On Penguins and Dystopia

by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Happy_jumping Online social networking is in the news of late–particularly as it applies to active, “older” users. Technically, that is me, though I’m inclined to dispute “older” as a demographic label (I’m 39! At least, according to Facebook’s Realage application). But I can’t argue that I’m active. Over the past year, in fact, I’ve gone on something of a cybernetworking binge, re-connecting with former classmates, “meeting” other writers, and composing lists of random facts, desert island playlists and theoretical “bail” estimates (645, if you’re interested. O.K., 645.50).

Like many earnest writers, I rationalize these lost hours as a sunk cost of doing e-commerce in the new millenium. After all, I have an upcoming paperback to promote. And with many publishers just discovering the brave new world of online publicity and the industry itself in screaming freefall, an internet presence seems as crucial to authors these days as family money, or jobs that actually pay. Which might explain why on some “work” days, I spend more time on my status update then I do on my second novel.

What I’ve had more trouble rationalizing, however, is the increasing chunk of time cybernetworking takes up in the lives of my daughters, eight and five respectively. Neither is on Facebook yet (a good thing, as I’d hate to defend my bail score to them. Particularly that last 50 cents). But they are both staunch fans of Club Penguin, a site that some see as a Facebook training ground of sorts.

I first learned about this parallel penguin world last year, when my eldest interrupted an important Facebook dispatch (a self-assessment of my general high school nerdiness) with a somewhat alarming question: “Hey Mom! What’s your Paypal password?”

“Uh–why do you need it?” I asked.

“I’m buying a penguin.”

Granted, a better answer than some of the alternatives (I’m getting a Snuggie! A Nigerian’s sending us money! Or worst of all: We’re eligible for a Disney cruise!) Still, the idea of a wet bird joining our psycho cat, attention-starved dog and two surly salamanders (soon to become one, thanks to either the dog or the cat) halted me in my cybertracks. And not only because the dog also happens to be a birder.

Putting aside, for the moment, the pressing question of whether or not my teen self was “considered a flirt” (it was not) I joined my eldest daughter—who was still trying to crack my bank account–on the couch. Repossessing my backup laptop, I backtracked a few pages. I found myself on a snow-covered island with several cheerful, oddly-dressed penguins. “Welcome to Club Penguin!” the site greeted me. “Waddle around and make new friends!”

“What is this?” I asked.

“Club Penguin,” Katie said, in a tone that suggested I’d just asked her to remind me of her name.

“What’s it for?”

“You walk around as a penguin.”

“That’s it?”

“ No, you do stuff. Look; here’s the disco.” Grabbing back the mouse, Katie brought her then-penguin “Greta12” (penguin names have been changed to protect the waddlers) across the screen to the Penguintown nightclub. Inside, music throbbed and the neon dance floor blinked. A penguin DJ spun vinyl for assorted, bopping penguins. A few waddled over and produced “emoticon” symbols: lightbulbs, smiley-faces. Another—by the screen name of “Nads123”—offered up a bubbled caption: Wassup.

Hi, Katie typed back; then clicked on something that caused Gretel to flap her arms and genuflect. (Or least, that’s what it looked like to me.)

“Who is Nads?” I asked.

“A new friend,” she said, in her duh voice. Doubleclicking, she deftly pulled up Nads in more detail: a leather jacket. Aviator shades. An Elvis-style pompadour. Another click, and he was on her buddylist. Nads responded with a heart icon and an electronic emission that sounded suspiciously like a fart.

“Was that a fart?” I asked.

She giggled. “Yeah.”

“Aren’t you already doing it?” I asked dubiously. “Playing, I mean? Why do you have to pay?”

“If you’re not a member you can’t buy clothes, or decorate your igloo. And you can only get two puffles, and only the red and blue ones.”

“Puffles?”

Another eye-roll. “The penguins’ pets. All the cool penguins have yellow, orange and black ones.

My daughter is actually quite an ardent environmentalist. But pointing out that real penguins don’t have pets (or igloos, or DJ’s) seemed, well, pointless: an exercise in ornithology this was not. Instead, I scanned the Parents page to see how it all worked. Apart from Nads and his digestive issues, it all seemed well thought-out, above-board. There are no bail tallies on Club Penguin, and no commercial links that might land kids on gambling sites or tantric massage centers. Real names, addresses, phone numbers, and obscenities (if not flatulence) are assiduously screened out, and adult monitors keep tabs on the general waddlings-about. Players are encouraged to report rule infractions; they can also apply for the elite “Secret Agent” status that that grants them a kind of mini-moderator status themselves. Convictions—on cursing, soliciting phone numbers, or financial fraud charges—can lead to bans from one day in duration, to an entire human lifetime. This holds true even if the “crime” was unintentional, as it was in the case of my friend Sonia’s daughter, who once asked a fellow waddler where he “got his shit.” She meant shirt, of course; but she still got the boot.

