Wednesday, January 30, 2013

a club i don't want to join

For all of those folks who love Mickey and all his friends, this post, which is a bit of an anti-Disney rant, is not for you. I don't deny that Disney and its products have brought many people, my kid included, a great deal of joy over the years. But I also can't deny how the influence of the company, especially from a marketing standpoint, is becoming more and more of an overwhelming presence in my child's life. And frankly, I'm sick of it.

We seem to have escaped the Disney Princess syndrome, at least. Of course we have a few dolls —  Pocahontas and Merida, to be exact — but they have to fight with Barbie and a Bratzilla for Harry Potter's attention. My daughter doesn't seem to have been sucked into the "everything princess-y" faze, and for that I'm grateful. It's not that I don't like princesses per se. In fact, I'm a huge fan of myths and fairy tales. It's just that I want the kid to see and read many interpretations. Disney is not canon. To know that the original story from the 1001 Arabian Nights wasn't mostly about Princess Jasmine and who she's going to marry, but about a clever and tricky little rascal named Aladdin. And that there's a whole 'nother version of The Little Mermaid out there that will really rattle her one of these days.

But there must have been something Disney did to stir me up enough to write this post, right? Yes, there was. The chief culprit and the bane of my recent existence is a website called Club Penguin. It's a bit like The Sims for kids, with penguins instead of people. The kid is obsessed with it. The powers-that-be at Disney have married their obsessive marketing towards children with the power of the internet in one nice little insidious package. The kid can join Club Penguin for free, so no harm done, right? Except for the relentless dangling of all the perks — more clothes for your penguin, more puffles (a penguin pet), more, more, more, more stuff that you just have to have — if you can just convince your parents to sign you up for the paid monthly membership.
"Prior to being purchased by Disney, Club Penguin was almost entirely dependent on membership fees to produce a revenue stream. Nevertheless, the vast majority of users (90% according to The Washington Post) chose not to pay, instead taking advantage of the free play on offer. Those who choose to pay do so because full (paid) membership is required to access all of the services, such as the ability to purchase virtual clothes for the penguins and buy decorations for igloos; and because peer pressure has created a "caste system" separating paid from unpaid members." — Wikipedia, quoting Robertson, Heather-Jane (2007). "Postman Does Penguins," Phi Delta Kappan
Although the game is designed for kids, any age can sign up and play. This is of course a concern, as being able to chat and interact with other players is open to all, whether you pay or not. It's supposed to be safe, but ...

There is also a series of Club Penguin books that contain keys to various gifts in the game, which encourage the kid to want to get more stuff while playing. More, more more. The cult of more. She is always checking those out at the library, although I doubt whether she reads them, but instead scans them for clues. She can also collect coins in the game to help "pay" for more stuff.

I never said the puffles weren't cute - they are
Apparently just being a penguin with a puffle in a virtual winter environment is not enough. Some of her friends play Club Penguin, which is fun for her. But she has also made many other virtual "friends" who she may sometimes have fun with, but who also occasionally hurt her feelings by what they say or how they act. All normal kid stuff, right? Except instead of having virtual arguments or wishing that her penguin is as tricked out as some of her friends, she might be outside playing in the sunshine or reading a book, or so many other things. I'd rather she had a real argument with a kid on the playground than be ticked off because someone was rude to her outside her virtual igloo.

I monitor the time she spends playing the game, and I want her to have shared experiences with her friends, but I am concerned and frustrated that like so many other Disney-associated products, there always seems to be the inevitable dollar sign attached. I'm just hoping that like other things, she will soon grow out of, or bored with Club Penguin and move on to something else. Hopefully something that doesn't have a never-ending price tag. I currently am disappointing her by having to constantly reiterate why I won't be signing up my credit card to deduct a monthly fee to Disney. It's one way for her to learn the value of money, by my not spending it unnecessarily, on something I don't entirely approve of.
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