Your idea about a chinchilla being just as cuddily as other small pets is all wrong.
To mention a few, GP's, rabbits, rats and some species of hamsters would be a far better choise when it comes to a pet that likes to be around you in that way.
Other than that, it sounds like you have a pretty good idea about chins.
For the most part, they do not think it is cool to cuddle. If you get the animal from a good breeder, you will most likley get an animal, that thinks you are pretty cool to jump around on, and they will get on your nerves with bad habits, if you let them get away with it
They are quite intelligent little buggers.
Most of my females have this very annoying habit of trying to open the cage door. If they live in a cage where they have the chance to open the door, they will do it, and they will keep on doing it. Especially one of my females is very clever that way. She tries out all the weak points in a cage, so it can be quite difficult to keep her in.
One of my other females eats the bottom of every cage, if she gets the chance. She knows that's a sure way to get out of the cage at some point.
Here you have some pics of my animals
When it comes to the playpen, you should be aware that the average chinchilla can jumb about 50 cm above the ground. If they have the chance to run and jump, and maybe even jump against some thing, they can get way higher.
I'm not sure about that whole "they do not do anything cool" thing your friend talks about. If someone only wants the animal because it can do something cool, a robo pet might be the way to go...
Some of the more exotic animals out there might be a problem, if you want something you can handle. That's not the case with chinchillas though.
They might not like it at all times, but most chins will let you handle them as much as you need to. Like taking them to the vet an so on.
Actually, mine do not like when the vet handles them (they are a bit rough at times), and then they really want to go back to me or my boyfriend for some comfort.
One of my girls actually hides when i take her out, and there's strangers around. The first thing she does is dig into my blous, so she can get away
- After a few minutes she doesn't mind other people though
But she prefers her mom ^_^