South Korea is going to impose a six-hour blackout period every day for kids playing online games. The old me would have found this oppressive. That was before my 9-year-old daughter started running home every day after school to hop on Club Penguin. Now I think the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Seoul may be on to something.
If you have a child between the ages of 7 and 12, you are probably well aware of this junior cyber-social world where kids assume penguin identities and waddle around exploring an icy wonderland, chatting and playing games with their flippered friends. According to my daughter, every kid in her class, not to mention the entire continent, has a membership to Club Penguin. Except for her.
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It's not that I hate that she's not outside playing or using her own imagination (instead of a software designer's). It's not that she's eating up my own Facebook time, hypocrite that I am. It's mainly that I have to pay for her to join this digital playground ($5.95 a month, $57.95 a year).
Non-paying members can still create penguin avatars and play some games, but only paying members can buy clothes, decorate their igloos and go into certain VIP virtual worlds and parties. Although she has befriended classmates on Club Penguin, my daughter's invitation to befriend others has been turned down because she is not a paying member and therefore not as fun to be with.
Most of these restrictions were imposed after Disney acquired the website in 2007 for $700 million. I know the Mouse has to pay off that bill somehow, but does it have to do in on the backs of today's schoolchildren? My daughter isn't even 10 yet, but she's being taught by this stupid game that life is all about keeping up with the Penguins and having the coolest igloo with all the right clothes.
One of the goals in this icy website world is to win coins by playing games so you can buy things in the virtual stores. Each month, a new catalog of outfits and igloo upgrades is introduced. Kids too impatient to play a game to earn coins can buy virtual coins with real money.
There's also a Club Penguin online store, where you can buy stuffed "friends" for $9.95, as well as video games, trading cards, puzzles, books and clothes, also sold at Wal-Mart, Target and other stores.
I've explained to my daughter my objections to Club Penguin, that I can't in good conscience pay for something I so oppose, especially at a time when I'm looking for ways to save money, not spend it. I point out that some day this penguin will lose its appeal, just like Webkinz did.
Meanwhile, I daydream about a ravenous virtual killer whale discovering Club Penguin, starting his hunt with the penguin in the coolest clothes and most tricked-out igloo.