An "adult" joins Club Penguin.

Culture and technology.
Sept. 14 2007 7:41 AM

Ice Ice Baby

My few weeks in Club Penguin, a social networking site for middle-schoolers.

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Club 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 site.

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.

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The 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.

The 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 intended.

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.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.