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Tip of the iceberg: meaning, identity, and literacy in preteen virtual worlds.


An elementary school librarian in Washington State (US) was reading a book on penguins to a class of second grade students (age seven to eight years). One of girls interrupted to ask: "Can real penguins be more colors than just black and white?" She went on to explain that, in Club Penguin (CP;, a shared virtual environment for preteens, her penguin could be any color, even pink! The animated discussion that followed revealed that many of the students in the class knew a great deal about CP, and were regular visitors to this digital snow-covered land of fun and adventure. CP, just one of an array of new Web-based shared virtual environments (SVEs) for children as young as seven, received over 2.6 million unique visitors during November 2008.

The Internet is offering more opportunities for youth to engage in virtual interactions that extend beyond their real-world antecedents. More than just an online phenomenon, social network sites such as MySpace ( and SVEs such as Teen Second Life ( have become information portals for the developing social worlds of young people. Preteen virtual worlds have emerged as exciting new entries in this field: intoxicating and engaging for children, but causing consternation for parents who fear the potential dangers and perceived developmental effects of these immersive virtual spaces. Parents and child advocates have expressed concern over child protections and the potential for these sites to negatively alter real-life pro-social development (e.g., Flanagan, 2007; Slatalla, 2007). Little is known, however, about the impact these sites may have on preteens, even though the sites themselves suggest the activities offer potential benefits (communication and typing skills, budgeting money, caring for pets, etc.). For example, while many of these sites promote safe and responsible use of the Internet, a number of correspondingly negative practices have emerged, such as a community of young users who glorify cheating CP's reward system, publishing their rebellious exploits on blogs and YouTube (Benderoff, 2007).

This article explores an exploding segment of the online universe: shared virtual environments designed for children between the ages of seven and thirteen years. The focus is narrow, but critical; the preteen years are a key developmental period during which children build their personal and social identity. Nearly all the research in this field focuses on adults or teens, who have greater autonomy and maturity; thus, the absence of research in this area represents a potentially dangerous oversight. The article begins by introducing researchers and practitioners to these children and the online worlds they inhabit. A framework for examining these worlds using a social practice perspective is proposed, followed by a case example drawn from the author's participant observation of one virtual world: Club Penguin. The article concludes with a research agenda for the study of virtual environments as contexts for youth information behavior, as well as the implications such studies may hold for researchers in LIS.

Online SVEs for Preteens: An Emergent Genre

Preteens, also referred to variously as the 'Net Generation, Millenials, and Digital Natives, have known of and used the Internet and World Wide Web their entire lives. Recent surveys (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005) of children's digital media use (ages eight to 10) suggest a growing proportion of their non-school hours are consumed with playing video games, web surfing, and online correspondence. Many children are drawn to online virtual environments because of the social experiences they provide. As preteens are developing their personalities, their concept of the social self, and a nascent moral sense, (Harter, 1998; Wigfield, Byrnes, & Eccles, 2006). richly immersive virtual spaces are presenting new opportunities to explore.

The last two years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of online SVEs targeting the pre-MySpace demographic, as well as the Internet traffic directed to these sites. It is estimated that over 10 million children and adults use these sites in North America and around the world, and usage is increasing. Despite their popularity and mention in the popular press, very little research literature exists about these sites. No published research in LIS addresses this media genre, although some research is emerging in cognate fields. Scholars in the area of literacy and media studies have recently begun describing and analyzing these sites in terms of reading and writing practices (Marsh, 2008; Merchant, 2009).

Table 1 describes the characteristics of six SVEs designed expressly for preteens, and compares them to each other and a popular SVE for adults, Second Life. This table is not meant to be an exhaustive survey; rather, it illustrates the features of six SVEs that represent different portions of this market space. Selected for inclusion were sites which had (1) rich, immersive qualities; (2) chat and social networking features; and (3) significant availability and user appeal (over 200,000 visits per month). Three different types of preteen SVEs are represented:

* AdverWorlds: This category denotes commercially-based virtual environments designed to support the marketing campaigns of real-world products (candy, cereal, dolls, etc.). The online presence and the product are mutually exclusive, but the goal is to build excitement for, and drive traffic to, the real-world product.

