a peek inside the fishbowl

09 Jan, 2008

World of Webkinz

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Yaktivism

We have a handful of Webkinz in our family. A couple more happened to find their way into my children’s hearts at Christmas time. In terms of cuteness, they’re okay. We have other plush that I think outranks Webkinz in the cute department. I remember when I first saw Webkinz and the stringy texture of their fur. I thought they were odd, because it made them more tickly than cuddly.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, Webkinz are small plush animals. They probably appeal more to girls (kittens, puppies, bunny rabbits, and unicorns), but there are some “unisex” ones that would probably have equal appeal more to little boys too, like frogs and gorillas and turtles and the like. Each character comes with an original ID number, which kids (with help of parents) use to unlock a virtual version of their toy on the Webkinz website, called Webkinz World. Webkinz World has its own economy.

Here’s how it works:

“The user receives money (called KinzCash) by adopting new pets, playing online games, answering general knowledge questions, and through daily activities like clicking “I love my Webkinz!”, spinning the Wheel of WOW, or completing jobs (minigames) available once every 8 hours. Each day, there is a Game of the Day which can be played for bonus KinzCash, and occasionally other bonuses are available each hour.

Users can spend their KinzCash to purchase food and clothing for their pet, items for their pet’s room or to build additional rooms onto their house, etc. Users can decorate a room for their pet with pre-made themes, or mix and match their own furniture.

The online world also contains many rare or exclusive items. Some of these items require developing a friendship with the Curio Shop owner to purchase, while others you get for registering other Webkinz accessories you purchase in the real world. Each type of pet gets a special food available exclusively for them. Also, a Pet of the Month is announced at the beginning of each month. If a person registers the announced pet in that month, they will receive other exclusive items.” – wikipedia

To summarize: You play simple games and earn points which you redeem for virtual merchandise. The site encourages kids to visit every day in order to keep their pets happy and healthy (there’s a metre that shows you if your pet is lagging in either) or discover new things in Webkinz World.

In our house we haven’t really paid a visit to Webkinz world. We’ve only gone as far as the border, to officially adopt our characters and print out the certificate.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I am troubled by the whole idea of consumption that is behind life in Webkinz world.

The argument about computer usage and how much “screen time” kids are getting nowadays is a separate issue. But having kids exchange points for dollars that are “spent” on merchandise is something else altogether.

All of this feeds into the questions brought up by the Shopping Embargo of 2008, about shopping becoming a national pastime, and how spending and buying are increasingly being viewed as recreation. The reality is that excessive/needless shopping is detrimental to our planet and to our wallets … have you read anything lately about how much we, as a society, carry in credit card debt?.

This topic came up at a dinner party a few months ago. In fact, there were people there who were diametrically opposed to the whole Webkinz concept. Both sets of parents had daughters who were in the same age bracket (8-9) as Emma.

I tell ya, it was an uncomfortable conversation, because all parties had such strong feelings about the issue and the conversation took on a heated tone (but perhaps it was the wine talking?). Like with MANY issues related to parenting (remember the whole portable DVD thing?), it’s hard to discuss, because on the surface it looks like one parent thinks the other parent is “wrong.” (By the way, I don’t think you’re a bad parent if you let your kid play in Webkinz world – do what suits you – but I’m writing this because I want to share my own beliefs.)

As I said, I’m bothered by the Webkinz “get more” economy and how the whole thing is structured to encourage the accumulation of material goods. This isn’t something I want my kids to learn … they will come by this in other ways, television, magazines, and by peer pressure. But by immersing themselves in a culture (even if a virtual one) that shows that your goal – the reason you exist – is to get the most goods, isn’t a message I am comfortable with. But it’s just a game! (Yes, I can hear you.) But as you know, playing = learning. They’re getting something out of all of this. If that wasn’t the case, why are there so many websites with math and spelling games?

If my kids are going to play a game (be it online or a console game) I’d really like it to be one that challenges them differently.

Webkinz supporters will come forward and defend the games as requiring certain educational skills and hand-eye coordination etc.. Sure, it might teach kids about math and shopping, but it’s like this: You have 500 dollars, you can buy this basic fridge, or you can wait and earn 2000 dollars to buy this gorgeous supersized fridge with shiny pink accents!

Is the bigger fridge better? What about a bigger house? Or a closet full of trendy clothing? I would argue that more and bigger do not necessarily mean better. MORE, shouldn’t be something we strive for.

