30/03/2011 06:49 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

ParentDish Talks To Club Penguin

Recently we asked if you had any questions to put to Lane Merrifield, the founder of Disney's online virtual world, Club Penguin.

If you don't know Club Penguin, then your children will, as it's reckoned to be the mopst popular children's website in the UK. It's an online world aimed at children from four to 14. Players (and there are three million in Britain alone) take on the persona of penguins, and can decorate their igloo, adopt a pet furry Puffle and chat to other penguins.

Much of the site is free to play, but to get at the good stuff you'll need to pay a £3.95 a month subscription. The site, which carries no advertising, is moderated 24 hours a day, with a helpline available for parents.

Both parents and children had lots to ask, so I sat down with Lane Merrifield in the fittingly cool surroundings of the ice cream parlour of Fortnum & Mason's and put your questions to him. Lane is one of the three people who originally founded Club Penguin, and is still at the heart of the site, so think of him as the real life Rockhopper.

Dad John wondered why did they choose penguins for the site, did they consider any other animals like monkeys?

LM: We talked about a lot of options, but started off using penguins to experiment with the technology. From a practical standpoint, they're easier to animate, especially when they're waddling, plus you can show them on a white background. We wanted to evoke community, and we thought penguins would do a good job at that. Penguins are very gender neutral, and we wanted it to be part of the game that it would appeal to boys and girls. And now it drives retailers mad because they don't know if it's for boys or girls! But we founded the site as parents because we wanted a safe site for our kids to play on.

Isaac, 7, wants to know: Why isn't Club Penguin free? Alex also got in touch to ask if free members would be able to do more of the stuff that paid-up members can do, like buy penguin clothes.

For the same reason that other things aren't free - it costs money to operate the site. We made a conscious decision when we started, when everything else on the internet was ad-supported that we didn't want to do that, so this is why it's funded by subsciption rather than adverts. The majority of the experience is free, and kids can play as long as they want to - we have a lot of kids who will play for several years without ever becoming a member and that's fine. We have more moderators and safety personnel than anyone else out there, so that's what the money goes to.

We pride ourselves on the level and quality of support that we offer, and we have to fund that somehow. Also we have such a young set of players who don't neccessarily know the difference between what is a game and what is an ad, so we decided against advertising

To Alex - We're always considering different things, and offering new things to different players and we hope to find a balance so that it's still fun, but we need to offer more to make it worth it for the membership.

George, 8, is interested in the workings of the site, and wants to know why the site switches itself off if you haven't been playing it all the time.

LM Some kids are a bit more forgetful and would wander off while the game was playing. If we left all those open indefinitely, it would slow down the game for everybody else who's playing. So we need to make the site pause after 10 minutes so it doesn't affect everybody else.

Sara is a mum who's less than happy with CP: "I hate the fact that the puffles go back to the wild and you lose everything - my kids were devastated when they returned from holiday and all had gone! They don't want to go away again!"

LM: There's a bit of a misunderstanding that puffles will run away when you're on holiday. They do need to be looked after, just like any normal animal. We wanted that experience to be authentic, to teach the kids some responsibility. But we don't activate the timer unless the child is logged in. So if you are away and your computer's not turned on, then it won't affect the puffle. But if you're playing and not looking after the puffle, you'll get a postcard reminder that it needs attention. It takes several hours of play before the puffle runs off, but sometimes kids come back from holiday and forget about them, so that might be what happened here.

What's next for Club Penguin?
Lane says that they plan to bring in more educational elements and since the toys they produce are a reponse to users' demands then yes, there is going to be an orange Puffle toy. They're working on making it easier for you to meet your friends online and an achievement system where players will be encouraged to collect stamps as a reward for playing games or being friendly.

More games are coming too - there's a Nintendo DS game out now, and in September there's a Wii game coming up that the whole family can play together.

Club Penguin - Herbert's Revenge
is out now for Nintendo DS, RRP £26.99. Look out for a full review in our summer games roundup this weekend