The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

As Kids Kickstart The Metaverse, Is Public Service Media Ready?

David Kleeman draws on his extensive global research to highlight the challenges and opportunities for regulators and children's media producers as they prepare for changes in media habits we have only begun to imagine.

"[The metaverse is] arguably as big a shift in online communications as the telephone or the internet."

David Baszucki, CEO, Roblox

Any debate on the future of public service media for children cannot assume that what children are doing now is what they will be doing five years from now. To plan for the future you have to imagine the future. And just as “transmedia” and “360 commissioning”  were buzzwords in recent years for brand extension to additional platforms, in 2021 we’ll hear the term “metaverse” with increasing frequency.

The former terms had a few challenges. “Transmedia” was used overly broadly to mean any property with both video and a website or game. “360 commissioning” was too often seen from an anxious commissioner’s perspective, not from where children wanted and expected to engage with their favorite stories and characters. This time, the roles are reversed and it’s the audience - the kids - who are taking the medium into their own hands and writing the narrative.

There is, as yet, no true metaverse – Roblox and Fortnite come closest – but there is a thriving editorial exchange and digital industry in defining and building the variety of elements that ultimately will click together like a jigsaw puzzle, making a seamless whole.

Matthew Ball suggests that we need to reinvent entertainment for a generation that’s never been without touchscreen, mobile, interactive media. “Today's generation thinks very differently because they're 'wired' for interaction, for creation, to participation, for marketplaces, to be a click away from communicating with their friends for shared experiences anywhere.”

If young people are going to congregate there, it’s critical that there be non-commercial worlds within metaverses, devoted to otherwise under-served ideas, information and communities. While the foundation of public service media has traditionally been universally-available free-to-all services, when public broadcasters don’t claim space on new platforms from the start (often before access is ubiquitous), all the prime “real estate” will already be held by commercial interests.

Who will define and create the “public service” content and experiences? Is it children, since these are places for creation as much as consumption? What is the role for the historic public service organizations and overseers, such as BBC and Oftom?

This article will begin to address what a metaverse is and isn’t, enabling the UK creative community to be “metaverse ready.” Our goal is to project how young audiences will navigate, discover, engage and share their favorite content. From there, the children’s media industries - public and commercial - can critically assess where their IP fits and how to build thoughtfully and sustainably for the future.


What Is A Metaverse?

The definition of a metaverse is still evolving, with people’s varying approaches reflecting the role they play in its evolution.

For example, venture capitalist and strategist Matthew Ball considers the size and dimensions of a true metaverse from a creator’s perspective, suggesting it will be:

  • massive, persistent, live and synchronous;
  • spanning both digital and physical spaces;
  • encompassing a built-in economy; and
  • embracing multiple entities (array of brands, story-worlds, games and more).

By contrast, Roblox CEO David Baszucki’s eight characteristics of a metaverse more reflect players’ desired experience:

  • Identity - my avatar reflects my real or imagined self and is present and consistent wherever I go;
  • Friends - I can socialize and play with real-world friends and also befriend and interact with others in-world;
  • Immersiveness - the metaverse removes me from my day-to-day, into a fully-formed alternative world;
  • Anywhere - I can create and play from anywhere, across all types of devices;
  • Variety - content and experiences are both deep and wide, accommodating diverse and curious users;
  • Low friction - onboarding and transitions are easy, to encourage trying new things;
  • Economy - I can acquire goods or services entirely within the metaverse, and those who provide them are paid for their efforts; and
  • Trust and Civility - the metaverse is welcoming, equitable, diverse and kind - and fully respects GDPR, COPPA and other youth safety regulations.

Dubit Founder Matt Warneford adds insight into the concept’s humanity: “The metaverse is defined by its ability to satisfy our need to be around other people – live and 'in person'. Much of the internet is made up of lonely experiences; we keep in contact, but we don't feel together. Spending time in the metaverse feels more like reading in a coffee shop or hanging out in the mall with friends. There's a long way to go: the technologies to enable the fullest version of this are as far from today’s capabilities as we are from the 1990s Internet. There’s no question, though, that a growing share of our time will be spent within virtual spaces and with virtual goods — for education, work, health, politics and leisure.”


Why Should I Care?

In the last 20+ years, the media environment has become increasingly fragmented across multiple devices and platforms. Where once we had fewer than a dozen channels of television, now there are hundreds of linear channels, dozens of OTT VOD platforms, YouTube and other video sites. That’s just for “TV.”

