Children’s Virtual Play Worlds

Culture, Learning, and Participation

by Anne Burke (Volume editor) Jackie Marsh (Volume editor)
©2013 Textbook VIII, 228 Pages


As children’s digital lives become more relevant to schools and educators, the question of play and learning is being revisited in new and interesting ways. Children’s Virtual Play Worlds: Culture, Learning, and Participation provides a more reasoned account of children’s play engagements in virtual worlds through a number of scholarly perspectives, exploring key concerns and issues which have come to the forefront. The global nature of the research in this edited volume embraces many different areas of study from school based research, sociology, cultural studies, psychology, to contract law showing how children’s play and learning in virtual spaces has great potential and possibilities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: The changing landscapes of children’s play worlds
  • Notes
  • References
  • 2. Post-industrial play: Understanding the relationship between traditional and converged forms of play in the early years
  • Introduction
  • Post-industrial Society, Digital Convergence, and Children’s Play
  • How Do Your Children Play?
  • ‘Webs of Meaning’ and a Post-industrial Conceptualisation of Play for the Early Years
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • 3. Developmental implications for children’s virtual worlds
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Research on Youth and Interactive Media
  • Evidence from Studies on Youth and Video Games
  • Evidence from Studies on Youth and the Internet
  • Understanding Children’s Virtual World Participation
  • What Are Children Doing in Virtual Worlds?
  • Learning from Virtual Worlds?
  • Developmental Implications of Virtual Worlds?
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgment
  • References
  • 4. Stardolls and the virtual playground: How identity construction works in the new digital frontier
  • New Literacies
  • Methodology
  • Parkway Elementary
  • The “AvaDoll”
  • Participant Bios
  • Jules
  • Chelsea
  • Friendship in the Real and Virtual
  • Identity
  • Creating Identity through the Discourses of Consumerism
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 5. Breaking the ice: Play, friendships and online identities in young children’s use of virtual worlds
  • Play, Young Children, and Friendship
  • Play and Online Identities
  • The Study
  • Survey Findings
  • Online and Offline Play
  • Play, Young Children, and Friendship
  • Play and Online Identities
  • Online Play, Friendship, and Commercialism
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 6. “’Cause I know how to get friends—plus they like my dancing”: (L)earning the Nexus of Practice in Club Penguin
  • Introduction: Play, Collaboration, and Literacies in Virtual and Physical Peer Cultures
  • The Challenges of Playing Together on Commercialized Playgrounds
  • Nexus of Practice (Theoretical Frame)
  • Literacies and Mediation
  • Social Practices, Cultural Capital, and Participation
  • Methods
  • Research Context: Computer Club
  • Data Collection and Analysis
  • Playing Together in Online-Offline Worlds across Play Spaces
  • Online and Offline Play Spaces
  • Physical (Child to Child)
  • Discursive Space (Discourses in Place)
  • Screen Space (Avatar Actions and Screen Meanings)
  • Virtual (Computer to Computer)
  • Relational Space (Avatar to Avatar)
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 7. Virtual clay or virtual play: Identity shaping, consumer building and corporate affiliation versus literacies affordance inside barbiegirls.com
  • Introduction: Problematising Virtual Worlds for the Young
  • Ideologies of Virtual Worlds for the Young
  • Proliferation of Virtual Worlds for the Young and Barbiegirls.com
  • Cyberethnography of Barbiegirls.com
  • Scene 1: An avatar
  • Scene 2: B Chat
  • Scene 3: My Room
  • Scene 4: Locations in Barbiegirls.com Virtual World
  • Social Semiotic Inquiry as a Practice of Observation and Analysis
  • Discourses in Barbiegirls.com
  • Intertexuality in Barbiegirls.com
  • Representations in Barbiegirls.com
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • 8. May the force be with you: Harnessing the power of brain-computer games
  • What Is Brain-Computer Interaction (BCI)?
  • Neurorhetoric
  • Neurorhetoric and The Force Trainer
  • Modal Learning and The Force Trainer
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • Acknowledgement
  • References
  • 9. “Hey! Can you show me how to do this?” Digital games as a mediator of family time
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Sociocultural Theory
  • Scaffolding
  • Guided Participation
  • Mediation
  • Media Mixes
  • Methods
  • Analysis
  • Older Family Members as Experts
  • Younger Family Members as Experts
  • Mediation
  • Physical-Virtual Play Hybrids and Media Mixes
  • Digital Media as a Space for Interaction and a Tool for Mediation
  • Discussion
  • Study Limitations and Missed Connections
  • Implications for Further Research
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgement
  • References
  • 10. Digital play structures: Examining the terms of use (and play) found in children’s commercial virtual worlds
  • Introduction
  • Terms of Use, Terms of Play
  • Reading the Fine Print
  • Whose Contract Is This, Anyway?
  • Copyrighting Make-Believe
  • Responsibilities without Rights
  • Informed Consent?
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgement
  • Notes
  • References
  • 11. Green pixels to green behaviours: Sustainability literacy in virtual worlds for children
  • Introduction
  • Defining “Sustainability”
  • Sustainability Literacy and Public Pedagogy
  • Close Reading Virtual Environments
  • Observations of Green Virtual Worlds
  • MiniMonos
  • EcoBuddies
  • Pixie Hollow
  • Emergent Themes in Green Virtual Worlds
  • Green Branding: Connecting to the Sustainability Agenda
  • Visual Imagery: An Idealized Natural World
  • In-World Activities and Sustainability Literacy
  • Connecting In-World and Out-of-World Activity
  • Revisiting the Three Pillars
  • Social Pillar
  • Environmental Pillar
  • Economic Pillar
  • Concluding Thoughts and Future Work
  • Acknowledgements
  • References
  • 12. An argument for assemblage theory: Integrated spaces, mobility, and polycentricity
  • Introduction
  • Context 1: Virtual World
  • Context 2: Object Ethnography
  • New Contexts
  • Assemblages
  • Assemblage, Integration and Polycentrism
  • Textual Assemblages
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • Acknowledgement
  • References
  • 13. Afterword
  • Contributors

