Constance Steinkuehler (an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison) has the job many kids dream of: She gets to hang out in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Runescape while she studies how kids and young adults play and learn in these spaces. Since lots of parents and teachers have asked us how these games work — and what kids find so engaging about them — we asked Constance to fill us in.

Can you explain to parents how virtual worlds work?

Constance: Virtual worlds are persistent worlds that are typically in 3-D — although they started off in 2-D, and before that they were text-based. The key thing to know about virtual worlds or online games is that people are playing collaboratively, often with not just some other people, but with hundreds of thousands of other people.

One thing that’s really fascinating about them, and why I got into them, is that these are fantasy settings where you have ogres and elves and princes, but people are doing very mundane, real things in them: They’re forming friendships, they’re worrying about housing prices, they’re worrying about crime in the neighborhoods where they own their houses, they craft stuff, they go to work. That’s what they do.

How are these games “persistent”?

Constance: In a persistent virtual world, the game keeps playing even when you stop. Which is to say that if I go in and cut down a tree today, when I go back tomorrow, the tree’s still cut down, and the world has moved on. This means that to be a part of these worlds — which are real in some sense since they’re fully populated, there are creatures, there’s an ecosystem — is a different kind of game play because you have to spend more time in them. If you don’t show up for a week, you miss a whole week’s worth of activities. It’d be like not going out with your friends for a whole week. You’d have a lot of gossip to catch up on.

What’s the average gaming experience like for a 14-year-old?

Constance: Let’s say it’s Friday, it’s four o’clock after their school day, they’re going to play until dinnertime. Usually what they’ll do is they’ll login, and they’ll say hello to all of their friends. Usually they play with the same regular group of friends online, more or less, the same way they have friends in offline life. Oftentimes those two populations bleed together. Then they’ll see how things are going, check the auctions to see what’s sold, get your stuff together, clean out your inventory. Then usually they’ll get together in groups and do an instance run [a “mission”] that takes about an hour and a half to solve, and it usually takes a team of people to solve it. That’s part of the joy of these games — they’re designed to have people play together, and that’s part of the sport and the fun.
So what do kids like about these games? What’s fun about them?

Constance answers this question in the video interview at the top of this page. Check it out!

You mentioned that kids have online friends in these games. Can you explain that?

Constance: In our relationships, we have either close, bonded relationships, or distant, casual ones — what they call “bridging” relationships. The data seems to suggest over several studies that virtual friends don’t tend to replace the deep, close relationships in kids’ lives, but it tends to prune the distance friends that they might go to a movie with every once in a while, or they might talk to in the hallway. Those looser friendship networks are moved online. That poses some problems for parents and means the parenting needs to move online to find out who kids are hanging out with online — are they people that are good for your child?

But the other thing it does is open kids up to a much wider variety of people. The more we organize ourselves in the real world so that we hang out with people who look and act the same and go to the same schools and have the same socio-economic class and the same political views and the same everything, the more that diversity can be really rich. It means that kids are, in some sense, hanging out with very diverse groups of people that they may not otherwise have access to.

How can parents know who their kids are playing with online?

Constance: The best thing any parent could do is game with their kid. Go and play with them, especially teenagers. It’s a really powerful way for parents and children to get in the same space and literally remove all of that baggage of “I’m your parent, and you’re the child, and I’m the authority.” It troubles it up when your kid can outgame you, but it’s a lot of fun. If you lean into it and let it happen, it can be really very life-enhancing, very relationship-enhancing.

What do you tell a parent who’s worried about the amount of time their kids spend in these games?

Constance: The thing I would keep an eye out for is when games replace other activities or get in the way of goals your child has. Then you should raise a red flag and find out why gaming is taking over other things that they love. One thing I would start with around the time issue is that many kids — and grown adults — don’t actually think of how long they’re spending sitting at the computer doing the activity until they look up and say, “wow, I’ve been here for five hours.”

So the first conversation would be about starting to notice the time you’re sitting and playing — is that the amount of time you want to spend? If it’s an hour and a half, that’s great. A movie is an hour and a half. Four hours? Do you want to spend four hours of your Saturday gaming? If it’s four hours in the middle of a Saturday, and you don’t get to get outside, well, that might be a problem. Then it’s about monitoring that by looking at it over a week or two and saying, “you know, is this more time than you want to spend?” Then pick a couple of evenings where you don’t log on.

One other thing I would suggest for parents is that these games are social entities, and oftentimes people schedule things on the games. We’ll play at four o’clock, and we’ll play a raid that lasts about two hours. It could last three hours; it could last an hour and a half. And one thing that I think many kids need is help with managing their time around that. I hear a lot of complaints of moms and dads saying, “look, I go down and I ask them to get off the computer for dinner, and they refuse.”

The reason they’re refusing oftentimes isn’t because they’re trying to be obstinate (although there’s a little bit of that), but there’s this element of having entered a social contract — you’ve gone 80% of the way toward solving something. If you abandon it, everyone will have to stop what they’re doing. So if they’re taking that seriously and not wanting to leave that, in a way that’s a good thing, because they’re keeping with a social promise they made. But learning how to manage that time is important.

What are kids learning in these game environments?

Constance: My research group is looking at three different categories of learning. One category is social skills, learning how to collaborate, lead a group, or self-organize. It’s learning how to do things like coordinate large teams of 25 people to do a complex boss raid that may take you anywhere from two to four hours.

Another category is about school-affiliated, school-oriented stuff like science inquiry or traditional literacy. For example, I run an after-school lab with white rural boys between 13 and 18 years old. Many of these boys are very disengaged in school — they’re failing basic coursework specifically around reading and writing. And yet, you get them in their play space, and they read above their grade level, they’ll write to each other very clear and concise arguments on forum posts, they’ll do all this labor around traditional print literacies where they’re not succeeding in school.

And the third category is kind of a new domain, things that we don’t include in school now, but we might need to think about for 21st-century literacy — things like how to navigate information. These are practices around collective problem-solving, collective information-sharing, and understanding how to find an answer in your social network. I think that’s really where we get to push back and say “what should a 21st-century literacy look like?”

Audrey S.

Audrey managed the education products at Common Sense Education, with a primary focus on our digital citizenship program. She previously oversaw the marketing outreach to our educator community. Prior to joining Common Sense, Audrey worked at the San Francisco SPCA animal hospital and shelter. She received her degree in Marketing from San Francisco State University.