The possibilities are seemingly endless for users of social networking Web sites. Not only can you share information with online communities all over the world; but sometimes you can even create a new identity and live vicariously through your own alter ego. Virtual destinations like Second Life let people make up their own avatar -- a person's digital representation of him or herself. For some, this is just harmless fun, an opportunity to express another side behind the privacy of a computer screen. Others, however, use the open nature of the Internet to conceal or falsify certain parts of identity, sometimes for questionable purposes.
And that's exactly what scares some concerned parents. With computers becoming practically ubiquitous both at home and in the classroom, children are spending more and more time not just in front of the computer screen but online. Worry over potential scenarios like online predators or even online bullying have parents unsure about how much they should monitor their kids' internet activities.
So, many parents might throw their hands up in the air and ask: Is there anywhere safe where my kids can go online? Is it possible for children to spend time on a Web site, either playing games or socializing with friends, without sacrificing personal information and safety?
Club Penguin, the virtual online community where members can select, modify and control their own cuddly penguin avatar, offers itself as an answer to this tricky problem. On Club Penguin there's a big emphasis on safety, which the company hopes will calm parents. The site was purchased by Disney in 2008 for $700 million, and their main target is kids between the ages of 6 and 14 -- the group now known to advertisers and companies as "tweens." And since the site's origin in 2005, it's grown into quite a large group. In fact, in 2007 the company reported more than 12 million members.
So how does Club Penguin work? Is it free, or is there some kind of membership for which tweens need to ask parents permission?
Club Penguin Membership
There are two ways for kids to enjoy Club Penguin. Joining the site, picking and modifying your penguin avatar and moving around Club Penguin's virtual world is completely free. Anyone can create a penguin with a free account, and the steps are relatively easy compared to most online membership signup pages. After picking a color for your penguin, you're simply instructed to enter a Club Penguin username, a password and a parent's e-mail address. The site doesn't ask for any personal information beyond the e-mail; no names, addresses, phone numbers or birthdates.
So is that it to a Club Penguin membership? Well, not quite. A free account isn't technically a membership. The free account allows your penguin to walk (or waddle, if you will) around its virtual world while exploring places like icebergs, ski slopes, boats and beaches, play games and chat with other penguins. However, to do all the really cool stuff, like decorating your igloo and dressing up your penguin, parents need to buy their kids a membership.
There are three basic membership prices: $5.95 per month, $29.95 for six months or $57.95 for a full year. Occasionally, there are special promotional offers, like $14.95 for three months, but these offers are generally only available for a limited time.
When a penguin is decorating his or her igloo, it actually has a lot of choices -- especially since new features are added weekly or monthly. For instance, the icy homes can upgrade to two stories or morph into a snow globe design, and interiors can include drum sets, televisions, aquariums and more.
One thing parents should note is that if they do decide to purchase a membership for their children, it's most likely the company will collect the parent's full name, e-mail address and, of course, credit card information and mailing address. Of course, none of this information would make it over the Web site's chat function, which filters important personal information anyway.
So once kids are on Club Penguin, what can they do?
Using Club Penguin
While members of social Web sites like Second Life mainly control avatars that are human-like in appearance, Club Penguin members move around their virtual world as penguins. The penguins and their environment are also drawn as two dimensional cartoons instead of three-dimensional bodies.
To move a penguin avatar around, users simply point and click where they want their Antarctic alter ego to end up. Reaching either side of the computer screen can take you to a different area, and there's even a map which penguins can use to locate specific locations.
According to Club Penguin, there are essentially four main things kids can do with their penguin avatars. They can:
- Play games
- Dress the penguin up and decorate the penguin's igloo
- Attend or host gatherings
- Make friends with and talk to other penguins
Games are one of the major attractions of Club Penguin, mostly because winning at these games racks up coins for users. The mini-games are like most games you can find online. The majority of the games typically involve pointing and clicking and they might also involve skiing, tubing, catching things and jumping or avoiding obstacles. Instructions are given at the beginning of each game so it's easy even for younger penguins, and players can play as often as they like. The coins that the penguins win are the virtual currency in the Club Penguin world, and they let penguins buy clothing, including hats, wigs and other vestments (the sillier the better), and upgrades to igloos, which start off fairly plain and undecorated.
There are also countless parties and other events that penguins can either create and then host or get invited to and attend. Penguins can meet up with and talk to other penguins, and users communicate in instant messaging style; small text bubbles, like the ones in comic books, appear above penguins' heads when they say something.
So what does Club Penguin offer, both for children and to their parents?
Benefits of Club Penguin
The immediate benefit of Club Penguin for parents is the constant reminder of safety. In a time when most online communities are uncensored and lack total monitoring control, Club Penguin is practically Orwellian in its commitment to keeping an eye on potentially harmful behavior. Even the site's home page, where users go to sign up, is more parent-friendly than kid-oriented, with reassurances of "safety," "filtered chat" and "live monitoring." A blue badge with the word "safety" and two penguins, presumably a parent and its child, often rests in the top right corner of the page.
Club Penguin is extremely straightforward about its rules and often reminds users to pay attention to them. When you first create a penguin, the Club Penguin set of rules is the first bit of text you see. Users are encouraged to respect other penguins and everyone is reminded that swearing, bullying or cruel behavior toward fellow penguins isn't tolerated, and disciplinary action will follow. Site monitors will either pick up on this type of behavior, or penguins can report other penguins that start to get out of line. Talk that's deemed inappropriate by the site, such as references to drugs, alcohol, sex or race, is also not allowed. Club Penguin encourages users to keep personal information guarded -- things like real names, telephone numbers, addresses, e-mails or passwords shouldn't be passed out to other penguins. Finally, third party programs that allow players to cheat at games -- of which there are many, according to a Google search -- are not allowed, and a player using these programs risks banishment.
So, what's the downside to Club Penguin? Well, groups like Consumer Reports WebWatch note that most social networking Web sites like Club Penguin that target young kids are nothing but commercial traps meant to coerce users into buying nothing but virtual property. They also argue that the games don't necessarily offer any educational value -- in the case of Club Penguin, the games typically serve only to earn users more coins, which players can then put toward buying more digital stuff. However, Club Penguin is largely free of advertising -- an atypical feature of most social networking sites.
For more information about Club Penguin and other social networking Web sites, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Agger, Michael. "Ice Ice Baby: My few weeks in Club Penguin, a social networking site for middle-schoolers." Slate.com. Sept. 14, 2007. (July 1, 2009) http://www.slate.com/id/2173910/pagenum/all/
- ClubPenguin.com. (July 6, 2009) http://www.clubpenguin.com/
- Davidson, Pete. "Get the Facts on Club Penguin." What They Play. Mar. 25, 2008. (July 1, 2009) http://www.whattheyplay.com/features/get-the-facts-on-club-penguin/
- Navarro, Mireya. "Pay Up, kid, or Your Igloo Melts." The New York Times. Oct. 28, 2007. (July 1, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/fashion/28virtual.html?pagewanted=all
- Reid, Alice. "Breaking the Ice." The Washington Post. Oct. 18, 2007. (July 1, 2009) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/17/AR2007101702198_pf.html
- Yoffe, Emily. "Gambling and Burger Flipping: What kids like to do online -- a Slate investigation." Slate.com. Sept. 14, 2007. (July 1, 2009) http://www.slate.com/id/2173912/