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It Takes A Village To Rez A Child

April 8, 2011

This is the title I originally planned to use to introduce Fiona. 🙂

The subject of kids in Virtual Worlds is a controversial one, in part due to the way Teen Life was merged into Second Life.  However, this is mostly reflective of how concerned we are about predators online and the possibility of children being exposed to inappropriate content.    These are valid concerns, but they can very easily be blown out of proportion.  There are some simple and effective ways to allow kids to enjoy Virtual Worlds and other environments on the Internet, techniques I learned when I was a young man with a 300 baud modem and that have yet to fail me [mumble] years later.

I was 13 when QuantumLink (“The Commodore Connection!”) started up, and I was one of the first people in the door.   I will admit that I spent a little time downloading a few games that were the digital equivalent of hiding a Playboy under my mattress, but most of my time was spent in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy rooms and playing an ElfQuest RPG in the messageboards.   The adults managing the areas I hung out generally knew how old I was, and they watched out for me and the other teens in that area.  We were not little Angels by any means, but we didn’t have to worry about perverts trying to get our real names, our phone numbers, or our addresses.  Looking back, I can point to that as my introduction to Sci-Fi Fandom as a culture.

I got to College, and the Internet was being born.  In due course, I was introduced to MUDs, MUSHes, and MUCKs, and it was there that “Talvin” became my nom de plume.  I eventually became a “Wizard” (administrator) on a MUCK, and there I found that–oh, horror!–KIDS were coming online!

“Great,” I said, “Let’s make them welcome.”  And we did.  Yes, we had some inappropriate language and behavior at times.  We simply made it clear that we could not have that and why and how it would put the MUCK in danger to permit that sort of thing.  We also selected some of the brighter and more responsible young people and made them members of our HelpStaff, an organization similar to the Mentors groups, and that had a huge impact: maturity was visibly rewarded, and any member of the HelpStaff, of any age, had a way to contact us if there was a problem.  Over time, we saw more kids, teens, and entire families joining us.  Yes, there were problems, but because we had clear communication between ourselves and the young people and their families, problems were dealt with quickly and appropriately.

Later, when I played World of Warcraft, I found myself in a Guild (The Emperor’s Thousand) that had several players in their early teens raiding alongside people old enough to be their Grandparents.  Some of the best fun that I recall from those days was when they wandered into the swamp outside Theramore (in way over their heads) and yelled for help.  I and the Grandparently Paladins went to rescue them, and we decided, “Ah, heck!  Why go back? We’ll take you THROUGH!”  Getting a couple of thirteen-year-olds out of a swamp turned into a minor Guild event, and much fun was had by all.

Finally, things came full circle, and Dianna and I had a child.  We never planned to allow her to come online at such an early age, but Jokay extended the invitation, and we decided to give it a chance.

And she was off like a shot!

She has learned in-world etiquette better than some people who are several times her age.  No pushing. Don’t TP into a group of green dots on the map: they might be having a meeting or a class, and it is rude to interrupt.  Don’t leave stuff on other people’s land.    Be polite.  Stuff we wish all newbies could learn, right? 😀

All the lessons I had learned about kids and virtual communities over the previous quarter-century still hold true.

  1. Kids are going to be part of your online community.  Recognize that, and decide how they will be included.  It is easier to regulate than to forbid.  Face it: impossible to forbid.
  2. No matter how many verification systems, background checks, sex offender registries, rules, etc. you put in, none of them can equal the value of having adults in clear and open communication with young people. Those other things should be regarded as the second line of defense.
  3. We value Mentoring of young people in what we call the “Real World”.  It is valuable in Virtual Worlds as well.
  4. The parents need to be involved.  They are responsible for what their children do.  The younger the child, the more important this is. (Jokay prefers that anybody under 13 be chaperoned in-world.)
  5. Kids and teens will be kids and teens, and they will try to push limits.  Do not panic just because one or two kids tried to do something that is inappropriate for their age and for the rating of the area.  Only panic if you did not foresee this possibility and create policies to deal with the problem while minimizing disruption.  Above all, don’t blow it out of proportion: testing boundaries is part of being a growing human.   Deal with it and move on.
  6. You would not let your child go out to play outside your yard if you did not know your neighbors.  Use the same logic in a virtual world.  Our Virtual Neighborhood is a good one: populated by college professors and staff, public and private school educators, people who work in non-profits, and the like.  We talk to one another, we keep an eye on each other’s children and students, and we are all committed to making this experiment work.  Yes, I have had to pack a high school student off to Jokay and his teacher for inappropriate behavior! They do the same if Fiona is out of bounds.   All part of it.

Fiona loves playing in JokaydiaGrid.  When she is not working on Vocabulary assignments or pretending to be a Pirate, she is relaxing at Western Institute’s virtual resort, or watching Starlight Harbour build, or perhaps playing Hide and Seek with Jokay. (Jokay cheated! She cammed around and found her! No fair!)  She reinforces reading and computer skills by using her inventory and chatting with people.

She also has learned to create Snapshots.  She took over 50 snapshots in one session (eek!) and asked me to put them online so other kids could see them and maybe they would want to come play with her in Callahania.  I did a little culling, but Fiona now has her own Flickr account (managed by me!) with pictures she took of her explorations of our region.

If you have a kid and you are looking for a safe place they can explore online, try JokaydiaGrid.  I’ll be happy to introduce you to other members of the neighborhood!  Having been on all sides of the situation–child, administrator, and parent–I can say with authority that it really does take a Village to Rez a child. 🙂

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