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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Undercover Mom in Poptropica, Part 2: The Apple Jacks of kids' virtual worlds

By Sharon Duke Estroff

Last week I detailed the good things I discovered in this popular kids' virtual world for 5-to-10-year-olds. This week...

What I wasn't crazy about

  • Video Game Overtones. Gallant educational effort aside, my suspicions were correct. Kids aren’t flocking to Poptropica.com by the tens of millions out of a quest for learning, they’re flocking there for the highly addictive video games. No sooner had I entered an Aztec ruin on Shark Island than I found myself hopping, flipping, and climbing Nintendo-style to a secret passage (a task that took me a good 30 minutes to nail down as I kept missing my landing targets and being tossed back to Go). Indeed, everywhere I turned on Poptropica held similar gaming challenges. It’s safe to say that for every second a kid spends reading educational tidbits on Poptropica, he spends hundreds more in videogame la-la land.

  • To Cheat or Not to Cheat. Let there be no mistake about it. Poptropica games are HARD. For a prehistoric parent like me, they border on downright impossible. At a loss for how I’d ever manage to sedate that Great White and save Shark Island, I turned to two of my joystick-savvy sons (ages 9 and 14) for assistance. But alas, they too failed miserably. That’s when I began combing the kiddie masses (at school, birthday parties, Chuck E. Cheese and the like) for advice on how to succeed in Poptropica. The consensus was clear and simple: I needed to Google "Poptropica Cheats." My search yielded no less than 36,000 results including this unsettling video on YouTube of two children explaining how to cheat on the site - a great opportunity, I'd say, for family discussion about "cheating" in game and virtual worlds vs. in the real world: Ask your kids the similarities and differences are.

  • Advertising All Around. I’m not naïve. I understand that for a free virtual world like Poptropica to be profitable it needs to feature paid advertisements. The Apple Jacks banners flanking the site didn’t bother me a bit. Nor did the Cinnamon Toast Crunch game that has kids collecting pieces of cereal. But is it really necessary to launch a full-screen pop-up ad every time a kid (or a mom) moves the mouse a millimeter too far to the right or left? Worse yet, the pop-up ads prevented me from returning to the Poptropica page where I’d been previously playing, forcing me to start the game all over again with a brand new avatar – five times. (Hmm, might such repeat registration have something to do with those reported 20 million Poptropica accounts? Hey, I’m just saying.)

    The Bottom Line

    Ultimately, I found Poptropica to be a lot like the Apple Jacks cereal it plugs so aggressively - loops of empty calories dusted with vitamins and minerals. Nevertheless, in a virtual-world cafeteria line full of straight-out junk food, it makes for a pretty good choice.

    Screenshots

  • Apple Jacks everywhere
  • Immersive advertising: Embedded Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  • Many, many Poptropica cheats

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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