I think you can effectively teach these same kinds of things in real life. Many money-based lessons can be taught at the grocery store. i.e (“If this package of spaghetti costs 99 cents and contains 250 grams of pasta, and this one costs $1.50 and contains 450 grams of pasta, which is the better deal?”) And if your kids are getting an allowance they are probably learning the “dollar value” lesson already.

And why create a whole “world” … why not just create an online game and leave it at that? Because a world promotes a sense of belonging. You create it on your own terms. In this world there is no homework, no nagging parents, no bullies in the schoolyard. It’s fun. And your virtual world is a happy place just for you and your friends – whether they themselves are virtual or not. You want to visit, and stay.

My other issue: I hate being manipulated by the marketing machine.

Have you ever wondered what the Webkinz folks have to gain by the millions upon millions of children who log on to their website? I never believed they produced this multimedia playground out of sheer kindness. It probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the interface, it probably costs thousands more to keep it running, to host it on a secure server … to keep it staffed. Why bother? It’s not like building of an outdoor playground in a suburban park. This is not altruistic. There are strings attached here.

By giving children a toy with this perceived “added value” they are cultivating brand loyalty. There must be 100 different Webkinz characters, with new ones being issued all the time. There are “special edition” Webkinz, and Webkinz clothes and accessories. Their goal is to sell as much of this stuff as they can while it is still popular.

And with a reasonable price point (it’s the ideal birthday gift!) they want to encourage its collectability. Each critters costs between $10 and $15.00, but I bet they cost about 50 cents to make. I keep hearing of kids who own nine, ten, twelve of these things. How many is too many?

I used to think the Webkinz website was ad-free, but apparently this is not the case. According to Wikipedia, the Webkinz site used to be ad-free, but has started displaying advertisements. Originally they were only for their own additional game-related products, but are now for movies, such as Alvin and the Chipmunks. Some of the advertisements promote responsibility or healthy living.

Apparently there are one million registered users. That’s a lot of eyeballs.

They also have your contact information, and collect information about “play patterns” and where kids go on the site. This will be used in aggregate in order to tailor the website to make it more popular. This stuff is gold.

On the surface it doesn’t make any sense. You might be wondering, who cares if they have my email address?

Well, here’s a piece out of their privacy policy:

“In the event that substantially all of the assets related to the Webkinz website were transferred or sold to another entity, all information, including personally identifiable information would to be transferred to that entity.”

Anyway, back to our own Webkinz situation. The girls really like them for what they are, toys.

When Emma got her first Webkinz (I believe she bought it with some birthday money) we did the “adoption” thing, and talked about it why we weren’t going to go any further into the site. She understands, and accepts, that just because you own one doesn’t mean to have to go online and join in. There are better games to play in this world. She plays with her puppies just how they are – without the bells and whistles. And she loves them just fine.


14 Responses to "World of Webkinz"

1 | javamom

January 9th, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Avatar

Oh my god. I’m so astonished. I’m not naive or uninvolved, or without tv or internet or what have you, yet, I have not heard about this before. Holy cow…it was just a few days ago when my 2 year old manipulated the computermouse like a pro so he could see pictures of himself on the blot…this post really made me think.

My kids are infants. And this is what the world is coming to. I like your post Andrea, and I appreciate your insight, and encourage your non-shopping thing, and like the way you teach your kids. It’s this kind of thing though (along with McFood, McMansions, etc) that makes me just a little bit afraid.

Sometimes I wonder how parenting without the blogosphere would be these days…

2 | porter

January 9th, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Avatar

can’t believe you posted about this because i was just about to do the same…haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing but webkinz are new to my household and i’ve had VERY mixed feelings already. will read the post tonight and i might be writing a post on this subject (the webkinz part anyway) tonight.

3 | Chantal

January 9th, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Avatar

It’s not that I take an opposing view, because I can see valid points in all of your reasons for being hesitant. Like everything else, I think it’s how you approach it.

Webkinz are fun. They’re cute. Do my kids learn anything from them? No. Are they hyperfocused on the stuff they can purchase? No. Are they excited when they do? Sure. So far, it hasn’t translated into a sudden desire for more things for my kids, but they are alloted only so much time after they have done everything else they are expected to.

