MMO Family: Virtual worlds for kids

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Nestling somewhere in between MMOs and social networking, virtual worlds are a virtual sandlot for millions of kids worldwide. Think avatar-based chat and mini-games alongside other kids of the same age range and interests, and you'll catch the appeal of these kid-friendly destinations. While a gaming parent might consider virtual worlds mere training wheels for games still to come, kid-friendly virtual worlds seem to fit the attention spans, chatty nature and niche-y interests of kids to a T.

The sheer variety of worlds appealing to children makes it easy for kids to find a spot where they'll want to hang out. As of early 2009, kids could choose from 112 virtual worlds designed for children and teens, according to Engage Digital Media, with more than 80 new worlds under development. The numbers of kids who've found a virtual home in these worlds rivals even the fat figures of MMO big dog World of Warcraft. Research firm eMarketer estimates that in the United States alone, 8 million kids hung out in virtual worlds regularly during 2008; that number is projected to swell to more than 15 million by 2013.
It's good to be a kid in a virtual world, literally and figuratively. Last year, we reported on a BBC study showing that virtual worlds offer children a valuable opportunity to "try on" different roles and ways of interacting in a safe place, free of real-world consequences. In fact, a 2008 University of Westminster study characterized the atmosphere in virtual worlds as supportive and reliable, observing that "the most important currency online is trust." The BBC called virtual worlds "a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media."

With this many options and this many good reasons to encourage kids to become involved with like-minded friends online, it's a fairly simple matter to find a site that fits your family. Some sites are entirely free, others require the purchase of a related toy, some are free with additional content accessible for a fee, and still others are fee- or subscription-based. Several, such as Free Realms and Wizard101, lean more toward a traditional MMO than a virtual world. We've pulled out a varied sampling of popular contenders -- you're sure to find a game that fits your family budget and your kids' interests.

For children For tweens and teens
MMO Family offers advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family. Connect with writer Lisa Poisso on Twitter at @emused, and e-mail your questions and observations about gaming and parenting to lisa (at) massively (dot) com.

This article was originally published on Massively.