’This One’s for VIP Users!’: Participation and Commercial Strategies in Children’s Virtual Worlds
Keywords:Participation, political economy, virtual worlds, children, Habbo Hotel, advertising, virtual goods, tactics
Through the integrated framework of participation theory and political economy, this article analyzes participatory opportunities in the virtual world Habbo Hotel, and how participation is constrained and framed by the producer’s commercial strategies, which are based on advertising and sales of virtual goods. The study also looks into the ways in which the producer Sulake Corporation discursively represents the virtual world, and how the users with various forms of tactics try to bypass the commercial constraints. The methods used include observations of the English and Swedish language versions of Habbo Hotel, document analysis, and an interview with one designer employed by Sulake. The results show how participation in this virtual world takes minimalist forms, and that it is foremost an arena for interaction and consumption. Users’ participation in the virtual world is constrained by the commercial strategies in numerous ways, and the producer strategically takes advantage of children’s need to gain status in their peer group, in order to get them to purchase on the site. Habbo Hotel is represented by the producer as a safe and creative environment with learning opportunities for the children. Observations of the virtual world instead reveal Habbo as a panopticon-like shopping mall where users, through the practice of begging and other tactics, try to resist the commercial strategies. Virtual worlds could be potential spaces for children’s participation and contribute to a democratization of the social; however, this study shows how participation in this virtual world is clearly structured and limited for commercial purposes.
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