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Originally published Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Getting Started

Why is Whyville a hit? It's safe, fun

It seems online communities designed for young people (think MySpace and Facebook, for instance) are being judged publicly by whether they're...

Special to The Seattle Times

It seems online communities designed for young people (think MySpace and Facebook, for instance) are being judged publicly by whether they're safe or not.

Parents want these virtual communities to be safe enough for their kids to wander around talking to strangers and making friends, even without taking the precautions parents generally teach them in the real world: not to talk freely with strangers, certainly not to offer a personal address or phone number, and not to meet any new "friend" alone.

Parents hear about child predators and other unsavory characters lurking around popular online communities, decide they're not safe, and tell their kids not to go there. Schools ban them, too.

However, there are some online communities that are safe — at least a lot safer than most, because they have built-in checks to protect kids from mistreating one another, and to keep out predators who may pose as peers and try to befriend potential victims.

One online community safer than most is Whyville.net.

The site, founded by James Bower, a renowned computational biologist, is designed for 8- to 15-year-olds and has won the support of many parents and educators.

In 2006, Whyville received iParenting's award as the best Web site for kids and best on the Web for its safety features.

What makes Whyville safer than other online communities?

When new members register, they have to provide a parent's e-mail address so that administrators can notify the parent that the child has joined.

In addition, Whyville citizens who want to electronically chat with others must have a chat license, which they acquire by passing a test on chatroom rules.

The rules forbid use of foul language and the sharing of phone numbers or other personal information, for example.

In addition, Whyville reportedly uses an artificial-intelligence program to track abuses, and administrators check chat-log files daily.

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Anyone who breaks the rules may lose "clams" (Whyville currency) or have duct tape put over his or her virtual mouth (members create a virtual person to represent themselves).

Members can also report unacceptable behavior by using the site's virtual red phone.

Yes, it's possible to get away with breaking the rules, but those with evil intentions would find it easier to prowl other online communities.

OK, so it's safe enough for kids to join this community (which now reports 2 million members, with 60,000 new ones per month). Let's see what Whyville has to offer.

Lots, it turns out. Its special advantage is that kids learn while playing games and enjoying virtual adventures.

Respected organizations such as NASA, the John Paul Getty Trust, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and University of Texas have developed and/or funded educational games for Whyville.

A new member's first task is to create and dress his or her own virtual person. To do that, the newcomer must earn clams to buy clothes.

Members can earn clams by getting involved in activities. There are many to choose from.

For example, Geodig is a geology game that takes kids around the world in search of rocks, fossils and gems. Mimi's Dance Studio is the place to go to design a dance using vector arithmetic. The Art Treasure Hunt sends kids on worldwide searches for art.

The SmartCars Arena helps kids design robot cars they can drive in races with other designers.

Occasionally, a WhyPox epidemic breaks out in Whyville, and red spots appear on the virtual faces of those infected. The citizens then attempt to curb the epidemic by using tools at Whyville's Center for Disease Control to study the infection and figure out how it can be stopped.

Currently, there is (or soon will be) a red-tide alert in Whyville that sends members to the Whyville Oceanographic Institution to figure out what's going on and what to do about it. (Note: WHOI notes that this red-tide alert focuses on the need to maintain marshlands by planting grasses that absorb nutrients and stem drainage.)

To help kids learn about healthful eating, the WhyEat activity helps kids acquire better eating habits by engaging them in planning meals and buying food.

They also track calories and nutrients and report the health benefits/consequences of what they eat.

These and other games reportedly motivate kids to learn the concepts needed to solve problems and earn recognition, clams and maybe good grades if they're doing these Whyville projects at school.

Whyville citizens also write their own newspaper (The Whyville Times), work at the Help Center for new members and gather at the Greek Theater to play word and number games.

Besides working on brain-challenging projects, Whyville residents socialize, play, govern the community (there's a Whyville Senate), write, design, eat, dance and more.

Whyville is designed to inspire children to learn about math, science, art and other subjects by transforming the process of learning rather sophisticated material into projects resembling real-world challenges that call for reasoned and reasonable actions or solutions.

Why do a growing number of educators support this style of learning?

Seems that in addition to people's hunches, research has shown kids willingly engage in virtual environments like these, and through them can better understand school subjects. Plus, many kids are already comfortable in online communities.

Still, many parents and teachers are skeptical. Years ago, the first educational simulations of real-world communities tended to oversimplify the real world.

Though virtual environments have become more realistic and complex, it's hard to change the skeptical view some still hold about using simulated environments for learning in school.

Nevertheless, I'm intrigued and will continue to watch Whyville to see whether it remains safe enough and educationally enriching enough for young people (like my 13-year-old) to spend time there.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted

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