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Gen Alpha Rewrites Roblox: Gaming Meets Political Protest

Remember when video games were just... games? Well, Gen Alpha and Gen Z didn't get the memo. They've turned Roblox, the popular online platform, into their personal political soapbox. But how and why?

Photo by Oberon Copeland / Unsplash

Roblox has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 2004. Created by David Baszucki and Erik Cassel and first released for Windows in 2006, this Silicon Valley-based gaming platform has grown into one of the biggest entertainment success stories of recent years (and David Baszuki being very curious character running his own charity with particular interests in metabolic health, democracy and astronomy).

Fast forward to 2024, and the numbers are mind-boggling. Roblox is pulling in 77.7 million daily active users, representing a 17% increase from the previous quarter. Roblox has been on an upward trajectory since the start of 2020, when the global COVID-19 pandemic led to a boom in digital entertainment.

But it's not just about quantity — it's about who's playing. In the same quarter, 32 million daily active users were under the age of 13. Roblox's particularly appealing to the younger new coming generation, Gen Alpha.

These kids aren't just playing, they're living in Roblox. A study found that Gen Alpha spends more time on video games than any other generation. They're hanging out, chatting, and — surprise, surprise — staging protests.

Now, activism in games isn't exactly new. Some of the most famous examples from the past are games made in 2017 — Paintball Hero tackling animal rights, and The Cat in the Hijab addressing discrimination. But what's happening in Roblox is a whole different animal gaining way more traction than those two games can ever dream of.

So, why is Roblox becoming the new hotbed of pint-sized protesters? Is it the accessibility? The safety of virtual spaces? Or is Gen Alpha just more woke than we give them credit for? Let’s investigate.

Why does Roblox appeal to young activists?

Forget street marches, today's young activists are rallying in a world of pixels. Take the Israel-Hamas conflict. While adults were glued to CNN, kids were gathering to hold virtual pro-Palestinian protests on Roblox. One protest area racked up over 275,000 visits. That's a lot of politically-engaged avatars.

There’s an anti-communism movement protesting against recently rolled out game’s mode “Bloxburg.”

Even Eurovision got the Roblox treatment. When Dutch contestant Joost Klein got booted, fans didn't just tweet their outrage. They took it to Roblox, demanding #JusticeforJoost in a virtual protest. Because nothing says "I'm mad about music" like blocky figures waving pixelated signs.

But why Roblox? What makes it the protest platform of choice for the juice box crowd?

Well, it's accessible and safe. No permission slips, no tear gas — just the occasional lag spike to worry about. You don’t even have to walk anywhere. And the viral potential? Your cause can spread faster than a cat meme on TikTok, which potentially can be way more impactful, than any physical protest.

Oindrila Mandal, Senior Game Product Manager at Electronic Arts, sharing her personal view on the matter: "I think games today are a social experience. Online games provide a platform for players to connect and socialize. Specifically platforms like Roblox that thrive on User Generated Content (UGC) also act as a way for gamers to express themselves. The recent instances of activism on games are a byproduct of Gen Z and Gen Alpha using games as a medium of communication and self expression."

And there’s more, these kids are seriously socially conscious. According to GWI research, they're “increasing their activism against the government to implement sustainable change at a systemic level.” While 36% say that caring for the planet is important to them.

So, the next time you see your kid glued to their screen, don't assume they're just playing games. They might be leading a digital revolution. Or at least, protesting the unfair elimination of their favorite Eurovision contestant.

Walking the line: how does Roblox manage political content?

So, Roblox has found itself in a bit of a pickle. On one hand, they've got pretty strict Community Standards. No political parties and no elected officials mentions, and definitely no flag burning. They even throw in a ban on "inflammatory content related to real world border, territorial, or jurisdictional relationships." Doesn't Palestine-Israel definitely fall into this category?

Is Roblox playing fast and loose with its own rules? Or are they realizing that trying to stop Gen Alpha from expressing themselves is like trying to nail jelly to a wall?

