Youth Culture Window

Where Are Lewis and Clark When You REALLY Need ‘Em?

With the many problems facing teenagers’ fragile world such as global warming, terrorism, rampant zits, and more escapades of Paris Hilton, wouldn’t it be nice for them to have another world to hide in? Actually, teenagers do…and these “virtual worlds” are the latest craze with a growing number of students.

Gaia OnlineZwinktopiaHabbo Hotel, and There, known as “virtual worlds,” are some of the most popular and exotic online destinations for teenagers today. If you know nothing of these virtual worlds, get educated real quick, because they are rapidly growing in popularity with the 13-18 year old crowd. There are many different VWs available for access now, but only a few of them are of any substantial size. Gaia Online, who bills themselves as “the fastest growing online hangout,” claims 2.5 million users each month, with 90% of that crowd being 13-18 years in age. Experts predict that 53% of teenagers will be going virtual by 2011.

So, what is a “virtual world?” Virtual worlds are 3 dimensional internet communities that couple the attraction of online social networking with the appeal of online gaming. They can also be linked to other social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. All VWs employ the use of an “avatar,” an online representation of the user. Avatars can be dressed and designed in an almost infinite number of ways, even allowing users to assign emotions, interests, and profiles. The purpose of VWs varies. Some center on commercial gaming, and some on education, but others on more intriguing topics such as military training or political expression. However, all of them can be divided into two basic camps, “under 13,” and “over 13.” (I am sure that all online predators and pedophiles will respectfully adhere to these boundaries.) Most VWs boast of online “moderators” whose job it is to try to offer some degree of user safety and appropriateness of content.

Spending a quick hour in any one of these virtual worlds will give insight to the positive AND negative fabric of online communities that teenagers are living in, and reveal their similarities to, and distinctions from, the “real world.” The experiences in VWs usually include:


  • Teenagers teaching teenagers, albeit informally. New users are often quickly guided by veteran users as to the “lay of the land.” Further, due to their global availability, it’s not uncommon to see multiple foreign languages appear on the screen at once!
  • Discovering what it means to be a member of a society…especially in regards to communication and economics. Online users rarely hold back from saying what they think in a world where “face to face” doesn’t exist. Even more intriguing is their game-centered applications that require a form of currency (ZBucks, Coins, Credits, etc.) that can be won online, or bought with “real world cash.” The currency is spent on special clothing options for your avatar, or for other possessions like cool furniture for your own personal space.
  • Inundation by commercials for products that are supposedly age appropriate. Some commercials are more kid-driven (toys and games) while others are more mature (cell phones and Axe body spray). One virtual world unashamedly confesses that their business model exists in part, to collect advertising research that’s generated by online users. For example, teens tend to dress their avatars the way they dress themselves. How the “real world’s” largest generation spends their “virtual” cash is fairly indicative as to how they spend cold hard real world cash.
  • A mild to moderate exposure of suggestive, vulgar, or harsh exchanges. Most expletives are “bleeped” out, or replaced with another word, but savvy users have quickly found ways around the system. “Sexy” will be filtered unless it is entered as “ssseeexy.” “F—k you” is easily communicated by simply typing “fu.” Even though the VW might offer protection from such offenses through the use of online moderators, it cannot stop every ill-minded attempt of “trolls” or “rogues,” who are users that intentionally defy the rules, either as individuals or as a group.

By now, you’re probably asking yourself if virtual worlds are a good place or bad place for students to be. You may be wondering how a virtual world impacts the real world, if at all. Some might already be charting a mental path as to how to tackle this topic with students. But, before you break the emergency glass to reach the panic button…ask yourself if you know enough to make any firm decisions yet.

A virtual world is not a “better” or “worse” place for students to be than the real world. There are dangers associated with existing in both. Yes, virtual students can buy a queen size bed to “stretch out on,” or for the more promiscuous, a comfy white couch to “snuggle up together” on, but relatively speaking, a student who employs common sense and moral standards in real life, and also digitally, is in no more danger in a virtual world.

However, make no mistake: virtual worlds DO impact our real world! Just ask the 17 year old boy who was recently arrested – IN THE REAL WORLD – for stealing almost $6,000 worth of possessions (at real world value) in the virtual world! Other “real world effects” include diminishing tact in “virtual” conversations that can bring real world hurt. When I designed my avatar to look as much like me as possible, I was insulted by two different students…during introductions to them! (And I’m really good looking!!) 

No matter what the future holds for virtual worlds, at some point, teenage users have to unplug and re-join the real world. Your knowledge of virtual worlds coupled with your role in students’ real world lives can greatly affect the ease of that transition.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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