TLL’s Yasmin Kafai Explores the Virtual Playgrounds of 21st-Century Kids

Archive Notice: The following article was published before Jan 2015.


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November 5, 2013 - Conventional wisdom would have it that the Internet is not a healthy place for kids. Concerned parents and educators, echoing an earlier generation’s fears about television and radio, worry that hanging about the Internet can make kids violent or antisocial, or that it disconnects them from their bodies and their environments.

Not so, asserts Penn GSE’s Dr. Yasmin Kafai, lead author (with Utah State’s Deborah Fields, a former postdoctoral fellow at Penn) of Connected Play: Tweens in a Virtual World, just published by MIT Press. “Playing is fundamental to kids’ development because it promotes social interaction. And connections are at the core of play in the digital playgrounds of the twenty-first century.”

Dr. Kafai is Professor of Learning Sciences in the Graduate School of Education and Professor of Computer and Information Science in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. A Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, she is Chair of GSE’s Teaching, Learning, and Leadership Division

Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, Dr. Kafai and her team have spent the last decade following tweens’ virtual lives and customs in Whyville, an educational Internet site geared toward children aged 8 to 14. Dr. Kafai and her team were not mere observers in this virtual world. They rolled up their sleeves and worked with the tweens to make it a better place, building new games and educational programs, engaging in dialogue, and researching the way things are as well as how they might be in the future.

Dr. Kafai found that in fact many priorities from kids’ everyday lives extend into the digital domain. “Kids freely socialize with peers in imaginative, fun ways, and many kids extend relationships with existing friends by logging in and playing from their homes,” she notes. “Instead of calling one another on the phone, they play together online. Not only friendships, but also interests, values, and issues of growing up are significant in kids’ play in virtual worlds.”  

Whyville, currently inhabited by more than 5.6 million members and boasting 40 million monthly page views, engages its users in learning about a broad range of topics, including science, business, art and geography. Whyvillians, as the denizens are known, play science games in order to earn a virtual salary in “clams,” which they can spend on customizing their avatars and even their online “bedrooms.” Earning a good salary—procuring a large number of clams—to spend on goods, many produced by Whyvillians themselves, is viewed as an essential element of participating in the community.

But there is more to Whyville than learning how to earn and spend clams. It is an environment in which tweens learn to exercise agency, problem solving, and social responsibility. About once a year, for example, Whyvillians are afflicted with a virtual epidemic known as Whypox, in which avatars become infected with pimples. Whyvillians discuss life in the time of Whypox in the weekly Whyville Times, visit a virtual Center for Disease Control, and use epidemic simulators to make predictions about possible outcomes. After tweens debated the need for hospitals to help infected victims or research universities to study the disease, the site now features a laboratory to investigate the composition of the virus and design vaccines for their protection.

In Connected Play, Dr. Kafai encourages a productive intergenerational dialogue and positive agenda for educational research and design. “We have very firmly implanted beliefs on what role games can play in learning, and this discussion that games are part of our technology landscape and can be used in very effective ways has only recently opened up both on the academic and commercial levels,” she says. “The reality is that there is so little room in the school day. If you talk about bringing games into education, it’s really about bringing in a different pedagogy.”

Connected Play is the first volume in a trilogy on youth and digital media. The next volume, Connected Code: Children as the Programmers, Designers and Makers for the 21st Century, written with Quinn Burke, will be published by MIT Press in Fall 2014, and Connected Gaming is currently in progress.