Thursday, March 01, 2007

Parents: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Toy of Webkinz


I met my first Webkinz stuffed animal toy a couple of months ago, one of Madison’s friends got one and we quickly followed suit. There are 11 in our house now, we’ve discovered that rabbits have nothing on Webkinz when it comes to out-of-control procreation.

An interesting concept, a stuffed animal that comes along with a special printed code used to unlock the “virtual” version of that same creature on the Webkinz Web site. Kids can go online and play with their pet, design a room (or rooms) for them to live in, feed them and dress them in wild and inappropriate outfits without ever risking a scratch or bite from a real live animal that didn't happen to feel like wearing sunglasses or a chef’s hat.

Once a “pet” is activated online, Webkinz offers a helpful and ongoing indication of its general condition and state-of-mind through three 100-point rating scales, ever-present on the screen: Happiness, Health and Hunger. On our first day in Webkinz world, we entered information for Madison’s pet pig and Ava’s grey kitten and found they were both topping out with 100-point scores across all categories. It was fun for about 15 minutes, until the increasingly insistent waves of, “my turn… my turn… Daddy! Can I have a turn? My turn now!” coming from whatever child was not sitting in front of the computer became too much to take.

[Webkinz tip, not provided by the manufacturer – if at all possible, plan on providing a separate computer with dedicated Internet connectivity to each child in your home who cares to play. Wireless routers are fine, as long as each terminal is experiencing guaranteed downstream speeds of at least 10 Mbps. A secondary strategy, workable but not nearly as user friendly, is to sit an egg timer near a single computer to parse available minutes among multiple users. A third option, also not listed in the approved written materials but maybe the best of the bunch, is to never buy one of these things in the first place.]

So right after Ava fed her kitten a pink frosted cupcake (which magically resulted in higher scores in both the “Hunger” and “Health” categories) I was forced to end our maiden voyage with Webkinz to prevent the girls from killing each other over who had the immediate ability to get a little animated figure to walk across a computer screen and hop up on a bed shaped like a football field.

About three weeks went by before we all found ourselves again in front of the computer and someone said something about checking in on the Webkinz. I logged the girls in and prepared for the worst… 21 days without food, water or a new wardrobe. I hoped that at least one of the creatures had survived, so we could all join forces and nurse the remaining Webkinz back to health.

We got to Madison’s page and found… near perfect scores in every category, 100 for Happiness, 98 for Health, 96 for Hunger. We had a few nice moments before the girls again started screaming at each other in a battle for screen time and I had to shut it down and suggest we read a book.

The moment stayed with me, though, as I wondered about the high scores our “pets” were posting after such an extended period without comfort or care, what this extremely popular toy was teaching our children, and the potentially devastating effects on future generations of innocent animals. Surely, the Webkinz experience is vivid enough for young and impressionable minds to believe it is transferable to real live pets. How many polar bears, sheep or dogs out there will someday face days, weeks or months alone in garishly decorated rooms, with only chocolate bars, nacho chips and birthday cake left behind for sustenance?

You can almost see the fine men and women of Animal Planet’s “Animal Precinct” busting through locked doors to find starving, ignored and extensively accessorized animals on the other side.

“What do you think, Bobby, Webkinz?”

They share a knowing glance.

“Webkinz. Absolutely.”

They shake their heads.

“Poor thing, didn't stand a chance."

"Look at the hoofs… God knows how they wedged them into those tap shoes.”

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