How many of you are familiar with Webkinz? You know, the bigger-than-Beanie Babies, smaller-than-Build-a-Bear stuffed animals that come with a password that lets you log on to a companion web site? If you have young-teenage girls in the house, or even just in the family, I’m betting you’ve seen these animals many times over the years. You might not know they’re special at first glance, but you can identify them by the colorful W stitched into the sole of one of their feet. Some of them are very appealing, some less so, but they’re all equal if your goal is access to the Webkinz web site.
When you log onto the site and register your stuffed animal, you unlock a year of access to all their games and activities. Each animal you register has an online avatar, and there is a care-taking aspect built into the experience. It’s not quite as rigorous as the one for Tamagotchis, where if you don’t feed them they die. In Webkinz-land, if you don’t feed your online pet, well, to tell the truth, I don’t know what happens. I’ve never let anyone’s happiness/hunger score fall below 85. I mean my daughter, my daughter never let anyone’s score fall below 85.
Okay, so it’s out, my not-so-dirty little secret. I am a closet Webkinz fan. For me it’s not because of the animals (although I’m a sucker for anything I can name and pretend is real), I’m in it for the games. It’s a site I can go to for mindless entertainment without worrying about whether or not I’m going to inadvertently download something to my machine, or fall in love with a game that you can only play until you’re addicted and then you have to buy it. The games are just like the ones you find at grown-up sites, but they’re in primary colors.
These little stuffed animals were all the rage some years ago when my daughter was exactly the right age for them. They came in droves; birthdays, bribes, rewards, just-because-I-love-you presents. She was on the computer constantly and all the stuffed animals got lots of attention. Then the unthinkable happened, she outgrew them.
One day I logged in using her password and was greeted with a message that said that the last Webkinz we had registered had now reached a year old and it was time to say good-bye. I panicked. Stop using Webkinz cold turkey? Were they out of their minds? I saw no way out. I grabbed my visiting exchange student and dragged her to the mall where I made her pick out a Webkinz animal, and presented it to her as a present, minus the tag with the access code.
I’m hooked up again for one more year. I know I’m going to expire next summer so in the spring I’ll start planning for the end. I might even pick my least favorite of the animal avatars and see what happens if you let it starve. Then I can call this whole thing an elaborate experiment, rather than what it really is, my guilty pleasure.