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The virtual playground

Lisa Davis

Ft-Worth Star-Telegram

October 1, 2007


My daughter's ninth birthday is in three days.

Please, please, please, do not let her get a Webkinz.

I've heard the horror stories about the cute little stuffed animals, which live a luxurious alternate lifestyle in their own online world.

The moms who had to sign in to Webkinz World every day while the kids were off at summer camp, feeding and playing with their children's virtual pets so they wouldn't get sick and have to go to the virtual doctor.

The daughter who left the dinner table to go to an online birthday party for a friend's Webkinz.

The parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters who have been conned and cajoled into playing Webkinz computer games, to earn more KinzCash, to buy more stuff for virtual pets.

You see, it's not enough just to give a Webkinz a pat on the head and a virtual doggie treat. Taking care of a Webkinz, or any other of this new breed of interactive toy, involves a lot of shopping and spending, on everything from clothes to toys to home furnishings.

Please, please, please, do not let my daughter get a Webkinz.

I do not want to play "Operation Gumball" just so her virtual puppy can have a pink tutu and a skateboard.

The world of Webkinz

Webkinz are a serendipitous combination of Beanie Babies plus Tamagotchi plus video games plus social networking, and that's made them the hottest - and most imitated - toy of the past couple of years.

Each Webkinz comes with a secret code that enables access to the Web site, along with $2,000 in KinzCash. To earn more KinzCash, kids can play games online, or work at virtual jobs or - often the easiest solution - buy more Webkinz out here in the real world.

All sorts of stuffed animals come with their own "online playgrounds" - Shining Stars, Kookeys, My E-Pets, to name a few. There are even plans for Tracksters, a line of die-cast cars that could race online.

Barbie and Bratz have just introduced interactive dolls aimed at slightly older girls, with more emphasis on fashion, makeovers and social networking. The Barbie Girls doll is actually an MP3 player, and the Be-Bratz doll comes with an optional bright pink webcam.

The theme common to virtually all of these toys is shopping. Whatever the currency of choice - Webkinz' KinzCash, Shining Stars' Glow Points, Barbie's B-Bucks - it's all about acquisition.

We're Americans, after all, and the youngest entrants into our consumer culture must be trained to buy stuff.

But these online playgrounds are also training grounds for life in the digital world. Grown-ups play The Sims and Second Life (when you can unhook us from our e-mail and our BlackBerries). High school and college kids have MySpace and Facebook and Halo 3.

For tweens, there are Disney.com and Nicktropolis.

And now the marketers have taken aim at even younger kids, 8 and younger, enticing them into the world of social networking with stuffed kitties and bears.

Setting their sites on a profit

Online playgrounds for kids have become such big business that Disney just bought Club Penguin, an online world aimed at kids ages 6-14, in a deal worth up to $700 million.

Club Penguin doesn't even come with stuffed penguins.

Online playgrounds make money in different ways; toy sales are only part of it. Some sites, like Club Penguin, charge subscriptions. Others, like Neopets, sell advertising, sometimes embedding it in the games.

"Our poor kids, they have targets on their backs. They're the subject of branding from the moment they can turn on a commercial television station," says Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that reviews media from a parental perspective. "Companies have learned the earlier you get to them, the more you can influence their brand loyalty later on. Kids trust what they see."

Perle recommends that children younger than 8 not be allowed to play on such sites, because they don't understand delayed gratification, or the difference between truth and advertising.

Beyond the KinzCash, Perle points out, there are very real expenses connected with such a lifestyle. "Kids are getting iPods and cellphones. It's not just the hardware that costs money. You have to load it up with iTunes. You have to pay for a phone plan. You can't play on Webkinz without an ISP provider, and that's $40 a month," she says. "The care and feeding of these technologies adds up."

The parental factor

It's not just the spending mentality that's worrisome to parents. It's also the amount of time kids spend plopped in front of the computer. "You have 24 hours in a day. How much of that do you want spent in front of a screen?" Perle asks. "It doesn't matter if it's a computer screen or a TV screen. It's a screen. The body ain't moving. Social interaction ain't happening - not in the way you can see facial expressions, hear tones of voice, touch them or hold them - all the cues we've spent millions of years evolving to give us full, 360-degree communication."

Privacy and online predators are less of a worry at sites for young kids. Webkinz World is no Facebook, after all. Any interaction between users is heavily monitored and highly restricted. There is no open, uncensored chatting.

There are playground bullies, though. Some kids cheat to get extra KinzCash. Cyberbullies spread nasty rumors about how Shining Stars can kill your Webkinz.

Parents need to watchdog the computer just like we do the TV. You know the drill: limit computer time; get homework and chores done first; monitor what your kids are playing; play with them to make it more social; keep the computer in a family room, not bedrooms.

"Help your children navigate through this cyber world the same way you help them navigate through the 3-D one." Perle says. "Just as you're involved in school, in teaching your kids to drive, in teaching them right from wrong - this is one more thing added to the parental plate. Because we didn't grow up with it, it's harder to teach it," she says.

