You may have heard young children in your life talking about time they spent online on sites like Webkinz or Club Penguin and you may wonder why your 7-year-old niece, for example, keeps going back for more.
Virtual worlds are immersive 2-D or 3-D spaces in which users adopt an avatar, or online character, in order to represent themselves and interact with others. Virtual worlds aimed at children normally allow users to create an avatar; locate the avatar in a “home” environment, which is that avatar’s personal space in the virtual world. Users can interact socially with other users, primarily through online text chat, though a small number of virtual worlds for this age group now feature voice interaction. Avatars can earn virtual currency by playing games or engaging in other activities; and spend this virtual currency buying virtual goods for their avatar or their avatar’s home.
Some virtual worlds for children link to toys and artifacts that can be purchased in the offline world (e.g. Webkinz™) and some developers let children accrue and/or exchange currency and goods with other users in the offline world that can be used online.
In my research into this phenomenon over the past seven years, mainly focused on Club Penguin, Disney’s virtual world, I have found that these spaces offer a variety of opportunities for social development, play, and literacy. For example, play in virtual worlds enables children to learn how to engage with others online and how to initiate and respond to social overtures in virtual spaces. While there hasn’t been additional research yet on if or how the skills supported through Club Penguin can translate to other contexts, making friends online enables some children to have a wider network of both male and female friends, as friends they play with at school tend to be restricted to the children of the same gender.
Of course networking online poses privacy risks for young children. Parents, caregivers, and early childhood educators play a key role in helping children to understand how to make contact with others safely online. However, in the majority of cases, younger children tend to play mainly online with children they know offline. The children I have observed and talked to have engaged in many productive activities on these virtual worlds, including developing mathematical and problem-solving skills through the games they play, participating in pleasurable socio-dramatic and fantasy play (playing ‘house’, pretending to be pirates or mermaids and playing fantasy football games), reading (e.g. virtual books and game instructions), and writing (e.g. in-world chat, postcards, and responses to tasks).
In addition, children can engage in a range of activities beyond the worlds themselves, which allow them to develop multimodal production skills, such as creating videos and machinima (amateur-produced animated films) focused on the virtual worlds, writing on blogs or fan fiction sites, or chatting in fan forums.
This is one illustration of how the boundaries between online play and offline play are becoming more porous. For example, children can now own toys and games that relate to their online play worlds; some of these toys even link to the online sites, for example enabling children to unlock virtual money in the games.
In the years ahead, this relationship between online and offline will become increasingly complex. The emerging interest in augmented reality play, more possible now than ever before thanks to mobile apps, may lead to more creative developments in the design of virtual worlds. Soon children will be able to create artifacts for their avatars and virtual homes using apps, then upload these to the virtual world. Facilitating user-generated content in this way could make the virtual world experience even more exciting for children.
In this new frontier, children need to develop the skills that will allow them to successfully manage their online experiences, such as knowing how to keep safe and guard their personal data when using virtual worlds; becoming resilient in the face of potentially unpleasant contact with others online; knowing what to do if they do encounter inappropriate material; and having a critical awareness of when they are being targeted by commercial companies. It is also important to enable children to reflect on these issues without detracting from the pleasures they obviously derive from their participation in virtual worlds.
Play is moving ever more swiftly into online spaces, while of course remaining rooted in the physical world. Enabling children to explore, take risks and develop strategies for being safe in both domains is key to secure and enjoyable play in the contemporary world.