Whyville: A Virtual Environment Online Learning Game

This blog is the third entry in a Schlechty Center series about educational gaming and engagement. Scroll down through this site to access the first two installments or click the links below.

1. Getting in the Game
2. The Amazing World of Gamestar Mechanic

Whyville is a multiuser virtual environment platform for elementary-age Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 12.55.02 PMchildren. This means that students are entering a make-believe online community where they live, play, and work. When a student registers to play in Whyville, he or she is given an avatar, which amounts to a clip-art icon. Avatars can be modified, but they cannot be made from actual pictures of students (this offers protection). Student players move their avatars around the Whyville community to interact with others who are in the community and to play the many games available.

We have stressed in earlier blogs the importance of teachers’ learning to play the games they guide their students to explore. Learning to play in Whyville will give teachers a firm grasp of the strengths and challenges of virtual environment gaming. We invested approximately eight hours over two weeks learning to play in Whyville. In doing so, we only touched on the major components of the game. To truly experience this platform, teachers should join and play.

Whyville has a built-in virtual economy. There are opportunities for students to shop and buy things. For example, a student could buy different clothes or appearances for his or her avatar. Don’t be confused here. There is no buying and selling of off-line merchandise. Everything is kept within the online environment. Student players can also create and run their own online businesses in Whyville. For example, some students design and sell avatars. A student can even write and sell musical songs.

Every player gets a bank account, which includes checking, savings, and investment options. To complete banking business, a player actually moves his or her avatar to the virtual bank. Entrepreneurial content is very much in evidence.

Because of this virtual economy, there are opportunities for students to practice consumer skills and all the associated academics that go with these skills. This real-world economic simulation could create an authentic experience for some students and leverage the Design Quality of Authenticity.

Whyville is an excellent tool to teach appropriate online social behavior. Students cannot play Whyville without first passing several quizzes on digital citizenship. This may also address the Design Quality of Authenticity for some students.

Whyville has  Novelty and Variety embedded throughout the platform.

There are a lot of games to play in Whyville that cover a wide variety of learning possibilities, including academic and social content. Many of the games require a team to complete. This interdependence could address a student’s motivational need for affiliation and thus leverage the Design Quality of Affiliation. For example, we played the “Cafeteria Trash Game.” In this game, we were required to correctly divide items of lunch trash into four categories that included glass, plastic, trash, and paper. The process taught recycling. However, it was not possible for one player to complete the game in the allocated time. A second player had to join, thus creating the interdependence. When students complete a game, they receive clams (Whyville money) for their bank account.

In the “Whack-a-Virus” game, the content is science. Student players match antibodies to different viruses.

We found the variety of games to be excellent and challenging. All the games we played had multiple levels. We really liked the diversity of the different games.

Whyville has a classroom component. A teacher can thus limit players to their own class of students.

We found no negatives with this excellent virtual environment platform. The economic system is based on “clams” instead of actual currencies. Math teachers may wish that true monetary units were used but we can understand why, on a global Internet, Whyville uses a unique token economy. We did not see a tablet option. Whyville is not a game design platform—that is, students or teachers do not design the embedded games. As we mentioned earlier, teachers will need to join and play for a healthy amount of time to successfully use this platform. We feel this is true for all digital game platforms.

Whyville has an impressive list of sponsors including NASA and the US Department of Labor.

Click on this link to watch an interview and introduction to Whyville by the founder.
For a 2008 video tour, try this link.

There are many possibilities in Whyville for leveraging the motives students have regarding schoolwork.

Finally, we really like that Whyville has a completely free playing option.

Check it out!

The Engagement People

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