Kids' game adds 500-1000 words to its forbidden list every day

The kid-centric online game Club Penguin (acquired by Disney last year) adds 500-1000 words a day to its list of forbidden chat-words in an effort to keep things clean. Wanna bet that kids come up with 2000-4000 new variant spellings a day?
Merrifield also thinks that there is an over-reliance on technology that ignores the human element, which is why they've decided to devote two-thirds of the company's staff to positions such as safety moderators and customer service.

"We know the limits of technology, even though I would put our filtering software up against anybody's, especially because of that human element - we're adding 500 to 1000 words every day to the filters, simply because of slang that works its way into the language.

"And every new pop song that comes out is inevitably going to reference something that was innocent the week before, but isn't so much now," Merrifield said.

Link (via Raph Koster)


  1. If it’s anything like Disney’s Magic Kingdom Online, it’s censored to the point of unusabilty. The one time I tried “MKO”, it censored words like “Hello!” “Come on!” “Stupid” and “That’s nuts!”

    After half an hour of trying to hold a basic conversation and having half my words censored, I typed “I hate this,” and it censored the word ‘hate’.

  2. maybe that 500-1000 reflects the creative spellings?

    But seriously… 2/3 of your staff being moderators is an… admirable effort, I guess.

  3. Wait– at 500-1000 words a day, and even taking into account newly made-up words and deliberate misspellings, how long before ALL words in the English language are banned?

    I imagine adults hearing kid’s slang words, not knowing what they mean, and assume it’s something dirty.

    From an old Funky Winkerbean comic:
    “That kid has ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ on his t-shirt. . . is that something dirty?”

  4. God damn, but I hate Disney with a furious vengeance! And it’s bullshit like this that causes me to. THE WORLD IS NOT SQUEAKY-CLEAN! Ever seen kids raised in clean rooms? Yeah, that’s how Disney kids’ emotions come out, and then you have people like Britney f*cking Spears going and flipping out as soon as they see the pallid underbelly of the real world.

    Ok, done now.

  5. I feel a linguistic theory coming on…

    OK, here it is:

    Some fixed percentage of any available vocabulary will be dirty.

  6. Anselm, there’s a huge difference between “Disney” and the moderation of a Disney-owned online chatroom. There’s good as well as bad. Just mentioning.

  7. In the middle of the .com boom I did a brief stint as a kids chat room monitor. I was usually far more in tune with the language the kids in the room were using (both good and bad) than most adults would be, simply because I was listening to them talk for several hours every day of every week.

    Sometimes, we did add words to a ‘banned’ list at the request of a parent or someone in the company, and almost always it resulted in several other kids inventing new ways to wriggle their words under the radar.

    It was always far more effective to have an adult shape the conversation when things got out of hand. Often, when things were back on track, if someone used the “older” slang (you know, from two hours ago), the other kids had moved on and the group was able to police itself. I think they’ll find they need to ban far less if their moderators are actively engaged.

  8. Makes me want to create a paragraph or two which are completely unobjectionable but contain censorable words and phrase – and when said words and phrases are removed, say something quite disgusting, in simple clean english. I am sure it can be done, though a list of their censored words would help…

    Trying to enforce clean speech is a powerful engine for creative vulgarity.

  9. I’ve looked all over, but I can’t find any comprehensive lists of words banned from kids’ chat rooms. I think that would make amusing reading.

  10. Well, maybe the reproductively engaged kids like to use short words describing the last stage of human digestion because they are challenged by a lack of intellectual and linguistic capacity.

    The fucking kids say shit ’cause they’re dumb.

  11. Kennric: There is the story from an AOL survivor support chat room… A new filtering policy was put in place and suddenly they couldn’t hold normal conversations. The policy was eventually lifted, but not before they got *really* tired of calling it “hooter cancer”.

  12. People actually have jobs censoring kids in chat rooms for kids. This never ceases to amaze me. Do they think this is good for business, or necessary to limit their liability?

  13. how much you wanna bet the kids can’t talk about lollipops, salt shakers, or Polaroid pictures?

  14. I can see where Zoink’s linguistic theory is going and I would like to pose my own: a language will always contain words to describe every idea, even if the words normally used to describe that idea are removed from the language.

    Though they speak of banning words, what they are trying to ban are the expressions of ideas. So long as people wish to express these ideas, they will find words to express them, even if it means creating new ones. If a word that expresses this idea is banned, the person will create a new one to take its place. Ergo, there will always be a word which has not been banned that can be used to express that idea. QED

  15. Psst, kids: there’s a word that’s part of a trademarked Disney character name that rhymes nicely with “fuck.”

  16. I think using some form of censoring/moderation on their site is not a bad thing (it is their own site, and it is for kids.). However, this system is silly. (I’ve seen this on message boards too.) A kid might use a word innocently and actually LEARN it has a “dirty” meaning.

