Cyber-hotel for Teens Is a Hit

THE TERRACE OF THE Habbo Hotel seems like a good place to meet people. I figure that even in a virtual world, folks will want to be in the sun. I've chosen the crude, cartoon-like figure of a little boy to represent me as I navigate this INTERNET meeting place for teenagers.

Cyber-hotel for Teens Is a Hit

THE TERRACE OF THE Habbo Hotel seems like a good place to meet people. I figure that even in a virtual world, folks will want to be in the sun. I've chosen the crude, cartoon-like figure of a little boy to represent me as I navigate this INTERNET meeting place for teenagers. (The only other option would have been to pick a little girl, but since I'm of the adult male persuasion, that would have been even weirder.) The hotel I've checked into, located in the U.K., is the Habbo chain's largest, often hopping with more than 8,000 guests. But it's just as easy to log onto the other Habbo sites, now in 16 countries including Canada. The intended market is teens, but as with all chat rooms, anyone with Net access can get in. A few mouse clicks land me on the terrace, where about 40 so-called habbos (moveable icons) like mine hang out. I instruct my pixelated alter ego to take a seat, and in no time I'm engaged in online foreplay.

Her name is wetwinsE. Why she named herself that, I never bother to ask. (I say "she" but, really, I can only guess at the person's gender. Regardless, the habbo is female.) She walks over and stands in front of me. To communicate, users type in text and hit return, and then a one-line dialogue box appears over their character's head. "Kisses," is the first thing wetwinsE says to me. I play along. "Hugs," I reply, trying to be cute. "Kisses," she insists a second time. "Kisses," I repeat, but after more kissing I grow bored. "Now what?" "What do you want to do?" she asks. "I'm a newbie," I explain. "What are the options?" "Anything you want," she answers, and adds: "Takes off shirt." "What's under the shirt?" I venture with some trepidation. "My bra," wetwinsE coos, or at least I imagine she must be cooing. "Okay," I say, thoroughly creeped out. "I'm a reporter in Canada. You do this a lot?" "SCREAMS and runs away," wetwinsE replies, and in a flash, she's gone.

Lest anyone get the idea Habbo Hotel is some sort of cyber-den of iniquity, it's not. Yes, users regularly find ways around Habbo's filters for bad language - they're kids, after all - and, yes, sickos do occasionally get in. Habbo Hotel, however, is widely regarded as a safe online community - or, at least, as safe as these things can ever be. And Habbo has grown into a powerful global player for teen dollars and eyeballs, one of the world's most popular non-violent teen websites. Globally, Habbo draws four million unique browser visits a month, according to Internet watcher Nielsen//NetRatings. Last year, revenue totalled $20 million, says Sulake Corp., Habbo's Helsinki-based parent company. In July, a traditionally slow month, the Canadian site had almost 190,000 registered users, says Allan Best, national manager for Sulake Canada Inc. "Habbo is the largest online teen community in most of the territories it operates in - and that includes Canada."

Sulake opened its first Habbo Hotel in Britain in 2001. Other virtual locations now include Australia, Japan and Spain, where this year Habbo was chosen as that country's best entertainment website. In Canada, Habbo's been open a little more than a year. Core users tend to be 13 to 16 years old, and the gender split is roughly 50/50, says Best. During peak hours, www.habbohotel.ca can attract more than 2,500 users.

It's free to get in. Guests create, name and customize their own animated habbo by selecting gender, hair style, clothes and skin tone. A "hotel navigator" provides a menu of places to visit - several different lobbies, clubs and the pool. There are guest rooms, too, which habbos also get to use for free. Some revenue comes from the sale of Habbo credits - the hotel's currency. Kids can use a parent's or their own credit card, or any of a number of other payment options, to buy the credits, which in turn are used to pay for things like virtual furniture, or "furni," to fluff empty rooms. The attraction? Furni translates into online status, and what teen wouldn't want that? Some rooms are used to chat, while others are used as nightclubs, game rooms and venues to hold fashion contests in which the room's owner or clique judges your habbo's looks.

