The following interview originally appeared in full on Content Canada as part of the Rocket Forum, 2022. This transcript has been slightly modified and abridged for readability. In this interview, B2BeeMatch founder KC Goundiam interviews David Kleeman of Dubit on the metaverse, its opportunities and its future.
David Kleeman is a strategist, analyst, author, speaker and connector with over thirty-six years of experience developing sustainable, child-friendly practices in media. He is currently the senior vice president of Dubit, a strategy research consultancy and metaverse studio. Read on for his take on how kids are shaping the future of the metaverse.
What’s your definition of the metaverse?
If you ask a hundred people what the metaverse is, you’d get a hundred and fifty different answers. Because I come at it primarily from a child development and education perspective, I have been trying to demystify and simplify the metaverse for people in children’s media by saying that I think it’s all about reducing frustration barriers. For children and young people, it’s always about why things don’t work online the way they want them to work. For example, “Why can’t I take the outfit I made in Fortnite with me to Roblox? Why do I have to pay twice for the same thing? Why does it work differently on my smartphone than it does on my laptop?” Over time, we’ll smooth out those frustrations for kids, and let them play, learn, communicate and explore the way that they want to.
You might be aware of some of the discrimination and lack of diversity in the metaverse. I was shocked to learn, for example, that it costs extra to get an avatar with a different skin color! Don’t kids want to identify entirely with the metaverse?
You might be familiar with the quote, “The future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” I think the metaverse is here—it’s just not assembled. It’s in pieces, and we have to put it together like a piece of Ikea furniture. The best way to get a sense for that right now is to watch what young people are doing with media and technology, especially during the pandemic. The phrase we use is “Down on the corner went up on the server.” During the pandemic, all of the things in kids’ social lives, their school, play, sports—everything disappeared in an instant, and they responded by hacking their way to digital solutions in an instant. They realized, “I’ve been playing this game online, but if I can’t talk to my friends while I’m playing it, then let’s get on Discord.” Discord was never meant as a children’s or youth platform, and yet they hacked their way to it. They found ways to dive into the things they were passionate about, to continue their learning—the COVID generation that has really managed its own learning, exploration and deep dives into things.
Kids seem infinitely savvier than adults, and yet they’re more easily exposed to danger online. Do you think institutions and politicians should be more involved in protecting kids online? For example, the US implemented COPA, a child protection act.
Discord is a perfect example—every company is a children’s company now, whether you intended it to be or not. Zoom discovered this as well. A lot of the 13+ social platforms know they can’t say they don’t have kids on there. In addition to COPA, I think Canada should look to the age-appropriate design code that’s coming out of the UK. To me, that’s one of the most encouraging child safety and privacy developments because it comes at the issue from the angle of what we know about how kids grow and learn. What do we know about childhood, and how do we align that with good design practices? Rather than the stick, “If you don’t obey this, you’re going to get in trouble,” it’s equally the carrot of, “How can we help you understand your audience better and better align with them while keeping them safe?”
Who are the important pieces of that ecosystem—parents? Caregivers? The school? Society as a whole? Is it going to be self-governing? What are the mechanisms that we need to create for the kids to make the metaverse safe for them?
If the metaverse is going to reach its potential, all of the above are important because we’re talking about immersive universes where everyone is engaged. I see a couple of different roles that are going to be critical. One role, I call the “mapmakers.” This refers to the people who decide what gets surfaced in the metaverse and how users find their way from place to place. They are the people who say, “You’ve been here, so you might want to explore this,” or “Here is the easiest way to get from this game to this game.” They’re going to have a lot of power to decide what gets surfaced.
Another important role is verifying identity. There’s a desire for self-expression through an avatar—to use your avatar to either show who you are or who you feel you are that you might not be able to show in the real world. But that also brings with it the danger of people who are representing themselves as things that they aren’t. Who is going to ensure that a twelve year old inside the virtual play space where your twelve year old is playing is really twelve and not fifty? We need identity verification that travels with you as you age.
Finally, it’s a question of who will set the regulations. The metaverse is inherently global, but the world is not. COPA works for the US, but it might not work for other countries. Age-appropriate design code seems to be the most global in its thinking because it starts with the child. There are organizations emerging, like designs for children’s rights in non-governmental organizations in the Nordic countries. There are a couple of different emerging groups that are trying to set guidelines for the metaverse.
There’s no ministry of metaverse, the same way there’s no ministry of the internet. We can’t leave it to the private sector alone to decide what our children are going to be seeing every day for hours on end. Do you think we’re seeing an upcoming generation of responsible entrepreneurs who want solutions that don’t exclude their friends?
Part of what Dubit is doing in the metaverse is thinking about getting rid of frustrations. If one frustration kids have is that they never see anyone like themselves in these spaces and that they have to pay extra to get an avatar with their own skin color, they could grow up to be that next generation of entrepreneurs.
