A research study commissioned by the BBC has concluded that online virtual worlds can be a useful tool in the development of young children.
The research used a world called Adventure Rock, developed for the BBC by Belgium's Larian, and aimed at 6-12 year olds.
After observing the ways children used the world and seeking their feedback, the University of Westminster researchers said that online worlds were useful "rehearsal spaces" where children could try out behaviours and learn social skills. They could do so free of the consequences and difficulties that would follow in the real world.
"Virtual worlds can be a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media," said Professor David Gauntlett.
Beneficial or not, kids' virtual worlds are big business; last year, Disney bought Club Penguin for USD 700 million. Although most are largely social spaces, the first full-blown massively multiplayer games aimed specifically at children are now in development: Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realmscx and NetDevil's LEGO Universe.