MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
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And I'm Melissa Block.
If you've got a tween at home or maybe in the car with you, then you may not need any introduction to Club Penguin. For the rest of us, Club Penguin is a popular online game site for kids age seven to 12. It's also a social networking site where children can wander through a virtual world, making new friends and talking to total strangers.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: In Club Penguin, not surprisingly, penguins rule. They waddle around a snow-covered world, throwing snowballs, going sledding, stopping by the pizza parlor, visiting each other's igloos. The movements of these animated penguins are controlled by a real, live person, usually someone under the age of 13.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
Unidentified Woman #1: No. Don't ever purposely run into walls Whatever you might be thinking about, running into walls is not good.
Unidentified Woman #2: You're good at that, Henry.
NEARY: This group of fifth and six graders got together one night to play Club Penguin at a friend's house in Arlington, Virginia. Eleven-year-old Henry Conklin(ph) tried to explain to the uninitiated why he likes Club Penguin so much.
HENRY CONKLIN: Because you can go around and you can earn money. You can chat with people. You can design a house for yourself, or you can just look around at Club Penguin.
NEARY: On Club Penguin, kids earn coins when they play games, ranging from simple sledding races to more complex games of logic. They use their penguin money to buy things - clothes for their penguins, furniture for their igloos, and puffles, little furry creatures they have to take care of.
Depending on kids' taste and the amount of time they spend on Club Penguin, an igloo can be overflowing with stuff or very simple. One of the voyeuristic thrills of Club Penguin is to see what other people have in their igloos. On this night, 11-year-old Rifkey Adiesa(ph) takes an igloo tour while Elliot Grace and Robby Worton look over his shoulder.
RIFKEY ADIESA: It's a very fancy igloo.
ELLIOT GRACE: Well, I thought that was yours?
ADIESA: No, mine (unintelligible).
NEARY: Now, who's igloo was that?
NEARY: Henry's? And he's got a little more spare look to his igloo.
CONKLIN: I think you should put in a band or make it Japanese.
NEARY: Besides game playing and igloo decorating, kids can also meet people at Club Penguin, which is unique for kids this age on a Web site like this.
NEARY: So, now, maybe you guys could explain to me how you talk to each other.
CONKLIN: You type on this little space and send.
NEARY: Do you ever talk to people you don't know?
CONKLIN: Yes. I have so many people who I don't know, like this. I don't know her.
NEARY: The idea of kids as young as seven, maybe even younger, meeting unknown people in a virtual world might worry some parents. Philippe Conlkin(ph) says she was concerned when her son, Henry, first told her he wanted to play on Club Penguin.
PHILLIPE CONKLIN: My concerns were sort of I guess the concerns that a parent would have with older children going online that there might be some sort of vampire-like person out there who would prey on him or other kids.
NEARY: But the Canadian-based company that developed Club Penguin says their main goal in creating the site was safety. All three of the Club Penguin founders are fathers, including CEO Lane Merrifield, whose four-year-old son is already playing computer games.
LANE MERRIFIELD: The stuff is out there for three and four years old, and we knew that it was only a matter of time before he was online and looking to have interactions with other kids, rather than just having that isolating experience of playing a single player game on the computer.
NEARY: Unlike other social networking sites such as MySpace, Club Penguin does not allow players to share personal information. The site has a sophisticated filtering system, which blocks information such as where a player lives or goes to school. It also blocks bad language, and there are live monitors who deal with reports of misconduct. One other thing, the site is paid for by subscriptions, not advertising.
Merrifield says they decided that was the way to go after they visited a number of kids' game sites funded by advertising revenue.
MERRIFIELD: We found kind of an interesting thing, and that was we were only within about three to four clicks from this safe child's Web site to a gambling site or a dating site through their advertising channels.
NEARY: Even with precautions, no site can guarantee absolute safety. But Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review, says Club Penguin is a good site for kids. He's given it his publication's editor's choice award.
But Buckleitner says he understands that parents might worry about a site that combines gaming and social networking.
WARREN BUCKLEITNER: This is really new territory for everybody, parents and kids alike. And this is one of those things that a little common sense goes a long way.
NEARY: Buckleitner says common sense dictates that parents be aware of what their kids are doing online and set limits on how and when they use the computer. But he says parents also need to be realistic about the world these kids are growing up in.
BUCKLEITNER: You know, these are the tools that we use in business now. Children by playing these games, they're sort of like training wheels for starting to participate in the digital culture that's certainly here already.
NEARY: And even as kids are riding these latest digital training wheels into the future, new ones, no doubt, are being developed and will soon be launched on the ever-evolving Web.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.