Advising the Avateenies

Avateenies? What, you may be asking, is an Avateeny? Well, it’s a word I’ve invented to describe those pre-teen gamers recreating themselves as penguins, weevils and occasionally laser-gun toting warriors on the increasing number of online gaming sites aimed at this age group.

The mounting popularity of these sites leads me to ponder how children define their avatars, and how might this contribute to their understanding of their own digital identity.

In my household, it started with penguins. My eldest child (after much badgering) finally managed to persuade me to allow them to register on Club Penguin – a site run by Disney that features games, news and chat, basically. As part of the registration process, the child is required to create themselves a penguin that will waddle around penguin world having adventures and interacting with other penguins.

So far, so simple, you might think. Well, yes and no. Because in addition to choosing what colour you want your penguin to be, and whether it wears a fetching bobble hat or not, you have to name it.

For a lot of children, this is a confusing exercise, because their natural instinct is to use their own name, or a version of it, to identify their feathered avatar. But in the interest of personal security, this is not a desirable thing – and to Club Penguin’s credit, its registration page issues advice to this effect.

So how do the Avateenies cope with this challenge to their little grey cells? To think of a name that is not their name, or anything like it, and has not already been taken by another Avateeny (a stumbling block which can frustrate any youngster impatient to enter the penguin kingdom!) Well, many of them begin to refer to characters they identify with from books and films hoping, one assumes, to imbue their penguin with the skill and cunning of, say, Anakin Skywalker  – thereby making themselves a Force to be reckoned with (sorry – couldn’t resist!).

I also think that the names children choose are about projecting something of themselves, and show the beginnings of a desire to create a digital identity, and an understanding that that is what they are doing.

However, many children do not understand the broader implications of having an online presence – they get that they should not use their own name for their penguin, because they’ve been told not to, but they don’t necessarily grasp why.

This is where parental input becomes invaluable – to try to explain, in an unhysterical way, about the importance of anonymity and guide the child through the registration/naming process on gaming sites so that they can say something about themselves through their avatar without actually saying it!

If we get it right, then with any luck we can instil a sense of confidence and security on both sides about the way our kids use web technology, and lay those first important building blocks of awareness about their digital selves.