* Commercial Worlds: This category describes virtual environments where the online world itself is the product (e.g. CP) or where the online world and the real-world product are deeply intertwined and mutually supporting. CP charges a fee ($5.95/month) for premium membership. WebKinz, on the other hand, requires the purchase of a plush toy, which then provides a code for online access.

* Value Worlds: In this category, virtual environments are expressly non-commercial or attempting to provide rich online experiences without advertising, product sales, or premium membership fees. These sites describe themselves as alternatives to the commercially-based sites described above, in terms of both values and market strategy. As both of these sites are new entries in the field, it is unclear how long they will remain non-commercial.

As represented in blogs and parent forums, the commercial or non-commercial nature of a given SVE appears to be an important factor to both parents and children (e.g., or http://familyinternet.about. com/). It dramatically affects the extent to which children can participate in the activities of these worlds. Sites that offer premium membership subscriptions ($5-6/month) often reserve many activities for those who subscribe at this level. As membership is reflected in the appearance of a child's avatar in the world, there is tremendous social pressure on children (and consequently their parents) to pay these premiums. Each of the sites included in this analysis, with the exception of WebKinz, offers a free or basic-level subscription.

Beyond their varying economic profiles, SVEs have numerous features in common. They allow children to create an avatar, or virtual character, and to move that avatar through the various spaces (islands, rooms, neighborhoods) represented in the world. The avatars and their homes or rooms can be decorated with a wide array of furnishings and accessories. Playing games or engaging in various adventures scripted within the world permits children to earn virtual currency, which can be spent on additional virtual accessories, clothing, and furniture. Many of the activities in these worlds are consumer-oriented; children spend a great deal of their time shopping or working/playing in order to afford more virtual possessions. Status in these worlds is frequently represented in ostentatious displays: novices (or those who cannot afford the premium membership) are quickly distinguished from more experienced players by their lack of swag.

While sociability is a key part of the allure of these worlds, activity is balanced by concerns for safety and anonymity for all users. Moderated chat with parental controls is another common feature of preteen SVEs. Parents have the option to permit open, moderated chat for their children, or "safe" chat, which limits the user to preselected words and phrases, such as "Hi!" or "Want to be friends?" Children are discouraged (or disallowed in some SVEs) from providing any personal information during chat with other participants. General rules of politeness and speech are enforced by adult moderators, who may be either volunteers or employees. Violators are given warnings, or banned from the site for flagrant and persistent bad behavior.

SVEs permit children to explore a wide array of activities on their own or with others. Beyond games and adventures, which are updated frequently to maintain interest, SVEs host parties and social events, often based on holidays or themes. Blogs, virtual newspapers, or updates to the entry page of the SVE inform users of new features of the virtual space. In addition to general social gatherings, most SVEs permit users to host their own parties, or invite friends to visit a home/room/igloo for small group socializing. In general, these sites provide a structure that closely approximates an elementary school playground, complete with play, reward structures, and socialization opportunities. The attendant problems of semi-structured or unstructured youth spaces are present as well: rebellion, cliques, status hierarchies, and identity games.

No two SVEs are alike. Different features and interactive designs will appeal to different ages and genders, and the range of available worlds supports this diversity. BarbieGirls, for example, is explicitly girl-centric (and very pink). Webkinz, which employs stuffed animals as the entree to the virtual space, is more attractive to younger tweens and children. It is also suggested by blogs and discussion boards that, as children mature, their activities in the virtual worlds change focus; as they grow older and more experienced, they use these spaces differently. Older tweens and teens are present in CP, but they are drawn more to the chat capabilities than the games, and use the penguin avatars for creative purposes, such as machinima music videos, e.g., Bad Day in Club Penguin by Tehkraziboi, ( KZero ( a company that tracks virtual world trends, posits that children's SVEs is the largest and fastest growing segment of this online genre.

