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"
Flipper-in-flipper, 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.
The 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 popular.
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.
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.
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.