October 25, 2007

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What’s a Webkinz?
It’s like a normal kinz, but on the Web
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Driving around over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed variations on the same signs all over the place.

WEBKINZ HERE, one shouts. WE HAVE WEBKINZ! yells another. WEBKINZ WEBKINZ WEBKINZ is the babble of yet another.

From what I’d been able to gather up until then, Webkinz were some sort of stuffed animal. Why they were being trumpeted so vociferously I couldn’t fathom. Hadn’t we done this fad already, when they were called Beanie Babies?

Imagine my shock when I discovered that these were no ordinary stuffed animals. They were Internet-enabled plush devices!

Oh, the toys themselves are nothing special. There are no microchips or wires or circuits, or any electronics of any kind as far as I can tell. But see, each one of them has a unique code printed on its tag. That code, when entered on www.webkinz.com, unlocks a digital version of the stuffed pet you just bought.

Yeah, we did this fad too. It was called Tamagotchi. But linking a virtual pet with a meatspace toy is a bit of postmodern genius. Now a touchable, huggable toy can really react to you, talk to you, tell you how great you are — provided your brain makes the mental leap connecting what’s on your screen to the $13 inert, motionless, floppy animal next to it.

When I picked up Webkinz of my own — a hippo, of course, that I decided I would name Jody — to see what all the fuss was about, the friendly store clerk asked me how many I owned. Now, this is clearly a children’s toy, but she seemed completely nonplussed that an adult might be buying one for himself and not, say, the nonexistent niece on which I tried to blame the purchase.

Back at home, the account setup at the Webkinz Web site was astoundingly typical. E-mail was required, as was reading a dense page of legalese Terms of Service. A penguin schoolmarm creatively dubbed Ms. Birdy guides you through it, but young kids really should be helped through it by a parent. The site even requires that kids 9 and under do so, though there’s no verification required.

Once your registration is finished, you enter your code and formally adopt your stuffed animal, forever tying it to you and effectively cutting off any secondary market at its knees. Clever, huh? Jody, I learned, is a big fan of pretzels, checkers and going on vacation. He also liked the bathtub provided for me to place in his otherwise empty room. Lots more stuff is available to “buy” with KinzCash, an online currency you earn by playing games, answering trivia questions and filling out questionnaires on the site. I was pleased to note that the clothing selections were not limited by Jody’s male gender; this progressive hippo can dress in bikinis if he wants to.

He does seem kind of needy and codependent, though. When I asked “How are you doing?” he answered, “You and me are okay, right?” Given that you can only talk to your pet with pre-constructed questions and statements, his frequent non sequiturs are all the more odd. Still, one mustn’t judge. They’re all precious flowers, right?

Pet rock 2.0
For a guide to other virtual pet sites — many of which are free — check out www.virtualpet.com/vp. They claim to have “full coverage of the Virtual Pet Game Industry.” Of course there’s such a thing.