In some ways, though, such stringency was reassuring; as was the site’s assertion that Club Penguin is a great place to learn and grow. Children practice reading, develop keyboarding skills and participate in creative role playing… [They also] develop important social skills while gaining a deeper understanding of their role as members of a community. In other words, just like Facebook, this networking site has some serious and practical utility; even if Nad’s social skills did strike me as somewhat underdeveloped. And even if the starchy New Englander in me (the one that as a child walked miles to school, daily in the rain, uphill both ways) couldn’t help but wonder whether Katie shouldn’t spend her time more, well, actively. Doing homework, for example. Or reading about Narnia. Or weaving potholders that would never touch a pot. Things I did at her age. Ideally, things that didn’t involve me, as I still had that nerd survey to finish.

Sensing my hesitation, Katie shifted to wheedle mode. “Pleeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaase,” she pleaded. “Just look at me. I’m naked. I’m lonely. I need a pet.” I considered my current status: Jennifer’s daughter is naked and lonely. Jennifer needs to finish her high school nerd note. On cue, our needy Spaniel rubbed her nose against Katie’s hand; she was decisively ignored. Onscreen Greta12–now mysteriously on a ski-slope—emoted a sad and lonely face. No Nads in sight now, though I did see a brown penguin named “Poopoo623.”

“You won’t even have to do anything, once I’m a member,” Katie coaxed. “I’ll do everything myself.”

Jennifer just got some free work time on Facebook. “OK,” I said. “But you pay half. And I do the Paypal payment.”

Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou! You’re the best mom in the world.” (Jennifer is the best mom in the world!)

So Katie went puffle shopping, and I returned to past nerddom. Molly slunk dejectedly into her house. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “It’ll only last a week or two.”

But the weeks waddled by, with no sign of cybernetworking dwindling. In either of our lives. If anything, it grew: by week three I was contemplating my Best Books in All of History, while Katie played penguin games like “bean counting.” (Which might explain the farting.) Her sister caught the bug and frequently hovered at Katie’s shoulder, cheering Greta12 on in her adventures. A typical exchange:

“Ooooh! He farted!”

“Now he’s saying he loves me.”
“I know—yuck! Get away from him!”

“Oooooh! He farted AGAIN! What do I do?”

“Fart back!”

“I don’t know howwwww!”

I still worried that social networking was keeping Katie (and now Hannah) from more wholesome, traditional childhood pastimes. But I also appreciated the time her hobby gave me: whole hours opened up while she waddled around, making friends. Her new obsession also offered an unprecedented bargaining tool: No logging on until you’ve cleaned your room! Use that tone with me once more, young lady, and you’ll lose all your new friends! In truth, all you had to say was penguin—in a faintly ominous tone–and the bed was made in a matter of minutes.

Katie’s buddy list—and mine–continued to grow steadily, though she trimmed it with a ruthlessness worthy of Project Runway. Her make-or-break friendship system made Facebook’s Whopper Sacrifice program (http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/01/15/burger-king-cancels-facebook-ad-campaign/) look like easy love. Even Nads was banished, a mere two days after flatulating his way onto her list. “What happened?” I asked.

“He was weird,” she said. “And I hated his hair.”

So in Penguinland, fashion more or less equals social worth. I’ll admit, my inner nerd (the one not seen as a flirt, who wore her Lee cords above her ankles, in the rain) took exception to this equation. The Facebooker in me, however, sort of got it. As Lee Siegal (disgraced blogger and New Republic editor) posits in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, venturing online requires a certain reductionism of the self. We are known and judged not by the content of our character, but by the content of our ipods. Or in Katie’s case, by the color of her puffles. In the end we are (at least, in Seigel’s terminology) little more than cyberghosts: Ads pop up, spam comes in….Search engines pick up on what you post….Gradually, on e-mail, on your blog, on eBay, on Jdate.com, by hook or by crook, the ghosts in your machine — other people — throng closer to you. Thus, in “real life” Nads might be a nuanced and lovely boy; a Sudoku wiz. A Shakespeare reader. An accomplished drummer or trombonist. In Penguinworld, however, he is nothing more then a farting penguin with bad hair. I couldn’t blame Katie for dumping him.