"But you have to be involved in your child's online life, since this is going to be their world, so much more than ours."

And kids themselves perhaps have a better grasp on all this than we give them credit for.

Rachel Dancer, 8, of Arlington, has three Webkinz, all puppies: a pug named Puggles, a lab named Blackie and a cocker spaniel named Fuzzy. Rachel enjoys the online component; she spends more time playing with her virtual Webkinz than with the real toys. Sometimes, she plays games online with her cousin, Sarah. (A side benefit: "The kids actually talk on the phone and keep in touch better now because of Webkinz," says Rachel's mom, Susan Dancer.)

But as much as Rachel likes her Webkinz, she's well aware of the differences between real world and virtual, and she prefers the real world version.

"My dog Waggles can snuggle with me and play with me," she says. "These can't."

Raising a savvy spender

Tips for curbing the buying mentality of online playgrounds, from Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org):

1. Point out to your kids that spending is optional at these sites. It might not be as much fun, but it is possible to play without purchasing.

2. Show your kids the way these sites encourage them to buy and keep on buying - and how that can add up.

3. Ask your children whether they're really having more fun when they're buying and spending. Try to detach purchase from pleasure.

4. Use the site's currency - KinzCash, GlowPoints, B Bucks, whatever - to teach the value of money. While kids can play games, even cheat to earn more currency, emphasize that getting a job is the most reliable source of income.

5. Talk about saving vs. spending. Encourage kids to save up for things they want. Talk about your own values. Point out that, in the real world, debt can be tough to handle.

6. Explain what greed is, and how kids can recognize it in themselves and in others.

7. Talk about envy, too. It's natural to want to keep up with the Webkinzes. Talk about how you have coped with envy.

A sampling of interactive toys

Webkinz

There are about 50 Webkinz animals in circulation, from puppies and kitties to hippos and monkeys (around $12), as well as 30 or so smaller Lil'Kinz (around $10). Like Beanie Babies, old animals are retired, and new ones are released every month. Notable upcoming releases include a black cat for Halloween, a reindeer for Christmas and a "Love Frog" for Valentine's Day. This summer saw the arrival of Webkinz trading cards and Webkinz charms, with their own sets of special secret codes. This fall sees the debut of Webkinz clothing and little-girl makeup. www.webkinz.com

Barbie Girls

MP3 music players designed to look like Barbies, with spare parts to change hair and clothes. The Web site, which features chatting and lots of shopping (with "B Bucks"), is still in Beta test mode. It's accessible without buying a toy, but the toy opens up special features. $79.95.

www.barbiegirls.com

Be-Bratz

Dolls wearing more makeup than clothes- these are Bratz, after all - come with crystal-studded USB drives that double as necklaces. Plug the drive into your computer to activate your online Bratz, make a MyPage, go shopping, get a makeover and chat with friends. Starting next month, stores will have gift cards worth extra points, for buying more virtual stuff. $29.99; not compatible with Mac or Vista. www.Be-Bratz.com

Shining Stars

A lot like Webkinz, but not nearly as popular. When you activate your pet, you get to name a real star (although it won't be recognized by the scientific community). A portion of the $15 retail price goes to the Starlight Starbright children's charity.

www.shiningstars.com

Neopets

Geared to older kids, Neopets was an online playground first, toys second. (The merchandising really kicked up after MTV bought the site a couple of years ago.) Neopets look like genetically modified critters - Aisha the cat has a long antenna, Gelert the doggy thing has enormously elongated ears, JubJub looks like a tribble with big eyes. Stuffed toy "plushies," with secret codes that unlock special prizes online, are $7-$13.

www.neopets.com

Ty Girlz

From the folks who brought you Beanie Babies all those years ago, these are aimed at the older Barbie/Bratz crowd. The soft dolls have names like Cute Candy, Punky Penny and Sizzlin' Sue. $12.99.

www.tygirlz.com

Bella Sara

The most imaginative and parent-pleasing of the toys on this list, Bella Sara starts as a set of trading cards, a la Pokemon. Designed by a Danish social worker to help young girls express their feelings, the cards feature horses, real and mythical. Enter each horse's code online, and it comes to life in a stable where it needs to be fed, watered and groomed. But whoa! You don't have to buy the apples, or the curry combs or anything. There's no shopping involved. Instead, play games to earn trophies to display in your horses' stalls. A pack of five cards is $1.99. www.bellasara.com

Swypeout Battle Racing

Trading cards that feature race cars and customizable parts, some for looking cool (rad rims, condor wings, screaming pipes), some for battle (flash mines, ice blasters, stink bombs). Online, you can race your customized cars against other kids'. To register, cards must be swiped through a special USB scanner. A starter kit, with the USB scanner and five cards, is $19.99. Additional packs of six cards are $7.99. www.swypeout.com

- Lisa Davis



 

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