May 23, 2008

Study Finds Virtual Worlds Beneficial For Children

Researchers at University of Westminster in Britain have found that virtual worlds can benefit children by helping them rehearse for real life situations.

The researchers said the virtual worlds were a "powerful and engaging" alternative to other activities such as watching television.

The BBC-sponsored study involved children aged 6 to 12, and used BBC's Adventure Rock virtual world, an online themed island built for the BBC's CBBC channel by Belgian game maker Larian.

Conducted by Professor David Gauntlett and Lizzie Jackson of the University of Westminster, the research involved children among the first to test Adventure Rock. Although the children explored the virtual world alone, they shared their experiences through message boards. The study examined the ways the children used the world and sought feedback on the positive and negative aspects.

The research showed that the children adopted one of eight roles as they explored the virtual world using the various available tools:  explorer-investigators, social climbers, self-stampers, fighters, power users, nurturers, life system builders or collector consumers.

The online worlds were very useful rehearsal spaces where children could have many different experiences largely free of the consequences that would follow if they tried them in the real world, according to Prof Gauntlett.

For example, children using Adventure Rock learned social skills and were able to test various identities in ways that would be much more difficult in real life, he said.  What children liked most about virtual worlds was the chance to create content such as cartoons, music and video, and the tools that measured their standing in the world compared to others, Prof Gauntlett explained to BBC News.

"Virtual worlds can be a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media," he said, urging the BBC and other virtual world creators to get young people involved very early in the process.

"They really do have good ideas to contribute and they are very good critical friends," he said.

"The kids know what they are doing and are very good at telling you in a brutally honest and forthright manner about what they want to see," Wil Davies, a teacher at Peterston Super Ely primary in Glamorgan, told BBC News. Some of the research subjects were drawn form Davies' school.

Irene Sutherland, a teacher at Merrylee primary, which also took part in the study, told BBC News: "Children were adamant about the bits they did not play but were full of ideas about how to improve them."


On the Net:

University of Westminster

Adventure Rock virtual world