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Nickelodeon to launch virtual world for kids

Nicktropolis lets kids create an avatar, play games, watch TV and talk to the likes of SpongeBob.

Nickelodeon on Tuesday plans to launch "Nicktropolis," a virtual world that encourages kids to play games, watch TV and interact with animated characters like SpongeBob.

With Nicktropolis, the children's cable network joins parent unit Viacom's MTV Networks in embracing virtual worlds as a way to showcase television programming and advertisements against a backdrop of 3D graphics, instant chat, games and shopping. MTV operates the virtual world Laguna Beach and owns the wildly popular virtual game NeoPets, among other Net properties.

"The virtual worlds we've been building across our networks give the fans of our brands the high level of interaction they want with one another...with the content itself," MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath said in a statement.

Nicktropolis, in development for 18 months, will cater to 6- to 14-year-olds. But Nickelodeon executives say the community should appeal developmentally to 9- to 12-year-olds, given their taste for video games at that age.

For security purposes, kids do not divulge personally identifiable information when joining the world, according to executives. Plus, parents must approve their children's membership, and they can control their child's settings, Nickelodeon said. For example, parents can bar their child from using live chat in the virtual world. But according to the site, Nicktropolis contains chat software that filters out bad language.

The virtual world shares many features of other 3D environments. Kids choose and personalize an avatar, with various hairstyles and clothing. They can also create their own 3D room and decorate it with items bought with Nick points. (Members get points by joining the world and playing various games.)

What's different in Nicktropolis is that kids can visit the home of SpongeBob on "Nicktoon Boulevard" to chat with the character, or watch television programming featuring Jimmy Neutron while "hanging out" with friends. They can also explore the virtual world's amusement park or "Downtown Nicktropolis," which features video games and basketball courts.

For now, the virtual world does not contain sponsorships or advertisements, but executives say it will have them soon.

"We're launching it as an ad-free site, but it's a unique advertising property," said Steve Youngwood, executive vice president of digital media at Nickelodeon. "There's clearly room for traditional banners or static ad units, but we want it to maintain integrity."