A few weeks later, however, I was forced to reconsider this boil-yourself-down-to-the-cyberdregs system. My younger daughter, having completed the prerequisite wheedling, was now a Club member too. She could often be found waddling around in a blonde wig and a purple tutu, typing primal captions like “noooooooeeeeeeeennnnnnssssss!” and “ssssssspll99999999999!” Curious to see how an illiterate five-year-old social networked, I joined her at the club one day. We started out at the lighthouse, scanning the seas for a penguin pirate by the name of Rockhopper (seeing him was extremely important, though I never quite figured out why). Failing this, we waddled over to the Penguintown skating rink and met Marcus, a blue penguin in a brown Steelers sweatshirt. Hannah offered up a happy face. He offered one back. Then he added: “You know, I’m not really from Pittsburgh.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“What’s he saying?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, truthfully. “But maybe we should go meet someone else.”

“No!” she squealed. “Let’s report him!”

“For what?”

“He’s ugly,” Hannah retorted, and clicked the Moderator button in a way that suggested she’d done this many times before. “Quick, Mommy! How do you spell ‘ugly?’”

I eventually dissuaded her from sending poor Marcus to the slammer. Instead, we farted in his general direction, this being a keyboarding skill that we had by now “developed.” Still, as I adjusted my LivingSocial Album to more accurately reflect my obsession with the Kills I felt a chill that had nothing to do with virtual snow. Sure, social networking was keeping my kids happy and safe, giving Hannah motivation to learn her letters, and giving me productive work time (like right now). But at what point does “safe” become downright dystopian? Was my toddler becoming the pink penguin equivalent of one of Mao Tse Tung’s Red Guards?

I took this and other questions to the King Penguin himself; or at least, to one of them. In 2004, Lane Merrifield founded the site with two other Internet specialists and parents. Their goal: to create a virtual world where kids of all ages could “play games, have fun and interact.”

There’s little doubt they succeeded; by 2007 Club Penguin reportedly had 12 million account holders. That same year Disney bought it, perhaps guessing that farting Arctic fowl might make an ideal family cruise theme. To my knowledge (and relief) the cruise thing has yet to materialize. But the site has garnered numerous awards and distinctions, including the 2008 Parents’ Choice Award, the 2008 Kidspot Best Website (8-11 years) Award, the 2008 National Parenting Publications Award and the 2008 Web Award.

Mr. Merrifield—who is now an executive VP for Disney Online Studios–wouldn’t confirm Club Penguin’s current membership figures. But he did reveal that the site’s largest player bases are in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and Brazil. In fact, in November Disney launched Penguinland in Portuguese, its first non-English version (Waddle em volta e fazer amigos!). It is about to announce a French version (Waddle et se faire des nouveaux amis!), with Spanish (Waddle alrededor y haz amigos nuevos!) soon to follow. Nothing yet in Chinese; but as regards my Red Guard question Merrifield wrote back: “[the reporting system] is really just our version of a Neighborhood Watch program. It allows members of the community to take responsibility and play a role in keeping Club Penguin the kind of place they want to spend time.” Again, not so different from Facebook: who doesn’t want to spend time in a place that lays your sexual and hygienic past open to all six-hundred-plus of your friends?

Merrifield contested the idea of Club Penguin as a kind of Facebook Jr. He did posit, however, that it could be helpful training for the future: “Children who go online need to understand basic online safety and how to conduct themselves,” he wrote. “If parents can work with us and with their children to instill these values early on, children will be better prepared to deal with moving onto sites that might not be as closely monitored as Club Penguin when they’re older.”

But was he aware (I wrote) that those “values” include fart sounds?

“I have to admit, I did know about that one,” Merrifield wrote back, emoting (I imagined) a virtual sheepish face. “It was a request that came from the kids that we obliged. It makes them laugh. And while pressing a combination of keys may make that happen, it’s not something we proscribe or tell the kids about.” [Pssst: the secret keys are E and T!] “If they actually go to the effort and exploration required to discover it, and it’s not something we feel is hurting anyone or really breaking the rules, it’s okay.”

Of course, the line between rule-breaking and rule-abiding can be subtle, as I discovered just this weekend. The “Club Penguin Awards” is an Oscar-like event where members waddle around in formalwear, parroting lines like “You seem like an attentive, lovely audience!” and “I’d like to thank the Academy…” It actually looked kind of fun, so when Katie left to take a brief bathroom break I took the opportunity to fill in. Someone waddled up and bubbled “Look at these amazing outfits!” Somewhat influenced by my second glass of wine (it was Friday night, after all) I typed back: “Gee, I hope no one’s wardrobe malfunctions!” I thought that was pretty funny—until Sunday morning, when Katie tried to log in.

“I’ve been banned!” she exclaimed, in astonishment.

“Oh, geez,” I said (emoting a sheepish face). “I’m so sorry.” And I was—it was her first time in ban-dom, and I could tell it really hurt her to be banned from her puffles and her igloo. And in the end, of course, it hurt me too; for what on earth is she going to do for the next twenty-four hours while I try (for purely professional purposes) to figure out Facebook’s new homepage setup?

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