Poptropica is an online game, created in 2007, targeted towards children between the ages of six and fifteen. The game is modeled as a world with themed islands, each island having a unique quest and obstacles to be completed. In this format, children enter different worlds and become brave heroes as they fight to survive, stop a villain, or solve a mystery. The goals are as unique as the island themes are.
Since its creation, Poptropica has captured the hearts of countless children and adults around the world and inspired creativity, persistence, and encouraged literacy to kids around the world. By 2012, Poptropica had over 500 million registered Poptropicans and the site’s reach only grows as time goes on. Before continuing to dive into what Poptropica is, it is imperative to describe the circuit of culture, as I will be using it to describe Poptropica and its impact.
The circuit of culture is the idea that culture can be broken down and described using five major cultural processes: consumption, regulation, representation, production, and identity. None of the five aspects exists on its own, each is closely related to the others and together they can be used to describe any site/text/practice/object.
Firstly, consumption is the aspect of culture that addresses the ways in which something is used, bought, or enjoyed. How, where, and why the product is consumed is important, and not only that but how the consumers interact with the product, in this case, how users play the game as well as consume other media produced about Poptropica.
The next aspect of the circuit of culture will be regulation. In discussing regulation, it is important to address the “rules” established or broken by the site and the ways in which these rules are upheld. Since Poptropica is a children’s game, regulation is particularly important in regards to censorship and children’s access to information.
The next aspects I will discuss are signification and representation. In this section, I will address Poptropica’s goals and conventions that uphold its standing as a popular children’s game. As well as the reason behind its creation and its effectiveness since it was first made. And most importantly, what Poptropica represents to its users.
After this will come the production aspect of culture. Here is where the behind-the-scenes aspects of Poptropica will be revealed. To describe the production of Poptropica will involve diving into who keeps the site running, who is creating and developing the islands, how they are doing so, and who envisioned and created the site.
Lastly, the identity aspect of the circuit. Everyone involved in the existence of a site has some sort of identity and reason they are tied to it. Here is where we put some pieces together of who consumes the product, who makes it, who regulates it, and how the differences in these people reflect the site.
Poptropica is a single-player experience where the user is a heroic protagonist in a variety of story islands earning medallions, coins, and often “saving” Poptropica. But in addition to engaging in the many missions available on the Poptropica website, there are other ways children consume Poptropica content. Poptropica is unique because it is likely the first experience children have playing a story-driven game. Each island’s quest may involve puzzles, riddles, or memory challenges but Poptropica’s charm is that each island also follows a continuous storyline led by the user. This quality allowed Poptropica’s creators to make comic books based on playable islands that exist on the site. In 2016, author Jack Chabert and illustrator Kory Merritt released Mystery of the Map (pictured on the left) a comic that followed the entire story of an island by the same name. After the release of this book, many others followed including The Lost Expedition, The Secret Society, and The End of Time (pictured on the right). Pearson education also released an educational series of books based on Poptropica (a few examples shown below).
Not only have Poptropica islands been transformed into books and comic strips but children’s literature has also influenced islands on the site in the past. Many islands that previously appeared on Poptropica were derived from preexisting books.
Some examples are: Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse series, Jeff Kinney’s (the creator of Poptropica!) Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate comics, and Charles M. Schulz’s Peanut comics.
Poptropica’s producers have also experimented with different spinoffs of the site. In 2017, Poptropica Worlds was released, with new additions to the user experience like pets and a house for Poptropicans to decorate. There was also an added feature known as Poptropica: Realms. This was a completely different type of game that abandoned the storytelling structure and had a lot of free-building elements. Neither of these adaptations has caught much attraction, Poptropica Worlds still exists but many of its features have moved to the main site, and Poptropica: Realms is currently unavailable.
Poptropica is a mostly free website and a user can have a fulfilling experience without paying a cent. However, there is a membership plan(with prices shown to the right) that provides a number of perks, such as:
Another important aspect of regulation for any online children’s game is the censorship of language. In Poptropica, dialogue plays a major part in progressing the story, all dialogue between the user and the other characters is predetermined. The user simply chooses among the options available in order to progress gameplay.
While the game is mostly individual, there are “common rooms” where players can interact with others that are also online at the same time. Even in common rooms where there are other players, dialogue is also restricted to questions and responses created by developers. There is very little opportunity to interact with other players in any meaningful way. Conversations with other players are extremely limited and basically pointless unless you’d like to read through some corny jokes. However, this format is beneficial as it prevents the need for an algorithm that finds and bans profanity as well as completely eliminating the ability to harass other players. Poptropicans can add other players to their friends list but can’t play islands together or interact unless you join a common room at the same time and play mini-games together.
Finally, another interesting aspect of Poptropica’s regulation and censorship is the avatar names. In Poptropica, you are able to pick a name for your avatar that is an adjective paired with a noun. The words allowed come from a list provided by creators as well, another implementation that prevents profanity anywhere in Poptropica. The only time you can type to choose anything yourself is when you make login information when creating an account, where language is completely unrestricted.
Since its creation, Poptropica’s importance comes from its goal in encouraging literacy in young children. The kids playing build their reading comprehension and problem solving skills as they work through islands solving puzzles and building their confidence. As these goals are very important for development, when Poptropica was created many children were exposed to it in classrooms, this raises an interesting question about the relationship between gaming and education.
