Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 12:35 UK

Web worlds 'useful' for children

Screenshot from Adventure Rock, BBC
Adventure Rock is a large scale world that children can explore

Virtual worlds can be valuable places where children rehearse what they will do in real life, reveals research.

They are also a "powerful and engaging" alternative to more passive pursuits such as watching TV, said the BBC-sponsored study.

The research was done with children using the BBC's Adventure Rock virtual world, aimed at those aged 6-12.

The researcher said the BBC should have involved children early on to guide development and provide feedback.

Trial time

Carried out by Professor David Gauntlett and Lizzie Jackson of the University of Westminster, the research surveyed and interviewed children who were the first to test Adventure Rock.

The online world is a themed island built for the BBC's CBBC channel by Belgian game maker Larian.

Children explore the world alone but it uses message boards so children can share what they find and what they make in the various creative studios dotted around the virtual space.

The research looked at the ways the children used the world and sought feedback from them on its good and bad aspects.

ROLES ADOPTED DURING PLAY
Explorer-investigators
Self-stampers
Social climbers
Fighters
Collector consumers
Power users
Nurturers
Life system builders
Prof Gauntlett said the research revealed that children assumed one of eight roles when exploring a virtual world and using the tools they put at their disposal.

At times children were explorers and at others they were social climbers keen to connect with other players. Some were power users looking for more information about how the workings of the virtual space.

Prof Gauntlett said online worlds were very useful rehearsal spaces where children could try all kinds of things largely free of the consequences that would follow if they tried them in the real world.

For instance, he said, children trying out Adventure Rock learned many useful social skills and played around with their identity in ways that would be much more difficult in real life.

Prof Gauntlett said what children liked about virtual worlds was the chance to create content such as music, cartoons and video and the tools that measured their standing in the world compared to others.

"Virtual worlds can be a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media," he said.

He urged the BBC and other creators of virtual spaces for children to get young people involved very early on.

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

"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," said Wil Davies, a teacher at Peterston Super Ely primary in Glamorgan, from where some of the research subjects were drawn.

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


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