One of the most interesting comments made at the second-annual Virtual Worlds Conference I attended in L.A. this week was from Jon Landau, producer of Titanic and of a project-in-progress called Avatar. Landau said, “I grew up being taught to worry about ‘big brother’; with the Internet we have to worry about little brother.” I don’t think anybody else heard that quite as acutely as an advocate of children’s online safety would. Not only is little brother watching, little brother (of any age, basically everybody on the user-driven, fixed and mobile network) is commenting, uploading, producing, entertaining, collaborating, socializing, and exploring identity, as well as creating imposter profiles, gaming the game system, sending nude phone-snapped photos, etc. We’re dealing with a new set of blended conditions, with online life not just mirroring “real life” but changing it as well, in subtle ways we don’t yet fully understand.
One thing that’s clear from the research but was confirmed (in my head, not yet by speakers) everywhere I turned at the conference: digital ethics and citizenship have to be central to the discussion as we learn how to negotiate this new space where – definitely for kids, in any case – the line between online and offline is fading. Learning how to behave ethically in community whether digital or physical is central to children’s well-being online, right now and increasingly as we move forward.
Really exciting projects are going on in and with virtual worlds in schools around the US and world. Check out the collaborative work between schools in California, Japan, and Australia at PacRim Exchange; with libraries in Teen Second Life and youth librarians of the Eye4You Alliance; on virtual islands for public school students (Ramapo Islands) in Teen Second Life; and in Second Life and New York City with nonprofit Global Kids, which aims to help “transform urban youth into successful students as well as global and community leaders” (I want to zoom in on some of these powerful projects in future posts).
I spoke with a northern California principal, Patti Purcell of Bel Aire Elementary School, about Bel Aire’s six-week pilot project teaching students digital citizenship "in-world" and in the classroom with the help of children's virtual world Dizzywood. Patti told me she felt students needed a space where they could actually practice what they learned in character education, which has long been part of the curriculum. One lesson was in collaborative tree-planting. Dizzywood co-founder Scott Arpajian told me certainly any child can plant a tree in Dizzywood, but the “game” is designed so that planting gets “exponentially faster [and a lot more fun] when they help each other out.” Students are given time to explore the virtual world (they’re given “agency,” a sense of place and ownership in-world), but the experience is structured too, with in-world activities always followed by classroom discussion. “Graduation” included presentations by the students before an audience of parents who were very interested in how character ed was taught in a virtual world. Patti said, “It’s very empowering for a 10-year-old to be able to explain their space to a group of adults.” Two other cool elements: students participate in creating their own code of ethics, and Scott told me Dizzywood lets them look “under the hood” – learn about how Dizzywood’s techies and graphic designers create its activities and habitat (something aspiring designers and software engineers would be fascinated with).
A few general virtual-world-industry themes I picked up on (signs of where things are headed): not making users download special software, but bringing virtual environments to them right through their Web browsers; whether kid virtual worlds should “grow up” with their users (as has happened with about 10% of Whyville.net‘s users, now in college); predictions of a merging of social networking and virtual worlds; your avatar going wherever you go on the Web (not locked into a single virtual world); and other signs of interest in or movement toward interoperability.
Going to this conference was a déjà vu kind of experience for me. Though it wasn’t just about kid products and services, it felt a lot like Jupiter Media’s “Digital Kids” conferences in the late-’90s: a very young industry trying to get a fix on metrics, markets, and competition folding in lots of start-ups, a handful of well-established B2B and B2C companies (Whyville.net, There.com, Second Life, Multiverse) and one or two old, giant media players (e.g., Disney) barreling ahead, seemingly announcing a new “world” about every six months (Pirates of the Caribbean, ClubPenguin acquisition, PixieHollow.com, forthcoming Cars world). Lots of numbers were tossed around (some admitted by the speaker to be educated estimates because research is limited): a current 100 million+ virtual-world residents worldwide, 75% between the ages of 8 and 24, with virtual worlds “about to collide” with the Web’s 550 million social networkers worldwide, and a current $1.5 billion market in virtual goods (e.g., weapons in World of Warcraft, clothes and furniture in Second Life). One number that has been researched – by the conference’s organizers – is that there are now more than 150 virtual worlds for youth 3-17 either available or in development (see this post).