Rees came home one day last spring all excited about a game a friend at school had mentioned called Club Penguin. It was on a site Rees frequents where he can sample short, free computer games. Club Penguin was different from the other games because it was an interactive game. You can make your own character (a penguin) and interact with other penguin characters that other people have invented.
The boys were really interested in signing up, but they needed an email address. I didn't want them to use mine, so I made accounts for both of them on hotmail. As our first foray into the internet, I found myself teaching them not to use their real names or real information. On the one hand this felt weird, like teaching them to not tell the truth, but then I thought it could help them understand that other people may not be who they say they are online either. They could be anybody. I told them to use a name and age and zip that was close, but not quite right.
Kadin, in typical stubborn fashion, balked when I said, "Okay, now it wants your password. You need to use something you can remember." "I don't want to." Just because I said "need to" he refused? We went back and forth on this for awhile, me explaining why, him refusing, until we finally came up with a password he could remember. I mean really, it was not like I was doing this for my benefit!
So they signed up to Club Penguin and were off. I have never played the game, but here is the deal from my limited understanding: You create your penguin character and go around your penguin world playing games like tic-tack-toe and connect four with other penguins. When you win, you get "tokens." You can then spend your tokens at the store and buy things like clothes and toys and pets. It all seemed rather commercial to me. Then there is the hitch. You can only buy one kind of pet and only buy most things, like an igloo or decorations for your igloo, if you join and become a member. Membership is a subscription that costs approximately $6/month. Real dollars.
The neighbor boy came over during this and he was really interested in the game too. So he ran home to "play" with Rees. It was then that I knew that we had really entered a new world. In my day, we never went home to play with someone else, we stayed together in the same place. How passé that all seems now.
This penguin game looked very superficial to me, but it was novel for the kids. Rees bought a pet and that hooked him for awhile. Kadin loved it and would happily create new personas every time he logged on. Here was my five-year-old playing internet games with other people—supposedly other under-eights—in other places. It all seemed harmless, but the thought of lots of other pretty young kids around the world playing was odd. Kadin, for example, would start a game and then just walk away. That's something you probably wouldn't do in the real world, but he seemed unperturbed by such behavior in the virtual world. Lots of the penguins in the game seemed to just be standing around, clueless. Kind of like if you had a room full of under-eights and a couple of board games in the real world, if you think about it. These are truly strange times.
Rees and Kadin really wanted to join/subscribe, of course. We talked about this and about how much money it was and where they could get the money. We also talked about other ways they could use their money instead of buying toys for a character on the internet. And we talked about how the game was designed to get them to want to give it their money. The neighbor boy did join and bought more pets.
And then, the betrayal happened. The boy next door came over crying. Apparently one of his pets had run away. "I didn't play with him enough, so he left," he said.
Wow, so that is how they keep you coming back. If you don’t log on often enough, your pet runs away! I guess that you could argue that it is better to have a virtual pet run away than to ignore a real pet. Or that it is fine to have a virtual pet that requires no real TLC, but this virtual pet did demand screen time. And it is another way they get you to spend your time and money with the internet game. Games are designed to be addictive, but this is a whole new level of commitment.
The upshot is that so far, neither of my kids has joined, but they still, Kadin especially, enjoy playing from time to time. This all happened last spring, and now it seems that these interactive games are everywhere. The novelty has worn off and now this is a normal way for the kids to play.
It truly is a strange new world. I just heard a whole radio program today about one of these virtual worlds called "Second Life" that is for adults. People make their own virtual characters called Avatars and the can own virtual property and start virtual businesses where people buy virtual services or virtual products. People design virtual cars and make virtual inventions. There is a lot of real money going into this virtual world as well. Real commerce is happening via the virtual commerce. Real companies are getting involved. Reuters and Wired have created reporting desks and have real journalists assigned to report on news from this virtual world. Radio programs have sprung up in the virtual world to report on issues from Second Life.
It is a little bit hard for me to get my head around this or understand how someone would want to put that much time or money into something like this. But I don't think that will be a problem for my kids at all.