Game and mobile app stores have millions of titles. Content discovery has become incredibly difficult: in Dubit’s Trends studies, upwards of 60% of 2-15 year olds said they often or sometimes have trouble finding their next “favourite thing.”

At present, content discovery is like being given a paper map and told to find a specific location and the best way to get there. A metaverse will be more like navigation software, with places and routes connected beneath the surface by prompts, algorithms and AI to plot your route and recommend other places of interest. Alternatively, it may be more like a “tesser” or Harry Potter-esque “apparation”, enabling instant transport from place to place.

The benefit of being immersive, always-on and persistent is that your “stuff” – avatars, skins, emotes, weapons, currency and other resources – will stay with you as you play, build, socialize, leave and return. Different platforms of a particular IP – its “transmedia” elements – should be interconnected and seamless within the metaverse. The same applies across devices, such that a player could lay down a game controller and pick up a smartphone without interrupting engagement.

There’s another, bigger reason to care about the metaverse: it provides an opportunity to create a world essentially from the ground up. What kind of choices will we make?

In the US, commercial television was launched long before the country realized something was missing, and introduced public TV. By contrast, in the UK the BBC was well established before commercial services were allowed, and even then many had public service mandates. The effects of these 180-degree different histories echo to this day not just in television, but across the countries’ approach to media.

Tim Berners-Lee, a creator of the World Wide Web, is optimistic about the future of the internet, with youth in the lead: "Hopefully there will be a cohort of young people who realize that the world does not have to be the way it is.” This can only happen, though, he notes, if we commit to global equity of access and resolving online toxicity: “Today, we’re seeing just a fraction of what’s possible. Because while we talk about a generation of ‘digital natives’, far too many young people remain excluded and unable to use the web to share their talents and ideas.”


Is The Metaverse For Kids, Though?

Like any universe, there will be parts of the metaverse that are kid-appropriate and there will be “adults-only” neighborhoods. Without question, though, children and teens are already “kickstarting” the metaverse in their digital play and socializing.

This isn’t surprising: who better than young people could benefit from a coherent, connected, easy-to-navigate world of play, creation and learning? Kids immediately understand the metaverse concept - a nearly-boundless space where they’re free to pursue their favorite brands, stories and characters in all their variations.

Youth are driving the explosive growth of Roblox, currently the nearest approximation to a metaverse. The platform was already popular pre-pandemic, but Roblox has become young people’s top space for everything from little kids’ birthday parties to adolescents’ live concerts, while they’ve been prevented from being with friends in person.

As “down on the corner” shifted to “up on the server,” kids and teens “hacked” platforms not designed for them, like Zoom and Discord, adapting them to their needs for connection and engagement. They’re building their own metaverse piece by piece, solving with tech for the challenges in their lives.

In children’s lives today, everything competes with everything. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says “we compete with Fortnite, and we lose.” It’s not “do I watch this channel or this one,” but “where can I best get what I need right now - a game or a video, on my phone or my TV, alone or with friends, by consuming or creating?”

With young people leading the way, the metaverse will have massive responsibility for safety, following both the letter and spirit of laws, regulations and terms of service. Communication and social play being inherent to immersive worlds, this creates a design and development challenge to have foolproof identifiers, persistent throughout the metaverse, carrying a player’s permissions (including age) to enable access to appropriate areas and leveling modes of connection and communication.

Roblox CEO Baszucki believes that users will do their part to create a respectful citizenry:

“People will know they have a physical identity and a digital identity, Just as people that are very facile with books and videos and balancing them, we’re optimistic they will be with the metaverse as well. We’re not so dystopian in our vision relative to maybe some science fiction. We think people will be able to balance this and use it in a positive way. We think it will be an integral part of learning and working. Just another tool side by side with video and books and other forms of communication.”

A metaverse needs an economy (see below) that may well merge real-world currency, cryptocurrency, NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) and in-world ‘money’. These physical and digital worlds collided recently, when Epic Games paid complainants in a class-action lawsuit over “loot boxes” with a mix of Fortnite “V-Bucks,” Rocket League credits and US dollars.


One Metaverse Or Many?

Ready Player One and its OASIS notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that any one metaverse will emerge for a long time. The resources needed – servers, creative development, business relations, moderation – are larger than even current behemoths (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft) could support. Corporate competitiveness will likely mean development of multiple immersive worlds, to some extent defeating the “seamless” purpose of a metaverse, though – like drops of mercury on a plate – these stand-alone worlds may ultimately connect or merge.

