Audience and producer engagement with immersive worlds (Case study: CBBC World)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Westminster
Department Name: Faculty of Media Arts and Design


This project aims to establish how children inhabit and engage with immersive digital environments, based on a case study of CBBC World, in close collaboration with BBC Children's department. Launched in April 2007, CBBC World is a 3D virtual environment offering exploration and creative opportunities for children to experiment with music, drawing and animation, alongside a dedicated website and message board community.

Virtual worlds for children have also been produced by Nickelodeon and Playstation 3, building on the success of Second Life, a 3D virtual world aimed more at adults. As a virtual world produced by a public service broadcaster, however, CBBC World faces unique challenges.

The researchers will work with BBC producers as well as child users, and in particular take an interest in the blurring of the division between 'producer' and 'user' by studying ways in which children create content for the world, and could play a role in its management. Beyond this, BBC Children's and the researchers hope that the study will suggest how children might be involved with the organisation itself, in the future, as active citizens able to engage with digital life in creative and responsible ways.

Furthermore, this is a comparative study, considering how children create imaginative worlds and make social connections in the real world, with how children behave socially and creatively in virtual spaces. This grounding in real life behaviour - for example, how children create 'dens' and organise their bedrooms or private space - will anchor the study firmly around the children, and how the BBC is responding to their preferences and needs.

The fieldwork will involve 75 participants aged 7-11 years, in five mixed socio-economic and ethnic groups located in Scotland, Wales, N Ireland, and England. Each group will participate in two workshops, two months apart. The first workshop will invite children to articulate, through playful and creative activities, how they organise their bedrooms, dens and imaginary spaces. At the end of the first session the children will be introduced to CBBC World, invited to participate in the World over the following weeks (using the computers in their homes), and keep creative diaries about their engagement with the World, and with CBBC (and other related media) in general. Parents will also complete a questionnaire regarding their feelings about their children participating in this virtual world.

The second workshop, with the same children, will concentrate on CBBC World. Computers will be available for the children to show each other activities, but the workshop will encourage children to articulate their thoughts about CBBC World by other means, such as performance and artwork. Such visual artefacts, and performance, will be interpreted using the approach developed in full in Gauntlett (2007), in which the children themselves will be asked to produce the interpretation (rather than the researcher producing a speculative 'reading' after the event).

In addition, the researcher will also spend time as a participant observer working alongside the producers and hosts of BBC Children's (taking a minor role). A detailed research diary will be used to note congruencies and disparities between producers' expectations and children's own responses.

The findings will be disseminated in a range of forms. In addition to academic publications including journal articles and book chapters, the researchers will produce reports, video clips, a blog, a booklet and production workshops for BBC producers, and graphical mapping and visualisations of children's engagement with CBBC World. Finally there will be a conference hosted by University of Westminster, and a tour of BBC production centres to report and discuss the findings.


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Description The findings of the study were published as two reports, which were made available from the BBC Knowledge Exchange website (Jackson, Gauntlett, & Steemers, 2008a, 2008b). Some of the key findings, sunmmarised here very briefly, were:

* Although Adventure Rock was not as sophisticated as many commercial services, it was enjoyed by the children in the study. They appreciated the 'outdoor' environment and the 3D graphics, and they liked that it was free.

* The service offered some (rather ordinary and non-distinctive) educational benefits, and encouraged computer literacy.

* Children in the study were disappointed by the lack of social, collaboration or chat features within the game, and older children in particular felt that it was odd that although many other players must be downloading the game and therefore were 'on' the island, they could not see or encounter any of them.
* The younger players (aged 7-9) wanted the software to provide more orientation and help, and were happier to engage in solo play. The older players (aged 10-11) wanted to have social activity, more collaboration, competition, ways to express themselves and more challenges.

* The study recommended that as the BBC moves towards spaces where children are co-producers of their media experiences, it should re-examine the ethical and legal relationship between children and producers, as well as their established stance and tone. The BBC is used to treating audiences as distinctly external to its creative operations, we noted, and seems to be both inexperienced and relatively uninterested in (or over-anxious about) changing that.

In addition, we identified eight orientations to Adventure Rock. These were simplified archetypes representing the different ways in which children engaged with this world:

1. Explorer-investigators - who had an imaginative engagement with exploring details of the virtual world;

2. Self-stampers - who wanted to make their mark on the world through self-expression;

3. Social climbers - who were interested in ranking, and wanted to be visibly doing better than other players;

4. Fighters - who wanted to be able to fight things in the world;

5. Collector-consumers - who wanted to accumulate anything of perceived value within the game; and who wished for an economic system, and also, interestingly, wanted to be able to give (and receive) gifts;

6. Power-users - who sought to become experts on the game, and how it worked; and to share their expertise with others;

7. Life-system builders - who wanted to create new environments, and to populate them;

8. Nurturers - who wanted to look after their avatar, and pets.

These orientations were not mutually exclusive, of course - the interests of any one player may include two or three (or more) of these orientations, and also of course their tendencies may change over time.

Of the different elements of the project and its findings, this set of eight orientations is the part which had some kind of lasting impact at BBC Children's. For at least a year after we presented this material, the executive in charge of interactive media, Rachel Bardill, reported that her team were regularly evaluating their different services in the light of how it might appeal to children with these different orientations.
Exploitation Route Perhaps the most useful long-term findings are the principles for building 'platforms for creativity', of use to digital designers and experience designers.


See also 'narrative impact' section.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The study produced a set of personality types of children who might engage with Children's BBC content in different ways. This was adopted by the department and was used when evaluating new potential projects. The insights into how to design virtual spaces to support creativity became part of Gauntlett's 'platforms for creativity' principles, which have been adopted by some designers and also fed into work with the LEGO Group. Further details appear in the REF2014 impact case study which can be found online at:
First Year Of Impact 2008
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic