The Online Life of Toys

Forget the pink convertible. These daysBarbie’s speeding into cyberspace, alongwith lots of other new toys. Welcome to thenew world of child’s play, where only half ofthe fun is in the physical world

Shining Stars in cyberspace:

Shining Stars plush toys invite youngstersto an online play area where they canchat and name a star.We’re seeing ‘the tipof the iceberg’ when it comes to Internetconnectivity for toys,says Andy Gatto,CEO of Stars marketer Russ Berrie Co.Welcome to Webkinz world: The collectible crittersGanz introduced in 2005 popularized the idea oflinking an online community with a simple toy

There was a time when most toys were tangible and children played withthem alone or with other youngsters close by.Those days are vanishing.

Today, an increasing numberof Web-savvy toy manufacturersare linking their physical productswith online communitiesand activities.

Webkinz, from suburbanToronto-based Ganz, was a pioneerof the trend in 2005. Theplush Webkinz animals eachcome with a password that grantsentry to a Web site where youngowners can name and interactwith online versions of their pet.

There, they are able to customdesign a virtual room for the animal,play virtual arcade gamesand compete against other playersin tournaments. Quizzes, contestsand games earn pet ownersKinzCash, which they may use topurchase toys, furniture andclothes. Consumerswent gagafor the gimmick.

Webkinz werenamed the ToyIndustry Association’s2007 SpecialtyToy of theYear.

Variations onthe Webkinzmodel have sinceexpanded toeverything fromdolls to games totrading cards. MattelInc., El Segundo, Calif., isincorporating computer andonline play into several of its toysin 2007, including the Fisher-Price Easy Link Internet LaunchPad and UB Funkeys.

Mattel – the No. 1 toymaker inthe U.S. – has even launched itsvenerable classic, Barbie, intocyberspace. The Barbie Girls line,aimed at girls aged 7 to 12,includes a Web site where youngpatrons can create and dress virtualcharacters, design fashions,chat with sister Barbie enthusiastsand spend “B Bucks.” NewBarbie Girls dolls include a builtinMP3 player and a sign-up forthe Barbie Girls online world. Asof August, the site had 4.5 millionregistered users and could beaccessed in six languages.

“Barbie continues to evolve asgirls evolve,” says Rosie O’Neill,marketing manager for BarbieGirls. “Barbie Girls is the result oflistening to what girls want,researching how they play andfusing it with the right technologyto deliver an unparalleledexperience. Barbie Girls representsthe fusion of the threethings girls love most – fashion,music and online play. It wasdeveloped as a holistic, integratedplatform with both real worldand virtual world interactivity.”MGA Entertainment, the VanNuys, Calif., maker of the sassyBratz line of fashion dolls thatcompete with Barbie, this summerlaunched Be-Bratz, an onlinecommunity aimed at girls ages 6and up. Necklaces packaged witheach of the three Be-Bratz dollscontain USB keys that the newowner uses to enter the Web site.

There, a girl can create her characterand set up a “MyPage”space that suits her style. A petcharacter included with the dollalso has an online counterpart.Be-Bratz players can play gameson the Web site, collecting pointsthat can be traded for virtual clothes and accessories. Monitoredtext messaging is allowedamong players, and live chat willbe added to the site soon.

Not all the new online playgroundsfocus on fashion. KaritoKids, a new collection of dolls ofall ethnicities from Los Angeles-basedKidsGive, aspires to raisethe global awareness and compassionof its young followers.

The company donates 3 percentof each doll’s purchase price toan independent charitable organization,Plan USA, which benefitschildren in 65 countries.

Codes provided with each dollallow youngsters to activate theirdonation at the dolls’ Web siteand direct their share of funds toone of four causes that make adifference: growing up healthy,learning, habitat or livelihood.

They can track the progress oftheir giving online and playgames for points that can beconverted to real donations.

The Karito Kids tagline:“Open her world, hermind, her heart.”

It was just a matter oftime before the Internet invadedtraditional toy territory, saysAndy Gatto, CEO of Russ BerrieCo., Oakland, N.J. The companysells the Shining Stars line ofplush toys, which marries stuffedanimals, home toactivities like e-cards and games.

Owners of the Shining Star petsget the chance to name a starthrough the International StarRegistry.

“This was almost inevitable inthe toy industry, which alwayslooks to technology and lifestylefor influence over the kinds ofproducts put on the market,”Gatto says. “Look at electronicchips two decades ago. That wasa big enhancement of toys. Tothe extent that the Internetbrings characters to life orenhances a product; you’ll seemore of this. I think you are seeingthe tip of the iceberg.”

Of course, not everyone isthrilled with the idea of yet anotherincentive for children to goonline and interact with strangers.

Although toy marketers have institutedmany safety features – on, parents control thedegree of freedom a child has totext message – the intersection ofplay space and cyberspace raisesmany safety and privacy issues.

“Any time you are advertisingor promoting the use of technology,whether it’s integrating withtangible products or strictly virtual,you have a unique responsibilityto build safeguards into thatexperience,” says Teri Schroeder,CEO of iSafe America, a Carlsbad,Calif., nonprofit that promotesInternet safety for children.Some toy makers contend it isthe parents’ responsibility to teachtheir children responsible computerbehavior, says Schroeder,but she doesn’t buy that argument.

“It may be the parent buyingthe toy, but it’s the child whois the end user,” she says.It’s not just the originalsite that needs policing,Schroeder maintains. Everyhyperlink or ad that appearson a page could conceivablylaunch a child into uncharted territory.

“Sometimes the originalsite is benign,” says Schroeder,“but within four clicks you canget to objectionable material.”

Mike Robins is the communityoutreach coordinator for NetSmartz,an Internet safety collaborationof the National Center forMissing and Exploited Childrenand the Boys and Girls Clubs ofAmerica. He doesn’t see anythinginherently wrong with connectinga toy to a Web site but suggeststaking some proactive stepsbefore purchasing a toy with anonline component.

First, if the gift is not for yourown child, check with the child’sparents ahead of time. “Youwould obviously want to makesure that the parent or guardianof the child understandsthe toy and is OK with theonline part of it,” he says.

Next, sit down withthe child to make sure heor she knows not todivulge personal or identifyinginformation. “Goover what to do if someonewants to instant messageyou or e-mail you orotherwise communicateoff the Web site,” Robinssays. “Often, when youstart looking at abuse of childrenby people met online, you findout they have something in commonto start. They might start offtalking about a shared hobby orsomething, but eventually theoffender segues into inappropriateconversation.”

Toy makers insist they havebuilt precautions into their Websites to prevent that sort ofthing.

Bella Sara is a line of tradingcards paired with a Web siteaimed at young girls. The cardshave pictures of horses on them,both traditional and fantasy(there’s a winged horse and asea creature that is part horse,part dolphin), as well as positivequotes, slogans and messagesintended to boost self-esteem.

Users groom, feed and dressvirtual versions of the horse ontheir card and play games andinteract with other users usingpre-selected words and phrases.

Chat rooms are monitored andthere are parental controls. Parentscan be copied on a child’s emailsor they can limit playingtime, for instance.

“Safety is a top concern in anydecision we make,” says AndreLawless, director of marketingfor Hidden City Games, whichproduces the Bella Sara products.

“It needs to be a safe place.”With safeguards, Lawlessbelieves Web sites can be fun,wholesome and valuable teachingtools for children. He’sshown his 4-year-old daughterhow to use a mouse and clickthrough child-friendly Web sites,and figures the sooner she masterscomputer skills, the better.

“Without question, kids useWeb sites for entertainment andeducation,” he says. “But thoseskills also come in handy later,when they’re adults entering thework force. If they know how tonavigate the Web and use thesetools, they’ll be much better offwhen they get older.”© CTW Features

See Barbie network:

Barbie Girls MP3 dolland docking stationprovides entry to,where ayoung user can chooseher doll’s look andinteract with otherusers in virtual playspaces,including abeauty salon.

Be-Bratz online:

Be-Bratz dollowners connectto a doll-centeredonlinecommunity tochat with peersand rack uppoints for virtualclothes andaccessories.