[staff] My Testimony For Congress (had I been asked)...

On April 1st, the 110th Congress Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing entitled Online Virtual Worlds: Applications and Avatars in a User-Generated Medium.

Listening to the testimony, it was hard not to imagine what I might have shared were I asked to testify. It might have gone something somewhat like this:

Chairman Markey, Ranking Member Stearns, and Members of the Subcommittee, we at Global Kids are honored to have this opportunity to share our experiences as experts working with youth and virtual worlds.

To provide background, in 2006, following extensive research into the educational potential of virtual worlds, Global Kids became the first nonprofit to develop a dedicated space for conducting educational programming in Teen Second Life (TSL). Specifically, Global Kids is conducting intensive leadership programming for youth, bringing students from its New York-based programs into the space, and streaming the audio and video of major events into the world. This work has received significant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, among others, and been conducted in partnership with many other organizations, including UNICEF, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the International Criminal Court.

I would like to begin my testimony with a quote from an earlier Congressional Subcommittee hearing that took place just over a half-century ago.

“Formerly, the child wanted to be like daddy or mommy. Now they skip you, they bypass you. They want to be like Superman.”

This testimony from Dr. Fredric Wertham on the connections between comic books and juvenile delinquency, and his earlier publications on the matter, helped to stoke a national hysteria around the lurid dangers of this once new medium. While barely a decade old, more than 90% of children between the ages of six and eleven read comic books, as did over 80% of teenagers. Parents in the Cold War era, unsure how to handle a variety of new social forces, found a convenient scapegoat in the colorful and ubiquitous magazines. Wertham’s testimony helped the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency hold comic publishers’ feet to the fire and led not to new regulatory policies but a new industry-administered code of conduct that shaped comic books for over thirty years.

Generation after generation seems to go through its own “cycles of outrage,” whether with the waltz, pulp novels, comic books, rap music, or most recently with video games and online social networks. New mass media come and go, gaining relative acceptance or falling by the wayside, but concerns about the safety of children and regulations surrounding their freedoms never go away.

Virtual Worlds, practically non-existent just a few years ago, are just the latest commercial media to be seen as “colonizing” the lives of youth, once again raising a variety of concerns about their impact. The growth of youth involvement with virtual worlds is predicted to surpass 50% over the next few years, so one can expect a number of concerns to be raised about virtual worlds that are similar to the mediums of the past--a threat to law and order, a threat to traditional learning, and a threat to traditional values.

However, unlike the comic books hearings of the early 50s, today’s hearing is driven by curiosity rather than outrage. This Subcommittee has risen above this cycle, not ignoring related concerns but seeking to begin a conversation about the medium itself, to gain a better understanding, and to mature the dialogue. For this the Subcommittee is to be commended.

Granted, while the Subcommittee’s position as curious outsider takes a stance that is neither booster nor detractor, there will inevitably be a number of bad jokes that minimize the importance or significance of this new medium. It is understandable to want to keep virtual worlds at a distance. It is understandable to feel uncomfortable when confronting a new medium that changes, for lack of a better phrase, our sense of self.

Perhaps the name of the popular virtual world at the subject of today’s hearings, Second Life, has exasperated this tension. But, when you speak to your child on the phone, are your hearing their “second voice?” No, you hear their voice, as they would claim that reproduction of voice as his or her own. The phone is not our “second voice” any more than photos are our “second image” or emails our “second handwriting.” That is YOU on the phone, in the photo, or through the email.

Virtual worlds are not escapist fantasies but a new way to extend our lives and our sense of self. Were they separate and apart from our lives, and, through extension, society, the task of this Subcommittee would be much easier. However, I would encourage the Subcommittee to keep their focus on the social impact of virtual worlds and move beyond the initial discomfort that leas to minimizing that impact.

For these are the questions that we are forced to ask ourselves today: how can virtual worlds expand our lives in new ways, what social affects arise as a result, and are these results desirable? We want to avoid the trap and sensationalistic trappings of previous cycles of outrage, yet it is still incumbent upon us to understand both the opportunities and dangers inherent in the rise of what is, in some ways, nothing more or less than the latest form of commercial media.

Both government and business tend to bristle at the occasional public call for regulation of popular culture, but Subcommittees like this have historically used the threat of such regulation to force industry to answer questions they might prefer to avoid and step up to the challenge with new, more responsible policies, both within individual companies and as an industry.

So at this, the first Congressional hearing on virtual worlds, what are the key questions that can be posed back to the virtual world industry and to those most familiar with its functions and social impact? I would propose three questions and offer my own responses.

Number 1: How are children kept safe and empowered within virtual worlds?

Not all virtual worlds are for children. In fact, the area designated for teenagers within Second Life is less than 5% of its total userbase. Yet the current growth area for virtual worlds is clearly for the teen and tween audience, with virtual worlds becoming the latest marketing tool to push new products and extend the brands of existing media. Is this form of unbridled and unheralded immersive advertising appropriate for younger children? What can we learn from current and previous regulations regarding children and advertising that can inform how we view this role of virtual worlds? These are important questions to be explored.

At the same time, we are also concerned about youth in these spaces being safe from people who do not belong there, namely adults prowling for victims. All parents share concerns when their child leaves their side, whether to the playground or the internet. And when investigating virtual worlds we want to ask what role the official adults play as gatekeepers to their communities, putting in place steps to protect their charges from inappropriate content and contact.

