Clickable Culture   Official Research Blog of Phantom Compass
  ‘Whyville’ Avatars:  WhyEat?  
Posted 2007-05-28 by Tony Walsh
Why eat? The real-life answer is obvious, but synthetic biological needs are rarely a factor in avatar-based environments. Since 2005, kid-oriented virtual world Whyville has featured hungry avatars as part of a project entitled "WhyEat," funded by the University of Texas. WhyEat entices kids to plan and purchase meals (with in-world currency) in order to avoid such disfiguring avatar maladies as scurvy or weak bones. A "virtual dietitian" provides advice on a case-by-case basis, helping kids make food choices which will result in a better health (and therefore a better appearance). To date, the project has resulted in over 3.5M visits to Whyville's virtual cafeteria, where 8.5M food items have been consumed. Researchers at University of Texas' Health Science Center are now investigating the effects of this virtual-world program on real-world health, according to a recent press release.

Promoting healthy eating is a noble objective, but I suspect there are better ways to entice kids to lead leaner lifestyles. Such as opting for physical activity over virtual activity (or at least on par with virtual activity). I don't think WhyEat has much to do with eating, ultimately. It's more about finding ways to motivate kids to make consumer choices, and tracking those choices. Even better if those consumer choices bleed into the real world. Whyville has already been a marketing vehicle for brands such as Toyota, Stacie Orrico, and Celestron through "edutisement" content. How long before Whyville's eateries include McDonald's restaurants?
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Comment posted by Jim Bower
May 29, 2007 @ 7:26 pm
Ah tony, at it again, I see, seeing monsters that aren't there. :-) Nice intro paragraph (thanks) but, couldn't it be that it is what it is? so supicious. :-)

Anyway, in fact, there are no corporate sponsors of the Whyeat activity in whyville, and the foods available to eat are generic -- with nutrition information from the FDA. There IS a Co-sponor of the activity, which is the School Nutrition Association.

Of course, one motivation for Whyeat is to "motivate kids to make consumer choices" -- substituting "informed" in the appropriate place. We suspect it has a lot to do with eating, but, as you point out, someone (not us) is going to find that out -- scientifically.

Also, with respect to actually getting outside and exercising -- you may want to look at the activity sponsored by the "Sisters of Science" NGO - the Kinematic Attic - which actually requires that kids go outside and run and race before bringing their data back to Whyville. So, in fact, we have games and activities that encourage kids to leave the computer and Whyville -- and exercise - imagine that -- :-)

Finally "How long before McWhy opens in Whyville -- no plans yet, but if McDonalds wants to open a shop in Whyville, and put the nutritional value of its offerings up against fruits and vegtables -- why not? That's the real world -- at least in Whyville kids can make informed decisions.

So, hey -- you are supposed to be on top of clickable culture -- perhaps you should widen your perspective a bit.

Or better yet -- I challange you to actually visit Whyville and see what it takes to keep yourself healthy for a month -- then let us know if what you learn changes the way you think about what you eat in the real world -- or even, perhaps, what we are trying to do.

Just a thought.


Jim Bower
Numedeon Inc.
Founders of Whyville.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
May 30, 2007 @ 3:54 am
I haven't followed Whyville as long as you have, Tony, but I see you being cranky and peevish about corporations again, as if they are always and everywhere evil. Corporations are merely made up of people like you, your neighbours, even your relatives, and they can be induced to be accountable as much as individuals, there's no need to be passive and ascribe to them such overwhelming powers.

I share your concern about the overactive brand interaction stuff we have to endure in Second Life and elsewhere these days, everybody's got a brand out.

But...this hardly seems the sort of intrusive thing you see in SL. Jim Bower has made the point it's not even corporations, but a government agency, but since the same issues would apply to a government agency, and it often *is* corporations in game/social spaces doing this, let's think about it. Is it really so terrible? People playing games actually *like* to have their avatars have stuff they have to do, little routines. That explains the immense satisfaction of The Sims Online, despite all the critics. In RL, you have to do little routines, and it's one of the things that leaves people at sea online, and they like having to have an avatar eat. Is it such an outrageous stretch to have their avatars eat the things they eat in RL?

I realize it's the pious and politically correct thing to say kids should get offline and go outside and games can't teach them stuff, but the fact is, they *are* online all the time. Even in school. At home. At their friend's houses. At the library. So while they're in these spaces, I don't see that it's so terrible to get across basic concepts to them like the food groups and such.

I think where you have more of an argument is in the "tracking of consumer choices". I frequently question this myself. It's useful for online businesses to track consumer choices. I can't imagine how I could run my business in SL without being able to understand basic things, like "This house doesn't work for people" or "that parcel must have something wrong blocking it, nobody is clicking on the kiosk". Any system needs feedback.

The question then becomes, one you capture this feedback, assuming that it is an opt-in feedback. what then? It would be one thing if we all had democratic control over the feedback. If we could see what these corporations were indeed grabbing from us and then claiming to know about us. We'd be able to provide a check and balance on them both misrepresenting this or tweaking it, and exploiting it.

But so often the information the corporation has grabbed publicly instantly transforms to become its proprietary marking information to be jealousy guarded. So we need to demand more accountability about publicly scraped data.