    VMK (Virtual Magic Kingdom) Actually has the opposite aproach, an expanding (Well, I think it is) white list.

    If there are 250,000 words in the english language (according to oxford) then they’ll run out of words in 250-500 days!

  17. These censors often remove words that in-and-of-themselves have no “dirty” meaning. For example, I once played DDO and you were given the option to write a bio for your character. Being that my character was a ranger, I tried to describe him as a “master of the shadows”. Much to my dismay the word “master” was censored. While I can imagine how it was used in such a way as to triggered a ban on the word, I assure you that people found other words to describe that act of self-gratification.

  18. Several years ago I got to work on a game for Disney. They are very, very, very careful – as a policy – about any online interaction that can allow use of bad words or facilitate real-world interaction between children and their predators. The process of working with Disney was exceptionally smooth – some of the most fun I’ve had making games – but these rules were a little restrictive. For example;

    – In a game populated with nothing but sailing ships, we had to fight for every instance a voice actor said “ship”, because recording was being done by the Disney studio that handles consumer products, and an 8-bit voice chip in an action figure makes “ship” sound like “shit.”

    – The fine old-timey word Regina caused a fluster that ended in it being pronounced “Reh-geen-ah”

    – Players couldn’t talk to one another without exchanging a friend code via the real world (or at least, some method Disney wasn’t responsible for.) Until then, there was a drop down menu of “Arr” “Ahoy” “Help!” etc. Automatic messages.

    These are kind of detriments to game design, but then Disney doesn’t want to have its name and “fugitive child molester” end up in the same article one day.

  19. This kind of censorship is completely absurd. It’s a form of abstinence education. It attempts to outsource parenting to robots and bored customer service drones, while leaving kids totally unprepared for what goes on in the real world.

    My six-year-old knows all the swear words. She also knows that kids aren’t supposed to use them in polite company because that offend people. This is a little something that is known as “socialization” and it doesn’t take place by burying your head in the sand.

  20. i wonder, do they allow words like: ” cleveland steemer”, or “dirty sanchez”?

  21. So the optimal way to socialize children is to force them to evolve a secret language that no adult can understand? That should turn out well. Have the berks cottoned on to cockney rhyming slang yet?

  22. Reading the comments, I think most of you have no idea what Club Penguin is or who its target market is.

    Its for little kids. By little, I mean 5 and 6 years old. My 5 year old loves it and my 7 year old has no use for it.

    You log onto a server and go to general areas where hordes of little penguin icons stumble around. There’s actually very little chatting done since most of the kids probably can’t spell yet. You can do a lot of pre-programmed emoticons, phrases, etc…

    The funny thing is my son (the 5 year old) was banned for a week last month. I asked why and they say he typed “fuck”. I’m guessing some older kid logged in and do that because there’s no way he could’ve done that. He can’t spell anything other than his name and a couple other words.

    I’m not saying its the greatest thing ever. Its not. In fact, when I see the CEO say that the game is primarily social and then in the very next sentence saying its the antithesis of facebook, etc… tells me there’s something they are not getting or maybe choosing not to publicly acknowledge.

    At any rate, I see a lot of hand-wringing here over something that is not that big a deal.

  23. Holy crap, what does this teach a kid? What does it feel like to “play” in this censored environment? What the hell happens to these kids when they face the real world.

    My sister used to love the whole Disney experience, the theme parks, that online game, thee whole deal. It just freaked me out.

    We met in Orlando, about twenty years ago. I had some business stuff I had to do. She toured my kid around the parks. I met them one afternoon, but arrived early. I waited just outside Epcot. The tourists arrived in waves, ferried by whatever the transit system was from the parking lot. The whole deal was choreographed. There was a sound track. I never liked the films (put Steamboat Willie side by side with Koko’s Earth Control and even without sound, the Fleischer clown is so much more alive than the bland little mouse), never cared for the whole mouse thing and the stories about Walt’s treatment of his animators left me cold. I hadn’t thought much about the parks, hadn’t really been to the parks. But watching the mood control in action really upset me.

    My sister and son finally arrived. Somehow I made it through the day, but it felt like a bad acid trip. YOUWILLBEHAPPY,YOUMUSTBEHAPPY,YOUAREHAPPY!

    My sister and I used to fight about it. She loved it and I was revolted by all things Disney. Well, except NBX, and I hardly count that as a real Disney product.

    Over the years she’s lost her love for the parks. She says they exhaust and depress her now. S’okay kiddo, says I, there are a whole mess of under utilized national parks to explore. Camping, sez she, Camping? Are you kidding me? The dirt, the bugs!


