Club Penguin has Disney waddling in the right direction

Over the past decade, the Walt Disney Corporation has extended its hand well beyond the world of animated movies; in an attempt to grab the attention (and pocket money) of tweens, forays have been made into music, sports franchises, and now cyberspace. Step aside, Jo-Bros, Disney has a new star, waddling soon to a chat-room near you. Club Penguin, a popular online destination, provides a world where kids, armed with screen name and penguin avatar can explore, solve problems, play games and “interact”. Beyond the safe, fun-filled environment, Disney has also made efforts to foster responsibility, and social activism on Club Penguin. The appeal to parents is obvious (would you rather have your child learning to be creative or shooting zombies?), but why does Club penguin appeal to the kids it serves?

To Peter May, my thirteen-year-old brother, the appeal is also the creative aspect of the games. “You have to be creative and look for things to combine to beat the mission... this is different because you don’t just win the race or beat the boss, you have to figure it out yourself.”

These “missions” are special games only open to penguin “agents”, experienced players who are recruited to monitor the words and actions of other players. An agent’s duty is threefold: to report any players being mean or breaking rules, to keep the identities of agent penguins secret, and to keep Club Penguin fun and safe. This secret agent type of online monitoring is effective for Club Penguin, but for players it “gives a chance to be part of a group that is secret and fun”, according to Peter.

Club Penguin is very focused on providing its players with the “exclusive” experience – it is a “club” after all. Beyond the opportunity to become a secret agent, players with enough experience can become ninjas! With each new achievement, or role taken on, rewards are earned. “It is fun to be working towards something, like getting a black belt, or saving up enough coins to buy something” says Peter. Club Penguin has really hit the nail on the head with exclusivity – kids love it.

There is no advertising, and the basic site is open to all, so memberships and memorabilia bring home the bacon for Club Penguin. Club Penguin plays off the exclusivity factor for profit, making certain items or activities available only to members (it is $57.97 for a 12 month membership, just in case you were interested). Because of this desire for the V.I.P. Treatment, tweens flock to membership, but ultimately it is parents who have to approve the online subscription.

In spite of all of Club Penguin's qualities, there are some aspects that raise concern. First and foremost, the “club” mentality is not something today’s society is in favour of fostering. Today’s child is taught to accept others, treat everyone equally, and share. This is not re-enforced by an online community with activities only open to those who have won enough games of tic-tac-toe, or who unceasingly pester their parents until they finally give in and pay for membership.

Secondly, an online community means today’s child is spending more time in front of a screen, and less time with their real friends. It is no coincidence that the rise of childhood obesity corresponds with the prevalence of video games. More time spent in front of the computer means more time spent sedentary. On a social level, the added layer between face to face contact does not help kids with communication. In a world where feelings are expressed through emoticons, any extra disconnect between people further continues humanity down the path to poor communication.

Disney has hit pay dirt with Club Penguin. Despite the possible physical and social consequences, Club Penguin is a step in the right direction for an online community geared towards kids. It provides a fun environment for kids to interact, while providing parents the peace of mind that their kids are being creative, rather than destructive, in their gaming. Through the “secret agent” style of monitoring online behavior, parents are assured of their child’s online safety, while at the same time, kids feel included in something exclusive and fun. Fortunately, Disney is using the power they have gained over tweens, through Club Penguin, responsibly. Through coins for change, a Club Penguin initiative to build social awareness, $1 million was donated to various organizations benefiting children around the world. Club Penguin is not perfect, but it does provide a good alternative to the unsafe chat-rooms and violent, un-educational gaming today's children face in cyberspace.

//Colin May

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