With the aim of creating a safe space for children to discuss what’s important to them, CBBC has launched Bugbears (www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/bugbears). And in a novel twist, the interactive website lets users design their own 3-D animated creature through which they can share their innermost thoughts and feelings.
CBBC controller Anne Gilchrist says the concept was born out of the net’s altruistic impulses. ‘It’s the sort of idea that would never be done in a place other than the BBC,’ she says. ‘We look at the audience and try to figure out what they need and what would be useful, rather than what will make money for us.’
Bugbears, which launched this month, was designed with the help of digital studio Magic Lantern and character design hub Studio Liddell. The result is an immersive online space combining 3-D animation, lip-synching and web-based audio recording technology that enables kids to craft Bugbear avatars in their own image and voice. Once created, the characters, acting as mouthpieces for the kids, provide the bulk of the content for the site. As such, site members can use their Bugbears to tell self-penned stories and star in short pieces of animation that they voice via uploaded audio files. Kids will also be able to check out other submissions, post comments, feedback and advice, and send customized emoticons.
The not-for-profit portal doesn’t host advertising or require a subscription fee to sign up. Additionally, the hot topics of the day and discussion items will be determined solely by the kids on the site. Gilchrist, however, envisions content ranging from the serious (such as how to deal with bullying), to the humorous (asking, for example, ‘What is the most disgusting food you’ve ever eaten?’).
Each discussion topic is linked to associated contacts and reference material. And it’s not a complete free-for-all for the kids. Content will be highly moderated and monitored in partnership with the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center.
Aimed at girls and boys ages six to 12, Bugbears permits users to participate as much or as little as they want. For instance, kids don’t have to create avatars and join a club; they can simply add comments or read discussion points as their interests dictate. ‘There are times when children want to express themselves, but don’t necessarily want to be identified,’ says Gilchrist. ‘This site gives them that option in a fun way.’
CBBC chose not to lauch a beta version of the site before the official launch, but producer Adam Khwaja says he’s optimistic about the project based on feedback from the 200-plus children who were part of the development process.
As for what will determine the success of the site, Gilchrist says that it’s not necessarily pure numbers. ‘Some of it will be the quality of the content,’ she says, ‘whether the feedback we get from kids is helpful or interesting or entertaining.’