A Virtual World to Be Wild About: Elf Island Tweens Help WildAid

elf-island-logoFeb. 18, 2009 As reticent as I am to bring MORE media into kids’ lives, when I’d rather they be outside in non-electronic natural environs, I’m firmly convinced that it’s all about balance, content, values, messaging, and leveraging the power of media in positive ways.

No secret that I’ve had my eye on Elf Island (fact sheet here) ever since Izzy Neis gave a heads up on this fantasy universe way back in her list of  “pre-beta virtual worlds.”

And no, I’m not on the dole, but like Dizzywood and Zookazoo’s work, I AM a research ally and appreciative fan. When new media moves beyond coinage and consumption, toward content that instills conceptual ideas, my ‘idea hamster’ wheel spins into high rev mode! Just think of what can be done in this sphere if Elf Island integrates social change as simply an added element of play!

Kids have fun, adults have purpose, educators have informal learning, and  nonprofit partnerships like WildAid reap the much-needed benefit of this cool core content. What’s not to like?

Using ‘Mirrored Gaming’ of online to offline actions, kids help make a difference in the world via Good Quests that matter.

THIS is the kind of thinking that raises my eyebrows (and hopes!) for using digital platforms to impact learning in fun, fresh ways… Gamezebo has a good synopsis of how their ‘Play Games, Do Good’ concept worked with Habitat for Humanity… honduras-habitat

Kids built virtual houses inside Elf Island’s vivid, colorful fantasyland and used mini-games, collaborative play and video footage to enable kids to SEE the progress through the eyes of the child they’re helping firsthand. Throughout the GoodQuest they saw an open plot of land slowly transform into a home in Honduras for a REAL boy, named Jorgé…

Mind you, my follow up chat with Elf Island co-founders Liz and Craig Kronenberger lobbed all my usual tough stuff and logistics their way:

How many virtual homes does it take to build a real home? What if the kids don’t make the goal? Are donations tied to a ‘partial house’ if they don’t finish? Is Jorgé a PR prop or a real child? How many homes are you projecting can be built, and how will donations route to build more homes? 

After being assured of no greenwashing (or goodwashing in this case!) I’m pleased to discover the children had been motivated to build 11,000 virtual homes (goal was 9000 virtual huts converted to one real home) and they even finished ahead of schedule, in 26 days!

wildaidElf Island’s SECOND GoodQuest to benefit WildAid ramped up my enthusiasm from mild to wild…

I’ve been a hands-on wildlife volunteer and animal welfare champion my entire life, and WildAid Executive Director Peter Knights (npr interview here) has been a hero of mine for several years, shining the media spotlight on the gruesome trade of wildlife trafficking to cut off the source and demand.

Like Shaping Youth, WildAid runs a ‘lean and mean’ nonprofit via donor dollars and foundation funding, to make a difference using media as a conduit for change.

ei-sharkTo me, Elf Island pairing with WildAid is a PERFECT counter-marketing tool…

It not only teaches kids sharks aren’t ‘evil,’ reversing the concept of prey and predator, it  authentically places the blight of the Galapagos Islands’ fragile eco-culture in the hands and hopes of mankind.

In WildAid’s heart-wrenching showreel video on their own site (not Elf Island) the greed and damage of a $10 billion poaching and trafficking trade comes to life…from depletion of rhinos (50,000 in 1970, 2500 in 1990) to elephants (50% vanished) to tigers (3500 left) and sharks…it all points to the painful fact that habitat preservation and enforcement efforts merely skim the surface in this race against time up against these outlaw animal dealers.

shark1To me, Elf Island’s colorful, safe, virtual world enables kids to experience a level of drama, danger, race against the clock and reality-based intrigue without fully traumatizing tweens in show-n-tell documentary style. (call it bubble wrapping if you want but at 8-12, I don’t think kids NEED to see every reality–I’d pre-screen this impt. WildAid 7:00 video even before showing it to animal lovers!)

On Elf Island though, it’s all mission-based adventure that ‘pays off’ in real life actions to benefit the animals.