For a while I wondered why we even bothered with the stuffed toy to get into the “world”, but my kids sleep with their pets and play with their pets together. The world itself seems pretty harmless so far and my kids get really excited to show new features to each other when they discover them.

So far, it’s been a positive experience for us. They fight over the computer though, so when that happens, no one plays.

4 | Wesley

January 9th, 2008 at 7:44 pm

Avatar

Webkinz you say. We have a veritable population explosion in our house. We have 7 and counting. When you get to 10, you get lots of bonus stuff at the site.

Oddly enough, like most things, my daughter wanted to spend every waking moment on the site when we got the first one. Now, it is a passing fancy where she spends at most 1 hour a week on.

5 | Marla

January 9th, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Avatar

Okay, I HAVE to chime in here, because just yesterday at daycare, another kid asked Josie if she had any Webkinz. And I said (I love how we’re welcome to hang out there!) “No, she doesn’t.” When the little guy went on to talk about the Webkinz “games” on the computer, I pointed out that Josie does use our computer, but not for things like that. The convo was interrupted when he freaked out a little bit because he got some green marker on the paw of his brand new “Build-a Bear”, and “My mom is gonna freak out because it was so EXPENSIVE!” Now, this is definitely judgy – because at four, his grasp of the commercial world has been apparent in EVERY conversation I’ve had with him. He’s brand new there, I’ve never met his mom.

But, after reading this post, I realize the difference is the sensitivity as to how the commercial world pushes pushes pushes in on us all the time. And you and I, I guess – are pretty sensitive to it. I don’t blame others for not being so – after all, this is what people have been conditioned to accept for generations now (the Story of Stuff).

I went looking for a recipe for Poo Candy (yes, I did and it is what you think it is) yesterday for another reason – and found this story. I think it’s awesome. When I went looking for it again just now, I found a version of it, but couldn’t find the one I’d seen or any original author – my preference settings need to be set so I have a larger cache, I guess .

It’s about how we become desensitized a little bit at a time.

*****************
(edited slightly for length, and to take out the over-the-top religious overtones that weren’t there the first time I read it)

Two teenagers asked their father if they could go to the theater to watch a movie that all their friends had seen. After reading some reviews about the movie on the Internet, he denied their request.

“Ah dad, why not?” they complained. “It’s rated PG-13, and we’re both older than thirteen! And our friends said there are only two swear words, and a building blowing up – and we’ve seen explosions on the news!”

Dad replied: No.”

The kids said “But dad, those are just very small
parts of the movie. The movie is two hours long and those scenes are just a few minutes of the total film! It’s based on a true story and good triumphs over evil, and there are other redeeming themes like courage and self-sacrifice. Even the movie review websites say that!”

“My answer is ‘no,’ and that is my final answer. You are welcome to stay home tonight, invite some of your friends over, and watch one of the good videos we have in our home collection. But you will not go and watch that film. End of discussion.”

The two teenagers walked dejectedly into the family room and slumped down on the couch. As they sulked, they were surprised to hear the sounds of their father preparing something in the kitchen. They soon recognised the wonderful aroma of brownies baking in the oven, and one of the teenagers said to the other, “Dad must be feeling guilty, and now he’s going to try to make it up to us with some fresh brownies. Maybe we can soften him with lots of praise when he brings them out to us and persuade him to let us go to that movie after all.”

The teens were not disappointed. Soon their father appeared with a plate of warm brownies, which he offered to his kids. They each took one. Then
their father said, “Before you eat, I want to tell you something: “I love you both so much.” The teenagers smiled at each other with knowing glances. Dad was softening. “That is why I’ve made these brownies with the very best ingredients. I’ve made them from scratch. Most of the ingredients are even organic; the best organic flour, the best free-range eggs, the best organic sugar, premium vanilla and chocolate.” The brownies looked mouth-watering, and the teens began to become a little impatient with their dad’s long speech.

“But I want to be perfectly honest with you. There is one ingredient I added that is not usually found in brownies. I got that ingredient from our own
back yard. But you needn’t worry, because I only added the tiniest bit of that ingredient to your brownies. The amount of the portion is practically
insignificant. So go ahead, take a bite and let me know what you think.

“Dad, would you mind telling us what that mystery ingredient is before we eat?”

“Why? The portion I added was so small. Just a teaspoonful. You won’t even taste it.”

