Archive for May, 2008

Affordances of Virtual Worlds

As part of my exploration of virtual worlds, I was also looking to find answers to questions such as –

  • What do youth like about these imaginary worlds?
  • What kinds of core activities do virtual worlds support?

On, I came across a very interesting discussion around similar questions.

In the post ‘The Affordances of Virtual Worlds and 21st Century Learning Environments‘ Connie Yowell asks: What can we learn from young people about why they find virtual worlds so appealing?

Some excerpts –
“An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action.”

“What is it about the norms, practices, adult roles and other such affordances of this space that is so appealing and engaging for young people? More importantly perhaps, is if we cast aside our adult expectations and standards, what it is we can learn from young people about why they find this virtual world such an engaging learning space? What do young people have to tell us about the shape and future of learning environments in the 21st century?”

“As research begins to emerge and as we observe the extraordinary engagement of young people in virtual worlds such as Whyville, Quest Atlantis and others, we have begun to form a tentative list of the kinds of affordances we see in environments that support learning. So far, we see the greatest engagement in those environments that allow young people to pursue a need to know, to share, to produce, to make their thoughts and productions public, and to develop a specialized language.”

Following are some thoughts shared by people in response to these questions –

In the post ‘Digital Montessori for Big Kids‘ Constance Steinkuehler, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, makes an interesting observation.

Some excerpts –
“Virtual worlds are like digital montessori for big kids. Virtual worlds are interest-driven learning environments in which the learner is purposefully surrounded with well chosen and well-designed symbolic and material tools and artifacts. They enable the learner to pursue their own interests and passions (Barron) but which push back conceptually enough to enable the development of deep understandings of the system being explored. Even in our purposefully educational games-based program, we let students’ emergent goals motivate the instruction rather than expecting the instruction to motivate or engage the students’ emergent goals.”

In the post ‘Under the Surface of Virtual Worlds‘ Doug Thomas, the director of the Institute for Network Culture, offers a few warnings and suggestions for researchers.

Some excerpts –
“It is deceptively easy to look at some specifications or user interfaces and conclude that games or virtual worlds have particular affordances or that they limit the ability of users to participate, create, or engage with each other productively. However, users are clever and more often than not they will find a way to subvert limitations by using the tools that are available to them in unexpected ways.”

“If we think about the primary affordances of virtual worlds as the ability to engage the imagination, then the tools themselves become interesting not as instruments, but as resources for the imagination. Limitations are not seen as barriers, but as challenges that need to be overcome by creatively engaging the world and by experimenting, playing, and thinking beyond boundaries. Innovation and creativity are not usually born out of freedom, but instead are often generated by the moments that we are forced to push back on the world. We innovate and create because the tools we have are no longer sufficient for the task at hand.”

“Second Life, Whyville,, and a host of other virtual worlds all provide users with different tools to live, learn, engage, act, and play. But beyond that, each of these worlds also engages the play of imagination and provides the opportunity for users to collectively create the world they live in. In each of these spaces will undoubtedly see new and interesting approaches to questions of community, citizenship, play, and entertainment. But we will also see innovation and experimentation, often emerging from the most unlikely places.”

In the post ‘The Learning Affordances of Pimples in Virtual Worlds‘ Yasmin Kafai, an associate professor of education from UCLA shares learnings from her study of the annual virtual public health epidemic in, “Whypox.”

Some excerpts –
“Virtual epidemics like Whypox give us new ideas for how to engage tweens interactively in an informal yet serious manner in learning about infectious disease unlike what they can experience with reading textbooks or watching videos. Conversation about shared experiences and interests is what truly drive community in virtual worlds.”


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