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Our goal for this book was to compile a rich volume of contemporary research, looking at current developments and challenges in the growth of children’s virtual play in a variety of online spaces.

We are privileged to have been joined by a diverse and accomplished group of researchers and scholars, each of whom has examined a different aspect of the virtual playground, adding significant depth to the growing body of research in this area.

We wish to thank the teachers, children and families who have contributed to the research shared in this book; thanks also to Shawnee Hardware and Kayla Lane, who assisted with editorial activities during the book’s preparation. A sincere thank-you goes to Chris Myers and Bernadette Shade at Peter Lang for their assistance and advice. We would also like to express our gratitude to Colin Lankshear and, Michele Knobel, the series editors, for inviting us to produce this book as an addition to the new literacies and digital epistemologies series.

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The Changing Landscapes of Children’s Play Worlds


Play has consistently been a key focus of study for researchers interested in children’s cultural worlds (Corsaro, 1997; Singer & Singer, 2005; Sutton-Smith, 1997). In the midst of fast-paced social, economic, and technological changes, however, we need to continue to make a concerted effort to understand how play is evolving (Willet, Richards, Marsh, Burn, & Bishop, in press). Questions pertaining to children’s physical, developmental, emotional, and social growth are emerging from their participation in virtual play worlds (e.g., Kafia, 2010; Marsh, 2010; Subrahmanyam, 2009). Moreover, as schools begin to become more receptive to finding space for children’s out-of-school technological literacy practices, the question of the relationship between play and learning is being revisited in new and interesting ways (Merchant, Gillen, Marsh, & Davies, 2012). Issues surrounding play in young children’s virtual worlds is assuming an important part of such discussions; the aim of this book is to make a contribution to this emergent body of work, drawing on a range of empirical studies in the area conducted in recent years.

There is now a strong body of work that demonstrates how many young children are immersed in the landscape of digital technologies from a young age. Children in contemporary societies are surrounded by a range of digital media

including computers, handheld and console video game players, and other interactive mobile devices such as cell phones, video iPods, and iPad-style tablet devices … half (52%) of all children now have access to one of the ← 1 | 2 → newer mobile devices at home … by the time they are in the 5-to-8-year-old age range, almost a quarter (23%) of all children engage in media multitasking. (Common Sense Media, 2011, p. 2)

