Yasmin Kafai


Yasmin B. Kafai is an associate professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Before coming to UCLA, she worked at the MIT Media Laboratory and received her doctorate from Harvard University . For more than a decade she has researched the field of game studies, in particular approaches to children’s learning as designers and players of educational software and games. Her research has been published in Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1995) and in Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking and Learning in a Digital World (co-edited with Mitchel Resnick, Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1996). She has also been active in several national policy efforts among them the AAUW report “Tech-Savvy Girls” (2000) and, more recently, “Under the Microscope: A Decade of Gender Equity Interventions in the Sciences” (2004). Her current NSF-funded projects involve the study of virtual epidemics in Whyville, a large-scale multiplayer online community visited prominently by girls, and the design of media-rich programming environments in community technology centers.



The Value of Looks versus Health: Observations of Children’s Economic Interactions during a Virtual Epidemic

In his recent book, “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games” (2005), Edward Castronova directs our attention to the economics in virtual worlds. He argued that the economic structures of virtual worlds drive players’ interactions and even migrate into the real world, as demonstrated in the case of avatar selling on Ebay. Children's MMORPGs such as Neopets incorporate many similar economic features but have received far less attention, particularly regarding their educational applications. For my presentation, I will examine an online community called Whyville.net which features currently more than 1.2 million registered users between the ages 10-16. The users visit the site to participate in science activities, chat with each other, and sell, purchase, and trade avatar improvements. Occasionally, players experience the outbreak of a virtual epidemic, called Whypox, impacting their chat interactions through replacing chat chunks with sneezing and covering their avatars with red pimples (Neulight, Kafai, Kao, Foley, & Galas, under review). Unlike in adult MMORPGS, players’ avatars in Whyville don’t die or lose power; rather features central to their community interactions (such as chatting and looks) are impacted or constrained for a limited time.

My first set of observations will focus on the general economic interactions before the outbreak of the virtual epidemic in Whyville and establish a baseline of economic activities. Of particular interest are the ways in which young players manage their resources, what value they assign to their wealth, how they participate in trading interactions and for what reasons they provide charitable contributions. Most prior research has focused on children’s understanding of economics in general (Schug, 1987; Sosin, Dick & Reiser, 1997) but has not examined their interactions in virtual economies. The second set of my observations will focus on economic interactions during scarcity using the recent flu vaccine shortage as an inspiration. Before the outbreak of the epidemic, vaccines against Whypox were distributed to one third of the active Whyville population. All Whyville users were informed that they needed two additional doses of vaccine to achieve immunity before the outbreak. In addition to tracking their vaccination intake and vaccine trading interactions, 276 online participants were also surveyed before and after the Whypox outbreak about their understanding of vaccination, their pricing strategies and willingness to spend resources for purchasing vaccines.

Initial analyses indicate that vaccination intake was often below or above the recommended effective dosage emulating behaviors observed in the real world. Trading prices for vaccine doses fluctuated widely in the beginning with Whyvillians using different strategies to determine their fair market value. The goal of these and further analyses is to contribute to the literature on children’s understanding of economics within virtual worlds and to understand better how to harness these aspects for the design of educational interventions.

Castranova, E. (2005). Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Neulight, N., Kafai, Y.B., Kao, L. Foley, B., & Galas, C. (under review). Children’s Learning about Infectious Disease through Participation in a Virtual Epidemic. Journal of Science Education and Technology.
Schug, M. (1987). Children’s Understanding of Economics. The Elementary School Journal, 87(5), 506-518.
Sosin, K., Dick, J., & Reiser, M. L. (1997). Determinants of Achievement of Economic Concepts by Elementary Students. Journal of Economic Education, 28(2), 100-121.

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Games and Girls

On May 8, 2006, 25 researchers and industry professionals from around the world who have been studying gender and games will come together for a workshop titled “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Games, Gender and Computing”. The theme of our workshop alludes to the seminal and widely popular book “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins in 1998, which followed a conference organized in 1996 at MIT. Until that time, both industry and research endorsed myths about females and gaming. On the one hand, software companies did not believe that there was a commercial market for girls. On the other hand, researchers did not fully recognize the study of game design and play as a resource for understanding how learners, and women in particular, engage in technology.  The book challenged the myth that research on games is not useful, as the chapters provided insight into learning, technology, design, and gender studies.

The last decade has brought more computers into homes, more internet access, new game genres, new game features, new platforms, and new generations of players. Gender-related topics have been a frequent focus of academic research on games. The May 2006 workshop will mark a decade after the first conference and a critical time to revisit and review the field to see what has changed and what has stayed the same. This workshop is structured to continue the conversation, integrate new findings, and outline a new research agenda for the field in the following three focal areas:

The New Girls’ Games (Yasmin B. Kafai)
The success of Barbie’s Fashion Designer has left many looking for a follow-up. The prominence and increased participation of women in of MMORPGs at least suggest that some aspects of these environments appeal to players of both gender. We will review what research has identified to be of interest to different players in online role-playing games. Currently, there is a tendency to pitch women’s interests as diametrically opposed to those of men. We hope to break open these stereotypes and examine where there are overlaps and where men and women do not follow assumed preferences.

Girls as Game Creators (Jill Denner)
To promote a change in women’s participation in IT and games, many have argued that we need to involve women and children in order to develop alternative types of games that offer a range of game playing styles. We also need different approaches to teaching computer science that involve collaboration and game design and production. We will summarize research projects that use these approaches, including examples from academia and industry, and discuss the implications of the findings for transforming the game industry.

Girls and Casual Games (Carrie Heeter)
Serious games, mobile games, casual games, and games for learning extend the discussion beyond entertainment and commercial concerns. More women than men play online casual games. Several studies found that older girls were more likely to prefer learning games.  Gender differences in play patterns are an emerging area of study, including the relationship between gender, play patterns, and learning. We will summarize and discuss the implications of research on play and new technologies.

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