Overall, Gauntlett and Jackson's research demonstrates that virtual world play can be a very positive experience for children. According to BBC News:
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.
Yay for some much-needed positive academic research into kids and virtual worlds!
Gauntlett and Jackson also identify 8 "roles" that children assume while playing in virtual worlds, summarized in this slide I grabbed from their ppt presentation:
What I really like about these "role" categories is how they cut cross gender and age, giving a much more comprehensive picture of how various different kinds of kids game at different times. For example, "Explorer-Investigator" types, who are most interested in following a quest or solving a mystery, are likely to be "The more confident children, no age or gender difference"; whereas "Nurturers," who are most interested in looking after their avatar or virtual pet, are likely to be younger boys and girls, as well as older girls. There's a lot to delve into here, and I'm really looking forward to a full-fledged publication of findings.
In the meantime, you can read a longer description of the study on David Gauntlett's website. I also recommend checking out Gauntlett's Lego Research project, which was also the topic of his latest book, Creative Explorations. His site is a goldmine of resources, including the ever popular Theory Trading Cards and some good videos to show in lecture.
And be sure to check out Lizzie Jackson's blog -- she conducted a lot of the project's research, and her blog provides some additional details about the Adventure Rock project and info about her own ongoing research into children's social media.