I wrote an article recently about what I call the learnification of gaming. We all know about the gamification of learning, which is inserting game principles into curriculum and learning concepts. Learnification of gaming—I think I invented that term; I don’t know—is that generation that has grown up with Roblox and Minecraft. They’re teaching themselves to code and build out of intrinsic motivation. They want to build the games that they want to play, and if they don’t find them, I’m going to make them. We sometimes call this generation the “I can” generation. At Dubit, we’re hiring seventeen-, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old developers and designers all around the world who learned because they were motivated to make the games they wanted to play. We now have a wonderful synergy between the game builders who have been with us for a long time, who have learned how to do business and work with clients, and these young people who really understand the ecosystem and the players in it. When you put the two of them together you get wonderful learning in both directions that I think is going to help generate that next generation of entrepreneurs who now not only understand the platforms, but understand how to make it an ethical business.
Another big divide in technology is that kids who can afford a laptop or computer at home will be the ones who become technologists. How do we equalize opportunity in tech?
Is there opportunity in mobile and 5G? I look at some of the African nations and southeast Asian nations that basically bypassed the laptop and went straight for the mobile phone and have been inventing in ways that the North never really thought about. Is there opportunity with the more powerful 5G, with phones that now have more processing power than most laptops do, to use that as a creative tool to get that into Indigenous communities that may not have broadband wiring or fast laptops—into any community where people are underserved right now?
There are toys that teach how to code. Not everyone is going to grow up in Python, not everyone is going to grow up in coding, but what’s valuable about technological learning is that kids learn iterative and critical thinking. If they build a model and it doesn’t work, they learn to think about where they might have made a mistake so that they can fix it. It’s all about testing and repeating.
My high school had one of the first connected computers—not even connected to the internet, but just to a mainframe somewhere—so I got a chance to learn coding in 1974, and to learn to write programs. I never will write another program—there’s no need for it—but every day, I use the thinking that I learned in that class—how to think through a problem in steps and fix it when it doesn’t go the way I expected it to.
Tell us a little bit about the research you’ve done.
During the pandemic, kids turned to digital platforms. They turned especially to the ones that allowed them to play and to be social at the same time—we saw the rise of Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft. This is a generation that wants to be engaged in the brands and the content that surrounds it. Kids want to create around the things that they love—and what that means for this generation of media creators is that you have to give up a little bit of control, which is one of the hardest things for a company to do.
There are 2000 Lego games on Roblox, none of them created by Lego, but as long as creators are behaving well around the brand, Lego allows them to create what they want.
There were 100 000 Squid Game games that came out in the month after it debuted on Netflix. Netflix, which in the past might have sent out cease and desist letters, instead said, “This is great! We are learning how young people want to play with our brands—and we’re getting free publicity out of it.”
Kulubi is a well-known kids’ company. They have a property called Warrior Cats, and Warrior Cats has a huge YouTube, fan fiction and fan art community. A couple of years ago, Kulubi found more than a dozen Warrior Cats games on Roblox. They looked at one of them and realized it was exactly what they would create if they wanted to design a game, so they contacted the teenager who created the game and offered to build a partnership. That teenager is still designing the Warrior Cats Roblox game right now, which is a fantastic immersive world.
Our research is telling us that kids are spending time in proto-metaverse platforms. They’re spending money in them—Roblox is the top place where they’re spending their pocket money on Roblox. During the pandemic, we saw parents who initially were concerned about screen time, and then realized what wonderful, creative things their kids were doing on these platforms. They started taking a completely different approach to media—paying attention to content and context and not screen time, a term I absolutely hate. So that’s, I think, what our research is showing us.
Do you also see differences coming out of different countries?
What we tend to see is the US as the stone being thrown into the pond and then the ripples hit Canada and the UK first and start rippling out from there. It can take a long time for a trend or platform to make it in other places. There are also cultural differences. What Germany looks like in terms of what parents want and allow for their kids, when they buy them a device and what they encourage them to do on it, looks entirely different from France, Brazil or Malaysia. That’s why it’s important that we build the infrastructure, the technology structure and the early learning that makes sure that these countries are able to express their culture. There is no better place than the metaverse for true cultural exchange, but if we don’t have the facility for people from other places to create, distribute, express themselves and be discovered, then we are wasting the potential of the metaverse.
What do you think is Canada’s role in this content that we’re producing with regards to the metaverse?
I remember a study that came out a couple of years ago that found that Canadian content was valued worldwide for being high quality, affordable and global—but not because it lost all culture, but because it honored all culture. If you’re looking to expand your television franchise, books, movies or products to the world from Canada, understand that you are already seen as being something valuable and high quality. I think the next step for Canadian content is to reach out and engage the world.