SOME years ago, when he was about seven, Our Dougie begged to be allowed to go on a new interactive webchat site called Club Penguin.
Back then it was a fairly scary prospect: letting your kids on internet ‘chatrooms’ and social networking sites (it was all MySpace, Friends Reunited and Bebo – Facebook was the underdog). MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) were just role playing games.
We had a home computer, but didn’t let the kids go on it much and certainly not without us sitting on their shoulder.
Then Club Penguin came along, a site which let 6-14 year-olds wander around a virtual snowy world as a Penguin, have a pet called a Puffle, take part in games to win virtual coins and meet ‘friends’. It was this latter part which jolted parents out of their comfort zone – after all, couldn’t any old perv’ say they were a ten-year-old and ‘groom’ your child?
No, said the site’s creators, who had developed the program precisely to offer a ‘safe’ online environment for their own children. It has real-time moderators, blocks on offensive language and any words which may give away any personal location information about themselves. So far, so popular – Club Penguin membership shot up to 30million by 2007 and was bought out by the Disney Company.
Doug loved it. He wasn’t allowed to buy membership at first because quite frankly, I thought he’d get bored of it. But his school friends were on it too, and none of them seemed particularly bothered about meeting new penguins, they just liked the novelty of speaking to each other in real time via speech bubbles on their computer screens.
After a while Doug saved his pocket money to buy membership (monthly, if I remember rightly, again, the boredom factor). This meant he could access more ‘shops’ and furnish his igloo home.
But eventually he did get bored. His older brother got busted for lying about his age to get a Facebook account, so he didn’t even bother trying and still hasn’t got an account (waiting to turn 13 this year).
Doug’s interest in online chat switched briefly to bad grammar and spelling via Microsoft Messenger, then more recently to actually talking to his mates while hooked up to a headset playing online multiplayer games on the Xbox.
This in itself is a terrifying thing. Anyone can play Xbox and talk online, unless of course they only choose the option to play with people they already know. I have walked in before to hear weird accents coming from the TV when the boys are playing online, but they turn the volume down and ignore the background chatter, preferring the banter with their own schoolfriends.
Several years on since those early Club Penguin days, times have changed for us all (and the game was hilariously parodied in Three Lions).
Jed hardly walks two steps without his mobile bleeping a new Facebook notification, Dougie spends Saturday mornings playing shoot ’em ups while chatting away to his comrades on the headset, then goes off to actually play them face-to-face in rugby matches. Even Bloke and I are never far away from our Twitter accounts.
So now it’s little Bill’s turn.
We spent several minutes on the phone with his friend’s mum the other night negotiating a meeting place in a Dojo courtyard in some part of Club Penguin world. At the grand old age of eight he wants a Club Penguin account, costing £3.95 for a month, £19.95 for six months or £29.95 for 12 months. We’ve been there, done that, so for now, he can make do with the free version.
Sometimes I find myself thanking my lucky stars I’ve been through the online revolution with the three boys first – I suspect if she were the eldest Bonnie would have been far more stubborn and devious about it.