Until a Slate editor asked me if my daughter was obsessed with Club Penguin, I had never heard of the thing. Of course, she had. My daughter and many of her classmates have their own computers, for homework. Unlike their television viewing, a lot of their computer use is not closely monitored. As I asked my daughter about Club Penguin and other kid-centric virtual worlds, it became clear that one of their main appeals is that I'm largely oblivious to how much time she spends on them. (I do know she's not online with pedophiles because I regularly ask, "You're not online with pedophiles, are you?")
To educate myself—and to find out what the target audience for these sites really thinks of them—I organized a focus group of five sixth-graders, all 11 years old. I set up two laptops and let the kids show me their favorites. At times the project seemed like a demonstration for a gender studies class with the boys at one computer, the girls at another. Anna, a budding sociologist, explained, "Most sites for girls are an online world—it's socializing. For boys, it's gaming."
Broadly speaking, sites like Club Penguin allow kids to pick out an avatar that they guide through activities. As far as I could tell, this consists mostly of shopping and decorating. To purchase this fake clothing and furniture requires fake money, and to earn it, players are required to play a series of arcade-style games. What better lesson can we teach our kids: If you've just blown through your home-equity loan, you can always avoid bankruptcy by spending a couple of days in Vegas.
The Walt Disney Co. won't be happy to hear that nobody was enchanted with Club Penguin. The site, which Disney just bought for $700 million, has a limited free area where you can get your own igloo, befriend other penguins, and invite them over to admire your igloo-decorating skills. The biggest drawback of the site: In order to do advanced decorating, players have to ask their parents to pay $5.95 a month, or $57.95 a year. All the kids had enough insight into economics and psychology to know that asking their parents would not only get a "No" but draw undue attention to their leisure activities. "I only do what's free, but you get bored quickly," Anna said. Ellie thought the befriending feature was something of a sham. First of all, these penguin friendships were too meaningless even for kids who do much of their real-life socializing online. Second of all, because she wasn't a member, Ellie was embarrassed to invite people to her barren igloo because it looked "pathetic."
All of my testers much preferred Millsberry. This is a creation of the food company General Mills (which owns Pillsbury, thus Millsberry). It, too, allows kids to earn money by playing arcade games so they can decorate their homes and fill them with healthy foods such as Lucky Charms, Trix, and Reese's Puffs. Emily says the site offers some valuable lessons: "It teaches me not to spend so much money because they price things so outrageously high." The costs of goods in Millsberry were reminiscent of the Weimar Republic. At the Millsberry Academy store, a sweat shirt is 200 Millsbucks, a notebook 75, and a ruler 35. Such prices emphasize the necessity of working hard—at the arcade. Emily says she's managed to accumulate big savings because she multitasks by playing the games while she chats on e-mail. Ellie proudly showed off the pool that cost her 15,000 Millsbucks. "It took me a long time to save for it. Then I used all my money and I starved."
The girls were embarrassed to admit it, because they are too old to play with actual Barbies, but they liked Barbie.com. The site's various sickening mantras—"I love shopping!" and "Beauty is our Duty!"—made me remember the more robust Barbie games of my childhood. One favorite was when my friends and I switched Barbie and Ken's heads, stripped them, then smashed their torsos together. Now that's healthy kids' play.