Gaming platform

A local girl creates a community around a gaming platform

By Shaun Ryan

When Sofia LaBarbera’s family moved to Nocatee a year ago, the 11-year-old girl hoped to befriend others who shared her interest in online games, especially games associated with Roblox, a cloud-based platform that fosters creativity.

Coming from Atlanta, where she immersed herself in the game during the pandemic and regularly interacted with children around the world, Sofia discovered that there was no local club dedicated to her favorite hobby.

With the help of dad Chris and mom Gina, the homeschooled sixth-grader started the First Coast Roblox Gaming Club. A meeting took place and the children present got to know each other. But things really took off when Sofia got the chance to talk about her club at The Link, a cultural centerpiece, innovation incubator and co-working space located at 425 Town Plaza Ave.

“It was a great success,” said Sofia.

Around 40 children and their parents attended, attesting to the need for real-world friendships, even among a generation comfortable with virtual interaction. The club began meeting every other Thursday at the link and membership grew to around 140, with an average of 30 people attending each meeting.

“I’m trying to get other people from North Florida to Nocatee to come play together so we can all start creating and building and thinking together,” Sofia said.

Roblox offers millions of games and allows players to create and play their own games. It is very popular with children, young people and even young adults, and so far, players account for around 95.1 billion hours engaged.

Roblox games are free to play – but not always player-generated games – and the platform is available on most devices. Players create an avatar that represents them on the platform. Avatars are only limited by the player’s imagination.

“I’m much cooler inside the game,” admitted Chris LaBarbera. “Like, I have a big gold chain and really cool glasses and a parrot on my shoulder.”

He pitted Roblox against the kinds of video games he loved as a kid, games like Super Mario Bros., where players inserted a tape into a console, played the game, and when it was over, it was finished.

“With Roblox, you have your in-game avatar and you can have up to 200 friends,” he said. “So when you play a game, your friends are notified, ‘Hey! Sofia is playing Royale High. Do you want to participate?'”

Beyond the games, Roblox has featured interactive concerts that reach a wider audience than any ordinary venue.

But Roblox is not limited to these things. In one important element, Bloxburg, players design and “build” their own structures – and even entire towns – down to the smallest detail.

“It’s a whole 3D world right down to the door handle, the light switch, the controls,” said Chris LaBarbera. “If you’re building something inside a game, you have to have the dimensions of the room. You need to know where your wiring is. You need to know where your light switch is – those are all the basics of building a house.

He estimated his daughter, now 12, has amassed around 9,000 hours of computer-aided design experience. In fact, she’s already created two “smart cities” within Bloxburg, where she can meet her friends using avatars they’ve created themselves.

For kids like Sofia, it could lay the foundation for a career in engineering, architecture, or a related field.

“I really love architecture and designing things,” said Sofia, who is considering a career as an interior designer.

His father hopes professionals recognize the potential of it all.

“Our goal is to get various home builders and large construction companies to sponsor some of these children,” he said. Sponsorships could fund hardware or in-game currency that would help young participants further develop their skills. This could be especially useful because, unlike the game part of Roblox, building isn’t free. Builders buy the items they want to install by spending Robux, an in-game currency that can be acquired by spending real money at a generous exchange rate.

The good news is that it can work both ways. Some Roblox “developers” have been able to generate income from their creations.

Chris LaBarbera said he hoped other communities would be inspired to form their own clubs and competitions could then take place.

Roblox protects the identity of its young players by hiding all identifiers. This also excludes foul language. Likewise, the club in Sofia is a safe space.

“Anyone who volunteers with our club is going to be subject to a background check,” his father said.

In addition to her work in Roblox, Sofia is a YouTube content creator with over 5,000 channel subscribers and has designed a range of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which she hopes to auction. She was asked to collaborate with the Women’s Gaming Organization of New York to create the virtual stage for their gaming awards.

As an information technology professional, Chris LaBarbera appreciates his daughter’s accomplishments.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.