by Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield, UK
On 31st January, 2017, Disney announced that it was closing Club Penguin, the virtual world that was originally launched by an independent Canadian company in 2005, acquired by Disney in 2007, and which, at the height of its popularity, had over 200 million registered users.
Inevitably, given that it had been an iconic part of many children’s lives in the 2000s, there was a great outpouring of grief on social media for the demise of the virtual world, including numerous nostalgic posts on the Twitter hashtag stream #ClubPenguinMemories.
I could understand these emotions, having spent many hours observing children playing in Club Penguin as part of my research over the last decade. This was a virtual world that enabled social interaction and play for young children, when numerous other social network sites ostensibly excluded them due to their age. During my prolonged periods of conducting research on its use, I observed children having fun, playing games, playing at making dens in their igloos, hosting parties and fashion shows, and engaging in play fights – all activities they enjoy in the physical world, and easily transferred to the virtual arena (if interested, see publications below for discussions of young children’s use of Club Penguin).
The world of Club Penguin extended beyond the site, of course, and spawned a whole host of fan-related activities including the machinima Club Penguin Music Videos (CPMV), fan fiction, and even alternative servers where penguin avatars could swear and not get banned (now offering a Club Penguin Reborn service for those who just can’t let go). This kind of peer-to-peer online cultural production is now commonplace, but in the early years of Club Penguin, it was a relatively new phenomenon.
The use of this virtual world enabled children to develop and practice a range of skills and it was utilised by teachers as a means of engaging children in a range of learning activities, from writing to mathematics. Some argued that the commercial nature of the site meant that these kinds of opportunities were more limited than in relation to other kinds of virtual worlds such as Minecraft, and there has been extensive discussion of the marketing intent of producers and how that limits opportunities for in-game creativity by expert analysts such as Sara Grimes. Notwithstanding these points, this particular virtual world’s value for all kinds of learning was clear in the observations I undertook. Further, I would argue that children’s use of Club Penguin offered an early introduction for parents to the world of children’s online social networks, and enabled them to engage in important critical reflection on these issues in the years when such activities were just emerging for the under-eights. Therefore, it can be seen that Club Penguin offered an early significant prompt for the analysis of many of the themes and issues that are pertinent to any contemporary study of young children’s online lives.
There are various theories about why Disney decided to close the site, including those who believe it was down to Russian hackers. However, a major part of the decision must have rested on the fact that Club Penguin was originally designed for desktop PCs and was produced in Flash, which is not supported by many mobile devices. In a world in which young children are largely online using smartphones and tablets, things needed to change. Disney have now launched an iOS and Android version of Club Penguin titled Club Penguin Island, but the app has been criticised by some die-hard Club Penguin fans as not being as much fun to use as its predecessor.
Perhaps this won’t matter in the long run. With the advent of Virtual Reality, soon online games that enable a user to experience an environment through the use of an avatar whilst the user sits firmly in the physical world will be old hat. Already, users can walk through virtual worlds themselves, donning a headset. When Virtual Reality meets Club Penguin Island or the like in the years to come, who needs a penguin avatar?
Marsh, J. (2014). The discourses of celebrity in the fanvid ecology of Club Penguin machinima. In R.H. Jones, A. Chik & C. A. Hafner (eds) Discourse and digital practices: Doing discourse analysis in the digital age. (pp. 193–208) New York: Routledge.
Marsh, J. (2014) Researching young children’s literacy practices in online virtual worlds: Cyber-ethnography and multi-method approaches. In Albers, M., Flint, A. and Holbrook, T. (eds) New methods in literacy research. New York: Routledge. pp195-209.
Marsh, J. (2013). Breaking the ice: Play, friendships and social identities in young children’s use of virtual worlds. In Burke, A. & Marsh, J. (eds) Children’s Virtual Play Worlds: Culture, Learning and Participation. (pp. 59-78). New York: Peter Lang.
Marsh, J. (2013). Online and offline play. In A. Burn & C. Richards (eds) Children’s Games in the New Media Age: Childlore, Media and the Playground. (pp. 109–132.) London: Ashgate.
Marsh, J. (2012). Countering chaos in Club Penguin: Young children’s literacy practices in a virtual world. In Merchant G, Gillen J, Marsh J & Davies J (Eds) Virtual Literacies: Interactive Spaces for Children and Young People.(pp. 75-88). New York: Routledge.
Marsh, J. (2012). Purposes for literacy in children’s use of the online virtual world ‘Club Penguin’. Journal of Research in Reading. 37 (2), 179-195.
Marsh, J. (2011) Young Children’s Literacy Practices in a Virtual World: Establishing an Online Interaction Order. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(2), 101–118. doi: 10.1598/RRQ.46.2.1
Marsh, J. (2010) ‘Young children’s play in online virtual worlds’, Journal of Early Childhood Research, Vol 8 (1) pp:23 –39.