Most afternoons, straight after school - and before homework, when he can get away with it - Ido, nine, spends some quality time tending to his favorite pet. His current champion - he has 13 to choose from - is a fluffy yellow chicken, which he calls Tarnegol.
Tarnegol, one should note, is not a live chicken, but rather a stuffed toy with a yellow W embossed on its back. Inanimate nature notwithstanding, the pet demands as much care as would a live animal; the difference is, for Tarnegol, TLC comes courtesy of the World Wide Web.
Welcome, uninitiated, to the on-line world of Webkinz.
Hugely popular within the seven to 11 age bracket, Webkinz stands apart from many games and toys aimed at the preteen market. Harnessing the technology of the Internet, game play takes place in an on-line world where the "pet's" owner is expected to tend to the needs of the toy's virtual avatar, promoting sophisticated concepts of responsibility and nurturing. Perhaps unusually, the brand seems as popular with boys as it is with girls, suggesting that the game incorporates concepts and notions that appeal to the stereotypical tastes of both genders. On the other hand, some argue that with an emphasis on acquisition - both in game play and in real life - Webkinz embodies a materialism that is not at all beneficial for young children.
All this, considered alongside Webkinz's undoubted mass appeal, prompts the question: Can games like this have a significant impact upon the social norms of coming generations? And if so, what might this be?
Webkinz is the brainchild of Canadian soft toy manufacturer Ganz. Founded in 1950 by Holocaust survivor Samuel Ganz and his sons Sam and Jack, the company was best known before the introduction of the brand, in 2005, for its range of stuffed toys marketed to the fairground trade. In Israel, the brand is distributed by PMI, a Tel Aviv-based company run by Yael Arad, famous for being the first Israeli to win a medal at the Olympic Games (a silver in judo at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics).
Webkinz themselves are a range of toy animals - real and imaginary - standing about 25 cm. high. Each is sold with a unique code that secures the owner admission to the on-line Webkinz "world." Once inside, the pet's owner is presented with a virtual replica of the toy animal; the task is to keep the pet happy and healthy - to nurture it, in short - by feeding, clothing and entertaining it.
According to Ganz's corporate Web site, Webkinz "combine the timeless fun of plush pets with the interactivity of the Internet, giving kids a virtual world where they can play, build, nurture, collect.
"Webkinz," it says, "allow kids to combine creativity, imagination and technology in a fun-filled safe environment."
This aspiration clearly strikes a chord with the target audience: To date, more than 1.5 million individual accounts have been registered across the world, with the on-line portal operating in nine languages, including Spanish, French, Japanese and Hebrew. It is an impressive level of popularity by any standard, and it reflects a sophisticated appreciation by the brand of the complicated world of pre-adolescence, the world of its target audience.
ACCORDING TO developmental psychologist Smadar Gertner, psychologists and social scientists recognize the period between the ages of seven and 12 as a period of consolidation and tentative, gradual emotional growth. Children, Gertner explains, begin to expand their emotional boundaries, forming concrete friendships and social groups beyond the predictability of the immediate family for the first time.
It is a potentially dangerous period, she notes, fraught with emotional challenges. "The child is struggling with the task of creating one's identity, finding one's place within the peer group."
Gertner says that Webkinz game play can help reinforce two important psychological needs of young children. First, the popularity reinforces a sense of community and sameness, replicating a sense of security that home life has provided up until this point. "Children in this age range often look to a shared object, a common object of mutual admiration, someone or something to look up to - an actor, or a famous singer, for instance. Webkinz can perform much the same function."
Beyond this, the game also offers an outlet to exercise a simulacrum of control over aspects of their lives, an opportunity often not available in the day-to-day world. "It gives them the sense that they can actually change things in the world, but at the same time allows them to recognize the responsibility of looking after the avatar. It forms an important psychological bridge between control and nurturing."
Probably the closest parallel to the current Webkinz phenomenon in recent times is the Tamagotchi craze that swept the world in the late 1990s. Tamagotchis, virtual pets hatched in a plastic "egg," also demanded nurture and care from their owners; unlike the Webkinz, however, they were portable: The egg was a self-enclosed digital unit which allowed the owner to pop it in a pocket and take it wherever he went. Significantly, Tamagotchis - unlike Webkinz - could actually "die" if neglected for too long. There were many reports in the media at the time of - perhaps slightly over-elaborated - public expressions of grief by "bereaved" owners, struggling to cope with their loss.
In 1999, Linda-Renee Bloch and Prof. Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University wrote an academic study of the rise and fall of the Tamagotchi phenomenon. Bloch, who lectures in the Department of Communications, still maintains a personal interest in the subject of virtual pets, not least because her two children play with Webkinz. "I had tried not to buy them, but when they were given to them by a dear friend, I conceded defeat," she says, "to the extent that I have actually bought them additional ones too."
Bloch observes that while the boundaries between a real, physical toy and a virtual pet seem blurred through the shared physical/virtual identity of Webkinz, children seem more capable of distinguishing it as a toy rather than as an actual pet. She suggests that this is because there is a physical counterpart to the on-line activity.
"With Tamagotchis, the attachment was primarily through the virtual dimension... it seems to me that this attachment was far more intense than is the case with Webkinz; if this is correct, it is probably due to leap of faith - or imagination - necessary to view it as a 'live' entity."
