A Virtual World for the Younger Set

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A still from Zwinktopia

For all the talk about Second Life, you' d think it was the most popular virtual world on the Internet. After all, IBM has its own island there. Harvard holds classes there. And anyone who can figure out how to get around in it — a notoriously difficult task for newbies — can gamble, play tennis and even have virtual sex there.

But web insiders know that kids and teenagers are actually virtual worlds' biggest aficionados, and they've got their own favorite hangouts. While 3.5 million people worldwide visited Second Life in March, according to comScore World Metrix, virtual worlds for the younger set, such as clubpenguin.com and stardoll.com, each got more than 4.5 million visitors during the same period. These and similar sites such as gaiaonline.com and habbohotel.com are particularly popular with girls, in part because of the virtual "dress up" features that enable users to create and purchase endless outfit changes.

Now IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns popular sites like match.com, ask.com and citysearch.com, has launched a youth-oriented virtual world of its own called Zwinktopia, which lets members customize avatars, play games and explore cartoon-like chat rooms. Unveiled April 30 and aimed at netheads aged 13 to 34, the site is entirely free. Members earn virtual "Zbucks" by playing games, meeting new people, and exploring different parts of Zwinktopia, including its café, stadium, arcades and pixelated beach.

Zwinktopia's design is simplistic and really easy to learn how to use. Teens can choose from hundreds of outfits, hairstyles, even pets, and then head to the mall for even more choices in the Surf Shop, the Castle (for medieval attire), or the University Club (for preppies). Once you've perfected your look, you can start earning points (for buying even more clothes) by hitting the arcade or heading over to Kingpin Korner. Games like Zwinky Bowl are easy: just press the space bar on your keyboard to release the bowling ball and watch the pins fly. As you walk through the pizza parlor, the nightclub and coffee shop, you'll meet new people with whom you can chat, play frisbee or flirt.

Before parents set their kids loose in Zwinktopia or any other virtual world, however, they should know there is nothing to prevent, say, a pedophile from joining the site and masquerading as a 13-year-old girl. Although some sites aimed at younger kids, such as Disney' s ToonTown and Ganz' s Webkinz, only let members exchange canned messages, on Zwinktopia kids are free to type their own messages. However, swear words and sexually explicit comments get replaced with a "bleep." And while there is no age verification process, members who claim to be 17 or younger are directed to chat areas separate from older members. On the site' s opening night, conversations on the virtual beach called "Splash" went like this: "If u wanna hook up with me, say 123," wrote one person. "123" says another. "Ok, let' s kiss then." Other members were swapping their MySpace addresses and asking for e-mail addresses. There's even a video chat feature built in that lets kids activate their webcams.

While members can report offensive comments and the site keeps a log of all chats, IAC is taking a hands-off approach to monitoring what goes on at Zwinktopia. "It' s going to be a learning process," says Dorcas Casey, IAC's director of product strategy, when asked where the company draws the line on inappropriate behavior. If Zwinktopia really hopes to attract kids aged 13 and up without sending their parents into cardiac arrest, it might want to speed that process up.