What are they?
Virtual worlds are online worlds that are inhabited by users who take the shape of avatars (cartoon characters that represent you, which you can choose characteristics for). Internet users who are online simultaneously meet in the virtual world and communicate through their avatar by chat – sometimes with audio or video options.
Virtual worlds are a relatively recent phenomenon and are very popular with youth, with three times as many young people than adults populating them.
There are two main types of virtual worlds:
- environments that provide a setting for socializing, playing and shopping; and
- massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) that provide a storyline or quest.
Virtual worlds are particularly interesting to adolescents as they are real-time places in which they can experiment with all kinds of situations and identities. As their personalities develop, teens are attracted to the opportunity to test behaviours and identity anonymously in a relatively protected environment. For example, through their avatars, kids can:
- experiment with different ages and genders; and
- test behaviour that would be considered risky offline (such as aggressiveness or double-crossing) and observe the immediate impact of this behaviour on others.
Some psychologists believe that virtual worlds can help teenagers deal positively with changes that occur at puberty by letting them explore different personas and social situations. However, if their involvement becomes compulsive and dominates a teenager’s life at the expense of face-to-face socializing with peers, it can have the opposite effect.
Socializing environments (i.e. Club Penguin and Teen Second Life)
When using these sites, children are learning valuable social skills for interacting in online communities. For example, Webkinz represents a simplified version of a social network where children interact through their Webkinz avatar. Two friends, each owning a Webkinz toy, can have their avatars play together on the Webkinz site.
Tip: Children need to learn proper social skills for virtual worlds. Teach them to remember there are people behind the avatars and everyone must be treated with respect.
As virtual worlds usually include some type of chat, children can learn communication skills. In Club Penguin, for instance, children can communicate with each other through two levels of chat: a secure mode where children use pre-programmed phrases to communicate, and a second mode where children are free to type whatever they like. For children who are just learning to write, the free chat mode helps familiarize them with the keyboard and how to use writing for fun in real life communications.
It’s important that parents understand that virtual worlds are as much about commerce as socialization. From buying more Webkinz toys to purchasing land on Teen Second Life, most virtual worlds are commercial environments where kids are encouraged to buy products for their avatars, or real world products for themselves. Habbo Hotel, for example, describes itself as an online environment that provides companies and brands “with a completely new and exciting way of building their brand value among teenagers.”
Tip: Look for virtual worlds that don’t encourage consumerism – ones that promote charitable giving or civic engagement. For example, Global Kids aims to develop global citizenship and community leadership skills in young people.
Online multiplayer games
The main difference between virtual world games and “traditional” video games that are not played online is that the former allows players to create and play within real online communities, with both their offline friends and players from all around the world. Popular examples are RuneScape and World of Warcraft.
The community aspect of these games provides players with valuable opportunities to learn and practise important social skills such as helping or guiding a newcomer and organizing groups or guilds, and learning how to make moral or ethical decisions about how a community, city or nation should be run.
When confronted with extreme situations that they are unlikely to encounter in the “real world”, youth can also learn the skills to manage the unexpected and deal with crisis situations.
According to a 2008 study, teens who have these civic gaming experiences report much higher levels of civic and political engagement than teens that have not had this kind of experience.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are intrinsically time-consuming. They are sometimes referred to as persistent worlds because they continue to evolve, whether or not the player is online. This can be very addictive for players, who feel the need to constantly check back into the game to see what’s happening. In some games, the avatar disappears if the player hasn’t clocked a certain number of hours per week.
Tip: It’s a good idea for parents to check whether there are a minimum weekly number of hours of play required before their child registers with an online game.
Because the storyline is developed by interactions between players, it is difficult to estimate how much time a session or game will take. Knowing this, parents can better understand why their child may not be able to “disconnect” from the game come mealtime.
Tip: Discuss time management with your child and plan game playing for times when gaming won’t conflict with other priorities.
Tip: If you’re a gamer yourself, monitor your own playing habits – after all, you’re your child’s main role model.
For more information on compulsive gaming, see our section on Excessive Internet use.