November 14, 2007

The Benefits of Virtual Worlds Online

As you may know I've been opening my mind to the possibility that video games and computer use are beneficial to children. In my previous life, as Waldorf school parent, I never would have even considered the possibility that they might be anything more than an energy-sucking nuisance. But, when I decided to unschool I committed to taking Jerry's interests seriously. And boy is he interested in computer use and video games! So, I've been reading up on their benefits and it turns out there are many.

This evening I went to a panel discussion at USC called "What are Kids Learning in Virtual Worlds? The Wonders and the Worries." There were five panelists, all of them very techno-savvy and convinced of the educational value of virtual worlds and video games. The opening remarks were given by the Vice President of the MacArthur Foundation. When I got home and checked the foundation's website, I discovered that many of her remarks came from the following editorial. All of a sudden virtual worlds are sounding pretty good to me!

An excerpt from "New Generations, New Media Challenges," an opinion-editorial by Jonathan Fanton that ran in the June 19, 2007, edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch
Research, some of it funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is just beginning to fathom how deeply our children have absorbed new technology: the role it plays in their lives and how it affects their learning, play and socialization. What this research suggests is that today's digital youth are in the process of creating a new kind of literacy; this evolving skill extends beyond the traditions of reading and writing into a community of expression and problem-solving that not only is changing their world but ours, too. . .Henry Jenkins, director of the media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this a new "participatory culture," one that presents low barriers to artistic expression and social engagement that suggests that a richer environment for learning may lie outside the classroom.

Online and after school, youths in this new participatory culture are assimilating new languages and rules, vast troves of research and perspectives on the nature of order and community that vault across traditional boundaries of race or creed or culture.

In meta-games such as Civilization III and SimCity, participants develop and manipulate dynamic models of real life; they teach and legislate, create and share, connect and collaborate, reflecting the value of team-building and consensus over autonomous solutions.

Moreover, through virtual characters and identities — even some that disturb parents — teens can experiment through trial and error, make poor moral choices or learn the downside of risk-taking without jeopardizing actual careers or lives. They learn to value challenge and appreciate complexity, even as they assimilate facts and assess developments at breathtaking speed.

The downside may be that in the sunset of the old information culture, we are not understanding this new media literacy soon enough. Those who have no opportunity or desire to be part of these revolutionary digital communities may be deprived of vital virtual skills that would prepare them for full participation in the real world of tomorrow.

In this new media age, the ability to negotiate and evaluate information online, to recognize manipulation and propaganda and to assimilate ethical values is becoming as basic to education as reading and writing. The children who truly will be left behind in the evolving digital culture are those who fail to bridge this participation gap.

Here are a few links to some really cool virtual worlds:

Club Penguin
Gaia Online
Teen Second Life

By the way, one of the points made in the discussion was that many of these sites make money by offering advertising in the form of product placement. For example, Donna Karan clothes, or a Toyota Scion can be "purchased" and used by your child's avatar with points. All of the panelists felt children would benefit from an open discussion about consumerism, advertising, sales tactics, etc.

One last thing...I found an excellent resource today on Sandra Dodd's website. She has an entire page with links to articles about video games and their benefits. You'll find it here.

I'm still feeling good. :)


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with you. Many kids AND adults can benefit from accessing Virtual Worlds around the internet, and some of them give us a better understanding and general knowledge about the world. Not only do these Virtual Worlds allow us to interact with one another, but also enable us to create our own, ideal world whilst learning.

Amber Salm said...

Agreed. I recently became familiar with the benefits of video games. This is the fun and most loving activity of kids as well as young ones too. I do play games for relaxing and fun.
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