Noting that Webkinz - unlike the Tamagotchi predecessor - cannot be killed off through neglect, Bloch echoes Gertner in suggesting that part of the appeal lies in the simulacrum of control over the pets. "To play at nurturing is one thing, since it can be ceased at any point... [child psychology research] shows that children will gleefully destroy a tower that they have constructed, but will not appreciate it accidentally being knocked down by anyone else."
Webkinz, of course, are not about knocking down, but rather about building up and nurturing. Still, it is impossible to ignore that within this broadly positive ideal exist prompts for an objective that, if not wholly contradictory, does seem to espouse other priorities.
Children playing on the Webkinz portal have their duty to care for their pet measured against three gauges: health, hunger and happiness. Owners cook food for the pet to keep hunger pangs at bay and exercise them regularly to keep them healthy. Happiness, the third benchmark, hints at an encouraging expectation of emotional literacy; but watching Ido play with his pet, I began to appreciate one particular reservation about Webkinz game play that had been expressed while I was researching the subject for this article.
IDO HAD kindly agreed to demonstrate exactly how the game worked, and was decorating Tarnegol's room. Tarnegol, he determined, has a talent for music, so he worked at satisfying this by "purchasing" musical accessories, a drum kit and keyboards, to keep the pet entertained. As an afterthought, he added to the shopping list a flat-screen television - "in case it becomes bored," he explains.
Accessories - and there is a vast range to choose from - are bought through an in-game virtual cash system called Kinzcash. Kinzcash are points earned through participation in a range of mainly pedagogical on-line activity - mathematics, logic and memory exercises, among others. There seems a sensible logic to this, by providing a positive incentive to learning.
But it is very hard for a child to earn more than 100 Kinzcash points in a day; perhaps mirroring current financial conditions, this can only go so far, and it could be argued that this limitation encourages thrift and careful spending. This would be a persuasive argument if not for one small point: If a child decides to buy a new Webkinz instead of "working," the child is rewarded with a dowry of 2,000 Kinzcash points, the equivalent of almost three weeks' toil.
In this context, Gertner suggests that game play has an intriguing parallel with modern life, in that the value of accomplishment is linked to accumulation; happiness, she observes, is becoming inextricably linked with the possession of material items.
One shouldn't be surprised. "The more one acquires, the more 'powerful' one becomes," she notes. "It contributes to a growth in social status and respect from one's peers. It isn't a great message, but it is consistent with the times that we live in and prevailing social messages."
At NIS 65 each, a single Webkinz toy is not dreadfully expensive. Still, owning 13 - and, in his defense, Ido is far from atypical in this respect - must be something of a strain on a parent's resources. Bloch points out that there seems to be an element of competition that was not present with the Tamagotchi craze. "There seems to be more 'showing off' - how many assets one has, how many accessories one has and, perhaps most of all, how many Webkinz one has," she comments.
Interestingly, while multiple pets can be accommodated under a single owner account, no game play advantage - the accumulation of additional Kinzcash points aside - is gained through the ownership of more than one Webkinz. It seems like a canny marketing strategy, but one that perhaps comes at the expense of goodwill that other aspects of the game generate.
Still, one cannot ignore other intriguing, positive aspects of the Webkinz phenomenon. Perhaps the most striking feature of the game's popularity is its capacity to successfully bridge gender boundaries, something that few games designed for children in this age bracket achieve.
In their paper, Bloch and Lemish observe that the synthesis of technology and nurture in the Tamagotchi offered something that could appeal to the stereotypical concepts of both boys and girls and as such minimizes traditional gender boundaries. "By providing girls with a gender relevant context, they will become as interested in the technology and as proficient in its use as boys," they wrote. In reverse, the combination of the two "serves to socialize boys toward changing gender roles."
It doesn't completely erase these roles, of course. Ido enjoys the rough and tumble of typically "male" activities, like skateboarding, for instance. But on the other hand, Webkinz game play no doubt broadens his social horizons.
Gertner acquiesces with this observation. Scientific literature, she says, confirms that gender identity is ingrained in children at an early age, societal mores reinforcing the gradual awareness of biological differences between the sexes. "At two, most children are aware of the physical differences between boys and girls; by three, they already identify with 'boy' and 'girl' colors." She adds that extensive research demonstrates that parents do not behave similarly toward boys and girls at any time: Children, in short, are "socialized differently from birth, according to their gender."
In this sense, she opines that Webkinz creates something unique, by "breaking stereotypical cues" and encouraging both genders to do things often removed from their sphere of social activity. "The social image [of computer games] resembles that of, for instance, proficiency in mathematics. A combination of computer game play and the cuddly toy gives both genders the legitimacy to engage with them, to play with them. In a sense, it [Webkinz] serves as a bridge between the masculine and feminine worlds."
It's an interesting observation. Gender, many would agree, plays a significant role in almost every aspect of social life here. It is far too early and speculative to suggest that the popularity of a game like Webkinz might in time lead to an overhaul of the traditional roles of men and women. But this polymorphism certainly points to an interesting path that the coming generations may have the chance to follow - of emotionally literate adults who aspire to an equality between the sexes, capable of a balanced appreciation of so-called "male" and "female" societal roles.
Ido, for one, doesn't think of Webkinz as merely entertainment. "It's not just a game," he says when asked what he enjoys most about Webkinz. He pauses for a moment. "It is about caring." n
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