Tell us who you are and what you do.
My name is Joi Podgorny and I am the Director of Community Engagement at Smart Bomb Interactive, creators of various online and mobile games, including AnimalJam.com and Tunnel Town, on mobile. I oversee in-game moderation, as well as all customer service and social media engagement efforts for our brands.
For the uninitiated, what is Animal Jam?
Animal Jam is an online playground targeted toward children where players can become their favorite animals and play in a beautiful and immersive online world – filled with games, interaction and tons of learning opportunities. We partner with National Geographic for much of our multi-media content, so as kids are playing, they can watch videos about animals in their habitats, play games with trivia about the natural world and interact with friends surrounded by artwork inspired by real world flora and fauna.
What does success look like for a project like this? Is it simply numbers and registrations? How do you measure engagement or learning?
We definitely look at all the numbers that an average business looks at – revenue, sales, registrations, etc. But with a product that contains community, we are lucky to have other metrics that can gauge success – like engagement on and off the site. The average play session for our players is well above the average for online games – 60 minutes. During that time, they have tons of opportunities to play and interact, and as I like to say – accidentally learn. Players watch over 60,000 minutes of videos each day and read over 275,000 animal and plants facts a day that are throughout AJ.
What are the main federal rules that govern your work?
As a game where players can purchase memberships, etc., we are, of course, PCI compliant with our financial transactions. We also comply with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), but went even further and gained Safe Harbor with the FTC to ensure that we have even more help staying up to date as the laws change within the industry. We chose Safe Harbor through the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), as they also help to ensure that our advertising to children stays within best practices. As we expand into non-US markets, we will seek to achieve similar best practice status within each territory.
And what does COPPA compliance mean for you in practice?
COPPA compliance ensures that we are doing everything we can to keep children’s personally identifiable information safe and secure and that we are keeping their parents aware of what our information privacy practices are. As such, our databases are secure and we have robust filtering systems for our registration, chat and image collection functions. I manage a large team of human monitors, all background checked and thoroughly trained, who constantly verify and improve our rules, guidelines, triggers and settings to ensure we are doing the most we can daily to keep that information secure – both according to the law, but also above and beyond, for the sake of our brand and for the players.
At what kind of scale are you working? How many kids can freely chat with each other?
We have over 16 million registered users on Animal Jam. Our default chat setting is Restricted Chat, meaning that players can interact with each other using only words in our pre-selected dictionary. If a parent decides they would like their child to have more or less freedom in their chatting, the parent can choose to change their child’s chat settings within our Parent Dashboard. For example, should the parent wish to allow their child to type “Yaaaaay!” instead of just “Yay!” they could change the setting to Safe Chat that allows words to be typed outside of the dictionary. Conversely, a parent could choose to limit their child’s interaction to Bubble Chat, which only allows their child to choose from pre-selected phrases. This said, the vast majority of our players (over 80%) are perfectly content using our default Restricted Chat setting.
Our team reviews chat daily to verify our filters and settings are calibrated correctly, as well as to ensure that we are keeping up with new cultural trends and tactics players may be trying to dodge or otherwise circumvent our filters.
You threw my daughter out of Animal Jam when she was making plans to meet a friend for lunch, which I thought was a pretty impressive catch. She thought she had mistyped “duck.” What other kinds of behaviors or activities have you interrupted?
Thanks – I always love it when we can turn a discipline from the game into a positive parent interaction. As far as other behaviors/activities, where do I start? Obviously, for COPPA compliance, players trying to give out personal information is a very high priority – that’s addresses, emails, and phone numbers – but even Skype and other instant messaging usernames, FaceTime handles, and any other methods where players would be communicating outside of the game and potentially sharing that personal info.
While there is no law around it (which most parents are surprised to learn) we are also very diligent regarding inappropriate behavior and conversations, including cyber dating, drugs/alcohol, violence, vulgar language, cyberbullying and anything else we have deemed inappropriate to be associated with our brand and within the younger demographic we attract.
How much grassroots community has grown up around AJ? Do you seek to influence it?
Our fan community is truly epic and it is always a great source of pride when I work on a brand that can inspire one. In addition to the vibrantly engaged communities that we have developed on social media sites, there are many fan-run communities on those same social media sites with numbers that rival our own.
Plus, we have thousands of fan blogs and fan sites that act as citizen journalists, reporting on news within our world of Jamaa, including new items, opinions on new content and guesses of what’s to come. We only interact on our brand controlled channels, but the kids know we are paying attention since we respond to their feedback whenever we can via new content features or promotions.
Your site is built in Flash. Has mobile taken its toll on you, as it has for my own games production? What is the technology outlook for desktop-based worlds? HTML5? Unity?
Our goal is to create an enduring and trustworthy children’s property, so we look at mobile as an opportunity. Desktop-based gaming isn’t going to vanish as a result of the mobile revolution, but you’re right – the technology outlook has changed. As a company, we’ve made a big commitment to Unity on desktop and mobile platforms, and we have some Animal Jam stuff in development that we think is pretty revolutionary. Flash still has its place, at least for the next few years. And 2D games will always be around, because there are some great play mechanics that can only be done well in 2D.
After Club Penguin was bought by Disney, there was an explosion of virtual worlds but many have gone by the wayside. Is there still a future for such things?
We don’t really think of AJ as a ‘virtual world’ in the Club Penguin mold. The point of most virtual worlds is to get players heavily invested in one avatar character that represents them to the world, and then advance that character through a social hierarchy or leveling system. Animal Jam encourages players to try on lots of different animal characters, and to distinguish themselves in the world differently according to how they feel like playing that day. It’s a virtual world in the sense that any persistent online environment is a virtual world, but that includes most MMORPGs, too. We think of Animal Jam as a social network and playground, and there is definitely a future for those.