Let me tell you a little bit about my son. He’s obsessed with automobiles. My wife, Natania, wrote about her life with cars back when our kid was three, and his obsession with things that go vroom hasn’t abated a bit in the two years since then.
Which is why I was surprised when I introduced him to a particular stuffed chihuahua with a “W” on its paw. He didn’t scoff! Normally, if the toy doesn’t have wheels, he’s immediately bored. Sure, he’s got some stuffed animals that share his bed with him, but this was different. This soft and cuddly doll was a Webkinz, a collectible toy that comes with a secret code that allows you to own a virtual version of your pet on the web-based Webkinz World game. I showed him his little dog on the computer screen and walked him through the process of “adopting” it. He was hooked.
The chihuahua pranced around on the screen as my son fed her, played with her, and bought furniture and decorations for her room. Transactions within the game are made with KinzCash, an in-game currency that can be earned through mini-games and daily activities. The pet has three stats: Happiness, Health, and Hunger. Certain actions and items will help keep the pet’s stats up.
There are two ways to explore the social areas of Webkinz World. The first, KinzChat, only allows pre-generated questions or statements. Within the Parent’s Area, you can enable KinzChat PLUS, which means your kids can actually chat via their keyboard. There are filters in place to prevent certain words or phrases from being used, including profanity and personally identifiable info (names, email addresses, and telephone numbers), so it’s all very safe. I monitored the chat for awhile and saw nothing that I would object to.
If you know other kids with Webkinz, you can “friend” them and invite them to your pet’s room for games and more open-ended chat, or to trade items.
There are minor rewards for logging into the game every day, which may seem a bit Zynga-like, but they’re not overly pushy, and they’re not that sizeable. My son wants to play often, but he’s not obsessive over the daily bonus KinzCash goals. He just wants to log in and goof around.
A bit more troubling, however, are the ads that display on the right side of the screen. Some are targeted to parents more than children (I had a few from an insurance provider, including one with the sounds of a woman in labor) and others just push other Webkinz products. Advertising is a fact of life — heck, some of us make a living from them — and we aim at arming our son with a healthy skepticism for commercials. Even so, it’s hard to keep him from pestering us about some of the things he sees in the Webkinz ad blocks. One day, after playing, he came walking over and asked me, “Dad, what’s a deluxe membership?” I couldn’t help but laugh.
There are also six iPhone games, $0.99 each, that you or your kids can play in order to earn additional KinzCash. Most of the games are dexterity-based, where you have a time limit and must match colors or tilt the phone to grab items. Only one of the mobile apps, the memory game Where’s Wacky?, has anything approaching educational value.
My son has enjoyed watching me play larger-scale multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and he seems to be fascinated with the idea that there are people on the other end of the connection playing with us. Webkinz World seems like a great way to let him explore the concepts of social gaming and virtual worlds, with more age-appropriate content. The mini-games appear to hold his attention, for the most part, and the exploration of the rooms is his favorite. He loves taking care of his pet, keeping her happy and fed and decorating her room. Best of all, he really loves the ability to use the computer like mom and dad do, all on his own.
Check out the Webkinz website for more information.
Wired: Fun and safe social online space for kids; cute stuffed animal; educational games promoting math and language skills
Tired: Advertisements are the online equivalent to cash register candy displays: they’ll teach you how to say “no” to your kids.
(GeekDad Managing Editor Matt Blum also blogged about Webkinz back in 2007.)
Disclosure: GeekDad received a free chihuahua Webkinz doll for review purposes.