Eric LaVanchy is not gen Alpha. He is a gaming industry veteran and founder of MAGA Games, and he puts it bluntly: "In all kinds of digital spaces, certainly including social, gaming and hybrid environments, people want to express themselves and their identities. It's human nature to want to be seen, to want to be understood, in the real world and in some ways even more so online. For every house you drive by with a "Make America Great Again" or a "In This House We Believe" sign in the yard, there are probably five other people out there who are doing the same digitally.

People want to have their identities validated and valorized. And the definition of 'identity' can be pretty flexible (especially these days). It can be based around politics, around culture, from a national identity to being a fan of an artist or sports team. Why would you want to restrict people from celebrating the identities and causes they feel passionate about? What's the upside for them, or for a game developer, in doing that? And especially for a platform like Roblox where players are also creators, how can you be surprised to discover that people are using these tools to express their identities and be activists?"

LaVanchy's got a point. Roblox is walking on thin ice here. On one side, they've got their sanitized, family-friendly image to maintain. On the other, they've got a user base that's increasingly politically aware and itching to express themselves.

So, what's Roblox to do? Enforce their rules with an iron fist and risk alienating their user base? Or let the kids have their digital soapbox and deal with the potential fallout?

For now, it seems Roblox is opting for a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to political content. They've got their rules on paper, but in practice they're giving their young activists a pretty long leash.

Beyond Roblox: the wider world of virtual activism

Roblox is not the only digital playground doubling as a protest square. Take Minecraft, for instance. You might think it's all about building blocky castles but there's even a whole subreddit dedicated to Minecraft roleplay, where players can organize anything from fantasy quests to, you guessed it, virtual protests.

And protests do happen. For instance, ParentsTogether, a national parents organization, took their grievances to the blocky streets of Minecraft. Their signs read like dystopian billboards: "Sexual predators are hunting kids on Minecraft" and "Minecraft is ignoring 120,000 parents asking them to keep kids safe."

Fortnite is dubbing into the activism game all the time, often being annoyingly too pushy about it. During one tournament, they encouraged players to chop down virtual trees, while a 'tree-o-meter' tracked progress. Real trees were planted to replace all the digital ones felled. All for the sake of decreasing that pesky carbon footprint.

They've hosted in-game events to teach about racism.

And another recent development is the game's first indigenous land map. Players protect forests, fight fires, and replant trees, all while learning about indigenous rights.

So, how are game platforms handling this surge of pixelated protests? Oindrila Mandal, Senior Game Product Manager at Electronic Arts, weighs in her personal thoughts: "Most games platforms promote community interactions through social and UGC content as it leads to deeper engagement. However, all these games also have community guidelines for these interactions. I think the community guidelines should be in place to prevent hate, toxicity or bullying in games. Using games as a platform to connect and spread a positive message should not be discouraged as long as other players are not harmed by these community activities. Games can incorporate community moderation tools and techniques to moderate forums or players that violated these community guidelines."

In other words, game platforms should keep trying to walk the line between fostering engagement and keeping things civil.

The future of digital dissent

So far we've seen kids turn Roblox into their personal protest podium (disregarding any community guidelines with no repercussions). But what's next? Are we looking at a future where the White House has a Minecraft server, or where presidential debates are held in Fortnite?

Gen Alpha's getting their first taste of activism through pixels and avatars. And we might be witnessing the birth of a generation that sees no divide between the digital and physical worlds when it comes to making their voices heard.

As virtual activism gains traction, other platforms will have to step up their game. We might see Facebook launching its own protest-friendly metaverse, or Twitter creating virtual rally spaces.

Could we see international treaties negotiated and signed in virtual worlds? Might we need "digital peacekeepers" to moderate conflicts that start online but have real-world consequences? And what happens when AI gets involved? Imagine protesting alongside a hyper-realistic NPC programmed as Gandhi?

In the end, the future of digital dissent is as unpredictable as it is fascinating. We might be scoffing at blocky Roblox rallies now, but those could be the beginning of a whole new era of political engagement.