I'm not sure, but I think I went on date with a 12-year-old last night. We met at Club Penguin, a social networking site for preteens. I was a blue penguin, new to town. She was pink, and carrying a surfboard.
Pink: "boy or girl?"
Pink: "im a girl"
Pink: [sends a heart emoticon]
Me: "want to sled race?"
Pink: "yer funny"
we waddled through the forest, stopped at the disco, and then played a
little Find Four, the Club Penguin version of Connect Four. When Pink
sent a message, "brb," I slipped away to the mountain for some sled
racing. Man's gotta be free!
Creating a penguin is simple, though the entire sign-up process
emphasizes safety in such a way that a curious adult can't help feeling
like a predator. The site asks you to "Respect Other Penguins" and
"Never Reveal Your Personal Information," and there is a button that
parents can click on for reassurance that Club Penguin is nothing like
MySpace. Establishing a sheltered haven in the Internet maelstrom is
Club Penguin's selling point. The site offers "Ultimate Safe Chat," in
which a penguin can use only preselected words, and "Standard Safe
Chat," in which you can type any word, but all the words are screened
by a filter. For example, it's very difficult to communicate a number
in Club Penguin, which means no ages, no phone calls, no street
addresses, no interstate rendezvous at Burger King. (I've seen penguins
get around this by misspelling numbers, e.g., "Im tweleve.") There are
also moderators present in the penguin world, their presence noted by a
big gold shield in the corner of the screen. Finally, in an Orwellian
touch, penguins are encouraged to report other penguins who misbehave.
So, there I was: old enough to remember Voltron,
beer in hand, sitting with my laptop, surrounded by (presumed)
preteens. Club Penguin plopped me in the town center. Forty or so birds
were milling about. Some were dancing, others throwing snowballs. As I
gazed upon this scene, I remembered something that I had once read: If
your body could stay the same as it was at 12, you would live for
hundreds of years. But what about your mind? What if it stayed locked
at 12? Club Penguin offers that deeply trippy experience.
first thing you notice is that everyone is really dressed up. When you
click on another penguin, their "Player Card" appears. This shows all
of the pins, hats, props, and accessories that the penguin has acquired
by completing various missions and shopping at various stores. The net
result is that a lot of penguins end up looking like Elton John. (As
Emily Yoffe points out, you must have a paid subscription to Club Penguin to properly outfit your penguin.) Many
initial penguin-to-penguin comments are sartorial in nature, such as
"Where did you get that hat?" or "Nice outfit." A common opener,
though, is the one that the pink penguin directed my way: "boy or
girl?" An enterprising penguin tried this variation: "All girls in the
room come to me!" The emphatic "WHO WANTS TO BE A COUPLE?" is also
On occasion, couplehood is
rejected, and one penguin will shout "STOP FOLLOWING ME!" or the more
drastic "I WILL REPORT YOU!!!" (All of the penguin comments appear as
nearby text boxes, like a comic book.) If couplehood is established,
penguins will "friend" each other. Next, two or three heart emoticons
may be exchanged, and one penguin may invite the other back to their
igloo. That's not what it sounds like. Going to someone's igloo usually
means admiring how they've decorated it with three flatscreen TVs, an
aquarium, and a drum set. You might do a little dancing to the booming
rock soundtrack (penguins can acquire special dance moves) and then go
your separate ways. After all, there are constant parties to attend.
Penguin stands out from its peers because it's a social networking site
that girls seem to like. My limited experience confirms that. Remember
that girl who marched across the playground, grabbed a younger boy's
hand, and made him be her pet? In this virtual world, you can witness a
few hundred of them competing against each other. As I watched a
penguin walk up to five other penguins and send five heart emoticons in
the span of six minutes, I felt an inward, vestigial shudder of my
sixth-grade self. The Club Penguin blogs
tell stories of penguins who flew close to the sun: They acquired so
many friends that jealous players stole their passwords, then
misbehaved in such a way as to get the popular penguin banned from the
Club Penguin may be heavily monitored, but, similar to
school, messing with the authority figures is part of the fun. Getting
banned is fairly easy. Just type a curse word, and you're out. This
self-destructive penguin managed to get banned in 30 seconds. Club Penguin regulars seem to enjoy their outlaw status, posting videos on YouTube of how they got the boot. Better yet are the tribute videos to banned penguins. This one uses the Puffy Combs ode to Biggie Smalls, "I'll Be Missing You," as a soundtrack.
Club Penguin phenomenon is propelled by more than just playground
romance and little acts of rebellion. The people who run the site
(which is based in British Columbia) are excellent hosts. They've
created a world of characters, including Rockhopper, a Jesus-like
figure who shows up every few months with new toys and special pins.
(It's a mark of distinction to have actually met Rockhopper.) They also
throw special parties and continually introduce new items and games. My
few weeks in Club Penguin are a mere blip compared to most penguins'
in-world time. After 30 days of good behavior, I could have become a
"Secret Agent" and gotten access to special room. The longer you play,
the further you get sucked in.
Eventually, all the aggressive
cuddling and the invitations to the disco got to me. When I wasn't sled
racing, I started hanging out on the iceberg, a spot in the middle of
the ocean that attracted loners. Penguins would show up, walk to the
edge, and then stare out at the water. Sometimes another penguin would
ask, "What's wrong?" but often it was quiet. I took to lobbing
snowballs in the same place over and over again. On one occasion, I
started typing lines from Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—"Alone on a wide sea!"—and another penguin corrected my quote: "Alone on a wide, wide sea." I'm guessing she wasn't 12.
iceberg is the site of Club Penguin's most resilient urban legend: If
enough penguins gather on one side of the iceberg, it will tip. (Here's
a popular video
of an attempt.) The iceberg has never tipped, yet the idea will not
die. If you hang around for a bit, a penguin might show up and start
drilling, or a penguin would appear and shout, "TIP THE ICEBERG," and
start corralling everyone to one side. One tipping theory held that all
penguins on the iceberg had to be the same color, leading to some
incidents of colorism: "Get out of here blue!" A legend like this is a
sign of a healthy game. Players are so invested in trying to figure out
how the world works that they go beyond what the designers have
This summer, when Disney bought Club Penguin for $700
million, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the time our kids spend
online. In my few weeks there, Club Penguin surprised me in how well it
approximated a middle-school playground, with the daredevils, the
flirts, the boys obsessed with sports and games, the girls in a circle.
(A sign-off that I thought I would never see online: "gtg,
cheerleading.") My guess is that Club Penguin complements these kids'
real lives, and it's slightly hypocritical to tell them to turn off the
computer and go play kick the can. Looking around my workplace, I see a
lot of adults spending their entire day flirting/working/planning on
instant messaging. Welcome to the club, kids.