Kids slip underwater to deep dive and search patrol zones for fin poachers to protect endangered sharks on the verge of extinction in that region…all the while learning more about the island location, wildlife inhabitants and tenuous balance of all living things.

shark-questOnline they have 30-days to clear 30,000 zones of the virtual poachers, free the captured sharks for extra points and find poachers’ boats to tag them with GPS units inside the virtual world.

Offline, WildAid will be able to repair many of the game warden boats used to ply the waters and capture the illegal wildlife dealers in REAL life which drives the point home quite well in game immersion.

Does it sound a bit like ‘Miami Vice meets Eco-heroes’ on the waterways?

I think that’s all the more reason it will be effective in ‘reach and teach’ storytelling, e-learning, and ‘mirroring’ a concept within a virtual economy.

The blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy game play can inspire kids with actionable outreach that’s empowering…

As adults we sometimes forget how frustrating and overwhelming it can be for a non-voting, non-driving, 8-12 year old ‘tween’ who experiences an injustice but feels helpless in not being able to respond with any direct action. At least WE can reach for our pocketbooks, petitions, or other advocacy outlets to vote and be heard…

What better way to convey the real life drama and trauma of what’s happening to areas that concern youth (planet, animals, eco, sustainability, peer helping) than to zero right in and make it accessible so kids can DO something about it in a virtual world and take ACTION that translates to real life eco-protection?

coastal-stewardOffline, you say? REAL life? Volunteer with wildlife?

A quick reality check will remind all about the article I wrote, S.F. Oil Spill Prompts Altruism & Activism in Kids when we were all turned down in REAL life to help out with the massive wildlife cleanup of wounded animals!

Even those of us fully trained from prior work at the PHS Wildlife Rehab Center for cleanup and rescue were told to go away and “take a class” while the animals were dying in front of us!

This kind of bureaucracy leaves all ages huffing and puffing wanting to help, so Elf Island’s virtual world shark quest is a FABULOUS and much welcomed alternative for kids’ empowerment. Bravo!

elf-bearThey’re already over half way through Elf Island’s shark Quest (each quest runs 30 days and then resurrects later in the year with new challenges) and the Polar Bears International Good Quest is coming up next!)

I’m thrilled to see how this virtual world platform can elevate the purpose and promise of what new media can be.

If we’re going to use media to have fun beyond ‘twitch games’ and ‘zombie eyes’ in the hopes of engaging kids in meaningful conversation, there are exciting ways to do this that can inspire lifelong learning and seed the notion of ‘one world’ accountability!

jungalooWhether it’s Zookazoo’s Jungaloo (at left), teaming with the Nature Conservancy, to save 100 acres already ‘for you and your future,” Dizzywood’s planting of trees paid off in 15,000 REAL trees via partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation, or Elf Island’s very unique partnership-charity focus as an integral element to game play…

ALL of these subscription-based, non-advertising, zero product placement virtual worlds are what many parents have been asking for in terms of ‘meaningful, safe, online fun.’

As to ‘how they do it’ and make Mirrored Gaming nonprofit partnerships work?

Elf Island has embedded the funding as part of their operational structure, providing seed money to initiate at least one real life ACTION in each GoodQuest, (in this case the repair of one boat)

Then the kids take the helm and collectively work to add funding for more boat repairs (I think they’re up to three already) with the goal being the more boats that are working, the more wardens can patrol for poachers.


By the way, I DID grill the Elf Island founders about their magnificently rich Disney-esque look and feel and asked point blank if they were funded in any manner by Disney or Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) as a ‘gaming for good’ replacement hub…The answer was an unequivocal no.

That said, there ARE tons of ‘VMK refugees’ from the prior Disney site who have landed there, as you can see by the various Elf Island forum boards, blog comments, and early entry into the beta test by the (virtual) boat loads.

I also queried about the Kronenbergers’ digital media backgrounds in merchandising and big movie studios, and asked if we’d be seeing plush toy elves and whimsical consumption-based tchotchkes…Again, an unequivocal “no” to the plethora of plush toys.

What I DO know is that kids can roam around the world having fun for FREE with their own elf avatar creations, houses, mini-games and such, there WILL be some form of merchandising tie-in, and very soon the subscription fee for premium content, INCLUDING the GoodQuests will kick in. (by April I think?)