Framework for Analyzing SVEs for Preteens

What emerges from an initial examination of preteen virtual worlds is that they are as interactive as many adult-oriented video games and more immersive than informational websites. They are online spaces where children learn to socialize with others, interact around shared experiences, create their own digital stories, and acquire new information age skills. To recognize the power and potential of these spaces for learning and information behavior, one must adopt a sociocultural view of literacy. From this perspective, literacy practices are conditioned by their cultural, historical and social contexts, both in and out of formal institutions such as school (Gee, 1996; Heath, 1983; Street, 1995). Kress (2003) argues such literacies include multiple modes of information and communication, including print and digital forms. This broader conception of literacy recognizes that information-rich practices occur across contexts, including everyday life, and these in and out of school practices have a number of intersection points (Gee, 2008a). Second grade students who learn about penguins in school resolve this knowledge with their out-of-school experiences as anthropomorphic penguin avatars.

A common approach to youth information seeking has been to view literacy as either: (1) a process of decoding and encoding text, i.e., reading and writing proficiency; or (2) a set of information-based skills focused on finding and evaluating information, i.e., research. In applying these school-centric views to youth information behavior, scholars have abstracted the process of information seeking, rather than seeing how it is entwined with activity, or the processes of doing and being in the world, including meaning making. A number of researchers in LIS have explored out-of-school information seeking and use, particularly how information behavior in older children and teens supports the developing social self (e.g. Agosto & Hughes-Hassell, 2006; Latrobe & Havener, 1997; Shenton & Dixon, 2003). Information seeking among youth, however, has not been situated as a social practice. Recent research (Fisher, Marcoux, Meyers & Landry, 2007; Meyers, Fisher, & Marcoux, 2007; 2009) on preteen everyday life information behavior suggests that information seeking and problem solving are embedded in a wide range of social practices, including activities at home, school, public social spaces, and online. This notion of examining social practices as information behavior is an emergent approach in LIS, but one which is consistent with new ways of looking at everyday experiences in a range of cognate fields, including communication and media studies, and the learning sciences.

To address this gap in the area of youth information behavior, I propose a four-part framework for analyzing preteen SVEs. These four parts represent themes that have emerged in the existing scholarship in cognate disciplines, and nascent empirical research about the virtual worlds themselves. Specifically, preteen SVEs exist as: (1) an identity space; (2) a new literacy; (3) a problem-solving context; and (4) a community. These four interconnected parts suggest the complexity of the phenomenon, and demand a multi-dimensional approach to the continuing study of these technologies and the practices emerging within and around them. I will elaborate briefly on each of these four points, and present a case example to illustrate how this framework may be applied.

SVE as Identity Space

We express ourselves by how we dress, what car we drive, or the type of house we live in. Through participation in virtual worlds, children are given an introduction to the development of a persona, a unique identity that reflects their growing sense of self. The front page for a popular teen space, Gaia ( suggests:
   Mini You. Your avatar can be as unique
   as you are. Make a little clone of your
   real-self, or create a crazy style you
   could never pull off in the real world.
   You're limited only by your imagination
   and your Gaia Gold [virtual currency].

While Gaia is designed for teens, this sentiment is evident in the spaces designed for younger children as well. The flexibility to create a personal (and disposable) online style that mimics or contradicts the physical self permits children the opportunity for low-stakes identity play. This projection of the real self in virtual space has tremendous potential for learning, and could be a building block in the constructing of the social self. As an area of research, it is unclear how virtual and physical identities interact, especially in young children, and whether such identity play can alter pro-social development. Nor is it clear how the augmented capacities or altered appearances of avatars would affect notions of authority, credibility, trust, and social costs in instances of peer information sharing.

