Children are spending increasingly large parts of their day online, but do you ever wonder what the heck the average 8-year-old is doing on the Internet? After all, she doesn’t have a credit card to go crazy at ToysRUs.com or a LinkedIn account to start networking for that job at McKinsey she’ll be gunning for 14 years from now.
For about 200 million kids globally, the appeal of the web comes in the form of Club Penguin, a virtual role-playing game. Club Penguin is a snowy island where players as young as 6 pick a penguin avatar, dress him or her up, then interact with other penguins. You could think of it as a cuter World of Warcraft.
For many adults with young children, gaming still conjures up images of groups of boys hooked on games with dark, violent, and often sexual themes. This vision of the gaming is not entirely inaccurate: Earlier this year, the most problematic aspects of the gaming community bubbled to the surface when female gamers and programmers faced misogynistic attacks from their male counterparts in what has become known as #GamerGate.
If players were learning anything from these games, respect for others does not appear to be among the lessons. But unlike many older virtual role-playing games that began to emerge in the ’90s–think, Dungeons and Dragons, EverQuest, and Final Fantasy–today’s games are not all about sucking players into a fantasy world where danger and crime lurks. A wave of games is being created for increasingly younger children (starting with babies who have not even fully developed motor skills) that are designed to groom them into responsible citizens of the digital world.
Club Penguin, which was launched in Canada in 2005 and was bought by Disney two years later, targets boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 12, making it among the earliest social media a child might encounter. The game’s makers are committed to making sure that players develop healthy social behaviors online. Club Penguin hires a 200-strong team of adult moderators speaking six different languages, since the game is played in more than 190 countries, who are on the site at any given moment making sure no funny business is taking place. For instance, they approve penguin names and scan players’ chat logs to pre-empt bullying or sexual harassment. “The site is governed by the rules that kids should respect others, chat nicely, play fair, and keep their identity private,” says Angela Doak, senior manager for guest experience at Club Penguin. “We’re educating both kids and their parents about what it means to be excellent digital citizens and want to set them up for success as they move on to other online experiences.”
At the same time, it is always fun to see how children push the boundaries. Club Penguin has highly sophisticated word filters that stop children from using profane or bullying language, but recently the live moderators noticed that kids were using the word “beach” to mean “bitch.” Since there is an actual beach location in Club Penguin, this behavior could have easily gone unnoticed. “The way that we communicate with each other is so complex and language changes all the time, which means we have to stay on top of things,” says Doak. “Even innocent words can be used inappropriately! We now do not allow kids to say things like ‘You are a beach.'”
Unlike many other virtual role-playing games that tend to attract a male player base, Club Penguin is very gender neutral and is popular with both male and female players. Players waddling through the Club Penguin universe can go sled racing or fly around with jetpacks, purchase new clothes or pets, make and decorate igloos, or take part in monthly themed parties–all of which appeal to girls and boys. To help strike this gender balance, Club Penguin hires an equal number of male and female employees, which goes against the grain of the rest of the gaming industry, which still skews male. At times, however, live moderators encounter flirtatious behavior among the kids and are faced with a quandary; after all, these interactions are arguably part of a child’s development process. “Our filtering system tracks sexual behavior and language,” says Doak. “Mild flirting or basic conversations about a gender can be perfectly innocent. But we are watching to make sure they don’t cross any lines.”
These days, by the time a child jumps into sophisticated virtual role-playing games like Club Penguin, they have spent their entire lives fiddling with games on screens. We’ve all seen parents who plop their toddler down with an iPad game at a restaurant or a coffee shop so that they can have an hour of uninterrupted adult conversation. Many parents I spoke with expressed guilt about doing this because they believe screen time is somehow harming their kids, much like the generation before them thought that TV was turning children’s brains to mush.
And indeed, some research suggests that screen time is adversely affecting kids: In August, the University of California, Los Angeles, released a study showing it might be inhibiting their ability to recognize emotions. The researchers theorize that these devices are preventing children from experiencing valuable face-to-face communication that allows them to process vocal and visual cues, facial expressions, eye contact, or the spatial distance between people. But the question is: Do we scrap video games for the toddler set altogether?