As a parent, one side of me doesn’t understand the notion of putting the nonprofit actions “behind the premium wall”…

(I might’ve gone with the extra powers, pets or customized concepts) but I understand sustainability is key…and as one who is still tweaking a rev gen model in ‘jumpstart your startup’ seed money mode, I can’t fault them for needing to monetize fast in this economy…and the quality is worth it.

In these tight times, I also can’t fathom ANY parent NOT preferring to fork out $5.95 for an ad-free, educational, philanthropic monthly model when 30 days of access costs less than ONE trip to the movies!

sy_avatar_ningEven though there’s no financial remuneration for Shaping Youth in any of these media spheres,  if all goes well, I’m hoping to glean some valid scientific-based outcomes in my hip pocket to share before this summer using this Elf Island platform, with research associate Rebeca Boyte (CDPH-CID-DCDC-IMM) from UC Davis. Fingers crossed.

We’re always looking at new ways to align and deploy some of our own research (just as we’ve done within Dizzywood) if the media methods pass the sniff test, from eco-literacy to citizenship with kids…

So if you know of any other interested startups, send ’em our way! Stay tuned and we’ll keep you abreast of our endeavors with full transparency.

Meanwhile, count me in as a huge fan of ‘mirrored gaming’ and learning in virtual worlds, assuming both kids and parents hold themselves accountable for bridging screen time into real time…

It’s great to power up the persuasive appeal of philanthropy and new media, as long as you can power down the computer to enjoy offline fun and free play.

power-hogp.s. If you need a fun way to manage media in ‘pay for play’ check out this new greener gadget contest using a coin-operated piggybank timing kids’ media gizmos and minutes/energy use…

After 30 minutes, the Power Hog shuts down unless fed more coins!

Talk about marketing and media that’s guiding ‘gaming for good!’ Don’t be piggies at the media trough, kiddies…

Oink! Story to come…

Visual Credits: Elf Fan Site/Cooled Coyote for life ring elves, WildAid and Elf Island screenshots taken directly from their respective sites, Polar Bear from PBInternational, Power Hog from Core77.com greener gadgets contest.

Meet WildAid Inside Elf Island: Thurs., Feb. 19, 2009!

I may have to put my elf hat on and join the fun, looks like they’ve even got ‘virtual goods’ in the mix! As I mentioned earlier, GoodQuests are still in beta, so now’s the time to try it out for FREE as the premium content will soon segue to the six bucks scene. (still well worth it!)

Also, if you’d like to make a WildAid donation directly (I just did) you can do so HERE.

WildAid pledges 100% of online donor dollars go DIRECT TO THE FIELD.amy-sigps

Again, this is what I mean by funding small orgs without the layers and lemmings…We get a lot done, in ‘just do it’ mode.

p.s. Shaping Youth will soon be adding our own PayPal button to the sidebar to keep the lights on here, and if you’re on Facebook, heads up that we’ll be finally starting a group there soon, to keep in touch with a keystroke.

Here’s to people using media for good everywhere! –Amy

wildaid2Meet WildAid Inside Elf Island:

Thurs., Feb. 19, 2009!

This coming Thursday, Elf Island will be hosting a very special chat event with two representatives from WildAid.

“WildAid” and “SaveSharks” will be on the island from 7-8 PM EST to talk about sharks, the SharkQuest, and animal protection. Islanders that attend this event will receive a limited edition Hammerhead Shark Wind Up Toy from our Hosts, so come with questions prepared!

Meet WildAid at the Beach and SaveSharks at the Marsh. You can identify both of these speakers by their new guest speaker badge when you roll over them with your mouse. Hope to see you there!

And of course, remember to keep on catching those poachers in the SharkQuest!!!

