Their effect is not entirely unlike hanging out at the shopping mall in the "real world," is my take-away from reading CNET on researchers' just-released study of kids' virtual worlds. Of course, my characterization is simplistic and on the negative side, but "the inherently commercial nature of virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz, which encourage kids to play games, dress up online characters, and buy virtual goods to decorate their in-world homes or avatars," seems to send kids the message, they said, that good residents, users, or "citizens" know how to make money (amass points by playing games) and buy the right things (e.g., furniture for your igloo, cute pets, and attractive clothes and accessories, I've found from watching my 10-year-old play in ClubPenguin).
But there were positives among the findings of researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, the recipients of major funding from the MacArthur Foundation for research on young people's use of digital media. "Kids who are active members of virtual worlds are learning how to socialize" and "how to be technologically savvy" - things they'll need when they enter the workplace - as well as "how to be good little consumers," writes CNET's Stefanie Olsen. Important to know, since "more than 50% of kids on the Internet will belong to such an environment by 2012," she reports. Another thing they're learning: the ability to adapt to and move in an environment of constant change. I was particularly interested in one thing Stefanie picked up on: that absorbing information is no longer the most important form of education - it's what to do with information and distinguishing between fact and fiction, i.e. media literacy. An educator said that to me recently: "Our kids know so much more than we did when we were their age. We don't need to fill their brains more. We need to help them manage all they're taking in."
Back to the consumerism thing, The Telegraph tells of ClubPenguin's soon-to-launch, UK-based competitor, MoshiMonsters.com. Gizmodo calls it’s a mashup of Tamagotchi, Pokemon and NintenDogs, and my 10-year-old son calls it "a monster version of Neopets." And - because it plans to sell Moshi Monster charms, it looks like there'll be comparisons to Webkinz.com too. In any case, most appear to have aspects of this formula: games or puzzles to earn currency that buys things for an avatar that's sometimes real, sometimes virtual, sometimes both.