Friday, March 30, 2007

UNICEF's Virtual Smokescreen

This week’s Lancet had a short spot of Teen Second Life – virtual on-line world restricted to 13-17 year olds that allows them to “build” a virtual environment and interact with other teens on-line.

I don’t like these games because I think their motivation for existence is not altruistic, but financial.

You see, these games are all structured about the same way. They all hook kids by telling them they can join and get a “basic” membership to the on-line world for free. Later, as they get hooked on the game, then only allow them to go further in the game by purchasing a “premium” membership. And to be successful socially in these worlds, the coolest kids own stuff that must be purchased.

And here’s my beef. Teens know that their parents don’t like them to be sitting at a computer all day. So in order to be successful at these on-line virtual worlds with their on-line peers, most kids have to stretch a very important line with their parents: they must use their parent’s credit card to purchase the “premium” package to gain access to new "powers" or (in the case of Teen Send Life) "land" – often without their knowledge. You see, when you can’t see the cash, it’s virtual, too.

I know this from personal experience. Kids are savvy and know how easy it is to enter the data on the front and back of a credit card to purchase whatever they want on-line. They know it’s not permitted to use their parent’s credit card, but their virtual world can become more important to them than their real-world relationship with their parents. And once the charge is made once, it shows up month after month on the parent’s credit card as a recurrent charge. Breaking this addiction can be difficult, to say the least.

So to find out that UNICEF is using Teen Second Life to promote their ’World Fit for Children’ festival as part of their ‘Global Kids Digital Media Initiative,’ raised concerns, to say the least:
In December, 2006, Global Kids, a non-profit organisation (sic) based in New York, teamed up with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to put together a World Fit for Children Festival in Teen Second Life's virtual world. The teenage participants attended workshops about UNICEF and then constructed virtual buildings that could, in theory at least, help alleviate poverty, poor education, or HIV/AIDS. The winning team of teenagers from Finland was awarded $200 for their building—an African school where children could learn safely. UNICEF believes that more than 1000 teenagers visited their virtual festival.
But there were interesting findings, like kids that can fly, or have a playboy logo as their “flag,” (see their video) or smoke behind a virtual bike sheds. If this the way we want to promote real-life solutions for real life-and-death issues like HIV and AIDS? What does the message does the Playboy flag send in this regard – that AIDS is just a big joke?

I take real issue with the Lancet author James Butcher’s assessment of the virtual world to teach real-world values:
Parents will have concerns about this virtual world, but the benefits in terms of creativity and socialisation (sic) surely outweigh the risks. The only real concern should be whether parents can keep up with teens reared in our digital world.
No Mr. Butcher, we can keep up. It’s the fraud engendered by these sites and the mixed messages they portray that has me concerned, especially when Global Kids and UNICEF uses these venues to promote their agenda.


References: James Butcher, "Smoking Behind Virtual Bike Sheds," The Lancet, Volume 369, Issue 9567 , 31 March 2007-6 April 2007, Page 1074.

Global Kids/Unicef Festival Promotional Video on YouTube

Global Kids Digital Media Initiative Website.

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