SVE as a New Literacy

As children engage with virtual spaces, they participate in a discourse community. Some aspects of this discourse are generalizable to other experiences (both in the real world and in other online spaces), and some aspects are specific to a given virtual space. Logging in, creating an online identity, chatting, and sharing a profile with others are skills and "literacies" that transfer across several applications. Other more specific discourse elements, such as "tipping the iceberg" are specific to a given virtual context (see below). Knobel and Lankshear (2006) suggest that a new literacy requires new "technical stuff" and new "ethos stuff." The new technical stuff in preteen SVEs is the ability for preteens and younger children to engage with websites and each other in novel ways, from social networking and chat to creating and manipulating customizable avatars. While these technologies have been around for some time, placing them in the hands of children at a developmentally appropriate level is an important leap forward. The new "ethos stuff" is the manner in which children engage with these spaces, specifically moving from knowledge consumers (as in the early web--decoding the text of others) to knowledge producers (demonstrating expertise through participatory, distributed, and collaborative means). Children are the experts in these spaces, even if the space is created and moderated by adults. This notion of participation in virtual space as a new literacy is not meant to discount existing conceptions of literacy (reading and information seeking); rather, it is meant to be additive and complementary. The link between this new literacy and older literacies requires further examination, particularly as educators address how technology use potentially reinforces and exacerbates existing gaps in decoding and problem solving among young people (Gee, 2008b).

SVE as a Learning and Problem Solving Context

People continually engage in information problem solving--identifying needs, selecting sources, determining credibility and relevance, and making decisions by synthesis or drawing conclusions. Information problem solving is particularly relevant in virtual environments where new tools provide users with novel ways to use, interpret, and share information. There are very few instructions in many of these spaces; children often immerse themselves in the space and begin solving in-world issues of navigation, personalization, and communication right away. As a child's comfort level with the world increases, the emphasis changes from solving problems about being in the virtual world (how do I do that?) to solving everyday problems in the world (what homework do we have in math?). Novice users ask for directions; experienced users engage with each other using the world as a mediating tool. There is evidence of a wide range of problem solving in these spaces. What merits further exploration is the balance between these two key types of problems: problems related to the world itself, and unrelated problems that are tackled in-world.

SVE as a Community

Virtual spaces offer synchronous interaction within the world: opportunities to play and socialize with others, as well as points of asynchronous interaction online through fan sites, blogs, and YouTube videos. What emerges is a sense of community, a membership in a larger enterprise in which other children participate. In many ways, the children in CP, Webkinz, and other SVEs become a community of practice, one which shapes their understanding of the online world, and their identity as a member of that world. Furthermore, there are opportunities to demonstrate expertise and status in these online companion sites. Beyond the plethora of "hacks" and "cheats" identified by users, websites offer instruction and insight from experienced members, detailed tutorials on how to earn rewards, and techniques that novices can employ to improve their standing in the community. Online communities have been studied by a number of scholars (Steinkuehler, 2008; Wenger, White & Smith, 2009). How youth communities differ from those of adults, or how these communities, and youth participation in them, will evolve is still unknown.

Each one of these four framework elements supports research opportunities. Taken together, the four elements represent a holistic approach that would describe the multidimensional, multi-stakeholder issues raised by preteen SVEs. As an example of how a general understanding of these spaces might be applied to the analysis of a specific phenomenon, the case below illustrates the emergence and response to an online meme in the SVE Club Penguin. An online meme is a concept that spreads quickly from person to person through online spaces and other media (see also The phenomenon examined in the example most strongly draws on the last two framework elements (problem solving and community), but aspects of the other two elements are present as well.

Case Example: Tipping the Iceberg

As CP was developing its reputation and participant base in 2006, an online meme emerged surrounding one particular facet of the virtual world. Penguins began gathering in large numbers on the iceberg a short distance from the other buildings and activity spaces of the CP village in an attempt to "tip it," or get the ice to flip over. It is unclear how this meme began, but it became the source of considerable activity, both inside and outside the virtual space. Rumors circulated about prizes and penalties associated with this task. Although a brief mention of tipping the iceberg was made on the official CP webpage, the site creators playfully refused to clarify whether or not this could be accomplished, allowing the rumor to proliferate. While there is no convincing evidence that the iceberg was in fact "tipped" or even "tippable," this activity became the focus of considerable information seeking, writing, video and image creating. In short, tipping the iceberg became an information problem that engaged children in various information consumption, assessment, and production activities.

