In September 2022, American retail giant Walmart launched two new gaming experiences onto popular multi-platform gaming experience Roblox, entitled Walmart Land and Walmart Universe of Play. First released in 2006, Roblox is an online multiplayer programme and a virtual gaming world that is part of a rise of other similar programmes, including Minecraft (2009), Pokémon GO (2016), and Fortnite (2013). Like these other games, it is also a multi-platform program, which means that “it can be played on computers, tablets, mobiles or video consoles, thus enabling its ubiquitous access” (Meier et al. 269). In that sense, these games and programmes have inherited the ubiquity that occurred through the popularity of mobile devices, smart phones, and tablets, where “games are never further than arm’s length” (Leaver & Wilson 2). It is believed that the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021 ended up intensifying user interest in Roblox as it became a site for virtual and online socialisation through its multiplayer construction and play (Cucco).
Recently, Roblox has earned the reputation of being the “children’s metaverse”: as Andrew Hutchinson has noted, in the gaming worlds of Roblox “we do already have basic templates for what the metaverse may look like… where youngsters interact via digital avatars, and move from experience to experience in a 3D environment”. Roblox is essentially a host to a compendium of user-generated content games that fit into many game genres, including role player games, obbys (obstacle course games), tycoon, fantasy, adventure, strategy, simulations, and many others. In Roblox, users create personal avatars that can move and negotiate in first person through online worlds. While Roblox is aimed at players of all ages, it has been especially targeted towards younger children and teenage users, and research suggests that the programme predominantly hosts child players (Geffen). Meier et al. suggest that Roblox “is a program that offers the possibility of creating and sharing three-dimensional virtual environments easily and has an interface suitable for children” (269).
Walmart’s two Roblox games demand critical attention because the virtual worlds that have been created for Roblox present knowledge about the way that a “metaverse” might be imagined for young players on the system. This is especially important due to the troubling vision of commodified and fully themed corporate shopping experiences (e.g., Ernest Cline’s dystopian novel Ready Player One (2011) of virtual worlds owned by a billionaire). An examination of these games means also examining the ways that children are exposed to commodity culture, and understanding the ways that children’s culture has been commodified through gamified experiences and technologies. As I demonstrate in this article, concern about the games‘ function as advertising for Roblox has seen action from consumer watchdog groups labelling the games as “advergames”, and recently one of the games has been removed from Roblox by Walmart.
As Natalie Coulter has argued, there is a long history of consumer culture’s link with children’s media, but from the mid-twentieth century and beyond, the marketplace “has become more tightly enmeshed with children and their culture” (410). While “youth” has become a marketing category – fractured into smaller and smaller marketing niches – Coulter argues that in the twenty first century the rise of Websites and Web games have worked to “link toys and the virtual world together”, where children’s online time can now be considered “basically commercial time where there is no distinction between content and an advertisement for the toy” (419). This has been simultaneous with converged technologies that also merge storytelling with consumer products. Jason Bainbridge has noted that “merchandising is now regularly used to extend and enrich narratives, to personalise media properties, increase the cultural circulation (or shelf-life) of properties and occasionally even enable them to jump media platforms and survive in entirely new textual environments” (24). Given that Roblox is already a space of enmeshed commercial activity, play and financial transaction – especially through its internal currency of “Robux” that is used for avatar and in-game purchases – the Walmart games present yet another complex layering of these personal and corporate dimensions as an aspect of gameplay.
The two Walmart games are designed to appeal to different age groups and users – Walmart Land is aimed at older children and young adults, through its creation of a live pop music virtual world, while Walmart Universe of Play is clearly marketed toward younger children through its focus on showcasing major toy brands (these included L.O.L. Surprise!, Jurassic World, Paw Patrol, Magic Mixies and Razor Scooters). In this article, I examine the two Walmart Roblox games through formal analysis of their gameplay, focussing on the ways that both games are incentivising play and how they link to in-game purchases and the Walmart brand. I argue that both games are designed to link gameplay with a highly personalised shopping experience, which blurs the boundaries between games and branded advertising. For this reason, I suggest that close attention should be given to contemporary corporate games that develop visions of a “metaverse”, as they may not have the user’s interests in mind so much as their organisation’s profit margin.
