The New York Times ran a story on December 31, 2007 about very young kids and virtual worlds:
The article covers games like Webkinz, Club Penguin and various other commercial product virtual “advertisement” worlds. These are not virtual worlds by my definition, but rather a replacement for the Saturday morning cartoons of yesterday. Most of these kiddie virtual worlds are centered on real world products. Our local grocery store sells Webkinz for $15, a stuffed animal the size of a beanie baby. The hook is that kids can buy a stuffed animal pet and then go home and log in and play with that animal in the Webkinz virtual world. The NYT’s article has a little girl and her virtual pets featured in front of her computer for this story. I beg to differ on these platforms being true virtual worlds.
Most of these environments, like Club Penguin, Neopets, Maple Story, Webkinz and others are 2D mediocre graphics games that repackage old arcade games, and new twists on themes, into loosely tied together web flash games that run a few minutes each. The currency of these worlds is earned by playing these games, the credits then being used to buy virtual goodies. Some games pay higher than others. Most of the themes and games are related to movies, TV shows or real world products that are being promoted. The reward of virtual items to be bought with earned credits drives kids to mindlessly play these games, often not playing the ones they really enjoy but rather the ones where they can earn the most credits the fastest. It’s a sad trend that only seems to be growing with the successes of Disney and MTV and their kiddie virtual worlds (who the article points out are readying new worlds as quickly as they can based on other commercial properties).
With PacRimX at our one year anniversary, we have learned a few things this past year about students and virtual worlds. One of the most obvious now is that students want to have online activities and tasks defined for them. An open world like Second Life, without organized activities set out for them, does not appeal to them for very long. If they are left to their own devices, most will quickly get bored and move on. If there is an organized event with many students interacting then they have fun and are engaged. Global Kids has this down to a science, and should be looked to as a model for other virtual teen projects.
I fear that these new worlds aimed squarely at young kids, that are nothing more than recycled arcade games loosely grouped into neighborhoods or lands, reinforce the short attention spans of our students and steal away their sense of creativity and real accomplishment. Yes they can buy virtual goodies to decorate their virtual rooms (or igloo as it may be), and they can even change their avatars clothes. But the customization is fairly limited to cosmetic aspects of their play, and again, driven by repetitive key mashing for token rewards. This is the worst kind of treadmill to put our kids on.
The New York Times article says that these kids will be invading virtual worlds in large numbers over the next four years. They likely will not be invading places like Second Life. The worlds they will be moving up to will more likely be places like NeoPets, Maple Story and DOMO. Funny how two of these (Neopets and Maple Story) have collectible card games that are sold in tandem to the online game with secret codes sprinkled in random packs for unique virtual items. Ditto for World of Warcraft and their Upper Deck collectible card game. The kids seeking social interaction in their play will gravitate towards MMO’s like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and Tabula Rasa, all driven by scripted quests and missions. And let’s not forget the consoles and services like Xbox Live and the upcoming Sony Home.
We now focus a lot of attention in our schools on testing, test prep, and cramming for tests. Most of the creativity and social activities have been minimized or removed from the majority of our classrooms. Where can our young students express their true creativity today? These new kiddie virtual (commercial) worlds have lowered the age group being occupied by “the computer as babysitter”. Most parents don’t take the time to sit down and watch what their kids are playing online, they are just happy that they know where to find them if needed. And if little Johnny from school is meeting up with their son, then that’s one play visit that mom won’t have to play taxi driver.
Here’s a wish for the New Year. How about a virtual world (or even a social network) funded by charitable foundations? This virtual service would draw students of all ages to compete in contests for real money in the form of savings bonds, mini scholarships, or credits to buy school supplies. The students would compete in art competitions, essay competitions, or other creative scholastic competitions. The collected works of the students could then be displayed in these virtual worlds in virtual museums, libraries, and other scholastic locations. Wrap it all up in a social environment with individual spaces to make it personal. If the same principals of these successful games were turned towards encouraging students to create rather than mash buttons for points, we might actually accomplish something positive. Instead, we appear to be commercializing the virtual worlds before they ever get a foothold as productive creative spaces that showcase creativity with our children.