“Come on, dad; just tell us what that ingredient is.”

“Don’t worry! It is organic, just like the other ingredients. “

“Dad!!!”

“Well, OK, if you insist. That secret ingredient is organic…dog poop.”

Both teens instantly dropped their brownies back on the plate and began inspecting their fingers with horror.

“DAD! Why did you do that? You’ve tortured us by making us smell those brownies cooking for the last half hour, and now you tell us that you added dog
poop! We can’t eat these brownies!”

“Why not? The amount of dog poop is very small compared to the rest of the ingredients. It won’t hurt you. It’s been cooked right along with the other ingredients. You won’t even taste it. It has the same consistency as the brownies. Go ahead and eat!”

“No, Dad…NEVER! “

“And that is the same reason I won’t allow you to go watch that movie. You won’t tolerate a little dog poop in your brownies, so why should you tolerate something that is also not good for you in your movies?”

*****************
So, what I’m kind of saying with this story is that I (and you, or anyone) don’t want to KNOWINGLY eat dog poo, and I resent greatly how it’s slipped in to our daughter’s life so early, in such a subversive way with “games” (and I like games that encourage the use and development of skill, strength and luck — not simply playing more and more often or for longer times) and with “collections” of things that make you want all or more of them. It’s entirely calculated, and I find that odious.

I think it was in Fast Food Nation where I read that there were companies (um…in New Jersey, I think, as if that matters) where children were interviewed, and studied, and taught “pester power” – how to WANT more and how to ask more effectively for more. That made me want to barf more than anything else in the book.

I think that the “games” such as Webkinz use are the result of that. Just as children have been studied to learn what toys they find more attractive, I would bet that activities such as these online ones are part of the infiltration of our children’s subconsciouses – instead of making them smarter and more aware, it’s taking advantage, helping to create a kind of “inattentional blindness” where while they’re playing one game, a giant gorilla is walking through (http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2008/01/whoops-i-forgot.html)

Now, I’m not saying we’re perfect – Josephine eats at McDonald’s – it’s just that she calls it “the French Fry store”. And she plays with Littlest Pet Shop Stuff – but also with styrofoam packing material that she made into icebergs for her toy penguins. It’s about balance, of course – but I think certain toys encourage imbalance.

I don’t think Josie would be as happy with Webkinz games, because instead of teaching her to be happy with what she has, they seem as if they’d teach her to want more. That’s why we’ve stayed away from them. I don’t think that at Josie’s age this kind of play is needed at all. As I write this, she’s wandering around in a doctor costume, and I’m being a mommy bringing my baby to the doctor (in a minute – I’ve told her right now I’m the receptionist, entering the patient’s records in the computer). Before that, she was a vet and was fixing up her hurt stuffed animals. The word that stars every sentence when we play lately is “pretend”. Like right now…”Pretend the doctor is sitting on the bench outside of the doctor’s office, and pretend you talk to him outside first.” (We stopped by a neighbouring vet the other day and I took a minute to gab.).

Good post Andrea – but you’re preaching to the choir here! Sometimes it feels as if walking around with eyes wide open means your eyelids carry the weight of the world.

6 | Ln

January 9th, 2008 at 9:55 pm

Avatar

Well, I admit it. My kids have been playing on Webkinz world the last week or so. At first I was really troubled about the consumerism aspect (especially because my oldest has chosen a specific “theme” for her pet’s room, and is banishing all objects that don’t match). However, once they blew through the cash they got for signing up, the purchasing has really slowed down. Why? Because I don’t let them play there every day or for much more than a half hour at a stretch, and so they spend almost all of their checkers and battleship winnings feeding their hungry little pet.

Neopets is another site with a similar consumer-oriented viewpoint, but Neopets can be fed for free as long as you spend all your winnings on other stuff first. I like that site less, but so do my kids.

I am definitely concerned, but I’m trying to use it as a an opportunity to start talking about spending. We’ll see how it goes.

7 | meanie

January 10th, 2008 at 7:38 am

Avatar

i just did a post on webkinz too! hot topic.
our almost 6 year old one received one as a gift for xmas, and laughably, it’s her father and I who are trying to sustain the little thing!
that being said, our daughter has learned that you have to make money to buy food, shelter, the basics (just like her mom and dad). i try not to read into it too too much. i also find it sort of nice because our daughter has not at all showed any signs of being a nurturer, and this webkinz phenomenen is the first time i’ve seen that side of her.