Walmart’s Roblox games
Walmart Land is a walk-through fantasy world that focusses on pop culture, fashion, and music: like many of the “worlds” of Roblox, it presents as a small archipelago, surrounded by sea, with the action taking place on the interconnected islands. The islands are shaped into the “spark” shape of the Walmart logo – there is one central island or “hub” (and starting point), surrounded by radiating longer islands connected by bridges. Users can walk along the series of pathways and bridges between the islands, or else shortcut via monorail to key stopovers, or finally use a portal to travel to whatever part of the “world” is most appealing (this is typical of the travel experience provided in Roblox games). There are also “obby” areas with parkour-like jumps to exciting places, and surreal locations such as a forest of broccoli and a maze of cut fruit slices. Across these islands, users are encouraged to participate, earn tokens, and explore all the areas in more detail: for example, at the “Food Truck Park”, you can find recipes for “Great Value” dishes such as “Skillet Beef Burrito”, where users are encouraged to “take a snapshot with your device” of the full recipe for making later.
Tokens (visually, they are coins) are placed along the pathways of the islands, which when collected can be used as payment for in-game purchases. The tokens can be spent on Walmart fashion and accessories: for example, as I play the game there is a Free Assembly rugby polo that can be purchased for 110 tokens (Free Assembly is a Walmart fashion label). The other way to earn tokens is to participate in the various mini-games located at many of the Walmart Land’s sites. For example, there is a “Dance Off Challenge” where your avatar can try out a range of funky moves and “win” the dance-off, and a Netflix trivia challenge which grants credits to film and television knowledge.
There is an “Electric Island” that according to Walmart’s marketing has been “inspired by the world’s greatest music festivals”, although the concert stage is empty as I visit. You can access the live music stage via a red carpet that is flanked by paparazzi figures clamouring to take your avatar’s photo. While the stage is typically inactive when I have accessed the game, according to Walmart’s marketing materials there have previously been musical performances from pop stars such as YUNGBLUD and Madison Beer. Then, there are singular mini-games on each island: such as a DJ booth where users can play at practicing beats; and a roller rink for blading tricks.
Within Walmart Land, users can access virtual merchandise (“verch”) for the user avatar and earn tokens and games from competitions. There is a “House of Style” space with dressing rooms, which is the main location for purchase of avatar fashion with the earned tokens. As this description suggests, Walmart Land resembles in a retro way the kind of experience had in a supermarket store or a mega-mall / shopping centre, where there are “aisles/isles”, or segmented and themed areas of entertainment. The dream-like “land” aims to create a phantasmagoria, with idiosyncratic personal travel that constitutes a real-life shopping experience, hence it includes personally satisfying flânerie for distinctiveness and originality. Yet, this seems to be one of the failings of the experience: playing through this world, choices are limited, and the in-games feel simplistic, and unlikely to sustain interest across multiple visits. This game seems particularly in need of updates with novel content, such as the live concert experiences on the empty stage.
The second game, Walmart Universe of Play, has a similar structure and format to Walmart Land, although the focus is squarely placed on bringing to life pre-existing toy franchises that are readily available at the retail company’s stores. For this reason, there is a much greater focus on Walmart’s brand partners in this game than in Walmart Land, except the separate themed areas seem to be fully “owned” by these brands. Again, it presents a magical wonderland full of surreal and fantastic games and events. The term “Universe of Play” is a direct reference to the name of Walmart’s real-life toy department from their bricks and mortar stores. In this game, the focus is on earning free verch that promotes either Walmart or its nominated brands (e.g. L.O.L. Surprise!, Jurassic World, Paw Patrol, Magic Mixies, and Razor Scooters). As users walk along in this world, large wrapped gift boxes appear on the pathways that can be opened through the “Interact” function. The virtual “gifts” end up being virtual images of real-life products, which arguably constitutes a pure, visual advertisement for the toy.
