Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Commercial Side of Virtual Play Worlds: Research into a Popular Online Play Space Shows How Young Children Are Pressured to Become Loyal Consumers

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Commercial Side of Virtual Play Worlds: Research into a Popular Online Play Space Shows How Young Children Are Pressured to Become Loyal Consumers

Article excerpt

Worldwide, at least a few hundred million young children (ages 5-10) are registered participants in virtual play worlds such as Club Penguin, Webkinz World, and Moshi Monsters, sites where they can inhabit online characters, explore their surroundings, play games, design virtual homes, and interact with each other (Jones & Park, 2015; KZero, 2012). However, because these online spaces are still fairly new, researchers are only just beginning to understand how children use them, how much time they spend on them, and what they learn in the process.

Along with a research team based at Indiana University, I recently completed a four-year ethnographic study of 50 young children (ages 5-8) who, while attending an after-school program, played regularly in the Club Penguin virtual world. We asked, what kinds of social interactions did these children have while playing? What kinds of digital literacy did they develop? And, most important, how were they influenced by the commercial nature of the site? For example, how different were the experiences of children who played the basic (nonpaid) and paid versions of Club Penguin?

Below, I offer a brief summary of the study, describe what we learned about the commercial design of Club Penguin, and share some ideas about the ways in which parents, teachers, and researchers might want to think about and supervise children's play in virtual worlds and other online platforms.

(As an aside, I should note that in March 2017, a few months after this study was completed, the Walt Disney Company announced that it was closing Club Penguin. Disney hasn't given a reason for the closure, but it certainly wasn't due to any decline in the club's popularity. At the time, Club Penguin had millions of active users, and its subscription fees were earning Disney millions of dollars per month. The most plausible reason for the move, some have argued, is that the site was designed in 2005 and was not fully compatible with mobile devices, which have come to dominate the market since then [Marsh, 2017]. In any case, while the original Club Penguin has closed and been replaced by a set of smartphone applications, our findings speak to the commercial side of such virtual play spaces in general, not just Club Penguin in particular.)

Young children's interactions in Club Penguin

In mid-2016, after nearly four years of studying children's online experiences in the Club Penguin world, we had arrived at the research project's final 12 weeks, which we divided into three four-week phases: During the first four weeks, a new group of study participants could access Club Penguin using basic (nonpaid) accounts, which blocked them from most activities but allowed them to play a collection of free mini-games; while on the site, participants in the study spent 99% of their time playing the games.

From week 5 through week 8, some of the children continued to use basic accounts, and others were given access to paid accounts, which offered several additional options: Paid users could purchase fancy outfits and accessories for their penguin avatars, decorate their homes (igloos) with furniture, adopt up to 45 Puffles (penguin pets), play the upper levels of some games (which basic account users couldn't access), and join various members-only events.

This gave us an opportunity to observe the ways in which basic and paid members interacted with each other and made sense of their differences. Very quickly, the basic members came to see that Club Penguin wasn't just a place to play games; actually, it was a social environment, in which they belonged to the lower class. When they tried to join certain games and activities, a message would pop up, saying they were "reserved for paid members only." In the meantime, the paid members--seeing that some of their classmates were basic account holders--were fully aware of their privileged status. Moreover, they enjoyed it, spending more and more time dressing up their avatars and taking care of their Puffles. …

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