Sponsors pay Sulake to showcase corporate brands. On the Canadian site, teens lounge in a virtual McDonald's restaurant. Similarly, there's MuchMusic HQ, a TV studio that is part of a revenue-sharing agreement between Sulake Canada and Toronto-based CHUM Television, owner of the MuchMusic video channel. In exchange for a slice of income and a presence inside the hotel, CHUM plugs Habbo on TV and online. Internationally, Sulake has struck similar pacts with Coca-Cola, Nike, L'Oréal, Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Sony PlayStation.

When the inaugural British Habbo site was first launched, Internet watchdogs wagged their fingers. They criticized Sulake for creating an environment that allowed girls to, for instance, trade online sex for furni. Asher Hastings, a 13-year-old Regina boy, started visiting the U.K. Habbo shortly after it opened, and has encountered "strippers" in rooms run by Habbo guests. "It was a virtual little club, and there's, like, people virtually chatting dirty things," says Asher. "They get banned for that. Moderators come into the room and shut it down - but it happens."

Still, his mother, Michele, a part-time hairdresser, permits Asher to continue visiting Habbo. She trusts him and his brother, Tymon, 14, to behave well on the Internet. "People looking for something dirty or perverted, illegal, whatever, are going to find it or make it happen online just like when they channel surf and find smut and crap on TV," she says. "We've told our boys, 'Whatever you're not allowed to do in the real world, you're not allowed to do there.' "

Habbo safety features include a language filter to automatically screen out objectionable words like "shit," and replace them with "bobba," but kids being what they are - subversive - will type "sh.it" instead, and that gets through. The hotel is patrolled by "hobbas," volunteers who make sure guests "respect the Habbo Way." If someone badmouths you, you can click on their habbo and hit an "ignore" button to block that person from speaking to you, says Rebecca Newton, who oversees safety on all Habbo sites. "And if the person's bothering other people," says Newton, "the whole room could basically put somebody on ignore, which is like being in chat hell."

Habbo players can also click on a blue question mark in the lower right corner of the screen and type out a plea for help. Staff monitor the site 24/7 in case something happens. I tested the system by pretending that I was being harassed by a "jerk." Three hours later, there had been no response. Best at Sulake Canada says monitors are trained to prioritize, and that the two staff members on duty when I asked for help were inundated with 400 queries, many waste-of-time requests from kids wanting free stuff. A jerk is also a relatively low priority, explains Best, but "if someone is asking sexually provocative questions, we respond right away." Then there's George, the name given to Orwellian moderators who secretly scour hotel rooms for improper or illegal behaviour. "They primarily look at rooms with two people in them," says Newton. "That's how we usually catch any cybersex, solicitation or pedophiles."

My chat with wetwinsE, in a crowded public place, went unnoticed despite an exchange that included words like kisses and bra. "You can't use the U.K. as an example because it's a whole different story from Canada - they've got 10,000 people instead of 2,000, and it's an international hub," says Newton. "With Singapore and Canada, we have the least amount of behaviour problems of all of our hotels."

Det. Staff Sgt. Arni Stinnissen, a member of the Ontario Provincial Police's electronic crimes section, says the Canadian Habbo operation has in place a number of "great safety features," including a protocol for contacting law enforcement in case, for example, a predator turns up. "You'll get very quick action if something happens," says Stinnissen, "and I have to commend them for that." But just because there are safety features, he adds, doesn't mean parents shouldn't be watching what their kids are up to. The home computer, he says, should be kept in a high-traffic area. It's a message that continues to be widely ignored. Earlier this year, a poll conducted for AOL Canada Inc. showed that almost half of Canadian parents who planned to buy a computer this year intended to put it in their child's bedroom or playroom. Parents, says Stinnissen, "can't assume because the kids are in Habbo, MSN or MySpace that they're safe." If mom and dad need any more convincing, they'd do well to remember Habbo's slogan: "Everyone can play." That's always been the problem, and probably always will be.

Maclean's September 19, 2005