There's so much more to MMOs than achievements and points, and there are many popular children's titles that would be great settings. Some foster exploration, some teach, and some are just wonderful venues for kids to have fun. Read on for a look at what children's MMOs need to be made (and I promise that not one is Harry Potter!).
I often feel like Rabbit when I'm playing MMOs -- hurrying, worrying, and often ending up too busy with menial tasks to enjoy the bigger picture around me. Wouldn't it be nice to just relax in the Hundred Acre Wood and let the adventures come to you for a change? The characters and stories have an appeal to both children and adults alike, and there are a lot of fun ways to branch off and explore. Kids could go off in search of Eeyore's tail and end up spending time at the bridge playing Poohsticks, or escort Winnie on a honey hunt only to learn that Roo has spotted the Heffalump. There are lots of opportunities for non-linear gameplay, exploration, and imagination in a Winnie-the-Pooh setting. (And who wouldn't want a chance to see Piglet in action?)
Magic Tree House
The popular children's novels about Jack and Annie traveling through time would make a terrific setting for an MMO. In each story, the two children set off for a different place and time, and there's usually a mystery or riddle to solve along the way. It's a wonderful way to get children interested in history, and I've always felt that "historical MMO" is a genre that's been overlooked. It would be fun to take on the role of Jack and Annie and be able to visit Ancient Greece, the Civil War era, Han China, or the Wild West. While the novels often have an overarching mystery or puzzle to solve, Annie has a natural curiosity that often takes them off the path to meet important figures of the era or discover important locations. That sort of desire to explore is natural for children, and the Magic Tree House stories are great because they encourage exploration and also teach without it feeling like "work."
Adults have Lord of the Rings Online, so why not have the world of Narnia for children? While older children can probably handle the UI and combat mechanics of LotRO, it would be nice to see an MMO that's as compelling and as rich as Lord of the Rings yet a little more kid-friendly for younger players. There's a fantastic storyline and a rich world to explore in Narnia, and if the recent success of the film is any indication, there are plenty of young players who would love to pass through that closet and meet up with Mr. Tumnus and Aslan.
Magic School Bus
Here's another "magic" story series, but instead of focusing on history, Ms. Frizzle's bus introduces children to the world of science and nature. Players could take on the role of a student in the class and shrink down to get a close-up look at ecosystems, microscopic life, and even outer space. There are a couple of MMOs that introduce children to the world of science, but it's still a relatively quiet genre, and the Magic School Bus series would be a fun concept to let children go beyond the stories and explore things at their own pace.
Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew
Children love mysteries, and yet it's a hard genre to make into an MMO. But with more and more MMOs finding ways to successfully add player-created content, this might be a good setting to use it. Children could build their own mysteries and puzzles and then go off and try to solve those created by other players. The role of detective is always a fun one, and there are a lot of fun ways to channel our inner sleuth, from hidden pictures to deciphering secret codes.
I really have no idea how you'd make an MMO out of the Dr. Seuss stories, but it would be one heck of a fun world to play in! There's so much to the stories that could work in an MMO -- from the fluky characters to the unusual settings to the use of sounds and words in helping early readers. Just the art alone would make for a fun world to spend time in.
These literary works would all be great settings for MMOs, and while they wouldn't replace the books themselves, they would give children a chance to interact and explore the worlds they have read about. As a result, a symbiotic relationship develops. Children tap into their imagination and immerse themselves in the worlds they've read about, and then they are even more interested to continue reading about them by playing in game. And they're doing it because of an intrinsic desire to just play -- not because they'll get a badge or token at the end.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.