The design of space, both real and virtual, serves to include or exclude individuals from powerful forms of engagement. In this panel we examine the ways in which three very different virtual environments for children, as designed spaces, position their audiences, and the distinct learning and social opportunities that result. The first presentation explores the content and design of Webkinz World, a site aimed at elementary school-aged users, as a sociocultural context for informal learning. The presenters will examine how the game is designed in ways that both empower and restrict the learning of young players, and how various stakeholders influence the degree of empowerment (or lack thereof) that young people experience in this space. The second presentation focuses on the ways in which Barbie Girls and Webosaurs, sites primarily aimed at young women and young men respectively, offer diverse supports for learning and development. The presentation highlights how gender is represented and constructed in these spaces and how such representations might impact young players’ perceptions of the social roles and life opportunities available to them both within and outside of these virtual worlds. The third presentation examines Karunatree: a web and mobile game designed to help children understand and respond to environmental challenges. Karunatree inverts conventional role structures by giving children the opportunity to teach as well as to learn. That is, as the game helps children grasp the causal connections that mediate environmental change, they are simultaneously given the means to communicate that knowledge to others by creating, geotagging, and distributing environmentally-themed media projects. Apps for GPS-enabled mobile devices allow adults to “find” these projects at locations relevant to their environmental message. Presenters will discuss the educational and game design issues involved in creating Karunatree, and examine early data regarding children’s engagement with the system.
Collectively, these talks explore a continuum of empowerment in virtual worlds, ranging from the highly prescriptive and restrictive design of Barbie Girls, to the loosely structured opportunities to act on the world of Webkinz, and ending with Karunatree’s explicit focus on empowering youth to act both within and beyond the digital context. By comparing and contrasting the content and design of these three spaces, this panel seeks to shed light on how virtual environments can be designed in ways that effectively support children as active producers of knowledge and content, and as individuals who can act on the world in positive ways.