As with Walmart Land, the game resembles the multi-world format of the retail chain itself, and the 3-D travel that is an in-built feature of Roblox’s gameplay allows users to explore “immersive worlds” connected to brand franchises, earn rewards through collection of tokens that can be redeemed for virtual merchandise and toys. There is also travel on special vehicles, such as flying hoverboards. Many of the updates in the game focus on the promotion of toy products, such as the virtual drone that can highlight the “hottest toy world of the season” (Walmart). In this way, the updates seem to emulate catalogue delivery, with the world itself a kind of virtual catalogue for purchasable products. Then, the real store’s catalogue becomes a way of learning about the game, as it offers readers codes to exclusive privileges within the Roblox game. So, there is a virtual-real crossover between the game and children’s experiences in the real-life store, inviting users to imagine that the virtual world is an extension of the real one. Through earning tokens, all of the games are designed for virtual purchases, and while these are free, they normalise the typical experience of Roblox where one’s presentation of identity (through the personal avatar) is strongly linked with in-game transactions.
So, how do we make sense of these Walmart games on Roblox? Some commentators have observed that the new Walmart games do not seem to provide innovative or playful experiences, in contrast to many of the games on the Roblox platform. Writing for Forbes magazine, Paul Tassi has suggested that the Walmart logo of Walmart Land looms in the background “like a digital Eye of Sauron”, and questions the originality of the games:
But who wants … Walmart Land? I’d argue nobody, and it’s just a branded, less interesting version of playspaces that already exist in Roblox a thousand times over, without a corporation attached.
It is worth examining the motivation for the branded partnership from both organisations. For Roblox, the Walmart partnership was economically important: it represented one of its first major corporate partnerships with central intention to release virtual product into the Roblox game system. Typically, corporate partnerships with Roblox had led to the partnered brands creating tangible, “real life” ancillary Roblox toys and merchandise that could be purchased at toy stores (e.g., figurines, boardgames, and toy guns). (Some examples of Roblox’s recent brand toy partnerships: Hasbro created a Roblox 2022 edition of Monopoly; NERF has released NERF guns based upon particular Roblox games Adopt Me!, Arsenal, Jailbreak, Mad City, Murder Mystery 2, and Phantom Forces. Also, Roblox game studios have gone on to create their own toy lines: for example, Gamefam released a set of dolls based on their game Twilight Daycare.) In this case, the toy store (a.k.a. Walmart) has itself gone virtual, which means that Walmart is also investing into Roblox’s vision of a playable “metaverse” for its young users. This is clearly significant, as it represents what could be the beginning of a new, lucrative model for co-branded game creation for Roblox, adding to ways of diversifying revenue for the company beyond its in-game micro-transactions (Vanian).
The metaverse has been a key concept in Roblox’s recent strategic vision, and they have benefitted from the wider global interest in the metaverse, popularised in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s presentation on metaverse futures for Facebook, sensationally renamed Meta at the Connect conference of October 2021. As Evans et al. have noted, 2021 was the year that the metaverse “truly hit the mainstream”, and Meta/Facebook is “arguably the current leader in the race to build the metaverse” (1). Yet, earlier that year Roblox also mentioned their own version of a metaverse at their first Investor Day video published on YouTube in February 2021 (Roblox Investor Day). In this video, CEO and co-founder David Baszucki specifically mentions that Roblox are evolving to become the “shepherds of the metaverse”, and that their vision includes the tenets of “identity”, “friends”, “immersiveness”, “frictionless”, “variety”, “anywhere”, “a vibrant economy”, and “trust and civility”. The Walmart games, then, present a part of the rich variety of content available on the Roblox system, although Baszucki is quick to emphasise the rich user-generated content provided by non-businesses and ordinary gamers: the content created by billion-dollar companies does not receive a mention as part of this revolutionary and utopian vision.
