As I write up my thesis chapter on kids' virtual bedroom culture, I've gone back to dedicating large portions of my days to inhabiting and revisiting my case study worlds - BarbieGirls, Club Penguin, et al. I've found myself spending a particularly significant amount of time in Club Penguin - not only is the site in the midst of launching a new tie-in toy line and Nintendo DS crossover - but a number of very interesting events and new developments have taken place there of late, which I've found important to make note of. The snow-in at the dojo...the amazing community celebrations that occured around the site's 3rd anniversary and then around Halloween. The ongoing obsession with ninja sightings. All great stuff when it comes to studying emergent play vs. viral marketing in kids' virtual worlds. Anyhow, perhaps it's because I've been spending so much time there lately (in addition to the hours and hours and hours I've logged in this and my other case study sites over the past two years) that I was particularly disturbed by this new piece of alarmist nay-saying that featured in the Vancouver Sun over the weekend. It seems that a newly launched kids' online safety watchdog group in the US called CyberSafeNation has found some evidence that some kids' sites aren't doing enough when it comes to chat moderation and player monitoring. Unfortunately, instead of revealing their evidence and naming some specific examples of risky sites, they've decided to go after kids' virtual worlds in general...with Club Penguin positioned right at the centre of their campaign to have kids' access to online communication shut down altogether.
The folks over at Club Penguin have already responded to the accusation, pointing to the fact that their moderation system does effectively block out the types of inappropriate talk that CyberSafeNation has found in other sites. They also point out that they offer a SafeChat system that does already limit players to a selection of pre-approved and extremely G-rated chat sentences. And I have to say, that even after all this time, my position on Club Penguin's above-average safety and highly effective moderation system hasn't changed. Having now logged well over 80 hours in the site, observing kids' interactions and making note of any type of deviance, the vast vast majority of which is innocuous, I've never seen or heard anything that remotely resembles CyberSafeNation's description of "kiddie porn". That said, the same is certainly NOT the case for some of the other sites I've examined...Nicktropolis has basically turned into a cruising bar, and a segment of the BarbieGirls community is as obsessed with "dates" as it is with clothes. Although both sites have arbitrarily restricted players' ability to engage in critical discussion with one another, they have been amazingly lax when it comes to monitoring chat for inappropriate themes and conversations (which often take place in full view of other players) or at identifying potentially risky workarounds (the article mentions spelling out phone numbers to get around bans on putting in the numbers directly...the sites I'm studying haven't missed anything THAT obvious, but there are plenty of other, more subtle examples). CyberSafeNation's findings are reflective of a number of sites geared to kids that currently attract enormous population bases and expose/enable players to various degrees of inappropriate talk, propositions and behaviours (of course, I also advocate taking a much more nuanced and less alarmist approach to kids' "inappropriate" behaviours - but that's a topic for another day).
So why pick on Club Penguin? Well, the goal here is obviously to create a whole lot of widespread worry and panic about kids' virtual worlds, and since Club Penguin is so massively popular among kids (not to mention the high visibility and media-panic-responsiveness of parent company Disney) it's an easy target. What frustrates me most about all this is that I wholeheartedly support the need for a more concerted and widespread public debate around kids' VW's. We SHOULD be talking about the ways in which they're regulated (or not), designed, manipulated for commercial gain, but we also need to consider the ways in which these sites are used to construct meaningful communities of interest, provide a much needed space for social and peer group play, allow for player creativity and innovation, and give kids an opportunity to express themselves in a public forum. If previous digital games/media/culture debates have taught us anything, it's that polarized, essentializing and misinformed dichotomies do little more than kill legitimate debate about these issues and developments. An "all or nothing approach" that claims banning kids from online communication as the only acceptable solution not only accentuates (and very likely exaggerates) the risk while completely ignoring the benefits of virtual worlds and other types of CMC, but it also dismisses the importance and legitimacy of children's rights to free expression and to create their own cultural spaces and discourses. Let's not punish kids for our systemmatic failure to protect and promote their rights, interests and safety online. We've got a lot of options here beyond banning kids outright from a significant new form of culture and human communication...better (or even just 'some') regulation, corporate accountability and transparency, and the establishment of support systems that facilitate parental involvement are all viable possibilities that have never been given serious consideration.
It's also far time that advocacy groups, politicians and the press stop making sweeping and potentially dangerous generalizations about various forms of media and technology. Groups like CyberSafeNation can provide an absolutely invaluable (public) service by acting as watchdog and holding corporations accountable, but only if their findings are reported fairly and accurately. If certain games are more dangerous than others, isn't it important to report on precisely WHICH games are high risk and have poor moderation systems? Rather than stir up some potentially unrelated panic about a more popular site? I'm deeply disturbed by the lack of responsibility shown in the Vancouver Sun article...obviously the examples they cite aren't ones that were actually found in Club Penguin, but they were found somewhere. Why did feeding panic about Club Penguin take priority over protecting the kids who actually use the sites where the risky behaviours were recorded by CyberSafeNation? And how are parents supposed to be able to make informed choices without specific, timely and accurate information?