This growing body of research has demonstrated that this is not a fad or a passing fashion, but a significant change in the way children interact with each other and their environments (Blanchard & Moore, 2010; Buckingham, 2000; Burke, 2011; Grimes & Fields, 2012; Livingstone, 2009; Marsh, Brooks, Hughes, Richie, & Roberts, 2005). Given this extensive engagement with new technologies, it is no surprise that young children have migrated to the use of platforms more readily associated with adolescents and adults, and a growing number of children are active users of virtual worlds and related online spaces. Whilst many of the chapters in this book focus on virtual worlds, some address issues related to online games, and authors also consider children’s related use of other virtual spaces. There is a lack of coherence with regard to how these online spaces are conceptualised, but Grimes and Fields (2012) suggest that the term “social networking forum” (SNF) is used to describe online sites and other forums populated by children and young people which have “an underlying ‘social-ness’ to them—sites that, by design, promote kids’ socialising and networking as a primary (if not sole) activity” (p. 3). We feel that this is a helpful term that enables a broad focus on the range of social-networking forums in which children engage. Nevertheless, a key focus of this book is virtual worlds, which can be defined as a computer-based simulated environment that enables users to engage and interact through the use of on-screen characters (avatars) and chat facilities.

Virtual worlds for early learners were almost unknown even five years ago, being more the preserve of older computer users and serious gamers. Now, however, game producers and multinational conglomerates are targeting younger audiences, and it has been reported that there are now more than 150 virtual worlds either operating or in development aimed at children and young people under eighteen years of age. These sites have around 355 million registered users under the age of ten and 802 million aged ten to fifteen.1 Sites like Poptropica, which is very popular among younger boys, have attracted more than 225 million younger users. Stardolls, which is aimed more directly at female users, has registered more than 200 million young users.2 These numbers are growing at an exponential rate. The aim of this book is to share current knowledge of children’s practices in this area by outlining research that has been conducted on young children’s use of these sites and associated merchandise. In addition, we aim to provide a more reasoned account of children’s engagement with virtual worlds and related artefacts, given widespread concerns about young children’s engagement with screens of all types (e.g., Palmer, 2006; Rogers, 2012) ← 2 | 3 →

This book addresses children’s engagement with virtual worlds in both homes and classrooms. Culturally, the presence of virtual spaces in children’s life worlds is considered beneficial to children by those who identify the way they can consolidate and extend friendship groups online (e.g., Merchant et al., in 2012). This view has, of course, been challenged by those who suggest that online play leads to asocial practices (Palmer, 2006). However, not all parents and carers subscribe to these negative messages about new technologies. For example, Shuler (2009) summarises various reports on U.S. parents’ attitudes to children’s use of media to suggest that “61% of parents believe that video games are a positive part of their children’s lives” and “81% of parents recognize that the Internet helps their children learn skills and information needed to succeed in school” (p. 17). In this book, consideration is given to the way in which children’s digital play is supported and fostered by family members who recognise the potential such play offers, whilst being alert to its challenges.

Because of this increased online presence, virtual friendships and other interactions are becoming a significant factor in children’s social lives (Burke, 2013; Davis, 2010; Marsh, 2011, Merchant, 2012; Zervenbergen, 2007). When examining children’s interactions online, Valentine and Holloway found that such friendships are “credited with many of the characteristics usually associated with close or strong face-to-face ties: they are frequent, companionable, voluntary, and reciprocal, and they offer support for social and emotional needs” (2002, p. 308). Online relationships are also beneficial to those engaged in these spaces as they “[give] children more control over their identities than do spontaneous face-to-face encounters because they have time to think about what they want to say and how they want to represent themselves” (Valentine & Holloway, p. 308). Offline and online relationships and how the two converge is of interest in a growing body of research that attends to issues of spatiality and the relationship between the material and immaterial (Burnett, 2011; Burnett, Merchant, Pahl, & Rowsell, 2012; Leander & Sheehy, 2004). These issues are addressed in this book in ways that ensure that the various domains in which children operate are viewed as interrelated.

In addition to the research on children’s out-of-school engagement in online spaces, identifying effective ways to incorporate digital interactions into a child’s learning experience has been an important focus for educators. Innovative practice challenges educators to find a delicate balance between the digital and concrete worlds of play, to take account of issues in relation to the digital consumerist context, to ensure equity of access in the classroom, and provide contextually situated learning experiences that foster the participation of all children. Consideration of how to orchestrate all of these aspects of practice begins with a review of how the classroom digital experience could provide children with the appropriate tools and understanding to enhance digital participation, which would allow them to “explore, create, problem solve, consider, think, listen and view critically” (Rogers, 2012, p. 7). ← 3 | 4 →

