November 19, 2007

Being neutral on virtual realities

Children hanging out in virtual reality would sound like science fiction only a few years ago, and yet today it's becoming a hot topic. The way that academics and media watchers are discussing the topic seems, in a way, to only be scratching the surface. My sense is that there's a sense of more optimism than pessimism among those grabbing the spotlight on discussing this emerging world. Check out Doug Thomas' statement in relation to the MacArthur Foundation's forum last week "What are Kids Learning in Virtual Worlds: The Wonders and the Worries."

Within virtual worlds, kids are learning what it means to be members of a community, a community they are building and in many ways defining. The values they create and the rules and norms they develop are teaching them lessons in citizenship and community. In many cases that is a good thing, one which helps kids understand what makes for a healthy community and what makes for a dysfunctional one. At the same time, however, we need to be mindful of spaces which conflate citizenship with consumption or community with collection.

...Virtual worlds teach the skills to navigate the new information economy by allowing kids to learn how to find information, often times in an environment that changes rapidly. Taken together, virtual worlds can prepare our kids for the next generation of learning. If only our schools could move as quickly.

In the cnet.com article covering the forum, Thomas acknowledges the inherent problems with commercialism (meaning mainly collecting stuff
and exposure to ads) in today's virtual realities for children. But then, the article quotes him say:

"Knowledge is changing. It (used to be that it) was a set of facts, now it's not so much a 'what' but a 'where,' in which kids learn how to find information," Thomas said. "That's going to be the single most important skill--the ability to adapt to change."

He added: "I wouldn't be worried if they're engaged and playing these games, I'd be more worried if they're not."

But most kids are not playing virtual reality games and many are not precisely because of capitalism, commercialism -- or in other words because most parents aren't rich enough to get their kids high speed internet connections and their own dedicated computer to go along with it. If you remember that 50% or more of children in the southern U.S. live in families at or below the poverty line, then you know what I'm talking about. The digital divide is becoming a digital chasm.

Even if your parents have money, it is still difficult to convince them to spend money on something intangible -- virtual pets and their related clothes. Most adults aren't even spending money for their own intangibles. True, there's a large group of people that play Warcraft, but those people also have dedicated an enormous amount of time to that world. The new virtual realities are going to have to be more fluid, allowing adults and children to enter easily.

In a recent New York Times article, "Pay Up Kid, or Your Igloo Melts," even parents who have the money to spend (burn?) are somewhat confused about why they're paying for some things in virtual reality. Paying $6 a month isn't too bad, but $19.95 for a virtual dragon is too much.

In essence, I'm trying to say that being more neutral on virtual realities might be better. I've been through this before when academic consultants jump up and down about how great the new technology is. But they don't always think out all of the ramifications. And one of the ramifications here is: Who's going to pay, how much, and why?

well, more later.

1 comment:

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