Where: The Beach and The Marsh

When: Thursday, February 19th

Time: 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm EST

More About Elf Island

Virtual fun, real fundraisingThe Columbus Dispatch
Elf Island from Bootstrap to LaunchTechdrawl.com
“Elf Island’s Helpers – Online Deeds Yield Real Results”The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“‘GoodQuests’ tie online mazes to charity “ USA TODAY
“Elf Island: Mom, can I use your Computer?” Time To Play Magazine
“Charity as a Unique Value Proposition in Elf Island”Virtual World News
“Gaming for Good in Elf Island” GameZebo

Elf Island Recent GoodQuest Releases

Elf Island Challenges ‘Tweens’ to Protect Endangered Sharks – Jan, 2009
Elf Island and Habitat for Humanity – December, 2008
Elf Island Launches – December, 2008

Elf Island Facts At-A-Glance From Their Site

“What: Elf Island (www.elfisland.com) is the first virtual world to use gaming, storytelling and social interaction to empower kids to make a positive difference in the real world. While offering the fun online experience kids want, Elf Island is uniquely dedicated to instilling redeeming values and social responsibility, with a “mirrored gaming” concept that transforms online games into real world actions, from building houses in Honduras to protecting polar bears in the Arctic.

Why: There is a glaring lack of positive gaming and empowerment within virtual worlds for kids. On Elf Island, kids succeed by hearing, seeing and telling the stories of others.

  • Elf Island lets parents feel good about where their kids play online
  • Kids learn about the real world, through social involvement, cultural immersion, education and artistic expression
  • The site supports individuality, self-expression and character building
  • Play Games. Do Good. On Elf Island, Kids game play is rewarded and they witness how their actions affect change in both the virtual and the real world.

    Cost: Basic level is free. Membership ($5.95/mo USD) offers access to GoodQuests, chats, and advanced features.

    Elf Island is different than most companies in that it doesn’t simply take a percentage of profit and make a donation. The money allocated to fund each of the GoodQuests is tied directly to the performance of the kids playing and not to profits of the company. The financial commitments to Elf Island’s non-profit partners are part of the day-to-day operating budgets and each program requires a different level of funding.

    Gaming for Good: Kids have the power to change the world- all while having fun! All they need is the proper motivation, the correct tools and the opportunity to do Good. The Gaming for Good concept gives higher meaning to virtual fun and entertainment.

    Mirrored Gaming: On Elf Island, kids participate in virtual GoodQuests,™ “mirroring” real world activity through partnerships with selected non-profit organizations. Elf Island partners with non-profit partners to determine real world projects to support, and then mirrors an online GoodQuest™ game to bring the project to life.

    Kids get to hear, see and tell the stories of others and ultimately see the affect they can make on those by helping, creating real results.

    GoodQuests include:

  • WildAid (Live now!): Protecting virtual sharks helps protect real sharks in the Galapagos Islands.
  • Polar Bears International: Tracking virtual polar bears and polar ice caps helps protect real polar bears in the Arctic.
  • Plant-It 2020: Planting virtual trees helps plant real trees in Niger.
  • A Few Related Resources on Shaping Youth

    If Kids Could Be Dolphins: The Power of Creative Play

    Digital Activism: Kids Stump for Change (World Wildlife Fund)

    Inspire Kids With Green Media: Kid-Vid & Games Galore

    Nim’s Island: Shaping Youth Through Imagination & Adventure

    S.F. Oil Spill Prompts Altruism & Activism in Kids: Wildlife Rescue

    Kids Plant Virtually Trees to Benefit Real Trees in Dizzywood

    Seeding Virtual Worlds: Kids Going Green in Dizzywood

    When Green Gets Jaded: Marketing Hope to Kids

    How to Turn People Green

    Greentrepreneurs: Recycle Bank Shows Kids it Pays to Be Green

    Planting Earthseeds Via The Magic School Bus: Eco-Media For Kids

    The Great Turtle Race: Digital Media Cartoon Critter Fun

    New Media Worldometers Help Data Click With Kids

    Media Savvy Kids and Nature Deficit Disorder

    Shaping Youth Through Nature, Media Unplugged

    Eco-Friendly Electronics, Go Green With Your Wired World

    5th International Symposium/Youth Collaboratory: Digital Earth

    Care2 Make A Difference? Social Media/Kids

    Can Somethin’ Be Done About All This Consumption?


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