At the same time, we should not fool ourselves that safety is an either or absolute, holding virtual worlds to an impossibly high standard that none can reach. No space can be perfectly safe. And for that reason it is important to also learn how youth are empowered within these online communities to protect themselves. How do youth learn what forms of personal information are permitted to be shared? How accessible are tools for contacting the authorities to place a report? How transparent are the results of these reports? A youth community educated about potential dangers and empowered to take action to protect themselves should be the goal of all youth-oriented virtual worlds.

Number 2: What are children learning within virtual worlds?

Are children learning powerful new forms of education uniquely available within virtual worlds or simply being trained to become a new generation of online consumers? We still speak of the digital divide--describing the gap between those with and without access to the power of digital media--but those like Henry Jenkins at M.I.T. are encouraging us to consider the Participatory Gap, arguing that debates around access often obscure the gap between those with and without the skills to navigate spaces where youth do more than just consume but also create and critique media content. Today, the argument goes, one cannot succeed as a student, a worker, or even a citizen, unless one has learned how to participate in this user-generated online landscape--whether on MySpace, YouTube, or Second Life--where one is shaping not just online content but the very world in which we live.

It is not a coincidence that today’s hearing ends with the phrase “user-generated medium,” for that is what distinguishes virtual worlds from earlier mass media and, as such, should define how we approach the question of what youth should be learning within these spaces. How do virtual worlds educate youth to participate within user-generated mediums?

The nature of this education, a stranger to most public school classrooms, is well described and advocated for by those like The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which has emerged as the leading advocacy organization focused on infusing 21st century skills into education, and is supported by leaders like the MacArthur Foundation and the Microsoft Corporation. These skills include not simply core subject areas like English and Math, but also Media Literacy, Creativity and Innovation Skills, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills, Communication and Collaboration Skills, and more, skills well suited to be learned through the unique educational potential of virtual worlds and other digital media.

We need to look at virtual worlds and determine to what extend they offer tools and activities for members to participate in the shaping and/or building of their community and to what extent are those tools limited to selecting from pre-set choices, when available at all?

More specifically we can ask: Can members only buy objects or can they make their own? If they make their own can they also share them with, or sell them to, others? Are there appropriate vehicles for youth to express their opinions, about the real world or issues relevant to the virtual one? What opportunities exist for youth to create their own activities? Do tools exist to support collaboration with others?

The answers to these questions are more than theoretical. Global Kids has developed a highly refined process for using virtual worlds for this type of learning. Working with Teen Second Life, and now expanding to other virtual worlds like Whyville and There.com, Global Kids has explored the variety of ways that these virtual worlds can become powerful tools for youth to do such things as:
• Curate a virtual museum exhibit about the Holocaust and its relationship to contemporary genocide.
• Construct a maze to teach their peers about the horrors of child sex trafficking.
• Produce animated movies about child soldiers in Northern Uganda, the role digital media plays in their lives, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
• Mentor youth to become peer educators around such issues as nuclear proliferation, gun control, and the crisis in Darfur.
• Launch social entrepreneurial projects that educate their peers about health.
• Create art to express their opinions about international justice.
• Learn science through exploring, modifying and creating their own simulations.
• Build an immersive game to educate their peers about the history of medical experimentation on African-American male prisoners.
• Use both virtual worlds and related tools in the larger Internet ecology to have their work seen and voices heard by audiences in the tens of thousands.

These are just a few examples that speak to the outcomes that can be achieved when the tools of virtual worlds are put in the hands of youth within a formalized learning system.

Number 3: Do the applications of virtual worlds contribute to the creation of a more just and equitable society or do they further exacerbate existing inequalities?

Noted scholar James Paul Gee often references a government study of computers labs in libraries that found that, while middle income communities had the social capital to take advantage of these new resources, the computers largely sat unused within lower income communities. Rather than bridge the digital divide or the participatory gap, these altruistic efforts further exacerbated them by providing more resources to those better supported to take advantage of them.

So as we challenge virtual world producers to make their spaces safe and empowering for youth, as well as valuable tools for learning 21st Century Learning Skills, we need to also pay attention to who gets left out in the process and ask ourselves, as a society, what we can do about it.

Global Kids works with more privileged youth in Teen Second Life who have found their way into these virtual worlds, but we also develop programs in under-served New York City communities that seek out those with limited access. We create after school programs--at our offices, in museums, and in schools--that bring youth of color from low-income neighborhoods into virtual worlds and teach them both required digital literacies and how to use those skills to have a voice about social and global issues.

We also work with youth in other cities by offering professional development programs for educators, using digital tools to remotely run programs within their own settings, and support other organizations to leverage opportunities we have created within virtual worlds, bringing resources in all three cases to underserved populations. For example, one Global Kids project works with youth within virtual worlds to develop their abilities to create sustainable projects that have a social mission; the most recent group of youth to participate in this project come from an all boys penitentiary in North Carolina, organized by their forward-thinking prison librarian.

But the work of one non-profit is not enough. What role should society play to ensure the inclusion of all youth in the powerful informal learning available through digital media like virtual worlds? What role can parents and religious and learning institutions play? How can government support and incentivize that involvement? These are questions that cannot be answered today but I hope today’s hearing can help provide the context for doing so in the future.

Thank you for holding this hearing and for helping to continue to elevate the discussion, avoiding the emotional fears of the moment so we can focus on the real needs of the future. Please continue creating opportunities that call for the asking and addressing of important questions so together we can move, in an informed and inspired manner, towards taking the actions that will be required to support the use of virtual worlds for the benefit of society.