Writer Thu Jul 12, 2:16 PM ET
For about a week my 6-year-old son, Mark, was having a grand old time on
Webkinz, one of several children's Web sites that have exploded in
popularity in the last year or so.
Then it dawned on him. His online pet, a gorilla named Ben, was playing
games like "Rock Paper Scissors" and "Go Fish" against the other
denizens of Webkinz World, nearly all of whom were pink kittens or
"Is PoniesRock!24 a girl?" he asked.
"What difference does it make?" my wife and I responded.
"Yeah, but is PoniesRock!24 a girl?"
We finally conceded: "Probably, yes."
He quickly reconciled his little internal conflict and was soon happily
back on track. And that was fine with us. Webkinz is one of the few
sites that has captured our son's attention without aggressive
promotional tie-ins for superhero movies or television shows. He doesn't
need a lot of parental help to navigate the site.
And Webkinz has broad appeal.
While it seems that the sweet spot in the Webkinz demographic - what
with the cutesy-pie graphics and the proliferation of fluffy felines in
pastels - is probably the preteen girl, the site has something for
everybody. When we boot Mark off the computer to go play outside, either
my wife or I will often play a few games before we shut it down.
To log on to Webkinz, you first have to buy a specially designated
stuffed animal for about $15 or so. (The toys themselves appear a little
cheaply made, like what you'd find at a roadside carnival. My wife has
already had to stitch Ben up twice.)
The price compares favorably to another popular site, Club Penguin,
which charges about $60 a year for full access, though limited features
are available for free.
The toy comes with a code giving you one year's access to the Webkinz
World site at webkinz.com. There your toy gorilla or cat or frog or
bunny becomes a virtual pet, and it's your job to keep it happy, healthy
You do this by "buying" food, toys and amenities with Webkinz cash,
which you earn by playing the games and fulfilling various tasks.
Or just buy another stuffed animal - you get 2,500 or more in KinzCash
for every subsequent toy you purchase, compared with 3 to 50 by playing
games. That is assuredly part of the reason many people seem to collect
dozens of WebKinz toys.
The huge variety of games and activities is by far the site's best
feature. Some are habit-forming and addictive, including math, word and
shape puzzles in the vein of "Tetris" or sudoku. Most reward critical
thinking in some fashion or another.
Some games appeal to the very young - my 3-year-old laughed
uncontrollably at one game where you whack a puffball-type creature with
a club - and others appeal to adults and teens. I suspect many players
are adults, either using their children's accounts like we do or
childless adults who have moved on from their Beanie Baby collections.
The games can be played solo or two-player, and the Web site will
usually find you a challenger in seconds. You can see the site's appeal
to adults late at night, when the arcade is still hopping and the level
of competition on those word puzzle games rises dramatically.
Some of the games seem complicated even for older kids. A dice game that
is apparently popular was a little confounding. Mark needs help playing
some games, but can do others by himself. The variety is sufficient to
The lack of advertising on the site is also welcome.
The Web site provides rewards and incentives for buying additional toys
but does not seem particularly aggressive in pushing kids to spend real
money. Some features, like tending to a garden, reward players who log
on to the site every day. My wife says it promotes responsibility,
though I find it mildly obnoxious to insist on my child's daily
The ability to outfit your pet's living quarters is also staggering.
Thousands of virtual items are available for purchase, from custom towel
racks for the bathroom, swimming pools for the backyard and designer
clothes for your pet to wear.
The virtual shopping mimics real online shopping, with "add to cart"
icons. Some may see it as indoctrination into real online shopping, but
we were actually pleased because my son is learning to save money,
forgoing smaller items to buy the big stuff.
And it provides an interesting window into what kids find appealing. I
was a little surprised he spent so much time selecting particular types
The Web site limits the ability to chat and interact with other users to
a series of prefab questions and statements - "What's Up?" "I'm feeling
tired." "Do you want to play in the arcade?" and so on. That makes it
impossible for skeevy pervs to prey on children.
Unfortunately those limitations - while necessary - also make it
difficult to have any substantive interaction. Playing a live opponent
really feels no different from playing a computer. What's the fun of
winning "Rock Paper Scissors" if you can't trash-talk your opponent
after your rock whomps all over his scissors?
The interactions with your virtual pet are also a little stilted, and
like politicians, the virtual pets have a tendency to pander to their
"Do you want something to eat?" Mark asked his gorilla.
"You take good care of me," the gorilla responded.
"How are you doing?" Mark asked.
"I'm glad I'm your pet," he responded as a little heart burped out from
The graphics are cute and simple, and the site itself usually seems to
work well. At times on a recent weekend, though, the entire Web site was
shut down for maintenance. We also previously faced glitches running
some games on a Safari browser on a somewhat-dated Macintosh; those
problems cleared up after switching to the Firefox browser.
The Web site is operated by the Ganz company, a third-generation family
business outside Toronto that had been primarily known for manufacturing
plush toys and collectibles. Spokeswoman Susan McVeigh would not discuss
the number of registered users or which features on the site are most
She did say that the site began in 2005 but really took off late last
year. Many stores have been selling out of the toys.
And she said more boys inhabit Webkinz than people realize.
Ben the gorilla will be glad to hear it.
Need a vacation? Get great deals
to amazing places on Yahoo! Travel.