Virtual worlds used to be the stuff of science fiction. They came into being with video games and have now gone mainstream so even non-gamers can party in MTV's virtual Laguna Beach or buy real estate in Second Life. For tweens and teens, all the world's an igloo over at Club Penguin and fashion is whatever you dream up at Girl Sense. Most of these worlds are about hanging out, socializing, being creative, earning some sort of virtual currency to buy virtual goods or playing games.
The other day, a virtual world for tweens called Whyville announced that it had teamed up with Penguin Young Readers Group, the publisher of Al Gore's young adult book, An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming to sponsor a virtual climate center. To make Whyville's residents (who tend to be between 8 and 15 years old) aware of the new Climate Center, they created a virtual tropical storm named Alice. According to the press release, "the storm will result in widespread flooding and destruction throughout Whyville, with considerable rubbish and debris littering the virtual world. Whyville's citizens will need to join together in a massive clean up effort to restore their environment over the next several days."
I'm sure many of you are scratching your heads in disbelief at the existence of virtual worlds with virtual storms and virtual cleanup efforts. Given all of the negative media coverage around kids, teens and the internet, I think this sponsorship is a breath of fresh air. By partnering with Whyville, Penguin was able to create an immersive learning experience. Instead of having to sit through a lesson on climate change or even watch An Inconvenient Truth, they get to experience (and clean up) the effects of global warming in their virtual world.
Kids also learn about their "carbon footprint" at the Whyville Climate Center where they are assigned a calculator to assess their individual contribution to rising CO2 levels in the virtual world. According to the release:
"The size of their footprint will increase, or decrease, depending on the personal choices they make, such as the number of virtual accessories they produce in Whyville's avatar factory, the number of trips taken around the world in the warp wagon, the number of times they teleport to the moon or mars, or even which types of foods they choose to eat. Whyvillians who substantially reduce their impact will be recognized with a distinctive green badge for their avatar and will even be able to trade their carbon credits to other Whyvillians for 'clams,' Whyville's virtual currency."
Not only are they learning how to reduce their carbon footprints, they are being given economic incentives, i.e."clams," to do so. The big question is whether or not this translates into real world behaviors. I have a hunch that it will, and that mom and dad will soon be out buying new light bulbs.