Researchers have explored what it means to develop pedagogical practices that foster such learning in relation to digital literacies through a range of studies in specific areas, such as the use of Web 2.0 and social-networking sites (Davies & Merchant, 2009). Much work has also been undertaken in the area of gaming. Whilst virtual worlds and games are distinct, they do share some elements, as many virtual worlds embed games and both genres involve characters embodied in narratives. It is useful, therefore, to consider the research in the area of gamification studies. Gee (2003, 2004, 2005), for example, has identified how specific learning principles embodied within many video games lead to particular outcomes in situated learning contexts, such as the development of problem-solving skills or an understanding of how texts are generically related. As system thinkers in their use of games, children consider “relationships, not isolated events, facts, and skills” (Gee, 2005, p. 36). Most important, Gee asks that educators consider the connection of learning from out of school to in-school contexts. He views the value of video games as residing in those instances when the experience entices the player to play games reflectively and critically. In this regard, De Freitas (2006) considers that the transition from out-of-school to school-based gaming contains challenges. In her study of learning in immersive worlds, she found that in order for students to remain engaged, their motivation levels must be maintained. This means that

the key challenge for effective learning with games is for the learner to be engaged, motivated, supported and interested but also importantly for the learning to be undertaken in relation to clear learning outcomes as well as being made relevant to real world contexts of practice. A key challenge for designers, then, is to get the correct balance between delightful play and fulfilling specified learning outcomes. (p. 5)

However, fulfilling these sorts of goal-based outcomes, so familiar to teachers and other educators, can be very difficult when students enter the nether world of virtual spaces, and the relationship between intended learning outcomes and what is actually learned may not be clear. This may, as De Freitas suggests, “mean that learning is not taking place or it may indicate that learning through immersive worlds involves a more complex understanding of learning, one that is not so easy to tie to specified learning outcomes” (p. 18). Game-based learning in the classroom, therefore, needs pedagogical approaches that foster creativity, innovation, and agency, as argued by numerous authors in this book.

There are, inevitably, other challenges to consider in relation to the integration of online play spaces in the classroom. Consideration of issues relating to children’s digital inclusion, for example, highlights significant differences in the way these tools and skills are used and distributed, “22% of children from lower-income families ← 4 | 5 → have never used a cell phone, iPod, iPad, or similar device for playing games, watching video or using apps, compared to 55% of children from higher-income families” (Common Sense Media, 2011, p. 21). And while family income matters a lot, it is far from the only factor influencing how technology is used by children. Gender and cultural backgrounds also differ from student to student and from school to school, and these need to be closely considered when it comes to digital participation. Providing opportunities for young children to empower their digital lives occurs when educators recognize that all children come from diverse backgrounds and, therefore, they need to ensure equal opportunities and context-specific learning opportunities (Judge, Pucket, & Cabuk, 2004; Cross Woods, & Schweingruber, 2009).Chapters in this book attend to matters of digital inclusion and highlight how socioeconomic status, gender, and ethnicity, amongst other vectors of identity, impact on children’s playful engagement in online worlds.

In the opening chapters of our book, authors explore how far children’s participation in virtual worlds has changed our understanding of childhood play. Susan Edwards’s chapter draws on ideas from sociocultural theory, the sociology of childhood, and theories of consumption in order to examine the nature of the contemporary digital-consumerist context as a site for young children’s play. Kaveri Subrahmanyam reflects on extant research on youth and digital media to delineate how children’s participation in virtual worlds might mediate their development. Subrahmanyam argues that developmental implications are an important consideration as virtual worlds for young children increase in popularity.

The next set of chapters examines children’s virtual play in homes, schools, and in afterschool environments. These authors consider how children’s online and offline lives may be connected through friendship, collaboration, and participation, and the chapters consider the nature of online identity construction. The basis of Anne Burke’s chapter was a year spent researching the online lives of young females. She examines how their real-life identities intersect with the identities they create while role playing varying online personas in the virtual world of Stardoll. Political, ideological, commercial, and other forms of interaction found in the virtual playground contribute to the transformation of children’s identities, their knowledge and learning. Jackie Marsh examines the social practices of children as they used the Disney-owned virtual world Club Penguin. She identifies the features of virtual worlds that foster social engagement, but points to the way in which such environments can also replicate uneven distributions of the economic, social, and cultural capital found in offline contexts. Karen Wohlwend and Tolga Kargin are engaged by questions concerning how play in commercial virtual worlds can provide opportunities for young children to collaborate in digital literacy practices. Their chapter examines how children cooperate to teach each other specific digital literacies skills and knowledge and model social practices while playing in pairs in ← 5 | 6 → the online and offline spaces of a computer club in an afterschool setting. Jan Connelly conducts a cyberethnographic journey of Mattel’s Barbie World, examining how a virtual world and its affordances contribute (or not) towards the play and literacies of the young. Connelly looks in-depth at the commercial inducements and invasive advertising that accompany the play in children’s worlds.

