Across the Company, Dubit Looks Ahead at 2021


Somewhere around last March, the crinkling sound you may have heard was every analyst and prognosticator wadding up 2020 media predictions, as COVID-19 accelerated into a global pandemic. No corner of our web of industries was unaffected – development, production, sales, distribution and marketing were thrown substantially into disarray. For some businesses, such as ed tech and communications, distancing opened opportunities to those nimble enough to respond quickly. Gaming (social games in particular) prospered as everyone from toddlers to seniors went into sudden lockdown. Suffice it to say, though, no one’s forecasts came to pass.

As we enter 2021, with mighty morphing virus strains, slow rollout of vaccines, on-again/off-again openings of schools and businesses, only a fool would speculate what we’ll see in the coming year. I’m not entirely that foolish, so I’ll recruit my Dubit colleagues to do the job with me. From across the company, here are thoughts on what the coming year is likely to bring.

David Kleeman, SVP, Global Trends

The buzzword in the media industries for 2021 will be “metaverse.” Brands will want someone to “build me one of those!”

Like “transmedia” and “360 commissioning” in previous years, “metaverse” will remain vaguely defined in the coming year. Most will use it simply to refer to a multi-platform property, but 2021 will bring us ever closer to the real thing, defined by Matthew Ball as a massive, persistent, live and synchronous, digital/physical economy that embraces multiple entities, brands, stories, games and more.

Very, very few businesses have the scope and scale actually to “build” a metaverse, which will require an almost incomprehensible array of connected servers, creative tools, IP access, brand collaboration, oversight and moderation. Some elements of the metaverse will emerge quickly. For example, the flat “Brady Bunch” appearance of Zoom is already evolving on various platforms into a 3D telepresence. Social games like Roblox are providing multiple ways to engage, from “loitering” to superficial play across games, to deep play in a single game, to creation and entrepreneurship.

Matt Warneford, Founder

I'm fascinated by the idea of kids role-playing in games like GTA and streaming the shows on Twitch. Recently, a few people mentioned to me their kids are obsessed with these in Roblox and other games. It’s almost like watching a soap opera acted out by kids in games!

As noted above, true metaverses aren’t here yet, but smart IP owners are getting “metaverse ready,” developing varied opportunities for users to immerse themselves. You’re not simply a player in someone else’s game, following a pre-determined script. Instead you’re playing a more open-ended role in an environment that responds to the actions and intentions of participants.

Dubit has long spoken of “fanatomy” – the back-and-forth tennis match between a brand or story world and its fans. As the IP owner, you choose what you want to put forward initially, but current generations of digital youth expect to be able to create their own interpretations and additions. In the coming metaverses (and in today’s proto-versions), that give and take happens in real time or close to it.

Andrew Douthwaite, Business Director, Metaverse

Many major companies will develop official Roblox games as a high-quality counter-balance to the extensive “fan art," user-generated Roblox games featuring popular brands or characters. These same companies will have to decide whether to yield a bit of control over their IP and let the UGC games stand.

Dubit has been tracking 9 million Roblox games – gathering a database of professional- and fan-made games and how users and plays ebb and flow. Taking the WWE as an example, we’ve found over 6500 unofficial games, getting almost 2 million plays per month and now topping 64 million lifetime plays.

In our experience with “fanatomy,” ceding some creative space to fans can be very good for a brand. When fans feel connected and “heard,” they’ll commit more deeply to their fandom and become vocal ambassadors.

Sam Jordan, VP, Apps and EdTech

TikTok’s unique method of eliminating the element of choice for its users will become a popular choice of content delivery by end users; other apps will do well to follow suit. The app learns what content you will like and simply puts it in front of you, one by one. Gone are the days of scrolling through categories and delving into navigation controls.

This makes a lot of sense given what Dubit has found regarding the “paradox of choice” and kids feeling overwhelmed by the range of options both within and across platforms. Kids and adults both can relate to the joke that we never really watch anything on Netflix; we just scroll the possibilities until we’ve run out of time or fall asleep.

As the AI gets smarter, the recommendations will incorporate more factors. Dubit’s “emotional scheduling” model includes various proxies for mood state, such as time of day, time available and other forces likely to be acting on the child. These weigh on choice of device, platform, content, length and even where one is likely to be viewing. These predispositions could become part of the algorithm serving up helpings of content one-by-one.

Nikki Stearman, Senior Game Designer

This year, I think that parents will want to encourage their children to move more - especially with home learning. I think there'll be a huge shift to facilitate physical play to burn off excess energy - but with current restrictions in place, this won't necessarily be outside or with other children! How might technology support this?

I also think that younger children (4 - 6) are becoming used to online videos of grown-ups showing them how to dance, draw and learn new things. But children are interested in children! How can we support peer connections better in our broadcast content?

