Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Wizards of Whyville

Still think virtual worlds don't (nor can) matter much in the real world? Think again. Not all virtual worlds are created equal. Just ask any 12-year-old if he or she has ever been to Whyville.

Odds are, that kid is one of the 3.5 million "tweens" aged 8 to 14 who spend, on average, at least a few hours a week on this 9- year-old virtual reality site--and has likely been doing so for years. Whyvillian Andy109, for example, has visited the site 2,304 times since he first registered on April 7, 2000. That's almost a rate of one visit per day for the past seven years, says Whyville cofounder Jim Bower, 55, the Caltech science professor who led the development of Whyville in 1999 and still runs the place. (I caught up with Bower this past week at this year's Digital Now conference in Orlando, where we were both presenting workshops on new trends in social media. Bower, aka "Super Id" in Whyville--a moniker for which he is famous among tweens--tells me that some 23% of all kids aged 6-17 already have a login in the virtual world, and that by 2011, that figure will more than double.)

But Bower and his cause-wired community of kids are just getting started, with a number of them now organizing clothing drives for the poor in Whyville, or waging nutritional action campaigns to fight anorexia and obesity among teens on and offline--based largely on what they've learned about economics, nutrition, and project planning in Whyville.

And don't be surprised if that 12-year-old you know also builds (or rents) a house in Whyville. Or drives a car there. Or is managing a virtual business--complete with employees, a payroll, and revenues to fuss over. Some even write for the Whyville Times (the virtual newspaper) about real-world social issues. When McDonald's first came out with its new line of salads to offer healthier fare, a Whyville Times reporter scooped the mainstream media a week later with a story proving that the line's nutritional value was as sparse as that of a Big Mac. "CNN did the story two weeks later," Bower says.

But what's really making cause advocates and organizational leaders take notice of Whyville is that it keeps maturing, expanding, and innovating--and with a cohesiveness and sophistication quite unlike other virtual worlds on the Internet so far.

Whyville is global. Kids log in from Afghanistan, India, China, Europe, South America, as well as from all over the United States. They share what's common among them more than their differences, Bower says. "In Whyville, kids mostly learn from each other about the impact of their actions on themselves--but they do so first in cyberspace, where the educational activities offered can promote socially responsible behavior," Bower says. ( Violating the community's basic rules of behavior, for example, can lead to a "muting" -- not being able to interact on the site for anywhere from 1-3 days.)

Not everyone is enamoured with Whyville: Some say Bower is building a cyberspace version of a "company town" -- controlled from the top and vulnerable to the whims of its creators. Bower, a passionate advocate for educational reform, vehemently counters by saying the site strikes a careful balance between self-government and adult "judicial" oversight to keep peace--not unlike a functioning democratic community anywhere. Better Whyville's participatory, grassroots "government" than no governance at all, he says.

A growing roster of organizations, schools, and corporations, meanwhile, are beginning to accept Bower's invitation to develop collaborative projects so that the learning can go both ways. (The U.K.'s EMI Music company, for example, has expressed interest in working with Bower to "build" a virtual recording studio in Whyville that would enable kids to write their own music, record it, and sell it to fellow Whyvillians for the site's virtual currency, called "clams.") Whyville's physical-world partners additionally include the National Science Foundation, The Getty art museum, Penguin Books, Scholastic, Toyota, Stanford University, and NASA--in all, 14 major national brands, eight nonprofit organizations, five governmental agencies, and six universities.

Says Bauer: "Virtual worlds do work, and have the potential to be the learning labs driving real change and more socially responsible behavior in the real world for decades to come."

Want to hear more? Tune into an interview with Bower aired by the Podcast Network. Here's that podcast.

What do you think?

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