Monday, October 29, 2007

Human Values and Virtual Worlds

The Virtual Worlds Forum, which took place in London last week, started off with a bit of a bang, as keynote speaker and industry veteran Lord Puttnam gave an opening speech bemoaning the growing number of toy-based virtual worlds aimed at kids, calling them a "threat" to basic human values. According to the BBC coverage, Puttnam fears that the only thing "children will learn from these virtual spaces is that they are first and foremost consumers. He urged creators to build more moral virtual worlds that instill in children the values that societies need." Puttnam, an Oscar award winning movie producer, pointed specifically to games like Webkinz, BarbieGirls and UBFunkeys, stating:
"Are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people?" he asked. "Do we really want them to think of themselves as not much more than consumers?"

He said: "Might we not prefer to build worlds that encourage those same values and skills we wish them to exercise in the real world?"

"The challenge ahead is this - to ensure that virtual worlds are increasingly places that offer real meaning to their lives and in the real world to learn from the sense of community and collaboration that's been experienced in virtual worlds," he said.

Following these comments, the article quotes a number of CEO-types running toy-based games for kids in defense of the practice, many of whom say that using virtual worlds to communicate with children is simply "natural" since they're already so familiar with online culture, virtuality, etc. The article quotes Matthias Mikshe (founder of Stardoll), Alice Taylor (editor for education at Channel 4) and Marc Goodchild (head of interactive at BBC Children's), but these comments all focus on the popularity of virtual spaces/games among kids (and even parents), without addressing the more important aspects of Puttnam's remarks [***Update: See Comments section for Alice's clarification about her own "response," which was taken somewhat out of context, and check out some of her own postings about the Forum, BarbieGirls, etc.***]. The only game-maker to even marginally address the issue of consumer discourses within branded games was Mark Hansen, director of business development for Lego Universe. Relying on the old "chicken and egg" defense of consumer culture, Hansen had this to say:
"Is it positioned to sell more product or as an extended experience with the product they have already bought?" he asked. "Kids are very smart and will spot that really quickly."

Wow. I'm quite impressed with Puttnam's speech and his attempts to open up the discussion to something a little more complex and meaningful than we usually see in the public debates around a) kids and technology, and b) commercialization. While it's unfortunate that none of the game-makers were able/allowed to really construct an adequate response (and didn't their parents ever tell them that 'popularity' isn't everything?), at least the notions of consumer socialization, and of commercialized play as a pedagogy of consumerism have been brought to the industry's table.


Alice said...

Yeah, it's a shame we weren't asked any questions about inworld consumerism or advertising; I for one wasn't at the conference for Lord Putt's speech, and I completely agree with him, especially regarding purely retail-oriented sites like Barbiegirls.

Plenty of sites are reporting that our comments were in 'response' to Lord Puttnam's, which they weren't. Missed opportunity, really.

Sara M. Grimes said...

Thanks for the clarification Alice - This is hardly the first time the press has falsely polarized a debate around kids and digital games, and it's a shame that your comments have been taken out of context like that.