The small but select group who reads this blog, though of varied occupations, ages, and proclivities, is probably united in being the single set of people in North America least likely to have heard of the massive! marketing! phenomenon! that is Webkinz. So: Webkinz are stuffed animals that come with a code that gives you access to a tantalizing website, around which your stuffie wanders as an avatar.
Eila’s been asking for one of the these for around a year, and a couple of weeks ago I finally broke down. Why? Mainly because I grew up poor (not quite pawn-shop-once-a-month poor, but whenever-you-find-a-penny- you-give-it-to-mummy-or-daddy poor) and I have this possibly erroneous idea that I was a social misfit because I didn’t have the right stuff, and I don’t want to go dysfunctional on Eila and deprive her of the right stuff too. Also, she had asked for a long time, and been very patient and nice and non-demanding about the way she was asking: (“I was just thinking that if you ever wanted to get me anything, maybe some time, you know, for my birthday…”) and one day she was being particularly good and sweet and charming, and I told her that if during the next three weeks she didn’t ask for a Webkinz once then I’d get her one. And she made it.
So, now, here’s what you need to know.
1. These are not toys for four year olds. The games, jobs, classes, etc. on the website (all of which are, of course, games) are hard for me, and many of them are beyond my capacities. The instructions are close to useless: one is expected already to know, to have skilz, in other words, to have a brain already modified by continual gaming.
2. What Eila can do, and do very well, is shop. And this is what the site is really about. You earn money by playing games and answering questions (“if you had three apples and gave two to your sister…” — this is the site’s tenuous claim to being educational) and then you use the money to buy food or clothing to give your pet, or pieces of furniture for your room, or a new room for what slowly becomes your house.
3. Young children can’t play the games but love to spend the money. How can this problem be solved? Oh yes! Parents can play. At any rate, I’m told by one of the school mothers that her husband, a lawyer, plays Webkinz during the day, building up money for his daughter to spend when she comes home from school.
4. Webkinz is a prelude to the “harder stuff”: Second Life and such. There are clubhouse rooms where your avatar can meet others and chat with them. You can’t type in your own words but have to choose from options, so the conversation is limited. But who cares? Who has anything to say anyway, beyond “Are you going to buy more Webkinz?” (no kidding) or “You’re awesome!” or the 50 or so other equally flaccid options?
In case I haven’t made it clear yet, I think you should stay away from this toy as long as possible. A temporary option is one taken by another of the school mothers – get a Webkinz animal so that your child has the social cache, but feign ignorance of the website, or technological incompatibility.