Yesterday I had an interview with Kaila Colbin from MiniMonos.com.
MiniMonos (which means “little monkeys” in Spanish), is a virtual world created for children and parents that encourages children to understand the concepts of sustainability, generosity and community. Using a world like this is an interesting way to encourage kids to have these concepts socialized into them, not taught. I just had to ask MiniMonos why they started their site…
1) Briefly, why is sustainability an issue for you?
Sustainability is important to everyone on the team, but it was the driving force behind founder and CEO Melissa Clark-Reynolds’ decision to create MiniMonos in the first place. After Melissa saw the movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, she decided to contact ex-US Vice President Al Gore to offer her help. In 2007, she was trained by Gore and others to present The Inconvenient Truth slideshow as a Climate Project Ambassador, and paved the way for more presenters (including me!) to be trained last year.
Melissa’s also an outdoors enthusiast who loves to swim and kayak. She’s taken her daughter kayaking in lakes that didn’t exist 50 years ago because they were only recently formed due to glacial erosion. Our head office is in a country renowned worldwide for its natural beauty, but it’s too easy for our government and our people to take it for granted, and we don’t realize how much our kids internalize this lack of attention to the environment.
2) What made you decide on using a virtual world to teach a lesson rather than traditional methods?
A virtual world is the most obvious, most accessible, greenest medium for a new generation of “Digital Natives”—children who have never known a world without digital technology. There are 50 million children aged 11 and younger in the USA; around 80% of them are online, with 8-10-year-olds spending on average 46 minutes a day on the computer. For these kids, online social networks and virtual worlds are natural environments and intuitive behaviors, and the messages that get sent through these media are the messages that they internalize as they grow.
Until now, the messages they’ve been internalizing have been consumerist brand messages. Most virtual worlds for kids are brand extensions of major corporations. Club Penguin, for example, was bought by Disney three years ago, and for pretty much everything you can do on Club Penguin there’s an accompanying soft toy you can buy. Webkinz is even more egregious; in order to access the world, you have to buy a soft toy to get the code. For them, the virtual world is the answer to one question: “What is the best mechanism for marketing and distributing of our physical merchandise?”
With MiniMonos, on the other hand, we started with a different question: “What would the world look like if sustainability and generosity were a given and we could just focus on having fun?”
3) What have you learned about gaming and social interaction because of MiniMonos?
We’ve learned that kids online will continually surprise and delight you. We’ve learned that kids are far more clued up about the environment than we had realized, and that they place far more explicit importance on it than we had realized. We’ve learned that they really appreciate being listened to, and the importance of a sense of belonging. We’ve also learned that they’ll go to astonishing lengths to get a rare virtual item!
We’ve been stunned and humbled by the many ways in which MiniMonos members have picked up the sustainability gauntlet and carried these messages into the real world. We’re seeing a generation of children who already care for the environment, who are tremendously generous, fun-loving, and supportive of each other.
Take Percy, who, on his own initiative, started Percy’s Pick-up Trash Fridays, from which we’ve learned that other children have visited a recycling centre, cleaned up their school with the class, cleaned up the whole street and are regularly picking up trash!
Percy also, with his own pocket money, ran an eco-themed artwork competition: http://webosaurpercy.com/minimonos-art
He’s not alone; another member, Geek, ran a World Environment Day competition, and another, Viper, has run several competitions, the most recent to create a poem about MiniMonos and the environment. (Geek says: “In this contest, you need to show us that you have done an act that is good for the environment… It needs to relate to the environment, and it has to be positive!”)
Another monkey, Emini picked up over 1,800 cigarette butts from her local beach: http://blog.minimonos.com/gobananas/2010/04/monkey-of-the-week-emini.html
We do everything we can to reinforce the need to take real-world action. We turned off the servers for Earth Hour, and every new membership provides clean drinking water for children in India. The kids are razor sharp; as soon as we launched the ability to buy 10,000 banana chips for US$5, they wanted to make sure that would provide clean water as well! We also adopted a baby orang-utan, and the kids voted on which one to adopt. One member told us: “Thank you everyone for all you guys have done on MiniMonos and put the time and your heart in the game to make it the best it can be for everyone along with helping unfortunate kids in India and to give them hope! These recent updates really showed me more about how charitable the game is and helpful, not like a regular virtual world game where we would just play and the money is mainly to keep the game running. I love the whole clean water supply for kids in India and can’t wait to see the adopted orangutan baby!”
4) Finally, let’s talk about how you got to work with Al Gore!
When Melissa first decided to get involved with Gore and The Climate Project, she actually had no idea how to go about it. So she just put the word out to everyone in her network, ultimately remembering that her friend’s husband worked for Gore. As it turned out, the friend was the Executive Director of The Climate Project! So she made her case. At that time in 2007, they were running a training in Melbourne that was only open to Australians, but Melissa petitioned hard to be allowed to attend. Since then, she’s given more than 20 presentations all around New Zealand, to school groups, Rotary clubs, farmers, and more.
Because of Melissa’s pioneering work, last year The Climate Project opened their Melbourne training for 8 more Kiwis to attend. We managed to get the opportunity covered on national NZ television, and they got over 300 applicants! They ended up making room for 15 of us, including me. Right now we have around 12 active Climate Project presenters in NZ.
Last month, Melissa went to Nashville to do the Our Choice training, the latest session with Al Gore based on the release of his new book. There are now more than 3,000 Climate Project presenters around the world.
To find out more about MiniMonos, check out the website MiniMonos.com.
You should check out another awesome interview I did with Dan Norton, of Filament Games here.
Other than MiniMonos, what other great sites do you know of that share the ideas of sustainability? And if you’d like to get interviewed by GameCulturalist, check out the Contact page.