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Roblox has a secret weapon to win the gaming wars

March 10, 2021, 2:56 PM UTC

As he and his unhappy thoughts hurried along (for while he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible) it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty.

“And worst of all,” he continued sadly, “there’s nothing for me to do, nowhere I’d care to go, and hardly anything worth seeing.”

The Phantom Tollbooth

There used to be a bit of a debate about video games. Obviously kids spending hours at a time blasting monsters and each other into oblivion, casting spells, and stealing cars was bad for them, encouraging all the wrong kinds of thoughts and luring them away from more uplifting tasks like homework and chores.

Turns out, not so much.

For at least a decade, psychologists have found that kids who spent a reasonable amount of time playing video games improved a range of important mental skills including problem solving, spatial navigation, memory, and reasoning. Playing games also helped reduce anxiety, bolstered emotional resilience, and–counter to what many parents once assumed–improved social skills and encouraged cooperation. More recent research has started to tie gaming to developing some of the exact skills that have become critical in the workplace, such as communicating with peers, adaptability, and reflective learning.

The impact of video games was on my mind this week as I was spending a lot of time talking to avid video gamers for a story delving into the popularity of gaming company Roblox, which is going public today. These were mostly teenage kids who spent their earlier years playing games on Roblox and had gotten hooked enough to want to design their own games.

In a call made over the Discord app, Zack Ovits, an 18-year-old college freshman, told me about how when he was nine and his mom kicked him off phone calls with friends, he’d meet up with them on Roblox.

Even back then, he started writing his own simple battle games which evolved into more and more complicated designs until he was trying to master all of the programming tools Roblox offered–at the age of 12. Nowadays, Ovits, who goes by “boatbomber” on the site, prefers to help younger users learn how to program in the Lua language that undergirds all Roblox games. Using the Roblox gaming engine, he’s created a site for interactively learning how to program games. It includes lessons and tutorials that have been viewed by millions of players.

“I spent years learning Lua. It wasn’t easy, the resources were very scattered, and it was not cohesive,” Ovits said. “I wanted to improve that experience for the people who would come after me.”

While I was mulling over Ovits’ story, and similar tales I heard from other kids his age, came the sad news that Norton Juster, author of the beloved children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth, had died. And when I say beloved, I mean personally, truly, madly, deeply beloved by me.

My grandparents gave me a copy of the book for Hanukkah when I was six and I read it so many times (at least 20 times according to a check mark system I used on the inside cover page) that I knew large passages by heart. The journey of the main character Milo from bored and disaffected to engaged and enlightened was one that resonated with little me and continued to encourage me to be curious and creative forever after.

But the world isn’t standing still. In 1972, a paperback book was one of the best ways to lose yourself for a few hours in an imaginary realm. Kids today, kids today face a far different array of choices and even opportunities to contribute their own creativity back into the world. And they’re just getting started.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Beyond Expectations. Speaking of tech companies going public, most of the tech companies that are already public staged a comeback on Tuesday after a week of weak performance. Tesla jumped 20%, tacking almost $100 billion onto its value in a day. Other winners that rose at least 10% included Roku, Square, and Zoom. Historically, it's a common pattern that after tech stocks sell off quickly, they bounce back almost as fast, LPL Financial's chief market strategist Ryan Detrick explains.

Confusion in the Market Place. Clearly there are too many streaming services–hello, Paramount+, I'm looking at you. But Netflix won't be the only survivor. On Tuesday, Disney let slip that its offering has reached 100 million subscribers in just 16 months. What's next? To infinity and beyond!

It's All How You Look at Things. In a small move that could signal a big shift, the next version of Apple's iOS software will drop the term "subscribe" in its Podcasts app and substitute the word "follow," the podnews site uncovered. A sign that Apple is going to allow podcasts, which have all been free on the platform so far, to charge for premium subscriptions? Stay tuned.

A Colorful Symphony. New gadget land has been pretty quiet lately but should get more interesting soon. Samsung says it will unveil some new devices on March 17. Sonos has a new portable speaker called the Roam that will cost $170 and last for 10 hours on a battery. It goes on sale April 20. And Facebook described a smart glasses product it is cooking up that will understand gestures, rely heavily on A.I., and provide haptic feedback.

Dischord and Dynne. Another day, another deeply troubling hacking story. On Wednesday, a group of hackers said they had spied on thousands of companies, schools, hospitals and other sites by breaking into the security camera feeds at Verkada. Footage included feeds from Tesla, Cloudflare, and Florida hospital Halifax Health. Verkada said it cut off the access and was investigating the issue.

Unwelcoming Committee. The political has gotten legal in too many ways. More on that score: Twitter is suing Texas Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who opened an investigation a few weeks ago into social media platforms that bumped President Trump. The lawsuit charged Paxton was using the powers of his office "to retaliate against Twitter for having made editorial decisions with which he disagrees."

(Today's headline reference explainer comes from the chapter headings of The Phantom Tollbooth. Always worth a reread.)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Ray Ozzie is best known as the creator of email program Lotus Notes and later spent some time as Microsoft's chief software architect. Now he has a new startup called Blues Wireless and Harry McCracken has the story for Fast Company. It's all about a low cost computing and sensing module dubbed the Notecard that can power gadgets like an air quality monitor .

A critical part of that proposition is that the Notecard’s $49 price includes 10 years of AT&T service that’s just there, ready to go without the user having to do so much as activate a SIM card or choose a data plan. Ozzie freely acknowledges drawing inspiration from Amazon’s Whispernet; that technology, which debuted back in 2007 with the original Kindle, gave the e-reader a 3G wireless connection for downloading books that was similarly free of cost or complication.

Ozzie, who was an advisor to AT&T before hatching plans for Blues Wireless, says that the telecom giant loved his concept and understood why it made sense for it to be a startup. “I said, ‘Look, you’re not going to deliver these dreams of 5G and billions of devices unless you make the developer experience much, much, much easier,'” he recounts. “And they got it right off. They just said, ‘We can’t do it. How about if we partner on it?’ And that’s why they were willing to work with me on a novel business plan and business model.”

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BEFORE YOU GO

If you are still reading books, in print or on screen, Walter Isaacson has a new tome out this week called The Code Breaker covering how scientist Jennifer Doudna won the race to develop gene editing technology. Given some of the problems with how Isaacson explained personal computing in his Steve Jobs biography, I'm a little wary of relying too heavily on his elucidation of Doudna's Crispr invention, but it's a well-written, engaging story that I've been loath to put down over the past 24 hours.