A critical component of this meme was the development and assessment of various systems for getting the ice to tip. Children created and tested hypotheses, nearly all of which involved organizing a critical mass of other penguins to participate in the form of "tipping parties." The most commonly observed strategy was physical: clustering penguins on one side of the iceberg, as it was felt based on real world principles of physics, that massing avatars at a single point might trigger the tip. Other strategies ranged from the magical--having all penguins change to the same color, or dance a particular way--to the mechanical--obtaining specific tools such as a drill to facilitate sinking or destabilizing the iceberg. In each of these instances, children were attempting to uncover the rules of the system, often comparing the digital to the physical world for inspiration.

The attempts to tip the iceberg were part of a community effort, not just in the hypothesis testing in the virtual space, but also in the flourishing digital conversation in the preteen blogosphere that supported these attempts. Thousands of users--children and adults--recorded questions and responses on Yahoo! Answers and other online reference services seeking more information. They wrote of this activity in terms of obsession and urgency, and with generous use of the exclamation mark. On websites and blogs, children documented their ideas, presented counter-proposals and evidence, and created sophisticated movies and tutorials to illustrate their efforts (e.g. The community effort provided opportunities for children to demonstrate their expertise and represent their intellectual and social passions. While tipping the iceberg is no longer in vogue, it remains part of the mystique of the SVE, and trace evidence of children's efforts to solve this problem litter the Web.

The transformation of information consumers into knowledge builders is a significant step. Preteens appear capable of using digital tools and environments to participate in communities of interest and learning, as well as become experts in their areas of passion. SVEs are not just play spaces, but the focal point of a great deal of information work that is rarely privileged or understood as acts of literacy. The extent to which children participate in virtual worlds suggests that it is not a passing fad, but may instead expose new ways of teaching them to work collaboratively and creatively. Rather than blocking these sites, educators should look for ways to leverage their learning and problem solving aspects, examine how they motivate information seeking and use, and how they provide vital agency to children to take charge of their own learning.

A Research Agenda for Preteen SVEs

Given the proliferation of sites in this genre, and the potential for these sites as learning and meaning making environments, additional research is needed. This article documents the initial foray into this space as part of a research project to explore the complex social and technical aspects of how children use these worlds, how adult stakeholders and institutions affect these interactions, and how different value propositions are manifest in immersive virtual environments. The guiding questions for this research include: How do preteens construct meaning, authority, identity, and expertise in virtual space? How do online social networks affect the information seeking and sharing practices of preteens? More broadly, how will growing up in virtual space affect our notion of what it means to be "literate" in the 21st Century?

Rooted in a sociocultural stance, this research uses a cognitive ethnographic approach (Hutchin, 1995) and the developmental theory of Vygotsky (1978) to inform both methods and analysis. Cognitive ethnography, which draws on anthropological techniques and prolonged engagement, is used to develop an understanding of a particular community of users, in this case preteens in virtual worlds, and then applies this understanding to episodic activities through micro-analysis. Traditional ethnographic approaches describe the knowledge of a particular community, whereas cognitive ethnography describes how members of a particular community construct and use knowledge in everyday activities. Specifically, this research project will engage with these virtual spaces through extended participant observation, group and individual interviews with multiple stakeholders, activity diaries, and self-reported behavior tracking.

Future work will include: (1) a field based investigation gathering institutional, parent, and child perceptions of preteen virtual worlds based on this conceptual work; (2) longitudinal data collection with preteen children interacting with virtual worlds; and (3) developing design criteria and recommendations for software developers, interaction designers, youth service providers, and parents concerned with the long-term influence of virtual worlds on preteen social and moral development. A conceptual analysis of how value propositions manifest in these spaces using a critical comparison technique informed by Value Sensitive Design (Nathan, et al., 2008) is already underway.


