Virtual Worlds for Kids
to Flood the Market

Shhhh. I need your help keeping a secret from my children. Don’t tell them about Webkinz or Club Penguin. Ever.

I’m especially talking to you, gift-givers. I will be checking all, cuddly, stuffed animals for  “Webkinz” tags. If I find one, be prepared to cough up a gift receipt pronto.

To be honest, I didn’t even know what Webkinz was until about two weeks ago. But at a recent holiday party, a boy about Seth’s age was dragging one around by the ear. The 4-year-old freaked whenever he lost sight of the toy.

The boy’s dad explained the concept to me: You get the doll, go online and activate an account. From there, you can feed and take care of your Beagle, Alley Cat or Brown Arabian. Personally, I’d go for the Bull Frog, since cats and dogs dominate the market. Besides, it would be a lot cooler to feed it insects than stinky dog food.

So you are probably wondering, what’s wrong with these virtual worlds? Harmless fun, right?

My posts would quickly fall to zero if my son had one of these things: “Dad, I need to check Alfie’s food bowl. Dad, I need to groom Alfie. Dad, when are you going to GET OFF THE @##%!! COMPUTER!”

Or perhaps you think it’s a good idea that your 5-year-old should be “earning” virtual cash in a computer game.

“What do you mean, dad, I can’t buy a model train set with the $10 million I made in KinzCash?”

And oh boy, children can interact and/or chat with other kids online in this virtual world.

“Seth, want a play date with Jacob?”

“Don’t be silly dad. I just ‘saw’ Jacob and his Black Lab in the Webkinz kitchen.”

In Club Penguin, parents pay $5.95 a month so kids can dress and groom characters. Sound dumb? Not to Disney. Club Penguin attracts seven times more traffic than the hugely popular, adult online world called Second Life, reports The New York Times.

And more of these virtual worlds are on the way:

“Get ready for total inundation,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.

Here are some other online worlds in the making:

  • Pixie Hollow (coincides with Disney’s big-budget film “Tinker Bell” in 2008)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Neopets
  • Various worlds based on Looney Tunes,  Hanna-Barbera and D.C. comics

What I really dislike about these games is that a profit-motive corporation is being allowed to shape and develop the minds of America’s children. I mean, think about it: these companies, the same ones who want to hook you on Disney World and TV for the rest of your lives, are being allowed access highly-impressionable children. It just seems, so, well, wrong.

Here’s what 9-year-old Nathaniel Wartzman tells the Times:

“I get to decide everything on Club Penguin…. Like for Christmas I bought a fireplace, a flat-screen TV and a Christmas tree (for his penguin.)”

Can we all say, “consumer training” together?

I’m not the only one who dislikes this trend. (Yeah, yeah, I’m forever the naysayer.)

“We cannot allow the media and marketing industries to construct a childhood that is all screens, all the time,” Susan Linn, a Boston psychologist and the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit group that has complained of ads for movies on, tells the Times.

Of course, these big firms are saying, don’t worry your pretty little heads: “Parents know they can trust our brand to protect kids,” Steve Youngwood, executive vice president for digital media at Nickelodeon, tells the Times. “We see that as a competitive advantage.”

Um, yeah. Trust you. With my kids. Ha ha ha ha. As I said before, do not mention these things to my kids. I will hurt you.

2 thoughts on “Virtual Worlds for Kids
to Flood the Market

  1. MarkS

    I went through the Webkinz phase with my kids. They had a few of these stuffed animals.
    Now that they are older, there are other types of online worlds that they are interested in. Some of them are purely games and don’t cost anything (and aren’t trying to sell anything as far as I know), but some of them do try to get kids to part with their real world cash. I had to uninstall MapleStory after my son kept nagging me to let him put more money into it. I let him burn the first $10, but cut him off after that. I said, “Play it and earn money in the game, or barter for accessories with other players. But he kept wanting to part with his real money to take the “easy route” to acquiring weapons or power in the game. I pulled the plug and uninstalled the game.
    If parents are struggling to get the kids to “unplug”, and as long as Brett doesn’t mind me plugging my own product, ComputerTime really does work well at limiting kids time, getting kids to share the computer fairly, and eliminating the fights.


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