Altruistic impulses seem to be on the rise with kids, according to a recent study from Stamford, Connecticut's Just Kid Inc. The company's research team found that a full 90% of US kids believe helping others is important, and 21% of the sample group said they would purchase products that donate a portion of profits to a good cause.
Thinking about how much of kids' everyday lives are filled with discussions and lessons about sharing and cooperation, it's hard to reconcile how it is that kids' culture (in the post Sesame Street/Yo Gabba Gabba years anyway) can be so utterly devoid of these very traits. For the most part, the emphasis is on individualism and accumulation...qualities conducive to consumer socialization, rather than community service or charity. When empathy and affect are included, it's usually mobilized to create stronger links between kids and branded characters/toys, and used to nurture brand loyalty and stimulate repeat purchases rather than make any real connections between kids' capacity for caring and the people and things that might really need/deserve it.
Within virtual worlds, however, this trend appears to be shifting in a significant way. Although the vast majority still contain a heavy emphasis on market exchange, accumulation, and producing "subjectivities of consumption" (Pybus, 2007), this emphasis is offset and possibly even contradicted by an influx of features that allow kids to transform their participation in online gaming communities into real-world philanthropy. I don't know what it is about virtual worlds...perhaps it's the built-in "community" dimension, or perhaps it's the unprecedented access to kids' thoughts and opinions that's spurring it on...but more and more kids' virtual worlds and MMOGs are incorporating opportunities to do good, give back and help others. And kids appear to be responding in a big way.
Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:
For the second year in a row, Club Penguin is donating $1 million to three different charities, and letting its players decide how the money is allocated by donating their own virtual coins to their cause of choice (well, their favourite of the three). The Coins for Change campaign was a massive success last year - according to the Club Penguin website: "More than 2.5 million children donated in excess of 2 billion virtual coins they earned playing games on Club Penguin to support the environment, children's health or children in developing countries." This year the program will run from December 12-22, and given the amount of hype around it, should draw in even higher levels of participation.
Following the Webkinz model, Russ Berrie's Shining Stars is a line of plush toys that comes with the access code to a tie-in virtual world. Buying a toy gets you naming rights to an actual star, and the company donates part of its proceeds to The Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation, a charitable organization that "helps kids with serious illnesses and their families cope with their conditions." The site drew in more than 1.5 million registrations in its first year, and its early success inspired Russ to develop two more charity-associated toylines - Seapals and Treetures. The company estimates that "15% to 20% of the company's net sales in 2007 were driven by environmentally-friendly or charity-related products. Consolidated net sales for 2007 increased by 12.4%, to US$331.2 million from US$294.8 million the previous year" (Afran, 2008).
As Amy Jussel described back in April: "Dizzywood is ‘planting’ the concept of collaboration, as kids nourish and tend a garden that grows faster with teamwork…By rewarding kids with seeds instead of the usual ‘coinage and consumption’ cues, they’re enabling more meaningful content to take root, a prize in itself." The site also teamed up with The Arbour Day Foundation to create an in-game Earth Day event last spring, during which "for every virtual tree planted in Dizzywood, a real one was planted on Earth."
This newly launched virtual world, which incorporates themes and characters drawn from classic literature, includes a charitable donation program called "One for All", a multiple choice quiz activity through which the company will donate real money to real charitable organizations as players answer questions correctly. For now, the charity seems to be limited to "planting a tree", but the site describes that "We are continuously seeking to establish partnerships with non-profit organizations to provide children with opportunities to contribute to important causes such as tree planting, clean water, hunger, endangered species, book donations, health and the environment."
Although not tied to a real-world charity, Disney's Pixie Hollow features a virtual economy based (at least in part) on community service. Fairies must make and donate clothes (and other items) to the Pixie Hollow community at large before they are able to make things solely for themselves. The notion of giving to the community before taking for oneself is really surprisingly socialist (I won't say Marxist, because I know the negative connotations this word has in the US, so I'll just stick with "communal" and "community" and push the ideological baggage aside for now), especially for Disney. But then again, their other MMOG Toontown is centered around taking down the corporate cogs...hmmmmmm...it looks like someone at WDIG has a really well developed sense of irony.
Various other sites have featured one-off events of this nature as well. I haven't heard of any examples of kids organizing themselves to transform their virtual play in this way (it would be really hard to do without a big corporation behind them), but I wouldn't be too surprised if there were some out there (particularly within "educational" virtual worlds and MMOGs, or as in-game initiatives like the Pixie Hollow example). But then again, I can't think of any comparable examples from the realm of teen/adult virtual worlds either...a lot of real world exchange and business transactions unfold in Second Life, but I don't recall any stories about World of Warcraft players donating gold to charity.