This past year, I had the privilege of working with PBS Kids Go! as educational advisor to their new media literacy game. Webonauts Internet Academy encourages young children to reflect on privacy, credibility and what it means to be an ethical participant in a community. I had a chance to sit down with Abby Jenkins, PBS Online Community Manager, to reflect on the development of the game and how this fits into the PBS Kids Go! experience.
Knowing that PBS KIDS had an original game on media literacy, what sparked you to want to develop a new one? And how is this new game, Webonauts Internet Academy, different than the other?
Today’s media landscape is much different than it was ten years ago, when PBS KIDS first launched a game on web safety. Since that time, the media kids are exposed to have become increasingly social. For that reason, a focus on digital citizenship was important because kids’ social interactions and presentation of self are increasingly blurred by “online” and “offline” interactions. The Webonauts Internet Academy game is part of the new PBS KIDS GO! Digital Citizenship Initiative to help kids and parents navigate today’s digital landscape.
With this new initiative, PBS also supports parents and educators by offering discussion guides and other resources to help foster discussions about online safety and good digital citizenship with children.
Creatively, the Webonauts Internet Academy is new world we created, where kids take on the role of the Webnonaut and complete a series of missions. There’s a cast of characters that includes the Bamdudes, who are the best cookie makers in the galaxy, and a mysterious enemy called the Great Static who is set on stealing the Bamdude’s secret recipe. While entertaining kids, it is designed to teach kids about online privacy, how to deal with bullying and how to distinguish credible sources online.
How does Webonauts Internet Academy play into the entire PBS KIDS GO! experience?
Like other games on pbskidsgo.org, we want to put kids in the driver’s seat. We carefully develop game mechanics and content that are age appropriate. We also know that kids now expect to be able to customize their experiences online to reflect their interests and personality. At pbskidsgo.org, kids can customize and shape the content in many ways, including the creation and sharing of video mashups, modding games (to modify or make changes to games), creating a playlist of favorite videos, customizing the look of their Secret Box, and more. Webonauts is reflective of the PBS KIDS GO! experience in that it offers kids the opportunity to shape their experience through the creation of their suit. On pbskidsgo.org, we step kids through the account creation process and provide help with creating username and passwords. After setting up an account, kids can save their customized Webonauts suit in their “Secret Box,” which is a customized place for saving creations and points from across pbskidsgo.org with the option to share it with friends.
PBS KIDS GO! also has content that focuses on other aspects of media literacy. The site, Don’t Buy It, focuses on helping kids identify and understand advertising http://pbskids.org/dontbuyit/. And for parents, PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media offers tips on how parents can use media to support their childs development and other strategies for raising children in the digital age.
What are the key media literacy themes you wanted to get across in the Webonauts Internet Academy game? And why did you find these concepts most relevant for kids to learn?
Designed for kids 6-9 years old, the game consists of a series of 12 scenario-based missions around three themes: privacy, credibility and citizenship. As we set about thinking what topics to address, these three themes emerged. Developmentally, kids are discovering who they are as individuals and are starting to make some of their own decisions both in screen mediated environments and offline. Many of these decisions involve understanding what information is ok to share publicly and how that information gets shared, sifting through vast amounts of information to find answers to questions, and learning what it means to be part of a community.
We took a scaffolded approach to each of theme, with game scenarios that introduce a topic and then build on the concept throughout the game.
In-game missions address the importance of protecting passwords and maintaining privacy settings, teach how to differentiate between credible and non-credible sources of information, and how to react to bullying, among other topics. When all missions are completed, kids become full-fledged Webonauts and earn their certificate, which they can print and share at home.
People are always eager to learn the process of how a game like this is developed. Can you tell us how many people were involved in developing Webonauts Internet Academy? How long did it take to create the game? What are some of the skills of the team that makes Webonauts Internet Academy a success?
Game development involves the work of many people working closely together. The core PBS Kids production team included two designers, two content leads, one educational advisor (thanks, Erin!), an advisor for parent and teacher content, a team of Flash developers, and our design intern. You can see who produced the game here http://pbskids.org/webonauts/about/credits.html
This game was developed over a period of about six months. Because it involves such a variety of skills and areas of expertise, it really could only have been produced as a team effort.
And if I were to want to one day work for a company like PBS KIDS GO!, what are some of the skills I would need to have?
The team that makes up PBS KIDS Interactive is a group that’s passionate about making the most educational and best designed interactive games for kids. Besides being committed to PBS’ mission to deliver the highest quality educational media, you would need experience developing media for kids—whether as an educator, developer, designer, or producer. Plus, you need to like playing games and have fun!
In developing Webonauts, what was one thing you learned in the process? Did you learn something new about media literacy that you didn't know about before? And if so, what have you done with this new information?
In researching for this project we learned that there is still surprisingly very little media literacy material out there for kids 6-9 years old, so we saw this as an opportunity to do something new and fill a gap for addressing this topic for this age group. We also learned that it’s important to also provide support material to engage the whole family and classroom teachers, since the true effectiveness in addressing issues related to privacy, credibility and citizenship involves an ongoing dialogue between kids and grownups. Webonauts Internet Academy can be a conversation point to address these important issues and also to empower kids as informed decision makers.
And we also confirmed that game development is totally challenging!
Abby Jenkins is Online Community Manager for pbskidsgo.org. She joined PBS KIDS Interactive in 2005, and has worked with producers on many award winning television program sites and web original projects.