Lets Play Commissar

Caitlin Flanagan’s article about cyber-stalking in the new Atlantic contains this description of Club Penguin, a social networking opportunity I’d never heard of:

What fun they had! Club Penguin is a cute, happy virtual world in which you create an adorable little penguin in whose guise you can travel to all sorts of fun spots and play video games (making pizzas against the clock, playing ice hockey, going inner-tubing), for which you win coins. With the coins you can buy clothes and furniture and cool stuff for your virtual igloo. The boys loved it. Everyone loved it. Club Penguin was the most happening event of the second grade; to be denied it was to be denied not just a pleasure but an essential mode of schoolyard discussion and inclusion, a way of being a second-grader.

But I never let them play again, be-cause something about it scared me: The penguins could chat with each other. True, the chatting is monitored by paid professionals and a citizens’ army of tattlers, children who’ve been members for more than 30 days and who’ve been commissioned as “Secret Agents” to loiter in the public spaces and report on inappropriate chat, including the exchange of telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. But these protocols only highlight the paradox at Club Penguin’s core: It’s certainly the safest way for unsupervised children to talk to potentially malevolent strangers—but why would you want them to do that in the first place?

Maybe this is the difference between being a parent and being a callow youth, but to me the salient point here is that I’m not sure I’m thrilled with the idea that today’s youth are hanging out in a cutesy, virtual East Germany. Who wants their kids playing a game where they get commissioned as “Secret Agents” charged with informing on their fellow avatars to the authorities? It’s creepy and weird.