Roblox may not be as famous a childrens game as Fortnite or Minecraft, but it recently announced that it has more than 100 million active monthly players.
It has flown more under the media radar than those rivals, leaving parents whose children are now asking to play it (or playing it without asking) in need of a primer.
What is Roblox?
Its not a single game, but rather a collection of more than 50m games, all created by its community of players. The simplest comparison is to YouTube: a huge library of user-generated content, but in this case the content is games rather than videos.
Children (and adults) download the Roblox application for computers, games consoles, smartphones or tablets and use it to browse and play its catalogue of games. Social features are also key to its appeal, including the ability to add friends and chat to them while playing.
Roblox isnt a new thing: it officially launched in 2006, and has been growing steadily ever since.
How many children play it?
Roblox doesnt split its 100 million figure between children and adults, though it does say that 40% of them are women and girls.
In the UK alone, there are around 1.5 million children playing Roblox, according to research firm Kids Insights. Its data, based on an annual survey of 20,000 British children, suggests that 24% of 10- to 12-year-olds here are on Roblox more than on TikTok (13%) and Snapchat (20%) and nearly as popular as Instagram (25%).
The company adds that 19% of seven-to-nine-year-olds in the UK are playing Roblox, some way behind YouTube (43%) but ahead of TV brands like CBBC (11%), Nickelodeon (10%) and Cartoon Network (8%).
Why is Roblox popular?
Were not a company that does a lot of marketing. The No 1 way that someone finds out about our platform is they get invited to play by a friend. And the second way is theyll watch people playing on YouTube, says Robloxs chief business officer Craig Donato. So its very much an organic phenomenon.
He also suggests that one reason for Robloxs popularity is its emphasis on unstructured play in an era when many children are more restricted in their physical-world activities than previous generations were.
When I came home from school, Id get on my bike, go out in the woods, do pick-up baseball. But we live in a world today where its hard for kids to go out and have unstructured play with their friends, he says. Most of the experiences on our platform arent just about the object to win. Its an experience you have with other people: a shared experience.
How do people make games for it?
Anyone can make a game (or experience they can simply be virtual spaces) for Roblox by downloading its separate Roblox Studio software. The company says that it has more than 2 million creators so around 2% of its players with the most popular games being played by up to 100,000 people simultaneously.
For many children, creating a simple game or virtual room where they can hang out with friends is the limit of their ambitions, but others build bigger, more complex games, and even start to make money through taking a cut of in-game purchases using Robloxs virtual currency, Robux. The company expects to pay out more than $100m in 2019 alone to them.
We have these teams forming businesses, and making millions of dollars a year, says Donato. Roblox is keen to foster this community: in 2018 it launched its own curriculum, available under a Creative Commons licence, for educators to use. Donato says it reached more than 500,000 children in its first year.
Are people really making businesses out of this?
They are. Josh Wood is one of the British Roblox game-makers. Hes 18 now, but discovered Roblox in 2013, and started to make his own games for it a year later.
From there I continued to learn and collaborate with other people on projects until I released my most successful game to date, Game Dev Life, which has so far had over a million play sessions, he says.
Wood has now set up his own company to make games for Roblox, hiring other developers, artists and testers, and even launching a line of toys based on Game Dev Life, in partnership with Roblox.
With the money from my games I have been able to pay for my university education, and continue to reinvest in my business, he says.
Another young British developer working on Roblox games is Abbie Leigh. Now aged 19, she started playing Roblox in 2011, but took the leap into development in 2017, initially creating assets for other peoples games. Shes currently working on three games, including her own sports-themed title, and hopes to make a full-time career out of freelance development.
It never feels like a job, which of course is the best part. I enjoy building and do so in my free time, and Im simply rewarded when it comes to doing what I love.
Is Roblox safe for children?
When Roblox has made headlines in the mainstream media, they have often been negative: from reports of adults trying to groom children on the platform in 2017 to, most infamously, a virtual sexual assault in June 2018, when a seven-year old players avatar was attacked by two male avatars, whose players had hacked the games code to show explicit imagery.
The following month, the Sun published an investigation claiming that Roblox was a haven for roleplaying as jihadis, Nazi leaders and Ku Klux Klan members. The company says that it has been working hard to tackle wrongdoers and fix any loopholes in its platform.
Were not defensive if things have ever gone wrong. We hold our hands up and say, This is what weve done to fix it, and this is what were doing to make sure it never happens again, says Laura Higgins, a British child-safety veteran hired by Roblox in January 2019 as its director of digital civility. Her job is to learn from those problems and prevent activities that could harm young players.
We really do start with safety as our No 1 priority. We acknowledge that we have younger players, so you have to be as ahead of the game as possible in terms of safety, she says.
Its an age-old thing: if people have bad intentions towards children, theyre going to gravitate towards where the children are. Were constantly reviewing the tools that we have, and looking at ways to improve them.
How can parents keep informed about it?
Another measure taken by Roblox is to launch a section of its website called For Parents, which explains its safety tools from algorithms blocking swearwords and names and addresses in text chats, to its reporting system for inappropriate chat or content. Theres even an algorithm detecting whether players avatars are wearing appropriate attire.
Higgins admits that parents can get very frustrated when theres a horror story around safety on a childrens platform like Roblox: You think, how hard can it be? [to stop these things happening], she says. And its very hard, is the answer. When things go wrong, its because somebody is trying very hard to break your systems.
Shes keen to make sure that parents also see the positive side of the games that children are creating on Roblox, citing the example of a game made by a teenager whose father had recently died.
He developed a game around managing mental wellbeing, mental health, as a journey for other young people experiencing those kinds of issues, she says. It was an amazing outlet for him, but it also helped many young people who played it, and were able to explore their emotions.
Thats an aspect also highlighted by developer Abbie Leigh. I absolutely love the developer community as a whole. We all stick together, support each others creations and help each other when we need it the most, she says. From feedback on games, to personal issues.
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