Local girl builds community around gaming platform

Her First Coast Roblox Club meets at the link in Nocatee

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

Coming from Atlanta, where she became immersed in gaming during the pandemic and regularly interacted with kids from all over the world, Sofia discovered there was no local club devoted to her favorite pastime.

With some help from dad Chris and mom Gina, the homeschooled sixth grader started the First Coast Roblox Gaming Club. A meet-up was held and the kids in attendance got acquainted. But things really took off when Sofia had an opportunity to speak about her club at the link, a cultural centerpiece, innovation incubator and co-working space located at 425 Town Plaza Ave.

“It was a big hit,” Sofia said.

About 40 kids and their parents attended, attesting to the need for real-world friendships even among a generation comfortable with virtual interaction. The club began to meet every second Thursday at the link and membership has grown to about 140, with an average of 30 people attending each meeting.

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

Roblox has millions of games and allows players to make — and play — their own games. It’s very popular with children, youth and even young adults, and so far players account for an estimated 95.1 billion hours engaged.

It’s free to play Roblox games — though not always player-generated games — and the platform is available across most devices. Players create an avatar, which represents them in the platform. Avatars are limited only by the player’s imagination.

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

He contrasted Roblox with the kinds of video games he enjoyed as a kid, games like Super Mario Bros., where players put a cassette into a console, played the game and, when it was over, it was over.

“With Roblox, you’ve got your avatar inside the game, and you’re allowed to have up to 200 friends,” he said. “So, when you play in a game, your friends get notified: ‘Hey! Sofia’s playing Royale High. Do you want to join in?’”

Beyond gaming, Roblox has presented interactive concerts that reach bigger audiences than any ordinary venue could.

But Roblox isn’t limited to these things. In one important component, Bloxburg, players design and “build” their own structures — and even whole towns — right down to the smallest details.

“It’s an entire 3-D world down to the doorknob, the light switch, the controls,” said Chris LaBarbera. “If you build something inside a game, you’ve got to have the dimensions of the room. You have to know where your wiring comes in. You have to know where your light switch comes in — those are all the foundations for building a house.”

He estimated that his daughter, now 12, has logged about 9,000 hours of computer-aided design experience. In fact, she has already created two “smart cities” within Bloxburg, where she can meet with her friends using avatars that they have created themselves.

For kids like Sofia, this could lay the groundwork for a career in engineering, architecture or some related field.

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

Her dad hopes professionals recognize the potential in all this.

“Our goal is to get various homebuilders and major building companies to sponsor some of these kids,” he said. Sponsorships could fund hardware or in-game currency that would help the young participants better develop their skills. This could be especially helpful since, unlike the gaming portion of Roblox, building is not free. Builders buy the items they want to install by spending Robux, an in-game currency that can be acquired by spending real-world money at a generous exchange rate.

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

Chris LaBarbera said he hopes other communities will be inspired to form their own clubs, and that competitions could then be held.

Roblox safeguards the identities of its young players by hiding any identifiers. It also excludes foul language. Likewise, Sofia’s club is a safe space.

“Anyone that volunteers with our club is going to be background-checked,” said her dad.

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

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

“I couldn’t be more proud,” he said.

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