    Now I see the commercials for Sea World with the child actors blathering on about nature and imagination and I think, good grief, is there anything LESS natural than this? Do these kids ever go outside?

    It’s freaky. It’s all about control,

    and profit.

  24. Pipenta, I think your outrage is misplaced in this case. We’re not talking about 13 year olds playing WOW, we’re talking about (mostly) 4-6 year olds earing coins by having their penguins sled down mountains or catch thrown fish.

    Then they sit in their igloo with their puffles.

    If anything the fact that poo or vagina may show up as *** or ****** just tells them to not waste their time since, assuming that a 4-6 year old understands that the implications of using these terms, that there’s no shock value to be had here.

  25. I have to call bullshit on Mr. Merrifield’s claim. I think CP definitely adds words to its filters, but 500-1000 a day. It doesn’t seem possible for that many variations to be invented per day. In the end, they’re not seeing that Club Penguin is increasing the premium on getting a swear seen by others, or inventing increasingly-shocking terms.
    Forbidden fruit tastes great at any age, and Club Penguin is dumping sugar on it.

  26. Man, those CP dudes are so plurky. They can bolgate their filters up their collective crop.

    They’ll never demalk our frutzes.

  27. Must say… my 11 yr old daughter plays on “CP” regularly, as do many of her “real life” friends, and the kids have found much more creative ways around those rules. They (at least my daughter and friends) view it as a challenge.

    And no, she’s not some sheltered Disneyphile… she reads like a fiend (she’s recently into Poe and Ray Bradbury alongside her old standards Harry Potter and Judy Blume). She converses intelligently with adults–being the only child in a large circle of purposely childless adults–and she plays with dolls, mostly when her friends aren’t looking. She has free and unfettered access to the internet, too, and chooses CP often (I know, I know, her training wheels for MySpace.)

    I have found that with a reasonably smart child and adult guidance, “playing” on the internet has brought up great conversations about personal information and privacy. I’m a bit old school when it comes to being “googleable.” I sent her the link to this post, and she thought it was hilarious.

    I suspect lots of the thousands of “banned words” are likely phrases. One way around many of the “banned words” or personal conversations that the kids use is to type single words… if you type “want to come over tonight for a sleepover?” it won’t go through, but you can type “want” “to” “come” “over” “for” “a” “slp” “over” in the ridiculous little cartoon bubbles that appear over the penguins’ heads, it goes through just fine.

    BTW, “hate” becomes “hat” she told me (apparently they’ve been unable to ban “hat”–many of the joys of CP are r/t “dressing” your penguin. They cannot type numbers or “@” so “C13v31@nd $t33m3r” would not go over.

  28. Oh, yeah–Morse code wouldn’t work either, as I am informed by my daughter that “.” and “,” don’t work either. Only punctuation allowed are “!” and “?”.

  29. I’ve heard Laine speak, and they created the site to be a place where 5 year olds can play without being bombarded with commercial messages and ads. They are parents themselves, and got tired of all the places that were hitting their kids up for credit card numbers.

    The demographic is very young (5-8), and I believe that a lot of the banned words have to do with commercial speech drifting into the world. The filtering is also based on how many occurrances of a particular word show up on a specific day.

    They actually have a very neat philosophy about the focus of the site: “If it doesn’t matter to an 8 year old, it doesn’t matter.” They also are very proactive about leaving their storytelling open and listening to what the kids are saying about the stories they tell, taking their feedback into account for the ending.

    Disney has actually been very hands-off with CP, most of the changes made have been to handle the additional user load of being a Disney product; they bought these guys because they knew how to do this site better than Disney itself.

  30. “Though they speak of banning words, what they are trying to ban are the expressions of ideas.”

    Yes, and good luck to them with that.

    I have a friend who quit letting his son watch Spongebob when his son started saying “Barnacle!” when he was frustrated. The notion of trying to remove the ability to verbalize someone’s inner emotional state didn’t strike me as a fruitful endeavor, but live and let live I says. I suppose it’s okay to teach kids to keep a lid on anger, and about saying something with meaning as opposed to empty content, but I’d think honesty of expression is far more important than whatever society hopes to achieve by preventing us from making certain sounds with our mouths. The trouble isn’t that kids swear, it’s that swear words exist in the first place. If the words didn’t offend, there’d be no point in using them and they’d be so much meaningless noise.