“I’m seeing an alternate future,” says Christine Zanchi, executive producer and director of digital education strategy for WGBH’s Children’s Media Group. “When we take games out and test them on toddlers, we see that kids are talking to each other and showing each other what they are doing. There is so much we don’t know. I get the immediate negative reaction, but I think it might be worth exploring the other side.”
Over the last four years, this is exactly what Zanchi has been doing. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, her team has been monitoring how preschoolers interact with technology, closing examining how tablets and mobile devices relate to early learning environments. What they found was that the minute a tablet is placed in a preschool, kids swarm around it, interacting with one another just as much as with the device. “At the beginning, we were a bit overwhelmed and assumed there could not possibly be any learning going on,” Zanchi says. “But then we realized that there was negotiation between the kids. It turns out that having two kids talking about their experience is a real driver of learning, so we started designing for that.”
The result of this research is a suite of eight apps called Gracie and Friends that she and her team developed. The premise of all the games is that a little African-American girl named Gracie ushers toddlers on a series of math-related adventures. “The branding around Gracie was a very strategic choice,” says Zanchi. “In the app store, we were not seeing representation by girls or minorities. We wanted to ensure that the kids we work with in preschool classrooms see themselves in these games.” Each character in the game is designed to model social skills so kids learn how to interact with the two-dimensional cartoons on-screen as they would with people in real life.
Players aged 3 to 5 enter scenarios that they can relate to, like birthday parties, eating lunch, or blowing bubbles. Often games involve multiple players. At the WGBH headquarters, Zanchi and I play a game in which we have to work together to pop bubbles floating down from the sky with a rope that each of us is holding. The key to the game is to only burst bubbles with three items inside them, so when a balloon floats by with five triangles inside we have to coordinate not to touch it, while we have to work hard to make sure we pop the bubble with three stars in it. Zanchi and I are pretty proud of our counting skills by the end of the round. “I think it’s fair to say that our math fluency is strong,” she says with a wink.
In this brave new world of digital technology, Zanchi believes that tablets themselves are neutral when it comes to children; it is the content on these devices that determines whether it is a positive or negative experience.
Public broadcasting corporations like WGBH have built their mission on creating high-quality content for children on existing media platforms and Zanchi sees the world of apps as just the next step in that process. Another public media darling, Sesame Street, is also deeply committed to creating entertaining and educational content into video games. The organization has an enormous stable of games that teach children math, verbal, and social skills using their beloved characters. On tablets, you can learn to rhyme with Grover, build things with Prairie Dawn and sharpen your counting skills with, well, The Count, of course.
Nadine Zylstra, VP of Sesame Street Programming and Production, tells me that her team is particularly focused on creating games that will give kids real-life skills. She says preschool teachers have been clamoring for games that will teach kids to sit quietly, regulate their emotions, and delay gratification. The good news is there is now an app for that. It comes in the form of a suite of Cookie Monster games that are specifically designed to help kids sharpen these skills. Zylstra says she heard her 4-year-old son Jack playing Cookie Monster’s Challenge in the backseat of her car, which involves not touching a cute pig that walks on screen–otherwise, Cookie Monster bursts into hysterics. “It’s really hard for a 4-year-old to sit there with a cute little pig and not to touch it,” she says. “But after 20 minutes, Jack realizes that if he does not touch the pig, he will actually make it to the next level so he controls his impulses.”
Zylstra points out that video games have an incredible power to help children achieve real-life goals–from learning how to play well with others to learning math and spelling to being aware of stranger danger online. “Unlike television, interactive games are highly personalized, allowing kids to learn at a tailored pace,” she says. Zanchi, for her part, hopes that the conversation about kids and video games becomes more nuanced, because ultimately, it’s not whether the games are good or bad: It’s about what values undergird each game.
So parents, feel free to whip that iPad out at dinner; while you discuss politics with your spouse, your kid will be learning the important life lesson that it is always best not to touch the charming, little pig.