As noted, there isn’t a complete metaverse as yet. TechCrunch calls our current state the multiverse, where an array of virtual worlds “function almost like new countries in our society, countries that exist in cyberspace rather than physical locations but have complex economic and political systems that interact with the physical world.” Each of the biggest platforms - Facebook, Fortnite, Minecraft, Core, and Roblox - incorporates major elements of what a metaverse will be.

Will these grow independently as worlds competing for our attention and commerce? Will tendrils of the multiple worlds connect, forming a virtual “union” throughout which players can easily commute? Will one of the massive tech companies acquire enough of them to create a de facto behemoth metaverse?


Roblox: The Proto-Metaverse

Based on the definitions above, we can see the seeds of the metaverse in Roblox. It isn’t a game, but a multiplayer game platform with over 20 million experiences, attracting over 32 million daily active users. The best description would be the “YouTube of Games,” as the platform is populated largely with user-generated, multiplayer 3D worlds. Roblox has been around since 2006, but largely flew under the radar until recent years. In particular, the pandemic spiked its popularity as social gaming replaced meet-ups in person.

Anyone, anywhere can learn to use the free Roblox Studio engine and publish games to the platform. Because of this, there are vast amounts of content available; indeed, one of Roblox’ core tenets for the metaverse is “variety.”

The quality of games on the platform ranges widely, but creating a hit game can bring community celebrity status among the massive community of “builders.”

Roblox is downloaded once, and then the child can access new experiences by simply clicking play. There’s no additional app to install or password, and the vast majority of games are free to play. As a result of this ease, kids play on average 20 different games every month. For this reason, hot games can quickly reach over 1 billion plays, with the top game (Adopt Me) racking up that many every month.

Users customise an avatar to represent themselves in the virtual world. A large proportion of users change their avatar’s clothing daily, connecting their real-life mood and identity (one of Roblox’ tenets of a metaverse) with their virtual persona.

Users, creators, and content are all connected by a thriving economy. Robux is the currency that flows through it, used to buy in-game items (power ups and boosts), avatar customisation with gear and outfits, and - rarely - even entry to experiences. A 2020 study found that Robux are now the #1 thing kids buy with their allowance, above candy, magazines and even Fortnite. Top developers are able to make a living creating games for Roblox, and others bring in smaller but tidy profits.

With such an extensive mix of identity, content variety, frictionless entry to different experiences, and a thriving internal economy, why is Roblox not a true Metaverse? Ben Thompson in Stratechery calls it, instead, a “microverse,” because “the traditional conception [of a metaverse] was a virtual world that rivaled the real world; anyone could plug into it from anywhere, with full interoperability. Roblox, though, is only Roblox.”


Monetizing The Metaverse

A true metaverse isn’t only a hang out; it’s a marketplace where businesses can be formed and real money made.

In 2020, 1.25 million Roblox developers earned payouts totaling $329 million. Games are predominantly free to play, but many creators offer in-app purchases using Robux, bought online and added to players’ Roblox accounts like pocket money. The Robux in one’s wallet can be used for items or experiences across the platform.

Kids spend serious amounts ($1.9 billion in 2020) in Roblox, even though there’s no tangible item they can take away from the platform. They invest in items for their avatar as self-expression and representation inside the world. They buy in-game upgrades for the same reason adults might buy better running shoes or a flashy car - seeking to advance to a “next level,” get a desired badge, or show off to friends.

In a fully-operational metaverse, digital items will have to persist across multiple, connected worlds. Goods bought in Roblox-world should also be available in Fortnite-world, Facebook-world, and so on, without having to repurchase them.

This means a metaverse must have secure purchasing, ownership, management and trade throughout its scope.

This is where blockchain, and more specifically Non-Fungible Tokens, come into play. NFTs use blockchain technology to record and track securely who owns a digital item. These can be anything from a trading cardto a GIF, a work of art to a piece of music. “Non-Fungible” means that the unique item isn’t interchangeable, contrasted with fungible tokens (like major cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and Ethereum) where each unit is interchangeable, one for one.

NFTs benefit both the creator and the end user. There’s an immutable record of ownership and the transaction is completed securely via the blockchain, using a (fungible) cryptocurrency as payment. The creator benefits from the monetization of their digital item (and most NFTs also have a future-sales commission built into the creator’s contract).

