Social networking for pre-teens
Sydney Morning Herald
November 29, 2007
AS AN adaptable and moderately well-travelled avatar, I'm not remotely fazed about being reborn as a portly, lime-green penguin named Bonbon99. Nor am I apprehensive about strapping a turbo-thrust thingo to my back and launching myself across the South Pole in search of adventure.
What does alarm me, as I negotiate my first hour of playtime in the virtual ice wonderland of Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com), is what's going on simultaneously in the real world.
Perched on my knee is my fiveyear- old boy in a state of escalating agitation. When a shower of gold coins suddenly appears around Bonbon99's ears, he begins shrieking at the top of his tiny lungs: "GET THE MONEY!" Grown-ups would never be so crass - not out loud anyway - but you can bet your pinkfur snow jacket that something fundamentally similar was flashing through the minds of Disney executives in the months leading up to their acquisition of Club Penguin in August.
With a claimed 700,000-plus youngsters paying $US57.95 ($A66) for a 12-month subscription, the deal is expected to be worth $US700 million within two years.
Clearly, social networking for children is expected to be just as big - and as lucrative - as websites such as Facebook and MySpace.
My son is just outside Club Penguin's 6 to 14 target demographic.
Rather more creepily, I'm at least 30 years older than the other penguins waddling about the cyber tundra, and no one is questioning my right to mingle, message, play games and shop, shop, shop.
The currency here is strictly virtual: gold coins accumulate as points when you play the various games. Then you spend them on a pink-fur snow jacket (600 coins) or innumerable other pointless consumer accessories to adorn your penguin avatar and its igloo.
HAPPILY, predatory adults would appear to have less leeway at Club Penguin than on the internet at large. A moderator is online at all times and players are encouraged to block or report suspect penguins at the click of a mouse. Parents can lock in a "Safe Chat" mode, but even standard chat is sent through a continuously updated filter that blocks inappropriate words and questions. Of more concern are this world's flagrant commercial objectives and values.
Then there are the broader motives of the site owners.
The advice page for parents boasts of the advantages of the upfront subscription model. "By remaining ad-free, we can provide our users with a safe haven from marketing," says Disney, apparently without irony. In the future event of Club Penguin: The Movie and other suspiciously likely spin-offs, we'll see how far that haven extends.
Club Penguin is by no means the only place for children to interact online. And for most virtual playgrounds, brazen marketing is the primary goal.
Webkinz (www.webkinz.com) encourages young children to bring their real-world fluffy toys to life within a virtual world. Developed by Canadian toy and gift company Ganz, Webkinz is a range of soft toys aimed at children between the ages of six and 13. Each toy comes with a code that can be entered into the website to create an animated virtual version of it.
Ganz has sold more than 2 million of these toys since 2005. And the website has grown elevenfold in terms of visits for the year to April, according to internet analyst Hitwise - more than double that of Club Penguin. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the Webkinz site attracted 4.1 million users in May, outstripping long-established children's brands such as Barbie, Toys R Us and Hasbro.
Cartoon Doll Emporium (www.cartoondollemporium.com), aimed at children between six and 16, was claiming 4 million visitors a month in July. Stardoll (www.stardoll.com), aimed at children aged between seven and 17, celebrated 10 million members with a personal message from teen pop princess Hilary Duff in August.
Disney is just the latest of the big media groups to get into the pre-teen market. In 2005, Viacom - owner of MTV and Nickelodeon - bought Neopets (www.neopets.com), an interactive cartoon gaming site that claims to have 143 million Neopet "owners", for $US150 million.
This was the site that enjoyed minor controversy in Australia three years ago, when a cross-promotion with McDonald's led to accusations that Neopets games closely resembled blackjack and poker for children.
Nick Gibson, an analyst with Games Investor Consulting, says: "Game-playing among pre-teen children is pretty much 100% so this is a market that has emerged strongly over the past few years. We're likely to see a gradual infusion of non-games companies into this virtual world environment as brands attempt to control the marketing message."
