I was one hour into my life in Whyville, the virtual world for 8- to 15-year-olds, and I was faced with a fashion emergency. My avatar, Heffy7 (a combo of my nickname and the soccer number I had as a child), was simply uncool. She was an eyesore, a floating head bobbing around in the animated Whyville world. She needed a shirt and a pair of arms so she could look like the other avatars. But in the Whyville world of hip hairdos, studied sartorial styles, and carefully selected hats, picking the right look was critical.
No real surprise, right? It's a fact of life that kids are hyper-aware of how they look compared to their friends. And so it makes sense that this preoccupation would be at the heart of Whyville, too. But in a clever twist, Whyville is using this reality to further its goal of helping kids learn. To earn the money for my striped T-shirt, which cost 25 clams (the Whyville currency that's worth $1), I spent the next hour piecing together clues in a treasure hunt sponsored on Whyville by The Getty Center museum.
They paid me 50 clams to use clues to figure out where different pieces of art, including a 17th century cabinet and a book about calligraphy by the Renaissance illustrator Hoefnagel, had been made. Then, using the Warp Wagon (a spaceship that takes you around the globe), I visited Paris and Vienna to retrieve images that matched the clues. It was more work than I ever did for clothes money growing up.
In a world where kids are spending a significant portion of their lives online, Whyville has pioneered mixing entertainment and education. The virtual world, founded in 1999 by CalTech biology professor James Bower, uses a wide variety of games to teach kids how to manage their money, hone their math and science skills, and even learn how to eat better. It's a kid's version of the popular Second Life cyberworld. A growing group of sponsors, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Getty, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and Toyota (TM), have created areas within the world where kids can play games to learn about ions or the undersea world, and even customize and arrange financing for a new Toyota Scion. This combination of fun and learning is exerting an undeniable appeal: Over the past year, the service has grown 41% and now has 1.7 million members.
With concerns rising over the risks posed to children and teens at social networking sites such as MySpace and Xanga, Whyville plays up the fact that it's a safer alternative for kids. From the beginning, the founders built safety controls into the site. When they register, children have to provide a parent's e-mail address so that the company can alert the parents that the child has signed up. Though everyone can chat on Whyville, members have to learn the chatting rules (ranging from no foul or suggestive language to no giving out personal information, such as phone numbers) before they are allowed to chat.
Whyville uses an artificial intelligence program to track down abuses and employees spot-check members' chat-log files at the end of each day. An infraction can lead to the loss of clams or duct tape put over your face for a few days. Repeated or egregious infractions lead to expulsion. If someone asks to meet a kid offline or is being lewd, kids can report this predatory behavior by using a virtual red-phone online.
Still, while this monitoring is stricter than other social networks, even Whyville doesn't claim to be bulletproof. Despite the exams and tutorials about online safe behavior, kids still give out their passwords and come up with new ways of spelling words to get around banned words. And there are no restrictions on adults joining the virtual world, though they're forbidden to pose as kids. But through the active monitoring, Whyville tries to make it enough of a hassle to harass kids that it's simply easier to go someplace else. "We're not 100% safe, but the metaphor we use is that when you have a nice car, you add all these safety features, from lowjacks to alarms," says Jay Goss, Whyville's chief operating officer.
"That doesn't mean it won't be stolen, but it means someone will likely go rip off another car in another neighborhood."
I spent a few days in the virtual world to experience firsthand how Whyville accomplishing its goal of being a safe place for kids to hang out and learn. As a newbie, I couldn't chat for two days. Instead, I spent my days earning clams, checking out the world, and arranging my face. It was time-consuming—and I couldn't get enough of it. Little wonder. When you first join, you're issued the standard big blue smiley face. I quickly felt that there was nothing more embarrassing than going around as Big Blue. So I spent time carefully deciding what hair, eyes, and clothes to buy so that I could customize my face and fit in. (The activity is called Pick Your Nose.)
As it turned out, getting the money to make these changes was no stroll through the playground. It was tricky figuring out how to use Ions, or electronic charges, to score goals in a hockey game at WASA, an area in Whyville where you play games. WASA is sponsored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Though I studied art in college, I got a real workout when I played the Getty's Treasure Hunt. And okay, I admit it, there were games I tried to play, such as Great Balloon Race, that I simply couldn't master. Flying the balloon and hitting the right targets on the ground with beanbags meant factoring in wind vectors, burn rates, and climbing speeds—no easy task.
But there were two games where I did manage to rack up the clams: The Getty Art game and the Treasure Hunt Travel game. By visiting the capitals of countries where important events in the history of flying occurred (such as Paris, where the Montgolfier Brothers flew the first manned hot-air balloon), I collected francs, lire, and yuan that I could then exchange for clams.
By visiting the areas where everyone hangs out, including the beach and the sun roof, I learned to interact with Whyvillians. Though I couldn't chat at first, I could read the conversations between other kids. They preen for each other, asking what people think of their looks and even holding impromptu beauty contests, where they vote for the cutest person at a particular spot. They create cliques and mock each other, arranging to meet at other destinations. And they flirt, for the most part innocently.
A couple of times I witnessed someone using cryptic spellings to ask whether people nearby were lesbians or bisexuals. Yet, as jarring as this was, it was also encouraging to see kids respond by writing, "You're offending me," and then leaving.
But it's not all about looks, cliques, or flirting. The kids talk about school and trade tips on how to play the games. They write their own newspaper called The Whyville Times and staff the help center for newbies. They gather together at the Greek Theater to compete in word and number games that had my head spinning. (Like looking at a string of letters and pulling out three antonyms for abase. Answer: exalt, honor, extol.)
Yet, how much kids learn is a tricky question. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is pleased enough with the results to keep building out its WASA area on Whyville. Around 180,000 users have visited the Ion Engine site and played six million simulations in the past four years. JPL also points to the amount of time kids spend at WASA: on average, 28 minutes per visit.
Chris Dede, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, argues that while Whyville is better for kids because it's more overtly focused on education than the pure marketing and entertainment sites such as Disney or Nickelodeon, mixing the goal of earning clams with education may not lead to that much learning. "Rather than getting them to do something for the reward, they could do more to figure out how to make the activities more engaging," says Dede, who developed River City, a closed virtual world used in classrooms where kids go back in time to the late 1800s and help other kids who are struggling with diseases.
River City, which is rolled out in school districts and specific schools in conjunction with its Harvard creators, was used by around 60 teachers in five states this past spring. Another virtual world is Quest Atlantis, an educational game developed by researchers at Indiana University. Participants help the people of Atlantis, who are threatened by the destruction of their world.
To figure out how much kids are actually learning on Whyville, Yasmin Kafai, an associate professor of psychological studies in education at UCLA, this winter undertook an independent study funded by the National Science Foundation. She's still compiling data, but her early research found that 50% of the kids surveyed did talk with parents and friends outside of Whyville about infectious diseases, a topic that corresponded to the game that Kafai had launched in Whyville. In the end, Kafai is trying to come up with suggestions for people who want to learn how to use these informal education environments effectively. "You have to set different standards," Kafai says. "What I expect to happen in a classroom is different from someone who goes three or four times a week to Whyville."