When Chris Heatherly, VP of Club Penguin, thinks about ensuring the safety of the 200-million-plus children that interact and play in the #1 virtual playground, it’s not just his job — it’s deeply personal. He is the father of three children — 8 year old twins and a 10 year old son — who participate as online penguins.
But then again, this is how Club Penguin got started about 9 years ago. The “Club” was developed by three dads in Canada who wanted a safe online environment for their own kids. That atmosphere of parental protectiveness, thoughtful preservation of the innocence of one’s own children in addition to that of children everywhere, permeates the company (now owned by Disney) to this day.
Says Chris of the three men who started the company — Lane Merrifield, Lance Priebe and Dave Krysko — “Even before Club Penguin was part of Disney, these guys seemed to have Disney DNA. I went to Canada and fell in love with their team right away, and I had a really strong personal connection with Lane. I felt like alot of the reasons I was attracted to work for Disney in the first place, the values and the magic, I found in their team.”
Club Penguin has just launched a new online safety initiative, “It Starts With You.” The initiative includes Public Service Announcements starring Disney Channel’s G Hannelius, activity sheets, posters and information for schools and parents, an online resource center, and more. It’s an aggressive effort to inform children about protecting themselves.
Chris is better known to the Club Penguin community as “Spike Hike,” his penguin alter ego. Says Chris, “When Disney first acquired Club Penguin, I started playing with my son who was 5 or 6 at the time. That’s when Spike Hike was first created. My son and I played on and off for years.”
“One of the things I decided early on,” continues Chris, “is that I wanted to be accessible to the kids. We like to say that Club Penguin belongs to the kids — it’s not ours it’s theirs. Being a player in the game has helped me learn a lot about what the kids want.”
He now hosts something called “Spike Saturdays” and is often online throughout the week. He is something of a parental figure there — along with over 200 full time “moderators” worldwide, keeping watch over the penguin’s chats and interactions in 6 languages. Respectful and appropriate interactions are ensured by a complicated system of software that flags certain words and phrases that are then called to the attention of the Club Penguin moderators. Players that don’t model good behavior can sometimes be silenced or shut out of the game depending on how serious the infraction.
Chris says that he learns a lot about the players through participating as Spike Hike, but also by watching his own children play online. He says it’s very much like a real world playground in terms of the fun and freedom of expression, the language kids use with one another — and also the potential for meanness or bullying.
Except that in an online world, meanness can be inherently intensified.
“The anonymity that social media gives bullies makes them less accountable,” says Chris. “Also there’s the possibility online for something embarrassing or hurtful to follow you around your whole life in a way that I don’t think happens on a playground. So things that happen online can feel much bigger. In addition, a child can be bullied by more kids at once than a playground. There is distance from the actual human being — it can be less empathetic. The flip side of that, which I’ve seen as Spike Hike, is that when a kid is being bullied, and though it can feel like the entire world is piling up on that kid — as soon as someone else says Hey, that’s not cool,’ you get the exact opposite phenomenon in a positive and supportive way. What becomes immediately obvious is this enormous capacity that kids have for good, for empathy. They just have to be taught to follow those instincts — they’re not mature enough to always know at this age to know when they’ve crossed the line. That’s why we help them understand the consequences of their actions — give them a controlled frame of reference that they take with them into the larger world. Their inherent capacity for good is, then, not only for today, but for the future.”
I asked Chris what his fears are, if any, for his own kids in terms of when they graduate from Club Penguin into the limitless world of the internet in its entirety.
“I think that as a parent you get to a place where you have to trust what your kids are doing with this technology. I don’t worry about their intentions or their values, because they’re great kids. I worry about the people they’ll run into and encounter online.”
He talks about various other seemingly innocuous websites and interfaces that kids might get involved with using that aren’t nearly as “safe” as they may seem.
“I think the best thing you can do as a parent is talk proactively with your kids about these things. Make it an ongoing conversation. Talk about basic rules: Don’t give your personal information. Don’t play with people you don’t know. At my house, kids use the internet on a shared computer in a public space. While I give my kids a lot of free reign, I look over their shoulders and keep tabs on the computer. I’m not saying this is the right way for everyone, but it’s how we keep the conversation about safety going in our house.”