NFTs are having a moment, perhaps a bubble, with a lot of money being spent on items with artificial scarcity. There’s no reason why only 10 versions of a digital picture can be created, as the marginal cost is near 0. When it comes to the economics of a metaverse, however, unique and verifiable NFTs are necessary to ownership verification and transfer.

Public service organizations will have to navigate the financial aspects of the metaverse, in order to make their presence within sustainable. Are services still “non-commercial” if their monetization is entirely internal - selling virtual objects or experiences to enhance audiences’ connection and engagement with public brands? If external funding (whether from government, NGOs or underwriting) or licensing and merchandising are necessary, how will the public service content differentiate itself from other worlds to justify the different treatment?


Brands Together

Most experts expect that the metaverse will envelop many stories, brands and characters. Fortnite is a prime example where licensing for “skins” causes worlds (e.g., Marvel, DC, Premier League) to collide. Moreover, because a metaverse enables creation as well as consumption, companies’ IP may show up in user-generated games or settings they didn’t create (there are more than 1500 unofficial LEGO games in Roblox).

Companies will have to decide to what extent they’re comfortable with sharing space and giving up some control to users. Dubit writes about managing a brand’s “fanatomy” through give and take with the audience. When people create art, fiction or other creative expressions around their favorite IP, the owner has to decide whether to allow, affirm or incorporate those ideas, or to shut them down. To the extent the brand encourages them, fans feel listened to and deepen their commitment to characters, stories or worlds.

In a metaverse, people will display their personalities and passions wherever they go - via their avatars, the games or spaces they create and decorate, the choices they make in where to spend their time. In today’s mash-up society, it’s likely that their expressions will cross and mix brands. As long as they’re not doing so in a disrespectful, harmful or offensive way, it may be best to allow them latitude.

Will public service brands be comfortable sharing space with highly commercial brands, stories, characters and products? Given that for today’s kids and youth “everything competes with everything,” they already navigate across platforms without paying much attention to whether content is public, commercial or subscription.


How Do the Real World and the Metaverse Connect?

No matter how vibrant and expansive the virtual world, most of life happens in the actual world. So, while we will immerse ourselves in the metaverse, will the metaverse also immerse itself in us? What will we carry with us from cyberspace back into our day-to-day lives?

Some examples are easy to imagine: we may shop and buy inside the metaverse for goods to be delivered in physical form. Our avatars and resources from immersive space may get incorporated into our homes to keep us engaged and connected with the work, play or socializing we do virtually, or into our cars to facilitate autonomous controls.

Activities that occur in virtual reality within the metaverse can continue in the outside world via augmented reality. One of the earliest AR applications was Yelp’s “Monocle,” through which the rating app overlaid reviews and recommendations into live street views through a smartphone. With AR, users can be accompanied everywhere by their metaverse avatars, resources and knowledge.


Will There Be “Television” in the Metaverse?

We’ve already seen that immersive worlds can draw huge participation in special events. Marshmello and Travis Scott concerts played concerts in Fortnite, which also hosted the Fortnite Shortnite Film Festival. Roblox held an album release concert and Q&A with boy band Why Don’t We. Minecraft’s annual in-person Minecraft Festival migrated to the platform during the pandemic. Nate Nanzer, Fortnite's head of global partnerships, has said he can envision any of these platforms becoming a "tour stop" for bands.

Would we use the metaverse for our day-to-day TV/video viewing, though? If so, how would we navigate? As convenient as it might be, it’s difficult to imagine a single “box in the corner” TV viewing space where we’d go to screen across all companies, genres and content.

Metaverse TV could be organized and branded similarly to today’s broad “channels” (e.g., Nickelodeon) with IP from a variety of sources. It could involve deeply branded spaces (e.g., an MCU “world”) where users might watch, play and interact with their favorite stories and characters from a single company.

The children’s video environment has evolved into “clubhouses” and “portals.” In a clubhouse, kids affiliate with the umbrella brand (Nickelodeon or PBS Kids) as much as the specific content titles. Branding and packaging are integral to consumers’ identification with the clubhouse, and fans look to connect with it beyond video and into games, merchandise and more.

A portal is simply a content gateway, like Netflix. There’s little fandom for the brand, but there is usually substantial love for the IP within.

