How do children play in virtual worlds? An Ethnography of Australian children’s digital gameplay practices

Author Identifiers

Ashley Donkin


Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Lelia Green

Second Advisor

Donell Holloway


Australian children are increasingly using the Internet to access virtual worlds, which are simulated environments embedded within gaming and social networking functions. Virtual worlds such as Minecraft have become popular platforms for primary school-aged children to explore and experiment with identity formation, and with interactive, collaborative and creative play. Whilst there appears to be many benefits in accessing such worlds, there are also some risks, which can have negative implications for young children. In addition, children also require digital competencies to play safely online and maximise the benefits provided by virtual worlds. This research investigates, through online and offline ethnography, how 5 to 12-year-old Australian children interact with and within virtual games, exploring the benefits and risks encountered by these young children, as well as the digital competencies they require to play safely in virtual worlds. This thesis identifies and discusses the various benefits, risks and digital competencies of children’s virtual world play. Some of the benefits identified in this thesis include creative and social play, a sense of mastery in relation to technology and virtual environments, and identity experimentation. Some of the risks of virtual world play include griefing (encountering negative events such as losing virtual currency or feeling their avatar is threatened) and virtual death: these are identified and discussed in this thesis. Digital competencies include using a device to access virtual worlds and being able to decorate and navigate an avatar around the virtual world to play and socialise with others. This research used a mixed-methods approach to collecting children’s data. Online ethnography, netnography, enabled the researcher to observe children’s use of virtual games in real-time, providing a first-hand account of participant’s experiences. Offline ethnography allowed the researcher to interview children about their games and observe their play in realtime in a shared physical environment; noting both their online and offline interactions with friends and siblings as they played. The photovoice method allowed children to capture and discuss their own play data with the researcher. The researcher observed the risks and benefits of playing online games, and the digital competencies displayed by children, providing further insights into the social and emotional dynamics created by children when using virtual worlds. This thesis provides recommendations as to how parents and industry professionals can best support children’s safe virtual world use.

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