“Go outside and play” is a phrase used by parents across the world. You’ve either said it, or heard it, a thousand times. But now, in the era of tablets and smartphones and increasing opportunity to have just as much fun inside as out, does the concept of what it means to play need to change?

It’s easy to want to pigeon-hole play. We’ve spent a lot of time believing face-to-face physical action to be the optimal way in which kids engage with their world and with each other – and to a degree that’s still true. But this shouldn’t take away from the ways in which electronic forms of play can enrich the social life and learning experience of children.

All the traditional forms of play – board games, crafts, competition – have an online equivalent. Perhaps the most predominant version of this is online strategy games, in which kids find their preferred game format and collaborate with other players in world-building (or destroying). One only need observe the advanced strategy skills needed to participate successfully in games like Minecraft to understand that any of the traditional aspersions cast against gaming in children (it makes them lazy, it makes them violent, it makes them slow) have not kept up with the evolving sophistication of gameplay.

One of the more unexpected behaviours from the flood of kids taking play online is the resurgence of role-playing.

This new iteration of an old form of flattery-by-imitation sees kids take on the personas of characters they like and identify with, and interact with each other under an assumed mantle, whether that be an animated dragon or a Disney demi-God. Often occurring in comment threads tens of thousands of lines of dialogue long, this is an intensely intellectual form of play, requiring vocabulary, imagination and interactivity in order to occur.

It’s not particularly sophisticated technology permitting it to happen, either – only a convenient device, a strong internet connection, and the ability to locate a partner willing to engage in this specific form of play. But it is the advent of technology that allows it to grow and morph: at this age, children are extremely sensitive to the reactions of peers, fearful of any misstep in judgment that is hard to reverse. Allowing children to take on the mantle of another character without revealing their true persona might seem like a dangerous practice to encourage, but it encourages all manner of characteristics that the traditional timorous pre-teen might mask: creativity, originality, a touch of oddness. It’s ironic, really, that a practice that encourages the adoption of another persona might result in a truer expression of one’s emerging self.

On PopJam, where kids never reveal any identifying information about themselves, we are seeing increasing amounts of role-play daily. The platform lends itself to the act, since all kids are strictly anonymous, and since many of the characters central to the dialogues already exist on PopJam, either as part of a branded channel, or as an existing fanart community. The typical format we see is the role-play beginning with a piece of art, either created by a participant in the role-play, or by another member of the community, under which the thread of comments permits for typical back-and-forth dialogue. Neither writer will ever break character, nor will they speak out of turn, and so the story grows.

PopJam Role-play Example

Above: PopJam role-play example based on the Harry Potter series

Not only does it allow for unfettered creativity, but this format also takes the act of writing out of isolation. It’s difficult for anyone who experienced their creative adolescence 10, 15, 20 years ago to comprehend writing as an act of play; writers, surely, are solitary creatures hunched over desks. Not anymore – now they’re pre-teens taking on a fictional identity and telling a living story, together. Say what you will for the importance of real-world interactions, the bonds that form within the act of role-play are real, based around a shared interest and a shared talent.

For too long, the stereotypical child has been divided into those who are intellectual and those who are social. Sports lend themselves to bonding, with the element of team-play and competition, while traditionally intellectual pursuits can be lonely. Thanks to technology, intellectual predilections can be just as social and formative of friendships as physical ones. The blog, the vlog, the act of role-play – all of these new, or renewed, forms of physically-separate play are central to connections and friendships all over the world.

At the heart of the idea of play will always be a game – something in which two or more can participate in order to gain some form of excitement or satisfaction. It’s important, therefore, in a world where children can be friends (true friends, real friends, devoted friends) never having met nor exchanged real names, that we recognise that the game has changed.


Scarlett Cayford is Head of Content for PopJam, the largest kid-safe social content platform.