I checked on my sons' Club Penguin account this evening and was greeted by their penguin decked out in Elvis hair, a grey t-shirt, and an electric guitar. The green puffle, Kick, was hungry or needed a bath, I'm not sure which, and a couple letters had arrived asking to be penguin buddies.
Unless you have a six to ten year old child, chances are you have no idea what I'm talking about. I am talking about Club Penguin. Club Penguin is a online game where you choose a penguin as your cyborg. You can cruise around the penguin world, playing games and earning coins so you can buy stuff for your virtual self, like clothes and accessories, a pet, sports equipment, an igloo to live in, and things to furnish your igloo. You can also interact with other penguins by chatting, or typing short messages.
Club penguin was started by a couple of dads in British Colombia as an alternative to MySpace for younger kids. In August 2007 Club Penguin was purchased by The Walt Disney Company for $350 million dollars. That certainly tells you something about it's exponential popularity.
As far as online games go, Club Penguin has got to be one of the most innocent. Yet it is popular with kids from six, or even younger, to teens and even older. There is no personal information shared, and it is monitored for language and content. In fact, a few of my son's friends have been "kicked off" Club Penguin for trying out foul language.
My middle son has asked me for months if he can get a membership. He finally wore me down. I let him get one. You don't actually need a membership, you can play for free. But you can't earn coins and buy the really cool stuff unless you become a member.
I think the really interesting thing about Club Penguin, as a parent, is checking out what your child has created. Going into my sons' igloo is akin to futuristic travel into his dorm room or first apartment. He's got an upgraded, split-level igloo with lots of room for furniture. He's got a basketball hoop, a weightlifting bench, a cooler and a BBQ, a soccer goal, two fish tanks, a drum set, a cash register and a cactus plant (nice touch). He's also got a modern art sculpture and a couch made from a ferris wheel seat. He's got great lighting; several task lights and multiple cheerful tiki torches burning at the entrance. He's got a banner hung on the wall that says "Party!" He's got mood music and a flat screen TV showing some kind of penguin ice hockey game. I'm not too worried about the party scene yet, as he has not realized that an igloo without appliances of any kind cannot host a party. He hasn't thought to spend money on a refrigerator or microwave. I don't think kegs or tiki bars with blenders are available for purchase (although they would fit right in).
This penguin also has a closet full of clothes. Penguins can change clothes, accessories, and hair at any time. He's got a blue mohawk hairdo, the afore-mentioned Elvis 'do, a referee outfit, every kind of sports uniform, a fireman's outfit, a tuxedo with top hat (it's always better to own than rent), a pizza apron and chef's hat, several surfboards and a pair of sunglasses.
He also owns a puffle named Kick, a little pet that requires frequent feeding, entertainment, exercise and sleep. Puffles come in different colors with different personalities. My sons' puffle is green and it's attitude is energetic and playful, it's favorite toys are a unicycle and propellor cap, and it's special feature is that it likes to clown around. He only has one puffle because he says they are hard to take care of. Contrast this to my niece, a real animal lover, who has something close to the maximum number of puffles allowed (14). I'm guessing her favorite is purple, who's attitude is usually happy, favorite toys are bubble wand and disco ball, and special features are loves to dance and finicky eater. Just a guess. I wonder if this means she will have fourteen cats in her first apartment someday.
Some kids will do almost anything to become a Club Penguin member and enjoy all it's benefits. I have a friend with an eight year old son who wanted a membership so bad that he borrowed his father's credit card from his wallet, filled out all the information necessary to start a membership, and started playing. Almost a perfect crime, except for that damn itemized credit card bill. The gig was up and he got caught. He had generously given himself a full year membership, so he had a lot of chores to do for several weeks earning the right to continue playing.
If you have a child who plays on Club Penguin, I encourage you to read about it from one of the articles below and then go online, log in as your child, and check out what kind of world they have created for themselves. If you find something interesting or funny, let me know by commenting on my blog.
I'm thinking about getting my own penguin so I can see what it's like to walk around with a tiara and live in a castle.
For more information on Club Penguin, I've found the following articles particularly interesting or useful:
Clique on to Penguin, How a virtual world is changing social dynamics in fifth-grade classrooms across the country
By Elizabeth Weiss Green
Wikipedia on Club Penguin
Of course you can visit Club Penguin yourself and check it out. It's open to anyone. Create a penguin and wander around, and you will know enough to talk the talk with any 8 year old and be the hippest adult around.