Dubit has previously written about the possibility that device use will decline when children are fully able to play outdoors and with friends, given how hungry kids are for freedom and socializing. There will be exceptions, of course, and those are likely to be among apps or games where the device isn’t the focus or destination, but instead facilitates free or social play. This could be a connected toy, “smart” sports equipment, or even apps that feature augmented reality or photography.

Kids do love watching other kids; Ryan Kaji is ample proof of that., the company that took Ryan from YouTube phenomenon to multi-platform star, has a number of other kids personalities in its production and development stable. The challenge is aligning the person and the platform; children have a strong sense of where various formats, genres and production qualities belong. A talented child wanting to share and teach others can make UGC content (TikTok, YouTube, etc.), but since many of these platforms have an age gate they may not reach their intended audience. That said, a lot of young people want to make videos, but don’t much care if anyone beyond family or BFFs see them, so making videos just for pleasure of creating can be a powerful pastime.

Dylan Yamada-Rice, Senior Research Manager

There’s a widening educational gap for children unable to access computer tech for home-schooling. What can tech companies do to help?

Prior to 2020, the primary focus of the ed tech industry was on learning in the classroom, helping educators across a variety of dimensions, including engagement, management, tracking and assessment. From the first lockdown, it was clear that an urgent pivot was needed, toward tools and tech for teaching and learning at distance. Video calling companies like Zoom made rapid changes to bolster security and privacy and games like Kahoot, Minecraft and even Assassin’s Creed offered school-ready adaptations.

Ed tech does no good, however, if the students can’t access the live teaching or recorded content. Some have no devices at home, others have old or under-powered computers, families often share devices, and many have no wifi or limited data plans. In 2021, expect initiatives from government, NGOs and tech companies to extend device and data access, as school remain in remote or hybrid modes. We anticipate further that the pandemic will hasten and deepen research into efficacy of learning from technology solutions.

Tina Krugielka, Research Support Executive

As parents, we were faced with an emotionally heavy first day of September, not being able to take our scared children through the gates of the new, huge school grounds. It felt like the first day of nursery all over again, waving goodbye for the first time. I have so much respect for all those kids facing the 'new world' virtually alone.

What the kids of this pandemic need is a real, interactive homeschooling platform, that would allow them and the teachers to continue the educational journey in a more reliable way, and wouldn't it be great if such a platform was universal, so they could exchange the experience with 'classmates' around the world.

Tina went on to suggest that kids are also heroes of the pandemic, coping with lives turned upside down in a single day. I’m frightened by the number of recent articles that detail the social, emotional and educational consequences of a year of distancing and schooling-at-home. If there’s any upside at all, it’s that work-from-home parents have become more attuned to what truly engages their kids and where they struggle, and their children’s anxieties and emotions. The home-school connection should be a key focus in education and ed tech reform.

Young people’s lives already are somewhat borderless, by virtue of the time they spend online in social and game situations. After months of learning and exploring on their own, there’s a strong likelihood that when children come back to school, classrooms will emphasize project-based team-oriented learning that – in concert with newly-powerful communications platforms - would lend itself very well to global exchange and collaboration. The pandemic demonstrated strongly how our world is interdependent, but cross-cultural exchange always brings deeper understanding of both what we share and what differentiates us.

David Kleeman

Parents will change their perspective on “screen time,” seeing the content and context of what their children are doing, more than just the duration.

In part, loosening screen time limits was borne of pandemic necessity – kids were going to school and connecting with friends and family via screens, but also wanted the comfort of favorite shows and games. Parents who were home with their children made new observations about the appeal of what their kids watched and played and saw the upside of their engagement and immersion. Many joined their children in co-viewing and game play. That insight should remain, and instead of measuring media use with a stopwatch, the what, when and why of screens will become most salient.

Adam Woodgate, SVP, Media Insights

Audio will continue growing its presence in kids’ and teens’ lives. Broadly taken – music, podcasts, audio books – listening is a practice that can go anywhere with kids, can be “multi-tasked” with other activities, and isn’t counted by parents as “screen time.”

Some of audio’s rise is driven by rapid penetration of smart speakers into homes. October 2020 Dubit Trends data reveals that over 50% of US and UK children ages 2-15 can access a smart speaker at home and one in five own one for themselves. Kids use the devices broadly – 28% listen to music, 17% use it to answer questions, and 11% seek timely information.

For all that we associate tablets and smartphones with visual media like games and video, they’re increasingly used to listen, as well. Accessing podcasts on a tablet is up by 46% and 42% on smartphones, year-on-year. Music downloads rose 28% on tablets and 15% on smartphones.

Audio books grew in popularity during the pandemic lockdowns, and many children plan to continue listening to them to the same extent going forward.

What’s changed most in audio is how young people unearth new music. The personalization of digital media can facilitate choosing only what’s familiar. When radio was kids’ primary vehicle, its programmed nature sparked unanticipated exposure to new bands or songs. Now, a quarter of US and UK children say they use TikTok to discover new artists, and music for video games is a carefully-curated launchpad for performers.

Dubit will present a session on kids and audio during Kidscreen 2021, on March 3.

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