Immersive virtual technologies are no longer restricted to science fiction stories or exotic research labs: they are available to a growing number of children and adults on their desktop computers via the Internet. SVEs or, as Castronova (2003) calls them, "synthetic worlds" offer tremendous potential for learning, creativity, collaboration, and problem solving. We are moving into an age marked by new styles of interaction and communication, where the distinction between "play" and "learning" may be altogether meaningless. LIS has been slow to acknowledge the complex information behavior embedded in games, social networks, and virtual contexts beyond traditional search and retrieval. Understanding how preteens use virtual worlds as problem solving and learning spaces will contribute to our growing knowledge of how social information practices develop in young people. This knowledge is of critical concern to parents, educators, caregivers, librarians, and others who mediate the real and virtual worlds of preteens. Furthermore, the findings may be used in design requirements for alternate information retrieval tools for young people, as suggested by Beheshti, Bowler, Large, and Nesset (2005). SVEs offer a rich context for the development of socially mediated information practices. As the obstacles to participation lessen, grasping the implications of the use SVEs by this and future generations is critical.


The author wishes to thank Sean Fullerton (Chinook Elementary, Auburn, WA) for sharing the anecdote in the Introduction, two anonymous referees who provided valuable feedback, and the editorial staff of JELIS for their assistance in revising this paper.


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Eric M. Meyers

School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, 470 Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, 1961 East Mall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z1. E-mail:
Table 1: Example Preteen SVEs.


                    Barbie Girls         Millsberry


Premise            Create, dress,     Create a preteen
                     and style a      "buddy"; explore
                  Barbie character;    neighborhoods;
                    host virtual          engage in
                    parties; play     activities; chat.
                  games; chat with
Target Audience    Girls Ages 7-13        Ages 7-13
Avatar            Barbie character         Preteen
Point-of-View      Birdseye view,       Various, HTML
                      2D sprite           and Flash
Adult                    Yes                 No
Unique                 467,847             937,012
  Visitors *
Total Monthly         989,1 13            2,638,010
  Visits *
Revenue                Premium         Advertisements
  Sources            membership,

                         Commercial Worlds

                     Club Penguin          WebKinz


Premise            Create a penguin    Adopt and care
                   character; play     for a plush pet
                  games; decorate an   character; play
                   igloo; engage in      games; chat
                   adventures; chat     with friends.
                    with friends.
Target Audience       Ages 6-14           Ages 5-13
Avatar             Anthropomorphic        Plush pet
                       penguin            character
Point-of-View     Birdseye view, 2D    Birdseye view,
                        sprite            2D sprite
Adult                    Yes                 Yes
Unique                2,671,618           5,894,637
  Visitors *
Total Monthly         14,750,120         39,333,411
  Visits *
Revenue                Premium         Advertisements,
  Sources            membership,         merchandise

                             Value Worlds

                      HandiLand           WoogiWorld


Premise            Earn points for     Adopt a "woogi"
                   chores in real      character; play
                  world; use points    games; complete
                   to create a cat     missions; engage
                   character; play    in online/offline
                    games, chat.      activities; chat.
Target Audience       Ages 4-14           Ages 7-12
Avatar             Anthropomorphic     Woogi character
                         cat          (extraterrestrial)
Point-of-View     Birdseye view, 2D   Birdseye view, 2D
                       sprite               sprite
Adult                    Yes                 Yes
Unique                 61,402               64,060
  Visitors *
Total Monthly          243,366             216,5179
  Visits *
Revenue            Venture capital    Grants, non-profit
  Sources                               organizations


                      Second Life


Premise               Create a 3D
                   "resident"; build
                    content; engage
                  in activities; chat
                     with friends.
Target Audience         Adults
Avatar               3D Character
Point-of-View     First person, over
Adult                    N /A
Unique                  318,551
  Visitors *
Total Monthly           21,640
  Visits *
Revenue             Advertisements,
  Sources             land sales,

* Figures are for November 2008, gathered from
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Author:Meyers, Eric M.
Publication:Journal of Education for Library and Information Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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