Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000
Effects on Perceptions of Reality
Simulated worlds created by electronic games, computers, and the Internet are expanding children's experiences from real to virtual. Through electronic games, children interact with simulated characters and creatures; through the Internet, teens assume multiple identities to interact with strangers—and even robots ("bots," computer programs that represent themselves as people)—in the simulated worlds of MUDs and chat rooms.77 Computerized games and the Internet move users into a world where the distinction between real life and simulation may not be clear, especially for children. Researchers have begun to examine how this shift from reality to simulation may influence children's development.
For example, one noted researcher, Sherry Turkle, found that some children may have difficulty understanding the boundaries between real and artificial life when engaged in simulation computer games.78 Such confusion concerning what it means to be "alive" occurred among children of all ages. For example, one 10-year-old thought that the creatures in the computer game SimLife were "a little alive in the game," and that if you turned off the modem, they would go away, but if the modem stayed on, the creatures could "get out of your computer and go to America Online." Even one 15-year-old said that the whole point of SimLife was to show that you could "get things that are alive in the computer," and that just as "we get energy from the sun, the organisms in the computer get energy from the plug in the wall."
Beyond games played on traditional computer screens, the rise in popularity of small interactive game-toys, such as virtual pets, represent a new level of integration of computer simulation into the social world of children.79 A virtual pet is a hand-held, interactive electronic game, somewhat more popular among girls, that requires the owner to take care of it to prevent it from "dying." Similar to other computer games and devices, it beeps to attract attention and displays various icons on a screen whose meanings and functions must be deciphered—in this case, indicating the virtual pet's immediate need for food, sleep, play, or medicine.80 To a much greater extent than other computer games, however, children are encouraged to think of virtual pets as "real."81
Role-playing games on the Internet reinforce this integration of simulated life into real life. In MUDs, for example, computer-generated characters interact with characters operated by real people and sometimes fool people into thinking they are human.77 Even the characters operated by real people are often mixtures of fantasy and reality. In a study of LamdaMOO, one of the largest and oldest role-playing systems, participants between the ages of 15 and 45 reported communicating primarily through characters that tended to be slightly idealized, fanciful, or distorted versions of themselves, and about half the respondents reported communicating at least sometimes under multiple identities.82
In another analysis of MUDs based on an extensive set of interviews, Turkle described the role playing of a Midwestern college junior who communicated as four different characters across three different MUDs—a seductive woman, a macho cowboy, a rabbit of unspecified gender, and a furry animal. The student explained how the various computer screens, or windows, make it possible to turn portions of his mind on and off: "I just turn on one part of my mind and then another when I go from window to window . . . ‘rl' [real life] is just one more window, and it's not usually my best one."83
Such role playing might seem a developmental outgrowth of children's fantasy play, which evolves into adult drama and film; however, unlike most theatrical role playing, one never knows whether one is interacting with a character that is a "real self" or with a character that is someone's alternative identity. In such a MUD, the distinction between fantasy and reality is truly blurred.84 The few studies that have examined how computer role-playing games affect perceptions of reality and subsequent interactions with others in the real world suggest the effects can be quite strong. For example, in a study of the participation in a violent virtual reality game, researchers found that college students who were immersed in the simulation were more likely to have aggressive thoughts than those who merely observed the game.85 The effects may be even stronger for younger children, who are less able to discriminate between fantasy and reality.
Whereas most studies of MUDs describe the experiences of older children and adults, younger children also are beginning to participate more frequently in MUDs, where they learn how to form multiple identities and relate to a simulated social world. Turkle observed even eight- and nine-year-olds entering MUDs and playing such grade-school icons as Barbie or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.86 As simulation becomes more prevalent in children's daily lives—from playing video games to caring for virtual pets to role playing in MUDs—it becomes increasingly important to understand the impact of these virtual experiences on children's developing identities and views of the world.