8 | Cath

January 10th, 2008 at 8:55 am

Avatar

This is a really interesting thread for me — with a 16 month old, we’re not dealing with this yet, but we have seen it with my 11 year old niece and the daughters of friends of ours.

So no insights, but two vignettes that to me say it all: one was our friend, who also manages our (meagre) savings, on line at work trying to complete Webkinz tasks to make money for his daughters to spend on the site (I’m not sure what this means about the safety of our savings!!), and the other was my niece going into Chapters at Christmas and seeing a whole table of webkinz, many of which had had their tags ripped off. She was really sad thinking about all the unknowing grandparents/parents/people who would buy them without realizing they wouldn’t have the codes on them to access to web-site. It was the first time I think she really thought about how messed up a system it was …

9 | andrea

January 10th, 2008 at 9:56 am

Avatar

Poo brownies
*snicker*

Great story Marla.

How on earth did you fit all that inside this tiny little comment box?

10 | Marla

January 10th, 2008 at 11:27 am

Avatar

I know. I should stop blogging in your comments. Don’t I have my own blog to post on? Sheesh.

11 | alison

January 10th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Avatar

I won’t buy Webkinz for my girls either. I don’t like the feeling of being manipulated by toy companies into buying what they want me to buy for my children, rather than what I want to buy. That’s also the major reason (money being the other) that I don’t have satellite or cable for the TV. We watch CBC, CTV and we can get TVO on the set in my bedroom. This way they aren’t exposed to the barrage of advertising that comes with the Teletoons and the Disney channels. The girls have a pretty extensive DVD library, and hundreds of books, tonnes of craft supplies, and library cards to occupy their time. I’m not a fanatic about it, if they watch those channels while at their dad’s house, or at a friend’s place, fine. But I’m not spending upwards of $50 a month for them to spend more time in front of the TV. And do you know what? Their Christmas wish lists were very short, and included things I didn’t mind buying at all.

I’m kind of viewing the computer in the same way. Leah, who’s almost 8, is allowed on the computer for half an hour a day. And only on the TVOkids website, where the games are fun and educational. The thought of a game that glamourized overconsumption is pretty abhorrent I think. We won’t be getting any Webkinz in our house. Of course, that being said, Leah will probably end up with one at her birthday next month. I think if that happens, we will just do the registration/adoption thing, like you did, because I feel the same way you do.

But I still like my portable DVD player for those night-time Ottawa-Windsor car trips. :-)

12 | HANNAH

March 21st, 2008 at 4:52 pm

Avatar

I LOVE webkinz. They are like a computer game /stuffed animal!

13 | Ann

July 23rd, 2008 at 11:05 pm

Avatar

Having read briskly through many of your comments I have to agree with most of them. However, I struggle to appreciate exactly what banning them from a household will do. I agree more so with the “using webkins as a learning opportunity” ideology than anything else. Simply keeping perceived evils beyond reach teaches nothing more than to hide from that which we think is bad. My limited experience with webkins suggests that yes it is a pushy consumerist system, but so is all merchandising with labels. There is also a function on webkins that enables the user to turn off advertisements not associated with webkins…and the ideas that the money must be earned before necessities can be purchased and that necessities come before frills and extras are important lessons to absorb. Furthermore, fear of computers and technology is reasonable in some respects but in many ways unwarranted. For an individual to thrive and appreciate much that life has to offer, the computer is a tool to understand in its own right. In a time where appreciating the multicultural world and all its good and bad, individuals need to learn to think on their feet and think critically instead of being a pack critter. Used knowledgeably both the computer and webkins, like eating a balanced diet, can be tools to achieve such outcomes. Shying from that which we do not fully appreciate often leads to ignorance and this can be a dangerous path to walk.

14 | lauren

June 24th, 2010 at 8:46 am

Avatar

i have no absulute clue about anything im writing about or what anyones saying so ummm webkinz stinks now that your 10 it really is my sisters died and mine lived i reaaly want to make a new account and to start over and not have to many rooms
so my birthdays june 30 but what ev
bye

Archives

Me and my pet projects

Ottawa Bucket list

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

If you'd like to contact me, please use this form. If you're so inclined, you can read more about me here. Thank you for visiting!

 


Connect with me at these places too!

All hail the mighty Twitter