Savvy Bears: Secure Online Gaming for Children

Savvy Bear is a virtual world for children between the ages of five and twelve years old to play, interact, and learn, in a safe environment. The Dunboyne, Co. Meath-based company was founded in 2010 by father of three John Joyce, who saw a gap in the market for a virtual world that was both educational, and crucially, safe for children to play in.

“I was watching what they were doing on the likes of Disney’s Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters and I said, “I think I could actually develop a product like this.”

John, who is a graduate of computer science from Trinity College, Dublin had seventeen years’ experience in the technology sector before looking at the virtual world space and deciding, “right, I’ll give it a go.”

“I set the company up last July/August and that’s kind of how it started, just from a concept in my head to saying, “OK let’s give this thing a go”, and that’s what happened.”

John is aware that Savvy Bear are not alone in this space, but feels that his product’s educational value, and its safety, set it apart from the rest.

“The unique selling point is that we have an educational part to our product, so there is a school in the game if the child wants to go into the virtual world school, and learn Irish, English, maths, geography, history and science.”

The Irish, maths, and English educational modules on Savvy Bear are all free, as well as optional; if a child wants to simply play or interact, they may do so. The virtual world’s chat function contains only pre-selected words and phrases that a child may choose from, such as “hello”, “thank you”, or “you are funny!”, which ensure that the chat remains innocent and cannot be hijacked by Internet prowlers.

“Our product is 100% safe, continues John. The other games like Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and Panfu, they have an open chat policy where you can potentially chat to the child. We don’t, we just have pre-selected words in the game, so we’re 100% safe, which is crucial for a parent. We’ve a little bit of education in it, but it’s great fun, and it’s ad-free.”

The educational aspect of the game is pitched very much as an option and part of the fun, rather than the sole focus of the game, so from the child’s perspective he or she is playing at school rather than attending it or doing homework. Also, any phrases which are chosen in English are translated on the dashboard in Irish as an added educational aid.

John readily acknowledges that it is remarkable to think that he has created a virtual world for children from as young as five years old.

“I’m 39 years of age, this stuff didn’t exist when I was growing up. If you look at a twelve year old child or a ten year old child with a phone and they’re twittering and they’re maybe doing something on Facebook. You can’t turn it off, it’s just there, it’s 24/7.”

With digital devices and worlds so commonplace, it is hardly surprising that the uptake of Savvy Bear amongst children has been high so far. The game has taken on a certain momentum; an appearance on the Irish Dragon’s Den secured some valuable publicity; but Savvy Bear’s growth until now has been achieved without any marketing budget.

“We’ve been going since January and we’ve just over 30,000 people on it (15,000 of which are regular, active users), and it’s been played in 102 countries. It’s just taken off, which is fantastic, you know?”

In anticipation of this growth, Savvy Bear have updated their software to cope with increased demand; behind the cuddly teddy bears, there is a back-end which has to cope with potentially thousands of visitors at any one time.

“What the user sees at the front-end is probably the easiest part, the art and animation. The hardest process in that was listening to a child describe it, or they might sketch out a hair salon and say, “this is what we’d like in a hair salon.”

“At the moment we’re using five or six pieces of software, so we have Flash, php, Gimp, Ubuntu, and we’ve a piece of software that we’ve invested in recently called Smartbox, which Facebook use and allows us to handle thousands of people per second, which is a big issue for any virtual world.”

John laments the fact that he had to locate Savvy Bear’s servers outside Ireland due to what he sees as a “sad” lack of broadband infrastructure.

“The reason we have the servers over in London is because the broadband is a lot better and you get 100% up time, whereas unfortunately, in Ireland you can only guarantee 99% up time, and with a virtual world the last thing you want is to be down.

“When you’re using things like Google Analytics and you’re looking at my market which is the whole world, and you look at the size of Ireland, it’s a little dot. And you think, “why can’t people access the game in Roscommon?” It’s because there’s no broadband there.”

John hopes that the initial growth he has seen will continue and is confident the market is there for Savvy Bear to achieve this.

“I’ve had lots of people say that there’s loads of people in the gaming space, and I say, “that’s correct”. Gaming is massive, but there’s no-one in Ireland or England at the moment developing a virtual world forchildren between five and twelve. We’re it.”