So I think that if Whyville or any other game has a program like this, where they track and correlate data from the community, they owe it to the community to publish the results of the study within the community and seek feedback.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
May 30, 2007 @ 2:41 pm
Jim, I don't know you, and you don't know me. I've criticized your company, but you've suggested I'm delusional. Let's keep this conversation civil, shall we?

I don't believe six year-olds are capable of making informed consumer decisions. Furthermore, I don't believe that McDonald's (or any other corporation) is going to properly inform six year-old consumers.

What you have in the WhyEat program, whether you realize it or not, is a model for influencing the behavior of children to produce actionable results. That's a powerful tool, and I don't trust your company to use it properly.

I've visited Whyville and have no reason to return. The experience was sub-par.


Prokofy, I don't have much of an opinion about whether avatars should eat or not, but I do know that not all gamers enjoy simulating biological needs. That's why it's rarely a factor in videogames unless it's a simulation game, or a plot-point.

I do think games can be a powerful educational tool, and I think it's great if games try to teach positive behavior. Whyville's system can be used to teach just about anything, frankly. Buy and use Clearasil to stop your avatar from getting pimples. Buy and use Secret deodorant to keep the flies away from your avatar. If the studies of this system by the UT scientists show that action inside Whyville results in real-world action, we have a model which is of extreme interest to marketers. If Jim hasn't thought of this already, I just gave him a million dollar idea.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
May 30, 2007 @ 2:49 pm
Rather than answering your post in detail, Tony, let me ask you some more simple and basic questions:

1. Do you approve of any advertising? Is corporate advertising never a legitimate activity?

2. If you believe that companies should be able to advertise, what constraints do you feel should be placed on them in a democratic society with a market economy?

3. Do those constraints square with your concept of free speech, which you vigorously uphold?

4. Would it be ever possible for a company to gather marketing information and use it for good, or is that completely out of the question?

5. Are products like Clearasil and Secret "evil" in your view, over-consumptive, unnecessary, expensive, etc.? Should people not *have* products like this at all from companies?

6. What is your concept for how media, social networks, virtual spaces, and games will be paid for, if not by corporate advertising? In other words, if the old model of radio and TV that lived off ad spots and commercials is corrupt and indecent for you, what model can replace it? How will this expensive stuff get paid for?
Comment posted by Jim Bower
May 30, 2007 @ 3:46 pm
I guess bottom line, as suggested by the others commenting is, do you trust any company?

Here are few things you might not know about ours:

1) We care deeply about the privacy and security of 'our kids" Numedeon probably has the most sophisticated security system out there for managing online communities of kids (not only judged by us -- the independent group I-parenting gave us a 'best on the web' designation for our security system). We have a 17 page white paper describing this system if you are interested.

2) We were COPA (Children's Online Protection Act) compliant before COPA existed. COPA includes requirements on what information you can and can't keep and use on individual kids.

3) Regardless of COPA legal requirements (which only apply to kids under age 13) we would never provide consumer marketing information on any individual individual in Whyville, kid or not - in fact, we haven't done it collectively either (which IS legal).

4) we are fundamentally educational in our outlook and approach. If you are interested in understanding more about how we view marketing in an educational virtual world framework, you might want to take a listen to:

pod cast: IMV40

5) In fact, we have had discussions with mega-food companies, who have, to this point, backed out of the conversations probably because they recognize that our nutrition project won't necessarily show their products in the best light. I expect that as these companies continue to feel the pressure from a growing number of sources, that they may very well approach us with nutritional products -- at which point we will be happy to talk. If we can change the world, we will.

6) The nutrition project is managed by an independent committee of nutrition experts within the University of Texas -- and you can bet, that they watch what we are doing closely (that is why they are there).

I will say, however, that in our experience, 'the digital kids generation' are much more savey and sophisticated about marketing than previous generations -- perhaps because they are so over exposed.

And finally, I didn't mean to imply that you are delusional, but only perhaps a little fast to judge.

Let me be very clear -- there are all kinds of reasons to be concerned about marketing on the Internet and marketing in virtual worlds in particular. It is, as you point out, a powerfully influential medium - especially for young kids. In my view, as I have often stated in meetings and elsewhere, it is essential that companies use this new medium ethically -- AND there is also no question that there are few measures or regulations currently in place to assure that that is the case. AND THIS IS A PROBLEM. It is amazing what we could do, if we wanted to (We don't).

Thus, voices like yours -- and ours too, are essential to continue to raise this important issue.

There is a way to do this right, and a way to do this very wrong -- we are working hard to do it right.

Jim Bower
CEO Numedeon Inc.
Founders of
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
May 30, 2007 @ 4:35 pm
Jim, there are no "others" commenting here, just you and Prokofy Neva.

I appreciate the backgrounder on your company.

I don't know who decided the bottom line here was whether or not I personally trust "any" company. It's a silly question (as are at least a few of Prok's). If I really didn't trust "any" company at all, I'd have to shoot myself in the face, since I live, work, and consume in capitalist North America.
Comment posted by Jim Bower
May 30, 2007 @ 6:05 pm
fine, thought for a moment you might be interested in a serious conversation about this subject.

perhaps next time
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