Saturday, September 15, 2007

A new generation of toys

If you haven't seen Webkinz, then you haven't seen the future of toys! The idea is that you purchase a stuffed animal (husky dog, raccoon, platypus, frog, etc.) for about $12.99. They are a little larger than beanie babies, about as plush as furbies, but have no sound. Seem unremarkable? Without internet access, they are. However, once you log in your "secret code" with Mrs. Birdy (what an annoying voice!) , you enter a new world with unlimited hours of exploration and play. You also get your printable adoption certificate (a la Cabbage Patch Kids) .

Your real pet is mirrored by a virtual pet. You adopt a pet with a personality of its own. You are also awarded some gifts and some kinzcash. With this money, you can buy a room for your pet, clothes, toys, decorations, etc. The more webkinz you adopt, the better the gifts. The premise is built on capitalism. To earn kinzcash, you work at jobs at the employment office , challenge opponents in tournaments, answers trivia questions, play games in an arcade, and periodically log in to certain pages for extra cash via gambling-type games (a la slot machine, wheel of fortune, etc.). With this cash, you can buy goods. The goods that are more desirable are those that are "exclusive" or "super exclusive" (supply and demand theory).

The site allows for interaction among kids. They can visit each other's rooms and play with the items that are placed there. Kids can also send each other things (kinzpost). There is also a chat feature though the interface is a bit cumbersome.

What you might find amazing is the number of adults on this site! Everywhere I go, I find parents logging in to their kids' accounts and playing. You don't know that a webkinz is being powered by an adult or a kid (there are strict processes in place to dissuade personal interaction outside the boundaries of the game).

OK, I admit I am addicted to the Goober's Lab arcade game (it is a tetris-like game that involves timed strategy moves). I also like the Kinz Post job (you need to stack boxes with the correct addends to equal the sum listed). Of course, you can't miss getting your free kinzcash by completing the daily activities like the Wishing Well and Arte's gem hunt (you can sell what you find or save them for the "legendary crown of wonder"). I am also amazed at the farming feature (kids buy seeds, plant, sow and then feed the farm-fresh foods to their pets). If pets get ill, they are taken to the doctor. There are books to read, recipes to create, clothes to fashion, and the list goes on. It is a somewhat complete virtual world!

I spoke to one teacher who harnesses the power of Webkinz. She bought one pet and brought it to her second-grade class as the "class pet" (no more dirty hamster cages to clean!). Each child got to take it home each weekend to log in to the computer (or perhaps just hug it for the weekend). The students each contributed to the pet's account, earning money, buying items, increasing the skill level, decorating the rooms and dressing it! The children collaborated to create the best possible home for their pet. The Webkinz account expires at the end of the year unless a new pet is bought and added. Thus, the next year's class gets two pets!

I've also seen blogs posted by kids about their webkinz. Check out this one, complete with images of the adoption certificates!

While a lot of the webkinz site is purely entertainment, there is learning strewn throughout. It doesn't seem like an educational site (thus the allure!). What many find questionable is Canadian toymaker Ganz's marketing strategies and emphasis on commercial ism that is obvious throughout the site. Having kids log on for free items at a certain time certainly motivates them to keep coming back! Kids spent an average of two hours and eight minutes per visit on Webkinz between April 2006 and January 2007. Ganz reports that toy buyers have snapped up more than 2 million Webkinz pets since April 2005 and better than 1 million users have registered online. More than $20 million in retail sales in less than 24 months! With Club Penguin recently purchased by Disney for $350 million (and another $350 million promised if performance objectives are met), Webkinz is poised to become one of the most lucrative toys of all times!

In the words of Goober, that's "atomicolicious!"