Will metaverse video venues be clubhouses or portals? For a number of reasons - scale and efficiency, multi-platform immersion, frequency of use, and more - the clubhouse model seems most likely

Television may not look the same in the metaverse. Virtual, immersive worlds enable audience participation in interactive stories, creating the sense of truly being part of the action. Bandersnatch was Netflix’ first foray into interactive media; since then, they’ve launched several interactive shows including a choose-your-adventure animated TV series based on Minecraft. Viewers input decisions that affect the course of the story, using their TV remote.

Moving closer to the “gaming” side of interactive media, Rival Peak launched in 2020 with a massive game-like reality show starring 12 AI characters - Big Brother meets Animal Crossing. In this quasi-reality show, the characters are contestants in a Survivor-type competition where the audience can influence the outcome by completing tasks and helping their favourite characters win.

For Generations Z and Alpha, just watching a TV show may seem mundane compared with socializing in Among Us, winning a Fortnite Battle Royale, or completing a Roblox ‘obby’. Even when they’re not playing a game, they’re often watching someone else play, on Twitch or YouTube.


Conclusion: We’re a Long Way from OASIS, But…

Barring a dystopian apocalypse like in Ready Player One, we’re unlikely to get the OASIS anytime soon. We won’t spend 20 hours a day in haptic suits and chairs, using the virtual world to avoid the real one.

We will, however, spend increasing amounts of time in virtual spaces, as we play games, engage with stories, concerts, shop, learn, socialize, communicate, and create. It may not all be fully immersive, but it will be deeply engaging. How should creators and regulators plan wisely now for a metaverse future, knowing that the space will morph and evolve substantially in the coming years?

For creators:

  • The metaverse will be a great place to launch a brand. You are the “gatekeeper” with no need to strike a distribution deal as you create and expand. Feedback from your fans will be fast and direct. However, it still will make sense to build your IP from a single point of engagement and then expand (albeit with a strategy for evaluating future opportunities).
  • Leave space for your fans to shape your development. As described above, supporting art or fiction around your IP, listening to audience suggestions, and sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses of your creative work will encourage your followers to chase your stories and characters wherever you take them
  • Consider what your IP would look like as a fully-developed ‘world’. If you were to create a space within a virtual ‘mall’:
    - where would fans engage with your content;
    - how would you organize and navigate it;
    - how would you invite new visitors;
    - what is a new user’s starting point;
    - bhow would you guide that user deeper into your space;
    - how would you grow new offerings over time;
    - what is the economic model?
  • Think long term. If you build out a space in the ‘mall' and don’t maintain it, it will appear like an abandoned storefront, and kids will notice.

For regulators or governments:

  • Develop now plans to ensure age-appropriate “neighborhoods” for children. If the metaverse proves too amorphous and global to regulate, then sign-post sites and experiences that meet “safe harbor” standards. As of March 2021, children’s rights under the UN CRC are sustained in the digital world, including their rights to privacy, protection, education and play.
  • Establish opportunities to populate the metaverse with public service content reflecting diverse national and global cultures, created by indigenous people.
  • Support public service media or organizations building timely and important content such as news and factual for children, or otherwise engaging youth as active citizens, now and in their future.
  • Work with the various “owners” of the metaverse to establish fair access to public service content and experiences, whether via promotion or algorithm.
  • Commercial providers should be encouraged to support the public service elements of the metaverse, whether through their own “kitemarked” offerings or through in-kind or direct investing in public service content and creators.

For this generation of youth, “everything competes with everything.” Video and games, digital and physical, blockbuster and niche, professional and UGC, learning and play, social and solo – young people move among their favorite IP, brands and stories based on their moods and needs in the moment.

The metaverse will make their choices and transitions more fluid and connected. Big studios already supplement their traditional brand-building in co-creation spaces like Roblox, facilitating organic content influenced by real-time interactions. Conversely, new storytellers are launching IP directly in the emerging metaverse. As creative tools become simpler and more accessible, we will see organic weaving together of microverses built around small but passionate fan-bases (the 1000 True Fans concept) and global franchise megaverses.

Young people’s early adopter engagement needs to be taken seriously, now. The metaverse won’t be a space for superficial marketing – kids see through and reject inauthenticity. Instead, it’s where you’ll meet your audience face-to-face and build worlds together. Are you metaverse-ready?

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By David Kleeman

Strategist, analyst, author, speaker, connector — David Kleeman has led the children’s media industry in developing sustainable, child-friendly practices for 35 years. He began this work as president of the American Centre for Children and Media and is now Senior Vice President of Global Trends for Dubit, a strategy/research consultancy and digital studio.

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