As Club Penguin becomes the fastest-growing internet site for children, Alice Thomson tells how it has benefited her son
When I was a child, picking up a penguin meant eating a chocolate biscuit. Not any more. Now a penguin is the new virtual accessory for six- and seven-year-olds, complete with its own igloo, wardrobe of clothes and list of best friends.
Twelve million five- to 12-year-olds in America, Britain and Australia now use the site to “waddle around and meet new friends” – that is, give themselves an alter ego in the shape of a cartoon penguin. Bebo, Facebook and MySpace are watching their backs.
Second Life, the much-hyped virtual world, has only half as many paying members. Yet while these sites are endlessly written about and debated, the march of the penguins has gone almost unnoticed.
But anyone with an interest in the social networking phenomenon should be looking at sites such as Club Penguin, Stardoll or Neopets, which are targeted at children. Club Penguin was recently snapped up by Disney in a £345 million deal only two years after being set up by three fathers in Canada.
The company sees it as a sound investment, given that it is now the third most visited site used by youngsters on the internet.
And, crucially, while children can join for free, if they want to be truly involved in penguin life their parents have to pay a monthly fee for them to buy clothes, accessories and furnish their penguin’s igloo. Some critics argue that such sites are the new frontier in the battle for children and parents as consumers. If so, it looks like the strategy is working: every child I know between the ages of five and 10 seems to be hooked.
Initially, I decided that my children were definitely not joining the club. They don’t have Game Boys or PlayStations, I haven’t cracked over McDonald’s, so I wasn’t going to let Disney turn them into black-and-white cuddly alter egos.
If Facebook is for sad adults, Club Penguin sounded as though it was for even sadder children with no imagination whose parents were dumping them into a virtual playground.
The problem was that everyone else in their class was in on the game and going cyber-sledging together after school. So I asked a friend who is a child psychologist whether she’d heard of it and what she thought about it.
“Of course my children use it,” she said. “I am not a complete kill-joy.” My neighbour told me she had convinced herself it was an educational toy.
“It is fantastic,” she said. “It teaches them the value of working for money. You unload beanbags from a truck and you get paid, so that you can go and buy a new pair of slippers for your penguin.”
Another explained that her son’s igloo was immaculate. “It’s turned him from a complete slob into an interior designer who takes great pride in his igloo and he’s beginning to do the same with his room.” All the parents who admitted that their child used the site said they liked the fact that there was no advertising, although some commentators predict future tie-ins with Disney stores, theme parks and films.
However, I was finally persuaded when another parent explained that Club Penguin was like having a family pet without having to walk it every day or clean out its cage. So, finally, my seven-year-old son was allowed to join.
First, we had to decide what to call his penguin. This is harder than naming a child. You cannot use your real name or something that might identify you (part of Club Penguin’s rules to keep information confidential) – but, with 12 million players, it is hard to find a unique moniker.
Then you have to decide what colour penguin you want – red, pink, green, blue or yellow (black is not allowed).
Once christened, your penguin plays games or does work in order to collect “coins” (points) that he can use to buy food and clothes, or he simply chats to other penguins.
Parents can choose to let their children use the “standard” chat that filters out inappropriate greetings or “ultimate safe chat”, which restricts children to a predefined menu of statements.
After my initial suspicion, I have come to see that Club Penguin is actually rather gentle and old-fashioned. It’s not like Facebook – children aren’t competing for friends – nor is it violent. You never get to shoot a Puffle (little baby penguins) or even knock over another penguin.
Instead, you can take your penguin to town, to the ice-rink or on a trip to the seaside. He can go sledging, surfing, play hide-and-seek or join sports teams. There is no lookism – the penguins are exactly the same size, and you can’t swear or “use sexist or racist” language such as, “I don’t like blue penguins”.
I refused to pay the monthly subscription at first. My son could still meet up with friends from his class after school to go bobsleighing on the site or ring up his cousin (who lives 50 miles away) to ask her to meet him for a virtual hot chocolate in the virtual café.
But after three months online he desperately wanted his own igloo and to buy some clothes for his penguin. By now, he was so used to bartering online that he offered to make his bed every day in return for the $5.95 (just under £3) monthly subscription. Again I gave in.
The first items he bought were three fires to keep his penguin warm; in the past few days he has added a pumpkin and some spider’s webs for Hallowe’en.
He trades secrets with his friends about the passageway that leads from the nightclub to the boiler room and he has just become a secret agent, helping out other penguins who have lost their way.
The game, with its system of earning ”coins” and spending them, has also turned him into an accountant; his adding, subtracting and multiplication skills have all improved. But it hasn’t made him want to become a hedge fund manager or banker; he just appreciates that he is going to have to find a way of financing his life as an explorer. Meanwhile, I like the fact that the virtual toys and clothes he buys don’t clutter up the house and I don’t have to trip over his sledge.
His grandmother, a headmistress, now also plays, meeting him in the disco for a quick waltz before bed. So I no longer hate Club Penguin: I just wish that I had thought of it.
Be sure to check out the Club Penguin Mission 5 ‘Secret of the Fur’ Guide video, for great Club Penguin tips
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