Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Replacing Barney With a Penguin

Posted By on Wed, Jan 2, 2008 at 3:26 PM

When you work in newspapers, there is always a family member, friend or neighbor with a story idea or they insist is the Next Big Thing. 

My latest source is 6 years old with gorgeous brown hair and brown eyes, and he happens to live under my roof: My son has caught on to the joys of knowing someone in the media. 

When I worked for a business paper, he constantly told my editor the paper needed comics. "Comics with color," he insisted. In Tucson, every night (OK, occasionally, he forgets), he now asks me if I've talked to my editor about his story idea on Club Penguin.

Club Penguin is a virtual computer world owned by Disney, but there are no mice or fairies running around. It's a world all about penguins, and my son goes on almost everyday. Penguins can get igloos to live in and decorate them with tiki torches, banners and furniture. They can participate in plays, or go watch a movie. My son loves all of this--especially the games he can play to earn virtual coins. These coins are used to purchase clothes for his penguin, pet puffles that come in different colors, furniture and decorations for the igloo, postcards to send to penguin buddies and costumes for the penguin plays. 

"Sweetie, I haven't talked to Jimmy about that story. I keep meaning to. I'll catch him next week," I tell him. A fib, yes, a fib.

Yesterday, dad was reading The New York Times and called our son over to show him a story on-- guess what?--Club Penguin. When I got home, I was told, "It's too late, Mom, The New York Times beat you to it. Forget it."

I was crushed and humiliated. 

The story is about other virtual games and groups that are marketed for children. Evidently, while other virtual worlds for kids are struggling, sites like Club Penguin are making money. (Some of that money was mine.)

Like other things I said I'd never allow as parent, computer games have become part of our world. When I was pregnant, my husband and I swore if there was one TV show out there we'd ban, it was Barney. We discovered most parents hate Barney, and most kids love Barney. We grew to love Barney as that crazy, but lovable purple dino who takes kids on journeys of their imaaaaginaaations. (Actually, I'm happy he is no longer part of our lives. His voice is irritating and his tap dancing a form of adult punishment) 

I missed the Atari craze and didn't hang out at arcades playing Pac-Man. But I sit with my son when we play on Web sites, and I've been known to "borrow" his Game Boy after bedtime just to get the game to the next level. (You know, just to help out.)

And now, I have my own penguin, so I can follow my son's penguin around to all our cool Club Penguin haunts--the coffee house, the disco and visits to our igloos. He helps me pick out igloo furniture and plays games for me so I can earn some of that virtual loot. Today, he is working on getting the 800 coins I need to buy my own puffle, and I owe most of my cool igloo furniture to my son. 

Any concerns we once had about video games, like our deep debate regarding Barney, are gone. And I've discovered the benefits: My son has an autism spectrum disorder, which comes with a laundry list of challenges. I've discovered that on Club Penguin, my son has to plan and make decisions (which helps with executive functioning), figure out how much a puffle is and how many coins he needs to buy one (kids with ASDs struggle with money and monetary values). He also needs to read my messages and the postcards I send him from my penguin (he refuses to read in some settings, but not on Club Penguin).

Computer games have begun to take root in our house. And lucky for my son, his parents are just the generation to take up a joy stick and play, too.

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