When adults dream of tropical islands, they envision sun and surf. Youngsters visiting the islands of Poptropica opt instead for battling spies, skydiving or learning about history and the wide world's wonders.
"I learned that the Great Wall of China is really big," says eight-year-old Olivia Taylor of Iola, Kansas. "I thought it was kind of small, like a castle, but it's really big."
Poptropica is an online island world created by Pearson to entrance young people in a vibrant world of exploration, knowledge and old-fashioned fun - but without any of the dangers of some social networking sites. Kids entering the site create their own "avatar," or character, by choosing their clothes, hairstyle, mouth, eyes and other features, and they are randomly assigned a peculiar name like Nice Skunk or Messy Dragon or Ridiculous Crumb - but the youngsters never reveal any personal information or email addresses.
Since its launch in September 2007, Poptropica has had more than 35 million unique users and seen the creation of more than 70 million avatars. On one recent weekend day, 259,000 kids were on Poptropica.
"I was mowing my lawn and the idea came to me," says Jeff Kinney, design director for Pearson's Family Education Network, which is based in Boston. Mr. Kinney designed Poptropica after considering the strengths and shortcomings of other websites in which youngsters interact with others: "The idea was to take everything that's good in the multiplayer online world and make it as safe as possible for kids."
So kids visiting Poptropica always are anonymous, as the only information asked for is whether they are boys or girls, and their age. After choosing their avatar, youngsters can "battle" other avatars in games ranging from Paint War to Sky Dive to Hoops (basketball), or they can instead opt to "chat" with another avatar by clicking on prepared questions such as "do you wear glasses" or "do you like amusement parks?" and receiving answers like "no, but I sometimes wear sunglasses" or "I like the kiddie rides." The database now has 600 questions and 1,800 answers.
"I like that it's not chatting with other strangers online, but pre-set answers that they click on," says Megan Christensen of Valhalla, New York, whose daughter Cedi, 8, and son Connor, 6, are Poptropica devotees. "Also I like that the 'battles' aren't violent. It is such a nice feeling to know that they are fighting spies, spiders or dogs - things that don't look that scary."
Youngsters visit seven different islands - including Spy Island and Shark Tooth Island - where they battle B.A.D. (the Bald and Dangerous Organisation) or explore a shark museum. They learn that sharks can bite with a force of 6.5 tons per square inch, along with the reassurance that more people are killed each year by pigs than by sharks.
On Time Tangled Island, the most popular, the kids' avatars might journey back to Philadelphia in 1776 as the Declaration of Independence is being drafted, only to bump into an animated Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. A click of the mouse takes their avatar to the year 831 and a Viking warship, or the Mali Empire in 1387, or inventor Thomas Edison's workshop in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1877. Clicking on a "Fact Monster" icon provides more detailed information on everything from ancient Aztec civilisation to Leonardo Da Vinci.
"I didn't know who climbed Mt. Everest, or even what Mt. Everest was" before learning about it on Poptropica, says Cedi Christensen.
Since its inception, Poptropica has launched a new island every six to eight weeks, and the next one is Big Nate Island in early 2009. Each island takes an average of four hours to investigate, so kids of all ages come back many times to explore the various nooks and crannies.
"Poptropica appeals to a much wider age range than we expected," says Jess M. Brallier, publisher and general manager of Family Education Network. "We expected a core age group of seven to 10, but this is kicking in at age four and going to 14 or 15."
While Poptropica users are evenly split between girls and boys, there are some gender-based differences: girls by a margin of three-to-one tend to change their avatar's appearance from time to time, while girls are twice as likely to "chat" than "battle."
Many websites for kids promote toys or entertainment brands, but Poptropica is different. "Poptropica is publishing - to kids," says Mr. Brallier. "Soon, fresh content will be pushed out to millions of Poptropica kids on a daily basis. The publishing will come to them, not vice-versa."
Poptropica was designed to appeal globally, so the quests and the settings are not country specific - and there are users so far in more than 70 countries including 20,000 visits a month from China and 1,000 per month from Lithuania. Pearson is looking into adapting Poptropica for English-language training materials, because the simple dialogue can be easily translated.
In early 2009, Poptropica will begin to charge for premium services - early access to new islands, for example. This will provide an additional revenue source while keeping the core of the site free, assuring that Poptropica will publish to even more kids while also strengthening its brand and licensing value.
"It makes them think," says Jen Taylor, mother of Olivia and her Poptropica-mad sisters Abigail, 10, and Ella, 6. "It's not just a sit-there-and-do-nothing type game. They can talk to Thomas Jefferson one day, and go to Egypt and meet an Egyptian the next day."