November 16, 2007

Analyzing Virtual Worlds for Kids

Through, I learned about yesterday's conference (Nov. 15) about the experiences of online virtual networks for children, specifically focusing on Club Penguin and Webkinz, it seems. Here's a link to Cnet's article "What kids learn in virtual reality." This is a fascinating quote from Doug Thomas, associate professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communication:

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

Well, that doesn't seem to be the reaction of most parents I know. They're terrified of their kids playing on the computer beyond 15 minutes. Maybe I'm just hanging around with conservative parents in Illinois' heartland. But these parents are well educated and most have a high speed internet connection at home. Many use computers as an important part of their job. So why are they reluctant to let their kids online, communicate with their friends online, or even have online 'jobs' to earn money to 'buy' things?

If they're worried about commercialism, as the cnet article indicates, isn't what they're describing more like 'why it's important to have a job so you can buy things you need: food, shelter, clothing?' True, the kids are buying fun things, but they are learning about the connection between earning money/points to buy something that you want and then using it. Or they find out that maybe they didn't want what they bought, like a boy getting a pink tutu for his penguin. Webkinz, in particular, doesn't let you earn points unless you can pass certain tests, some of which are difficult for me to pass on the first time. So the 'jobs' are not easy-peasy, but require some skill and effort.

Other parents are reluctant to pay the cost of Club Penguin. But it's $5 to $6 a month, depending on the plan. That's less than two McDonald's happy meals. Or less than most Lego sets. Or about the same as seeing one movie in a theater a month, without popcorn. More parents seem to be allowing their kids to have a Webkinz, which cost from $8 to $15 (I think that's right) because that's the only entry fee. Well, at first that's the only cost. But there's more! Kids are begging parents in stores to buy them another Webkinz. I met a mother whose children each had 10. And then there are clothes, trading cards, etc., with special codes to unlock more stuff online. This may cost me more than $6 a month if I keep going to the stores that are easily noted on the web by our Webkinz fan.

Or, is it the obsessiveness that these virtual worlds generate? Okay, this is troubling. Adults get obsessed about being online, so it's not surprising that kids do too. I wish that the academics had responded to this problem.

What about the weirdness of making friends online, and then not being able to make friends, and then being shunned by friends? I sometimes think this is rather overblown by parents. Kids' friendships are often fluid, especially on playgrounds, which is what I think is a good analogy for Club Penguin, in particular. Maybe it's okay to learn how to be friends quickly, to learn how to let go, to not get too jealous of friends. That might be a good life lesson.

For an added perspective, here's a link to a recent poll that says "Parents and Video Games don't mix." The following quote from a parent, who here is talking more about fantasy and violent games not really Club Penguin and Webkinz, still seems to present another position of parents
"It's just such a waste of time," said Lackman, 47, a power plant operator from Center, North Dakota, "I tell him, 'Do something that has some lasting value."'
But maybe learning how to negotiate in virtual worlds is going to continue to be an important skill for this new generation. My mom always wanted me to 'go outside.' I ended up bringing a typewriter outside and learning how to type in a tree with fingers that were freezing because I had to be outside during spring break in March. I was using my mom's old Royal typewriter with the hard-to-hit keys.

Perhaps that's why I particularly like that kids have to type to communicate. That's why I'm okay with Club Penguin in our house. I like that we have lots of excitement for Thursday's newspaper on Club Penguin, as I've mentioned before here.

The one parent that I know that regularly lets her daughter on Club Penguin does so because her best friend moved to Texas. This way they can talk to each other for a long time without tying up the home phone.

But the panelists in California seemed less concerned than many of the parents that I know. Yasmin Kafai, associate professor of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, suggested that

parents become a member in the virtual world that their kids belong to and play with them. "Go into the world with them," she said.

So, looks like there's a big divide between many parents, kids who like virtual reality and will be involved in it probably for the rest of their lives, and academics on the west coast.


Anonymous said...

The panel did address the question of obsessive play. It was one of the first questions asked and it was addressed repeatedly during the panel.

Webcast of the Event

jadegreen said...

Thanks for noting that the panel did address obsessive play. I'm glad that people are at least concerned about that, but then it's been in the news a lot as a problem for adults too.