more elaborate model is relative to that toy. When players first started playing SimCity they didn’t know what was going on. They started building things, they started exploring what caused land value to go up or down, they explored issues around crime, or pollution. Eventually they get to a point where they say, “I don’t think that’s the way traffic really works” or “I don’t think the land value model is very accurate because of this or that.” They could not have formalized these thoughts without the toy. When a player realizes the limitations of a toy, the user has created a better model for themselves internally that transcends the toy.

Scott: Once a certain of level of mastery is achieved with a game, that’s the point when a player will go out and look for additional information to improve upon those models, those systems that they have in their mind?

Will: Yes, that’s the real model we’re building, actually. The computer is really just a compiler for that model.

In a Montessori classroom you will see thousands of tangible manipulatives. This photo is an example of bead work

Scott: What you have described in a sense are games that are digital manipulatives. Tangible manipulatives are a big part of the Montessori world and early learning. Sometimes I hear educators debate the benefit of digital manipulatives over tangible ones. Even if a digital manipulative doesn’t perfectly represent a system, they lead a user in a direction that helps facilitate further learning and growth and discovery that is more accurate and representational of the actual model.

Photo above: The typical Montessori learning experience is based on time with tangible manipulatives, such as these base 10 beads. There’s 1 bead, 10 beads, 100 beads, and 1,000 beads, in the form of a block. These physical manipulatives help young learners understand small and large, base-10 counting, and maybe even geometry (point, line, plane, volume). Substitute beads with the elements of a city, where you can freely experiment with a different kind of units and rules. Get the idea?

Will: Think about it. That’s what we call the scientific method. Quantum mechanics does not describe, is not reality, but it’s our best model so far for describing what we observe to be reality. it’s not the first model we built to describe it and it’s not the last model we’re going to build either. Each model is making a more accurate understanding of reality. They’re all just models and none of them are accurate representations of actual reality.

Scott: Does the knowledge a user gains through game play transfer into the real world? Do you have an example of people playing games where the user transferred something they learned from a game into the real world?

Will: There are a lot of things people learn from games that can’t be measured on any test. On the surface games don’t necessarily feel like education. But when you look deeper into them they really represent a fundamentally deeper level of education. There’s a common story I hear from players of The Sims. Someone will be playing the game and they really get into it. They make sure to take care of the basic needs of their Sims, getting them fed and rested before they go to work the next day. These players can get totally obsessed over making their virtual lives perfect. In doing so, a Sim might get a promotion at work the next day. At some point many players experience an “a-ha” moment — that its 2:00 in the morning, and they have to go to work the next day. Then somehow the players understand that they were taking better care of their Sim than they were of themselves. They were making sure their Sim got to bed on time, was well rested for work the next day, while the players were staying up late playing this silly computer game. For these players this is where they started understanding the strategy within the Sims as a time management game. it’s a game where you juggle many factors. Sometimes a player will step back for the first time and see their real life as a strategy game. As a player, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, they were making resource management decisions that would impact their Sim in the short term and long term. Then there’s the paradigm shift: What if your real life was a game, and you actually had these resources, and had to develop structures, how would you play it? This is one of those things you’re not going to measure on any standardized test. Through playing the player would walk away from the game thinking deeply about every aspect in their life. “Do I really need to do this now?” or “Should I really spend that money?” For the first time, the game caused them to clearly see the decisions they were making in every day life.

Scott: If the game is the model of a system, which happens to loosely or exactly parallel your own life, at some point, you might reach that a-ha moment.

Will: Right. People who think of themselves as really good strategy players, for some reason never think of their real life as a strategy game. If I were to treat my life as a strategy game how would I play it?

Scott: Will, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on play, learning, and games. While we have talked about a variety of inspirations and influences across a number of professions, is there one person that has done more to shape your thinking than any other?

Will: My mother, Beverlye Edwards. She supported me with all my crazy ideas as a child. If there was something I was interested in trying or doing, she believed that I knew what I was doing, even if at the time certain ideas seemed slightly odd. Just her believing in me allowed me to keep on trying new things, made me believe in myself, made me confident that I could do something big, something special. I thank my mother, for everything I have, everything I achieved, for her wonderful spirit and the great support she gave during my childhood years and in the years thereafter. I credit all my success in life to her unconditional belief in me and support in my trying something new.

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