In this way, we can see how Walmart – a megacorporation that has aggressively competed for the e-commerce of major retail rival Amazon since 2016 (Del Rey) – might choose to create content and join this virtual diversity with its large network of young users. Walmart’s investment demonstrates how companies are currently choosing to test out strategies across a range of virtual online worlds: investing into many different forms of the metaverse. The investment into the virtual play of Roblox represents the company’s new strategy of engagement with virtual e-commerce, as well as investigating metaverse futures. According to a CNBC interview with Walmart’s Chief Marketing Officer William White, the two Walmart games released onto Roblox were marketing tests of new kinds of consumer engagement for online and virtual shopping experiences, helping to learn about and gauge the changing shopping habits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (Repko). Part of the rationale for production of the games was for Walmart to learn about new ways to reach consumers, with developing metaverse technologies in mind:
Roblox will serve as a testing ground for Walmart as it considers moves in the metaverse and beyond, said William White, Walmart’s chief marketing officer. He said the experiences are designed with the next generation of shoppers in mind, particularly Gen Z, generally defined as around age 25 or younger. White said the company is looking to learn from the partnership. “How are we driving relevance in cultural conversation? How are we developing community and engagement? How are we moving the needle from a brand favourability [standpoint] with younger audiences?” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here.” (Repko)
Yet, as this analysis of the gameplay in the two games reveals, advertising product seems key to the experiences gained in Walmart Land and Walmart Universe of Play. After the release of the games in 2022, critical media attention quickly turned to concerns about the blurred lines between games and marketing, and in January 2023 US media watchdogs Truth in Advertising.org (TINA.org) released a complaint about the Walmart Roblox games’ lack of disclosure that they were a form of children’s advertising and therefore constituted an “advergame” (Karabus; Perez). An “advergame” is defined as a “popular marketing tool used by companies to sell products to children” (Cho & Riddle 1309).
Referring to the Walmart games, TINA.org noted that the games were “blurring the distinction between advertising content and organic content, and failing to provide any clear or conspicuous disclosures that the game (or contents within the game) are ads” (Truth in Advertising). Their concern was linked to the vulnerability of young children on Roblox, especially after academic research has suggested that younger and older children have difficulty in distinguishing between advertising and computer games; for example, Waiguny and Terlutter have indicated that children have more difficulty doing this than distinguishing between television programmes and advertising.
In March 2023, Walmart closed down Walmart Universe of Play, although they have officially stated that the closure was a “planned part of its strategy” (Adams). In a statement, they noted that “the intent of our presence on Roblox is to continuously innovate … . Taking down some experiences to work on new [ones] is part of that innovation” (Adams). Walmart Land is still in operation on Roblox. The closure of one of the games demonstrates the level of experimentation that is taking place as companies invest in “metaverse” games: there are still fundamental concerns to iron out about virtual branded property and its links to advertising, especially in content that is specifically created for children.
This – and other – early case studies of toy brand partnerships on Roblox should be given attention because the ways that corporations link in with the socialisation and play factors of the game may have lasting impact upon the development and construction of online identities in 3-D immersive contexts. My hope is that the issues raised in this article link to broader debates in media-focussed cultural studies about the commodification of children’s experiences, the creation of “toyetic” media texts, and the broader and extensive discourse of media effects research and impacts on children and young people. Investigating the Walmart games also has implications for emerging research on the “metaverse” and the ways by which it will be commodified. Utilising methods such as formal game analysis helps to show how users may interact with games and brands in these fledgeling metaverse experiences. It may also demonstrate how some of the utopian ideals of the concept are compromised through the company’s bottom line, which for Roblox seems particularly linked to the creation of the virtual avatar, and the production of a unique online identity troublingly linked to purchase and consumption.
Many thanks to Louis Joseph Jeffs for our ongoing conversations about Roblox.
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