Webkinz: Virtually Inescapable

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Webkinz is a new kids toy craze, a stuffed animal that also leads a virtual life on the computer. Children can go on line to fed their toy, and play games to earn virtual money to maintain and house their pet.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Webkinz. The exciting online experience where your plush pet comes to life.

(Soundbite of music)


I'm logging on to Webkinz.com, using the secret code on a tag attached to a little stuffed dog I just bought for about $13. Once I've officially registered my dog on the Web site, I have to keep a virtual version of it happy and healthy and well-fed.

To do that, I play virtual games and do virtual chores to earn virtual money to buy virtual food, virtual exercise, and, of course, virtual stuff. And it's telling me I have to name the dog. This being NPR, I think I'll call it, News Hound.

(Soundbite of typing)

I learned about this brave new world where the virtual meets the imaginary meets the stuff from my own children, but it turns out, we are late to the Webkinz fad. No less than Newt Gingrich is in the know, at least according to this video blog called Bearing Drift.

(Soundbite of video blog Bearing Drift)

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Author, "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America"): We're looking at Webkinz, which is a site that the little kids can go on. He's - our attorney for one of our firms has a 4-year-old daughter, who navigates Webkinz at 4.

ROBERTS: And even right here at NPR, I ran into Mara Liasson. She had her 6-year-old daughter, Mia(ph), with her. And Mia was logging into Webkinz to take care of her animals. She actually has two of them.

MIA (Mara Liasson's Daughter): Their names are Sarah and Samantha. Sarah is a cat and Samantha is a unicorn. And I love my Webkinz.

ROBERTS: So you get - you buy the animal and it's got a little code on the tag, is that what was?

LIASSON: Yes. I forgot my secret codes and they're secret anyway.

ROBERTS: Oh. So we've got Newt Gingrich, secret codes, and stuffed unicorns. Clearly, the Webkinz phenomenon bares further investigation. So I went to Kid's Closet toy store here in Washington, and I found some Webkinz shoppers and storeowners, Sandi and Lewis(ph) Tipograph.

Mr. LEWIS TIPOGRAPH (Storeowner, Kid's Closets): We're doing very nicely with them. We're getting very interesting customers from pretty much all over the world. I had, yesterday, a person from Paris, the day before that, somebody from London.

ROBERTS: Do you think it's a good toy?

Mr. TIPOGRAPH: I think it's a great toy. Yes, I have one myself and I…

ROBERTS: Which one do you have?

Mr. TIPOGRAPH: I have the - I hate to say it - the pink pony. It's right here. It's a - what do you think?

ROBERTS: It's adorable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: I have, like, a dog and…

Unidentified Woman #2: Hippo.

Unidentified Woman #1: A hippo and…

Unidentified Woman #2: A platypus.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: How about if she has (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #1: I have google(ph). They're googles.

ROBERTS: What's a google?

Unidentified Woman #2: It's like a platypus-type of thing.

ROBERTS: What's his name?

Unidentified Woman #2: I named it Eglantine(ph)?

ROBERTS: That's a big, fabulous name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Of the ones that you guys don't have or the ones you have your eye on, things that you'd like to add to your collection?

Unidentified Woman #1: I think I want a frog.

Unidentified Woman #2: I think I want a polar bear and a rabbit.

Ms. SANDI TIPOGRAPH (Storeowner, Kid's Closets): Hi. I'm Sandi Tipograph.

ROBERTS: And what do you think of Webkinz as a toy?

Ms. TIPOGRAPH: There were some things I really liked about it. It teaches basic elements of word processing, that's click and drag. And I think it teaches kids how to use the computer and not be afraid of it and really using real element.

There were some elements I didn't care for. I watched, you know, you bought -you go into a site and you buy furniture for the Webkinz's room. And it was exactly like any online buying site, you know? You add it to your cart and it holds it. And you have a wish list and it's just like any sites that you've been on. And I had my doubts about kids learning so early. So it's got its pluses, it's got its minuses.

ROBERTS: Sandi Tipograph's ambivalence is not shared by 6-year-old Mia. Mia plays a game called "Hungry Hog" to earn some virtual money, which is called the Kinzcash.

(Soundbite of computer game)

ROBERTS: What are you going to spend your Kinzcash on?

MIA: I want a Ganz, $2,000 and I'm going to buy a canopy bag. Oh, not 2,000, I mean, 900.

ROBERTS: But frankly, with the amount of time and effort it takes to win $900 in Kinzcash, let alone at $2,000 in Kinzcash, it is very likely my poor little dog News Hound is going to wither away. It's actually too soon to predict whether the Webkinz fad will suffer the same fate.

Okay. You're almost done with this level if you get that ice cream cone. Oh, good work.

(Soundbite of computer game)

MIA: I told you I'm really good at this game.

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