LIANE HANSEN, host:
On our program we discuss the phenomenon of Webkinz, the online video game that lets children play with their digital pets on their computers. We even adopted a Webkinz. Well, now we turn to David Kushner for his comments. He writes about digital culture, and he says Webkinz are good for kids.
Mr. DAVID KUSHNER (Writer, "Rolling Stone," "Wired"): As any parent of a young child can tell you, Webkinz are the Cabbage Patch dolls of Generation Z. These soft fuzzy animals cost about $10 and can be purchased in just about card shop or toy store. But there's one big difference between them and the plushies of the past. Webkinz have a second life online.
Each stuffed animal comes with a special secret code on a tag. When you register that number on Webkinz.com, a cartoon version of your pudgy blue hippo or gawky white bird appears on your computer screen. After giving your pet a name and gender you decorate a virtual room for it to live in.
Though the furniture and stereos are made of pixels, you'll need pretend money called Kinz Cash to buy them. You earn it by playing games like Spin the Wheel of Yum or Candy Bash.
For kids weaned on computers and cell phones it's the ultimate mash-up. A video game they can cuddle with at night-night. And while parents may pine for the days of plastic doll houses, those little faces pressed up against the computer screen are showing how the wall between our real and virtual lives is coming down.
The site imparts unintended by necessary lessons about love and possession in a digital age. While some of my friends think Webkinz is the end of imagination, I think it's preparing kids for life in an increasingly virtualized society -the good and the bad.
One day my 8-year-old daughter Samantha booted up in horror to find her pink poodle's room emptied of its cushy sofa and widescreen TV. I had to explain to Sammy that while pixilated stuff is easy to accumulate, it's also easy to lose whether to a computer error, a hacker or even a friend playing a prank. She nodded and begged for a real pet.
Now we have two domestic shorthaired cats, Bella and Maxi. Sammy and her 6-year-old sister Mia don't spend as much time with their Webkinz anymore but their digital lives will continue. Soon it will be instant messaging or Facebook or MySpace, and then they'll discover the most ubiquitous virtual pet of all - the BlackBerry.
HANSEN: Writer David Kushner covers digital culture for "Rolling Stone," "Wired" and other publications.
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