  31. Lots of good comments, especially the informed ones of edselpdx, profinity, shane. What’s amazing to me is this guy’s (unintentional, but to me, implicit) admission that these censorship programs -create- new words (spellings, variants, l33tness, whatevs, all new words). The phrase “my milkshake” certainly has more sexual undertones today than 10 years ago. I’ve heard a story–that’s not corroborated on wikipedia, so it must not be true–that the lyrics for the Milkshake song were originally far more explicit, but were toned down for mass appeal. Trying to limit the vocab on a site for kids is perhaps a noble effort, but a futile one. Much like preventing velociraptors from breeding. Nature always finds a way to say fuck.

  32. I’m still struggling with explaining to my (older) children *why* people get so upset by fuck. Having laughed until I cried at an Eddie Izzard recording in which he must have said fuck about a thousand times, it has no shock value for me or for them… and led to a conversation in which I struggled to understand *myself* why certain words are forbidden.

    My 15 year old thought that if you were an adult and knew the word fuck, and knew what it means, and knew the words sexual intercourse and knew what *that* meant, it was plain stupid to be offended by one and not by the other, as the meaning is the same.

    I’m stuck for answers. I don’t know why shit is offensive and excrement is not when both words denote the same thing. I know I am meant to be offended by them, but can’t logically see why.

    As for the word count… it is amazing how many new words a day a child learns. They can be very creative when developing ways around filters. Not sure that parents will be entirely positive about the possibility that they will learn hat for hate and a whole range of other creative spellings that will foul up their spelling tests.

    Used correctly, online and virtual environments can be wonderful, safe, places to learn, create and interact. It think it is a shame if all the energy is going into protecting the little darlings from each other, and preventing interaction.

  33. @Ridl: How many kids know what a polaroid was?

    @EdselPDX: only allow ? and !? You aren’t very creative. Morse code isn’t bound to .-. ?! works just fine, or ab or fu or any other pair you can type.

  34. I wonder if children exposed to this type of censorship might be encouraged to exercise their minds in such a linguistic fashion to encourage writing poetry as they get older.

  35. Didn’t Nineteen Eightyfour have a thread running through it about the government controlling language in order to control thought?

    Also, is this a bad time to mention that ‘CP’ is shorthand for something rather unsavory to do with the internet and children?

  36. Blue – DisneyCo isn’t the government. yet.

    I’m wondering, if they really want to limit word choices: Instead of completely arbitrary or completely fixed responses, you pick from a list of how you want to respond, and the game generates chat that fits the context of the conversation. Kind of like mad-libs in reverse.

  37. reveng – if you were playing DDO online, they probably censored “master” so players couldn’t claim to be Dungeon Masters.

  38. Blue@42

    Also, is this a bad time to mention that ‘CP’ is shorthand for something rather unsavory to do with the internet and children?

    Oh, no! You mean they’re putting Captain Planet up on YouTube now?

  39. ” I observed here and there many in the Habit of Servants, with a blown Bladder fastned like a Flail to the End of a short Stick, which they carried in their Hands. In each Bladder was a small Quantity of dried Pease, or little Pebbles, (as I was afterwards informed.) With these Bladders they now and then flapped the Mouths and Ears of those who stood near them, of which Practice I could not then conceive the Meaning. It seems the Minds of these People are so taken up with intense Speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the Discourses of others, without being rouzed by some external Taction upon the Organs of Speech and Hearing; for which Reason those Persons who are able to afford it always keep a Flapper (the Original is Climenole) in their Family, as one of their Domesticks; nor ever walk abroad or make Visits without him. And the Business of this Officer is, when two or more Persons are in Company, gently to strike with his Bladder the Mouth of him who is to speak, and the right Ear of him or them to whom the Speaker addresses himself. This Flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his Master in his Walks, and upon Occasion to give him a soft Flap on his Eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in Cogitation, that he is in manifest Danger of falling down every Precipice, and bouncing his Head against every Post; and in the Streets, of jostling others, or being jostled himself into the Kennel.”

  40. Don’t bother trying to interpret Taku-san. He operates on a different level than the rest of us (an eccentric one).

  41. dispatches from an alternate reality that occasionally intersects ours in only one dimension… but that’s enough to let some freaky bits escape.

    Though in the first part of that, I thought he was describing a rat flail.

  42. Pfft. Disney? Fie! Back in my day we had TELNET chatrooms, and those didn’t have any filters at all. We’d talk about whatever the bleep we wanted, and we mercilessly mocked the weird creepy 50-year old guys who asked us what we were wearing.

    …and WE LIKED IT.

  43. we mercilessly mocked the weird creepy 50-year old guys who asked us what we were wearing.

    And now we are those guys. So, what are you wearing?

  44. Heh, I grew up with open access to the pron channel, the ability to swear as soon as I could talk, and the choice of any book in the library as my bedtime story (God I love young hippie parents). I laugh at the mother above who thinks her little one wouldn’t be able to spell “fuck”.

    PS:Seriously Toast…what are you wearing!

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