So what exactly makes an MMO kid-friendly? It might not be as easy to define as we think.
Safe chat (or is it?)
The first thing that tends to distinguish kid-friendly MMOs from their adult counterparts is the fact that chat is more heavily moderated. Kid-friendly games use whitelists and chat settings to keep kids from seeing inappropriate messages from other players.
But if there's one thing that holds true, it's that safe chat is never safe. Habbo is exhibit A of a kid-themed MMO that struggled to keep chat kid-friendly. And players will always find a way around whitelists by retyping words in clever ways. Even in a game like ToonTown, which requires players to exchange codes in order to friend someone and unlock open chat, players found ways around the system.
Wizard101 has a very deep and complex system of gameplay. It's easy enough for younger players to learn, but building that perfect deck is a true challenge even for adults. Meanwhile, the "kill ten" quests that are a staple of practically every adult MMO are so easy that you don't even need to be at the computer to complete them (just ask a botter). Roblox is another title that's popular with kids, but even adults can challenge themselves by building worlds using LUA script and editing tools.
Clone Wars Adventures, the game that Jef wrote about in Why I Play, is a great example of a kid MMO that's become much more challenging over the years. New overland zones now make travel more dangerous than the danger-free hubs that existed at launch, new battle classes make leveling and character progression a more time-consuming challenge, and the new crafting system mirrors the typical crafting system of any adult MMO. Boss mobs even show up from time to time, like the Rancor, and if you're alone, the only thing to do is run and hope for the best.
It's common for kid-friendly MMOs to tip-toe away from death as a mechanic, either by changing the game rules (you don't die; you just get "knocked out") or by making the game world devoid of threats to safety. But SOE's two family-friendly titles, Free Realms and CWA, have bucked the trend and added in more danger to their games, and it's worked out well.
It's easier (part II)
Whether it's a kid MMO or not, a big part of what makes an MMO so difficult is the UI, not the gameplay itself. If you've ever tried to introduce an MMO to a non-gaming friend, you've probably seen how hard it is to teach the basics of the UI. What's intuitive for longtime gamers is an intimidating hurdle for non-gamers, and it's probably one of the reasons that MMOs aren't as mainstream as they could be. Kid-friendly MMOs might actually seem easier because the UIs tend to be more scaled down and clutter-free, not because the content is easier. And even with kid MMOs, it's far from perfect. My kids have walked away from MMOs in disgust, not because of the game but because the UIs get in the way of things. And when the alternative is a Wii or Xbox controller, who can blame them?
Chat and gameplay don't necessarily distinguish a kid-friendly game from an adult MMO, and neither does subject matter. At first glance, it might seem easy to throw out general descriptions of MMOs aimed at a younger audience: pastel colors, cute avatars, and pretty worlds. They might even involve popular shows, movies, and characters that kids love. But again, that doesn't always work either. Flyff looks like the quintessential kid-MMO, and there surely are younger players in the game. But it's also very popular with adults, and there was even a $100,000 World Championship tournament in the game back in 2011. Talk about intense!
Meanwhile, we have two Star Wars-themed MMOs out there currently, and while Star Wars is an IP that's popular with both kids and adults, SWTOR is definitely not kid-friendly because of the adult-themed content in the cutscenes and gameplay. And if you polled non-gamers, they'd probably say that adult MMOs overall, with their fair share of elves, gnomes, spaceships, and sparklies, are all child's play anyway.
It might be time to drop the title of "kid-friendly" and instead just focus on making great MMOs for everyone. There are some games that do that, like Wizard101, Minecraft, and A Tale in the Desert (which my daughter and I both enjoyed while I was working on my CMA columns). MMOs are worlds with thousands of people playing and interacting, so it's no wonder that there are many grey areas when attempting to distinguish a kid-friendly MMO from an adult one. In the end, it's up to parents to determine what's kid-safe for their family, and that's probably the best litmus test there is when it comes to MMOs.
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.