Secret Builders is a social networking massively multi-player online game (MMOG) that was launched in 2007 by Renaissance 2.0 Media. The site is aimed at children from age 5 to 14. The site is a combination of social chatting and educational features. Players are introduced to historical characters and learn basic concepts in math, science and the humanities. Children are given the opportunity to express themselves through creative writing and artwork.
The appeal of the website is its vast array of online games that children can play and the social interaction between the members. Memberships begin at $5.95 per month with discounts at the 6 and 12 month levels. As with most online games, a reward system pays players for winning games and completing tasks, and allows them to upgrade their membership and their virtual world. Children can play for free; however, their movement within the world is limited. The website is the base for the game. There is no need to download a separate program to operate the game.
New members create an avatar from the available designs to use as their virtual personality. Players are able to customize themselves by changing their appearance, color, design or accessories. Players need to earn money or ‘shills’ to purchase goods and services in the virtual world. ‘Shills’ are commonly awarded to players when they successfully complete games on the website. Players have plenty of different opportunities to earn their ‘shills’ as there are many different games within each game category. Many of the games are educational in nature where players work with historical figures to solve puzzles; answer scientific questions; solve mathematic problems; and use their creativity with art and writing. Two creative outlets called ‘The Crooked Pencil’ and ‘Build It!’ allow players to post creative writing and suggestions for the Secret Builders website, respectively. Like many other MMOG websites, Secret Builders allow chatting and interacting with other players. Making friends, sending messages and chatting in a social chat room are major elements of the online experience.
The best component that Secret Builders has to offer to children is the educational element of the virtual world. Children learn about history, science and language arts in a non-confrontational and no-pressure environment. There are very few virtual worlds that enable children to use their creativity as much as Secret Builders. ‘The Crooked Pencil’ and ‘Build It!’ components are innovative and much needed in an online environment filled with frivolous, commercialized websites aimed at children.
Some of the female avatars are overly sexualized with exaggerated curves, adult-style haircuts and dressed in provocative clothing similar to cocktail dresses. Portraying an avatar as an innocent, child-like character is not bad – what is bad is dressing it up to look like an adult. Parents need to be aware of the potential messages these themes send to their children. These disconcerting adult themes clash with the educational side of the website. Secret Builders needs to decide what is more important: the positive education of children or sending children into adulthood before their time.
Although the website has done an average job of promoting online safety, several users and parents have voiced concerns over inappropriate language and content that have made their way through into open chat areas. Secret Builders offers a safe chat mode where children can only use predetermined phrases, images and emoticons. In open chat, filters are in place, but may not catch unwanted comments. Parents need to be vigilant about their child’s online activity and report any inappropriate messages to the website moderator.