Alongside the growth of virtual worlds is the development of other computer-mediated interactive games and toys that are embedded in branded commercial networks. Isabel Pedersen and Jennifer Rowsell take an innovative, two-stranded approach to their chapter, one strand drawing from the field of rhetoric, the other from the field of multimodal literacy studies. They discuss research developed while they monitored one child’s practices and epistemologies as he played games that involved brain-computer interaction. A further development in game play has been the increased connectivity of families as they engage in digital practices. Reich, Korobkova, Black, and Sumaroka utilized a sociocultural approach to understanding children’s virtual worlds, working within the context of children’s daily lives and exploring how virtual worlds relate to family connections. Based on qualitative analyses of interviews of children (aged 4–14), siblings, and parents, as well as observations of young children’s engagement with digital media over time, their findings suggest that games, virtual worlds, and their accompanying merchandise are used creatively to mediate interaction and foster social relationships among siblings, parents, and other family members.

Sara Grimes’s chapter examines the meta-language used by virtual world companies, arguing that the provisions contained within terms of use (TOU) contracts and privacy policies oftentimes work together to delineate and articulate a particular set of socially and politically embedded rules of play, through which the worlds’ owners attempt to define fitting player behaviour, address regulatory requirements, and advance particular notions of “appropriate play” and “safety.” The chapter aims to demonstrate that critical analysis of the contents of these documents can reveal the hidden political implications of children’s virtual world design, management, and implementation. Critical engagement in online spaces is also a feature of the following chapter. Eric Meyer, and Robert Bittner’s research examines an approach to teaching young people about sustainability via the use of immersive game spaces and virtual environments. This project focuses on two children’s virtual worlds with environmental values orientations, MiniMonos and EcoBuddies, examining the ways these worlds work as vehicles of sustainability literacy. Included is a discussion about the rhetoric found in these spaces, and a comparison is made to a third popular virtual world, Pixie Hollow, in order to discuss the different ways the natural world is represented in digital environments for children.

Victoria Carrington’s closing chapter gives consideration to the textual, social, and technological contexts that young people traverse in contemporary society. To ← 6 | 7 → advance this review, her chapter includes an analysis of a newly released virtual world. In her discussion, she reflects critically on why these sites have become important for young people’s identity construction and performance and social interaction, providing them with opportunities to engage with a variety of texts and participate in motivating learning activities. She suggests that young people’s increased use of online spaces reflects the intersection of improved accessibility with the particular social and cultural context in which contemporary childhoods are taking place.

As a collection, these chapters offer insights into a range of significant issues relating to children’s play in online spaces. There is no attempt to offer a singular theoretical framework for such analysis; necessarily, authors draw from a variety of theoretical fields, including new digital literacies, media studies, childhood studies, psychology, and sociology. Uniting the collection is the desire to advance understanding of children’s playful engagement in social networking forums and their related texts and artefacts; this is a fruitful area of study and one that is important to pursue if we are to grasp fully the significance of the changes that are currently occurring in children’s play worlds in these first decades of the twenty-first century.


1. KZero, http://www.kzero.co.uk/universe.php

2. Kzero Survey, 2012, http://www.kzero.co.uk.com


VIII, 228
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (July)
research sociology psychology potential
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2013. VIII, 228 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Anne Burke (Volume editor) Jackie Marsh (Volume editor)

Anne Burke is an Associate Professor in Literacy Education and Early Learning at Memorial University. She has a PhD from the University of Toronto. She is a multiple Canadian SSHRC grant scholar and maintains a strong research presence in Canadian schools researching new literacies and the role of social media in children’s lives. She has authored and co-edited a number of books in the areas of children’s literate play lives, new literacies studies, and popular culture. Recent book titles include Play to Learn (2010) and Assessing New Literacies: Perspectives from the Classroom (2009). Jackie Marsh (BA, PGCE, MEd, PhD) is Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, UK. Recent publications include Changing Play: Play, Media and Commercial Culture from the 1950s to the Present Day (with Bishop, in press), Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy, 2nd edition (co-edited with Larson, 2012), and Virtual Literacies: Interactive Spaces for Children and Young People (co-edited with Merchant, Gillen and Davies, 2012). She is an editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.


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