Four to 14-year-olds are more likely to use a mobile device than a laptop. One study, by the NPD Group, reported that 40 per cent of children aged 4-5 were actively using a smartphone, iPod Touch or a tablet. Ipsos MediaCT reports that 54 per cent of kids aged 6 to 12 were using mobile devices to play games. Tablets specifically designed for kids are starting to enter the market.
It's a world away from the early 2000s when children had to spend hours bargaining with their parents over the time they spent on the family computer, immersed in virtual worlds on a big screen. Children still play in these worlds - look at the popularity of Moshi Monsters - but the rise of mobile gaming has, in many cases, changed the way they do it.
Mobile or tablet apps, rather than fully-fledged big screen experiences, are on the rise: the most popular app for kids in 2012 was Angry Birds. On the other hand, the immersive, 'big-screen' experiences of virtual worlds - particularly for older children - are becoming more rich, realistic and diverse.
What's changing? Trends that are influencing the evolution of virtual worlds for kids
1. PC vs. tablet sales: plummeting PC sales coincide with a rise in tablet sales (tablet sales are set to overtake PC sales by the end of this year). That means virtual worlds for kids are having to adapt, moving away from the big screen experience and towards mobile or tablet apps. The challenge for their creators lies in adapting the rich experience they offer to suit a smaller screen.
2. Dilution: there are many virtual worlds out there designed for young children and tweens. Some of the early virtual worlds will see their membership decline as more games enter the market and compete for the notoriously unpredictable attention of children and teenagers. As children hit their teenage years, games and worlds like Minecraft, Wizard101, and Roblox - as well as MMOGs like Sony's Free Realms, and the more adult orientated World of Warcraft and Neverwinter - jostle for attention.
3. Graduation: as a generation of children who've grown up playing in Club Penguin 'graduate', there's no guarantee that a younger generation will take their place. Peer pressure will dictate the popularity of a network or game, and this is a hard age group to predict. Games need to be agile and learn from their users.
4. Getting the quick hit: games like Candy Crush Saga have endless levels to tackle, puzzles that can take you weeks to complete and audio/visual feedback on how well you've done. They also give you a limited number of lives, and make you wait hours until you can play the game again if your lives run out. (And they're addictive: every time you achieve a goal, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you want to keep playing and win the next puzzle.)
5. Mobility: know any teenagers who aren't glued to a screen? Virtual worlds can be a massive time drain, and a commitment. Rather than spend six hours in front of a computer immersed in a virtual world, kids can now play a three-minute game of Angry Birds in the car on their way to school (and get that quick fix).
6. Social integration: teenagers are totally focused on sharing (or should I say over-sharing?) on their social feeds, and the power of the crowd has a big part in dictating the next big thing. Just look how quickly Pheed was propelled to the top of the app chart, largely thanks to tween users. Children are learning to express themselves. Social integration is part of that expression, and games that offer a greater ability to be creative will shine.
I think we're going to see more virtual worlds designed specifically for tablets, and virtual games, such as Get Out Explorers, that encourage children to spend time outside. There's still a place for the big, rich virtual worlds and games, but the competition for attention is fierce. And in a world where there's no guarantee of a lasting commitment to the community, (just look at the recent closure of Toontown, for example) this is a fickle (real) world to be in.