In a study performed by Pearson Education, around 900 players’ game logs were examined to view how beneficial games can be as an educational tool. The main goal of the research paper was to find Poptropica’s connection to testing persistence in children, a skill that is extremely useful for completing work that requires sustained effort. The study showed that as children get older their persistence skills increased; the study also suggested that Poptropica could be a good indicator for teachers to use to show persistence potential in students compared to their persistence in viewing course material or completing homework.
In many ways, Poptropica represents a potentially great resource for the education of young kids. In school, as well as outside of school, gaming can be an important opportunity to connect with a child’s interests and incorporate them into a dynamic experience that enhances their confidence, and comprehension abilities(“Our children play more online games than ever. Here’s how you can take a more active role as a parent.”).
To many users, Poptropica also represents how powerful it is to transform stories worth sharing into formats that children can engage with and understand ( “Why Poptropica Mattered.” ). Some of Poptropica’s most effective islands focused on material related to many topics covered in the education system. Poptropica’s Mythology island presented a mix of Greek mythology stories to children as they interacted with different Greek gods. Time-tangled island took users to Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to see them climb the mountain, Leonardo Davinci’s workshop as he painted the Mona Lisa, and a colonial home with Thomas Jefferson to help him find the Declaration of Independence. These islands as well as many others showed an ability to input a lot of information into an interesting adventure.
Poptropica has always been developed by the Jeff Kinney Group and published by Pearson Education. Currently, the Poptropica headquarters is based in Boston, MA, USA. Kinney created Poptropica in 2007, the same year the first book of Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series came out. The production of Poptropica has always been connected to children’s literature, which makes sense with Jeff Kinney as its creator.
Below is an interview with Jeff Kinney where he gives some insight into the process and inspirations behind creating Poptropica.
Kinney has not had as much input into Poptropica in recent years as it undergoes massive developmental changes caused by the death of Adobe FLASH. Poptropica used to run on flash and developers are now making the switch to the Haxe platform to keep the site functioning. This transition period has been happening since 2018 and so the producers have been very limited in creating new content for the site. This process has been especially long because of how many islands there were (at one point there were over 50!) and how the developers also have to keep Poptropica interesting to new players, not just older players who want to see the site the way it used to be.
Poptropica’s producers have always been very transparent about the processes involved in creating and designing islands and currently they still contribute to a Poptropica creator’s blog detailing the process of remaking islands on the site and interacting with Poptropica’s biggest fans. Here, there is behind-the-scenes content posted by creators and consistent messages, and contests from them.
As they put in the work to recreate the beloved islands, there is also the option to play Poptropica as it used to be by downloading Flashpoint, a program that allows your computer to play games that run on flash. A Poptropica fan blog even has a step-by-step process that helps users figure out how to do it.
In a 2020 interview conducted by an anonymous Poptropican named Slanted Fish and uploaded to the Poptropica Creator’s blog site, the creators gave a lot of input into the developmental changes occurring on the site every day.
When asked about the plans for Poptropica in regards to bringing back old islands as well as creating new ones, the CEO of Poptropica had lots to say. He explained that producers are working on a mix of new content as well as remastered old content. On top of this he has clarified that remastered islands may be blocked by paywall, at least temporarily :
“The original islands use some old technologies that make it harder for us to support in a live environment. Limiting it to members-only keeps our systems from being overwhelmed and allows us to focus on the long-term decisions of how to keep them available. We’ll share more by the start of 2021.”
As of right now, there are some remastered islands on the site and it appears that remastered islands are members-only access when first released, which goes along with the plan described in the interview.
One important thing Poptropica users and producers have in common is a love for storytelling. Each island is like its own book with multiple characters and a complete plot to follow. Anyone learning to read English can highly benefit from playing Poptropica, even just attempting the islands and reading through the dialogue can help in understanding English grammar and sentence structure. Though it is a children’s game there is no shortage of well-thought-out plot that is entertaining for a wide range of people.
As the Poptropica site continuously updates with new as well as repurposed old content, Poptropica continues to thrive and is especially impressive in how it keeps old users logging in and playing the game as they age up. Today, many of Poptropica’s users are children in the targeted age range but many are also older teenagers and adults who used to play the game when there were upwards of 50 islands on the site. Even though islands that older players used to love may no longer exist, the Production team does do a good job of keeping the hope alive that one day the site will be just as populated with interesting islands as it once was. There are a large number of users waiting on the site renovation to be complete and get back to playing.
Bellyfeel. “Jeff Kinney talks about the hugely successful Poptropica”, Youtube video, 10:23, December 11, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhKv5zspI_A&ab_channel=Bellyfeel.
Bacalja, Alexander. 2020. “Our children play more online games than ever. Here’s how you can take a more active role as a parent.” The Guardian. May 10, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/11/our-children-play-more-online-games-than-ever-heres-how-you-can-take-a-more-active-role-as-a-parent.
Dicerbo, Kristen E. January 2014. “Game-Based Assessment of Persistence” In Journal of Educational Technology & Society 17, no.1 , 17 – 28. https://www.jstor.org/stable/jeductechsoci.17.1.17.
Fleming, Esther. 2020. “What happened to the original Poptropica islands?” SidmartinBio. September 15, 2020. https://www.sidmartinbio.org/what-happened-to-the-original-poptropica-islands/.
Tomar, Arian. 2020. “Why Poptropica Mattered.” Voicesofgenz. October 25, 2020. https://www.voicesofgenz.com/post-1/why-poptropica-mattered.
“Guest post: An Interview with Poptropica Creators” Poptropica Creator’s Blog. March 26, 2021. https://www.poptropica.com/blog/2021/03/guest-post-interview-poptropica-creators.
Images of stylized Poptropicans from Poptropica.com