Concern is growing about the way some of these sites are marketing themselves to young children.
Unlike Club Penguin, Webkinz recently began displaying advertising, but it has always been relentlessly commercial in its approach.
Once you've registered you get 2000 "KinzCash" units, the virtual currency kids use to buy food, accessories and vital medicine for their pets. In other words, children are given a strong incentive to return to the site regularly. But the real genius lies in the fact that the account lapses after a year; if kids want to keep up the relationship with their virtual pet they must buy another real toy for about $US12 each - there are 51 Webkinz and 29 Lil' Kinz toys to collect.
Piers Harding-Rolls of media analyst Screen Digest says: "There is a lot of interest in the Webkinz business model as it is one of the first to combine the real and virtual worlds so effectively. Offering real toys, reinforced by a virtual world of games, is a brilliant way to enhance a brand and build up a continual relationship with it.
"That they can do this without resorting to advertising, as many free-to-play games sites have to do, is impressive."
Using a virtual currency, or points system, as a reward for repeat website visits and engagement with the games is common among such sites, with Disney's Club Penguin and Virtual Magic Kingdom, Stardoll and Neopets all adopting similar practices.
Professor Sonia Livingstone, of the London School of Economics' Department of Media, says: "There is lots of concern in academia and beyond that sites like these encourage children to become ever younger consumers without alerting them or encouraging them to be critical of the commercial relationship they are entering."
There is little evidence that online games and virtual worlds can cause addiction among young children, but pestered parents and exasperated teachers in the US are nevertheless beginning to protest. One blogger has even described Webkinz as "crack for kids" (www.tinyurl.com/2mcfsb).
And Professor Livingstone warns that an over-reliance on such virtual entertainment could be detrimental to a child's imaginative development. "Educational theory is clear that play that demands imaginative input from the child is far more beneficial than play in which all the pieces are provided and the scope for imaginative responses is extremely limited," she says.
Peter Maggs, head of new media for the Australian Children's Television Foundation, agrees. But he also believes that most commercially motivated virtual worlds underestimate the degree of creativity that children are beginning to demand from the online realm.
"Rather than being passive consumers, kids want to make their own content," he says. "They want to exchange ideas and creativity, not just play with something someone else has created for them."
Mr Maggs has been closely involved with the development of Kahootz, a virtual-world software package now in every school in Victoria and the ACT, and hundreds of other schools in 19 countries. By comparison, he feels that Club Penguin, Webkinz and their ilk are failing to grasp the potential of Web 2.0.
"With Kahootz you've got a vibrant exchange of ideas and genuine creativity among kids that isn't just someone constructing a fairly simple set of linear activities with an entertainment focus with a toy they know as the bait."
The size and sweetness of the bait is not to be underestimated, but Mr Maggs believes that the iGeneration has already seen further into the future of new media than the old entertainment conglomerates.
"In my day, we were happy to go to the flicks and watch the telly," he says. "Now I think there's a much bigger mix in what kids want to do, both passively and actually getting, in constructing and participating. Kids now are getting very good at discerning what is, if you like, fluff - and what is actually engaging and worthwhile."
This seems an optimistic appraisal of the average child-avatar's ability to discriminate, considering the rapidly accelerating population of Club Penguin.
With my five-year-old safely sequestered in front of a Disney video, I waddle back to Club Penguin to talk turkey with some of my 700,000 fellow members. I draw a vox-pop blank. Some penguins say "hi". Many send me creative punctuation hieroglyphics (they call them emoticons). But no birdy wants to tell me exactly what they're doing here, how old they are, how long they've been here or, indeed, engage in any meaningful communion whatsoever with a portly lime-green penguin named Bonbon99.
Maybe six-to-14-year-olds are just like that with strangers. Or maybe they've simply learned what my five-year-old son picked up the first time he flew into a shower of free gold coins in the virtual world. Time is money.
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