Forget the pink convertible. These days Barbie’s speeding into cyberspace, along with lots of other new toys. Welcome to the new world of child’s play, where only half of the fun is in the physical world
Shining Stars in cyberspace:
Shining Stars plush toys invite youngsters to an online play area where they can chat and name a star.We’re seeing ‘the tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to Internet connectivity for toys,says Andy Gatto, CEO of Stars marketer Russ Berrie Co. Welcome to Webkinz world: The collectible critters Ganz introduced in 2005 popularized the idea of linking an online community with a simple toy
There was a time when most toys were tangible and children played with them alone or with other youngsters close by. Those days are vanishing.
Today, an increasing number of Web-savvy toy manufacturers are linking their physical products with online communities and activities.
Webkinz, from suburban Toronto-based Ganz, was a pioneer of the trend in 2005. The plush Webkinz animals each come with a password that grants entry to a Web site where young owners can name and interact with online versions of their pet.
There, they are able to custom design a virtual room for the animal, play virtual arcade games and compete against other players in tournaments. Quizzes, contests and games earn pet owners KinzCash, which they may use to purchase toys, furniture and clothes. Consumers went gaga for the gimmick.
Webkinz were named the Toy Industry Association’s 2007 Specialty Toy of the Year.
Variations on the Webkinz model have since expanded to everything from dolls to games to trading cards. Mattel Inc., El Segundo, Calif., is incorporating computer and online play into several of its toys in 2007, including the Fisher- Price Easy Link Internet Launch Pad and UB Funkeys.
Mattel – the No. 1 toymaker in the U.S. – has even launched its venerable classic, Barbie, into cyberspace. The Barbie Girls line, aimed at girls aged 7 to 12, includes a Web site where young patrons can create and dress virtual characters, design fashions, chat with sister Barbie enthusiasts and spend “B Bucks.” New Barbie Girls dolls include a builtin MP3 player and a sign-up for the Barbie Girls online world. As of August, the site had 4.5 million registered users and could be accessed in six languages.
“Barbie continues to evolve as girls evolve,” says Rosie O’Neill, marketing manager for Barbie Girls. “Barbie Girls is the result of listening to what girls want, researching how they play and fusing it with the right technology to deliver an unparalleled experience. Barbie Girls represents the fusion of the three things girls love most – fashion, music and online play. It was developed as a holistic, integrated platform with both real world and virtual world interactivity.” MGA Entertainment, the Van Nuys, Calif., maker of the sassy Bratz line of fashion dolls that compete with Barbie, this summer launched Be-Bratz, an online community aimed at girls ages 6 and up. Necklaces packaged with each of the three Be-Bratz dolls contain USB keys that the new owner uses to enter the Web site.
There, a girl can create her character and set up a “MyPage” space that suits her style. A pet character included with the doll also has an online counterpart. Be-Bratz players can play games on the Web site, collecting points that can be traded for virtual clothes and accessories. Monitored text messaging is allowed among players, and live chat will be added to the site soon.
Not all the new online playgrounds focus on fashion. Karito Kids, a new collection of dolls of all ethnicities from Los Angeles-based KidsGive, aspires to raise the global awareness and compassion of its young followers.
The company donates 3 percent of each doll’s purchase price to an independent charitable organization, Plan USA, which benefits children in 65 countries.
Codes provided with each doll allow youngsters to activate their donation at the dolls’ Web site and direct their share of funds to one of four causes that make a difference: growing up healthy, learning, habitat or livelihood.
They can track the progress of their giving online and play games for points that can be converted to real donations.
The Karito Kids tagline: “Open her world, her mind, her heart.”
It was just a matter of time before the Internet invaded traditional toy territory, says Andy Gatto, CEO of Russ Berrie Co., Oakland, N.J. The company sells the Shining Stars line of plush toys, which marries stuffed animals with www.shiningstars.com, home to activities like e-cards and games.
Owners of the Shining Star pets get the chance to name a star through the International Star Registry.
“This was almost inevitable in the toy industry, which always looks to technology and lifestyle for influence over the kinds of products put on the market,” Gatto says. “Look at electronic chips two decades ago. That was a big enhancement of toys. To the extent that the Internet brings characters to life or enhances a product; you’ll see more of this. I think you are seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of yet another incentive for children to go online and interact with strangers.
Although toy marketers have instituted many safety features – on Be- Bratz.com, parents control the degree of freedom a child has to text message – the intersection of play space and cyberspace raises many safety and privacy issues.
“Any time you are advertising or promoting the use of technology, whether it’s integrating with tangible products or strictly virtual, you have a unique responsibility to build safeguards into that experience,” says Teri Schroeder, CEO of iSafe America, a Carlsbad, Calif., nonprofit that promotes Internet safety for children. Some toy makers contend it is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children responsible computer behavior, says Schroeder, but she doesn’t buy that argument.
“It may be the parent buying the toy, but it’s the child who is the end user,” she says. It’s not just the original site that needs policing, Schroeder maintains. Every hyperlink or ad that appears on a page could conceivably launch a child into uncharted territory.
“Sometimes the original site is benign,” says Schroeder, “but within four clicks you can get to objectionable material.”
Mike Robins is the community outreach coordinator for NetSmartz, an Internet safety collaboration of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with connecting a toy to a Web site but suggests taking some proactive steps before purchasing a toy with an online component.
First, if the gift is not for your own child, check with the child’s parents ahead of time. “You would obviously want to make sure that the parent or guardian of the child understands the toy and is OK with the online part of it,” he says.
Next, sit down with the child to make sure he or she knows not to divulge personal or identifying information. “Go over what to do if someone wants to instant message you or e-mail you or otherwise communicate off the Web site,” Robins says. “Often, when you start looking at abuse of children by people met online, you find out they have something in common to start. They might start off talking about a shared hobby or something, but eventually the offender segues into inappropriate conversation.”
Toy makers insist they have built precautions into their Web sites to prevent that sort of thing.
Bella Sara is a line of trading cards paired with a Web site aimed at young girls. The cards have pictures of horses on them, both traditional and fantasy (there’s a winged horse and a sea creature that is part horse, part dolphin), as well as positive quotes, slogans and messages intended to boost self-esteem.
Users groom, feed and dress virtual versions of the horse on their card and play games and interact with other users using pre-selected words and phrases.
Chat rooms are monitored and there are parental controls. Parents can be copied on a child’s emails or they can limit playing time, for instance.
“Safety is a top concern in any decision we make,” says Andre Lawless, director of marketing for Hidden City Games, which produces the Bella Sara products.
“It needs to be a safe place.” With safeguards, Lawless believes Web sites can be fun, wholesome and valuable teaching tools for children. He’s shown his 4-year-old daughter how to use a mouse and click through child-friendly Web sites, and figures the sooner she masters computer skills, the better.
“Without question, kids use Web sites for entertainment and education,” he says. “But those skills also come in handy later, when they’re adults entering the work force. If they know how to navigate the Web and use these tools, they’ll be much better off when they get older.” © CTW Features
See Barbie network:
Barbie Girls MP3 doll and docking station provides entry to Barbiegirl. com,where a young user can choose her doll’s look and interact with other users in virtual play spaces,including a beauty salon.
Be-Bratz doll owners connect to a doll-centered online community to chat with peers and rack up points for virtual clothes and accessories.