A Playdate on the Cyber-Playground

By Reyne Rice, Toy Trend Specialist, Toy Industry Association

Where are kids playing these days? Kids are spending more time on the internet, which is fast becoming the new Cyber-Playground. Web-enabled toys represent one of the fastest growing segments of toy products in 2008.  NPD confirms that the average age of first-time use of a desktop computer by kids in the USA is currently 5.5 years of age. Ask any retailer or parent and they will verify that these web-enabled toys are definitely capturing the attention of today’s digitally native kids, with compelling web content and tactile hands-on physical products. The NPD Group, Inc has begun to track “Connected Web-Play” products, which combine both offline and online play with computer-connected toys.  Multiple categories currently include plush, fashion dolls, preschool toys, urban vinyl collectible action figures, vehicles, and trading cards for girls and boys.

Topping US $300 Million in annual sales during 2007, this growth segment will continue to evolve in 2008. Time Magazine has documented over 65 websites currently targeted to kids
8-12, with an additional 55 websites focusing on kids below the age of seven. The current convergence of media options has never been broader, providing today’s kids with continuous 24/7 access to their favourite content and characters.

Surprise: Girls Are Leading the Way With Online Play
At the annual ToyCon event in early May 2008, managed by the Toy Industry Association, this new phenomenon was addressed by multiple keynote speakers discussing the theme of Play in the Digital World.

Anton Rabie of Spin Master, Marc Rosenberg of Zizzle, and Tim Kilpin of Mattel confirmed that girls are the primary users – and thus, the main trendsetters – of online play.

Rabie observed that girls are faster adopters of the digital world due to the social networking aspect and customisation of many online sites. Successful sites such as Club Penguin, Funkeys and Neopets were designed from the beginning to have a sense of community and strong social aspects. With WebKinz, the user has an emotional attachment to the physical product (ie, collectible plush) that opens the gate to the online playground. It’s this emotional connection to a physical product that differentiates the successful online site from many of those that fail.

Kilpin noted the importance of using television advertising to drive consumers to the web, which then drives the consumer to the physical product. Having said that, he also emphasised that participating in digital is about taking chances. No one really knows what will work and what won’t. It’s important to experiment slowly and take baby steps.

Marc Rosenberg, of Zizzle agreed. He also recommended using less-expensive microsites for new products or for smaller companies with limited budgets, as opposed to more expensive television advertising or major websites.

They all agreed that digital must be a core component of your multi-platform marketing mix, and that building your brand online is of crucial importance to your ultimate success. Above all, you must be true to your brand.

Virtual Worlds Are Today’s Reality
“I gotta play, and I gotta stay connected to my friends.” That’s what today’s tweens want from their online gaming experiences, said one of ToyCon’s keynote speakers, Steve Youngwood of MTVN Kids & Family Group.  MTVN’s solution is to create successful Virtual Worlds such as Neopets and NICKtropolis.  His advice is that key factors for a successful virtual world must include good intellectual property, innovative product and development capabilities, advanced operational infrastructure, and effective, efficient distribution.

According to Youngwood, most kids play games as their primary online activity. Games are the social currency that can earn them “street cred” among their peers. A perfect virtual world allows kids to work on their identity and feel achievement, and is comprised of seven aspects of interactivity:

  • It must be fun
  • It must be customisable and provide players with a level of control 
  • It must be social (essentially, the school playground online) 
  • It must offer the opportunity for self-expression (giving kids a chance to share who they are) 
  • It must be persistent and live (with rules as real as possible) 
  • It must feature a never-ending story that allows for growth over time 
  • Most importantly, it must provide a safe playing environment that is comfortable for both kids and their parents

New Websites Will Infuse New Technology Breakthroughs
Adoree Durayappah of Animax Entertainment is constantly watching how kids play on websites and is monitoring the new technologies to incorporate into their web-builds. “Kids love to explore sites and to discover new windows for play. The most successful sites have an easy-to-use interface that is simple and intuitive to navigate and encourages exploration and discovery by the end-user.“ As a corporation dedicated to creating new media experiences, she and other web developers are currently exploring new technologies such as:

  • USB-enabled toys: that allow the play in the real world to be recorded into the product’s brain and transferred to the website via a USB-enabled device. In turn, the complimentary web play can be captured online, and then recorded back into the toy via the same USB-enabled device. Transferring this communication history can provide richer experiences for both online and offline play patterns. 
  • Web-camera games: the current penetration rates of web-cameras are low, but the growth rates are soaring, which will lead to new ways to play in social website communities. 
  • Headphone interface through thought: this ground-breaking research in the adult world will lead to opportunities for new product development in kids products in the future. 
  • Touch-screen technology: will lead to easier user-interface across platforms, allowing both websites and portable devices to provide rich interactive experiences with physical toys.
  • Facial recognition and gesture-activated interfaces: will evolve active play opportunities for all ages. Gesture-Tek, a new Canadian company, already has advanced patented technology in place to enhance mobile gameplay, plug n play game play and other on-screen activities. The Nintendo Wii is a prime example of this inter-generational play component. 
  • Extending the story on multiple platforms: web-enabled phones are the wave of the future. Mobile content is being developed to appeal to kids in short snippets, driving them to their favourite web-sites, TV shows and to visit their favourite characters online, for gaming and other experiences.

Adoree cautions that manufacturers need to be open to new ways to incorporate digital media into kids play.  “So many companies are legacy-minded, and are looking at the internet as merely a marketing tool, instead of a new business model. The same rules don’t apply to these digitally-wired kids. The internet and the Nintendo Wii have changed the face of screen play.”

Digital Media Shaping the Skills for Tomorrow’s Adults
At the inaugural symposium on How Digital Media are Shaping Children’s Learning (May 2009, New York City), the Joan Ganz Cooney Center presented numerous examples of studies and ground-breaking research on the role of digital media in the new global age. They challenged participants to use the digital media platform to respond to the new literacies that today’s digital natives will need to move forward in the 21st Century. Seven key skills were identified as crucial to tomorrow’s successful adults: critical thinking, creativity, cross-cultural awareness, collaborative teamwork approaches, career and self-reliance skills, communication and media fluency, and computing fluency.

User-generated content, wireless devices, text messaging, creating animated video shorts and digital photo mash-ups are all part of a digital native’s everyday language.  How many adults can claim to have mastered these technologies? “Today’s digital natives confidently roam rich virtual worlds, competently create content to share with their online peers, and easily navigate strategic video games via wireless, motion-sensing controllers,” according to the “D is for Digital” analysis prepared by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop (Dec 2007). The conference was streamed online using new digital media through a live webcast at both the Global Kids website and on Second Life. More information on the symposium’s research and findings can be accessed at www.joanganzcooneycenter.org.

The door to the future is wide open, for companies who approach their website offerings with vision and creativity. Throughout the next few years, these numbers will grow exponentially, and kids will be the voice that virally selects the winners from the losers. Kids want their voices to be heard, and are voting with their click-throughs and their page views.  Websites with the greatest stickiness will win in the end, bonding a new generation of playground pals, across the wider world of the internet.


Reyne Rice is a seasoned toy industry professional with over 25 years’ experience in marketing, researching and analysing the toy industry. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of toy products and works with the Toy Industry Association as their Toy Trend Specialist.  Attending TIA’s two international shows – Fall Toy Preview (October 14-17, 2008) and American International Toy Fair (February 15-18, 2009) - is a MUST for Reyne as these annual showcases provide a unique opportunity to view new products up to 12 months in advance of their launch to the consumer.