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Playing Dirty: Searching for sex in Club Penguin

Bonnie Ruberg

Every other week, Bonnie Ruberg contributes Playing Dirty, a column on sex and gender in video games:

Sex is everywhere. That's true in real life, that's true on the internet, and that's definitely true in online games. But whether we like it or not, sex doesn't always involve the people we think it should. I'm not just talking about the Second Life-er who tells you she's a twenty-five-year-old woman and turns out to be a forty-five-year-old man. I'm talking about kids. Specifically, I'm talking about sex in online games designed for children.

If you came within a fifty-feet radius of Raph Koster at GDC last month, you've probably heard his two cents on the how gaming is being taken over by companies from outside the industry who make games that don't even register on our radar. Koster did mention Korean MMOs, but what he really focused on were kids games. In particular, he pointed the wobbly finger of prediction a virtual world called Club Penguin. With 4.5 millions unique users in December, 2006 alone, Koster claims Club Penguin can rival the largest online games in the world. He seems to be right.

My question is, with that many people playing, there must be sex in Club Penguin, right?

We hear a lot about children having sex online. Usually though, its Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator," or something along those lines: tales of a middle-aged redneck with a handle-bar mustache aching to take advantage of PrettyPolly13. Are internet predators a problem? Sure. But that doesn't mean that kid aren't out there having cybersex between themselves. Just like adults, they're willing to be downright inventive to do it. Remember "the teen community" Habbo Hotel? Even though there's no currency and no sex words allowed, Habbo prostitution lives on.Talk about emergent behavior. Furniture is the new cash and sex becomes "bobba."

That said, Club Penguin doesn't seem like a particular sexy environment. The game is made up of arctic-themed social environments and mini-games. Everyone's a portly, adorable penguin. Plus, it's super "safe"–one might even be tempted to say "paranoid." Just look at all the warnings about inappropriate chat, not to mention the reminders that a moderator is always watching. You can even go into "ultimate safe-chat" mode, where chat is so restricted, no one could possibly say anything offensive (Then again, they found a way in Habbo Hotel). Still, safety is one of the game's selling points with parents. And while adults can come play, just being over eighteen in Club Penguin makes you feel a bit like a perv.

Not that Club Penguin doesn't have it's dark, more adult touches. But the problem with searching for sex in Club Penguin is that, even for the sake of research, I'm not going to go around trying to incite sexual encounters with what could well be children under the age of eight. And after numerous hours spent hanging out, skying, and playing Connect Four, no one seems to have made a pass at me. At least, not that I can tell. Maybe the "safe-chat" and the moderators and the paranoia really has weeded out all traces of sex in Club Penguin. Or maybe I just don't know where to look. But if those penguins really are getting it on, I guess I'll never know...

Bonnie Ruberg is a writer, researcher, and all around fangirl with a big crush on games. Find more of her work at Gamasutra, The Onion A. V. Club, or her blog, Heroine Sheik. She can be reached at .

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