If you’ve been noticing an increase in the number of smudgy fingerprints on your computer screen, it may be because your young children are spending more time online. With new services coming from companies such as Lego and Disney, that are aimed right at them, it might be wise to keep some glass cleaner nearby.
Engrossed: A file photograph of a boy typing on his laptop in Arahuay, an Andean hilltop village in Peru
These services are increasingly social in nature, places where your children can interact with other children, and they are becoming a central part of the business plans of the people who make TV programmes, toys and cereal.
Your child might get a plush toy bearing a code for a free gift on Neopets, or a gift card for a free month on Club Penguin. How can parents sort out the best options among these services? One trick is to think about how they make money.
Because of multimedia Web software and faster Internet access, there are lots of sites that mix habit-forming games with ads. One is even called Addicting Games (www.addictinggames.com), and it is run by Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon division, a company that has a clear interest in attracting the minds and mouse clicks of children.
As visitors play (and rate) games like Indestructo Tank or Drag Racer V3 , they see ads for Intel computers or other Nick sites. Clicking through and hopping from site to site will give a child a crash course in the latest Bratz movies or Hannah Montana concert.
Another group of sites mixes free content with paid access, using a technique known in the industry as the velvet rope approach. Children are invited to set up an account, and they become invested as they adopt pets or decorate homes. Then they are teased with features that cost money, real money.
Later this month, Mattel Inc.’s BarbieGirls will be retooled in this way. Last year the site required the purchase of a Barbie MP3 player for access to certain content, an idea that has been abandoned. In the new version, children will be able to get in free and chat with others, dress up their on-screen dolls and decorate a room. But a collection of some games and fashion items will be off limits unless they become a VIP player, which requires cash. VIPs are distinguished from the other Barbies by their sparkling tiaras.
For younger children of both genders, ZooKazoo (www.zookazoo.com), out this month, is similar to the popular Club Penguin but has an educational slant, with games that involve sorting objects and saving the environment.
As you play, you can add friends to your buddy list and earn money by playing games. With the money you can buy furniture for your home or clothing for your on-screen representation, known in the business as an avatar. But you need to come up with $6 a month for the premium games.
Another way to pull money from your bank—call it the Webkinz technique—is to tie traditional toys to online experiences. The toys have a tag with a code that you type to meet the virtual edition of your pet, or perhaps to meet the pets of other children. Examples include Shining Stars (www.shiningstars.com), Bratz (www.be-bratz.com), Musha-Belly (www.mushabelly.com), Beanie Babies 2.0 (www.beaniebabies20.com), www.my-epets.com, and Littlest Pet Shop VIPs (www.littlestpetshop.com).
The concept works like a charm, except when children realize that they can get better virtual pet clothing if they can persuade their parents to buy another toy. Some parents have been known to load up on dozens of Webkinz (www.webkinz.com) at $14 each.
Finally, there has been a marked increase in subscription sites for preschool children, perhaps because more parents are willing to pay to shield their children from commercial content. For example, both My Noggin (www.mynoggin.com) and PBS Kids Play (www.pbskids-play.com) require that you pay to play.
Just watch out for free trials that require a credit card. If your child develops a sudden passion for playing outdoors and you fail to cancel, these services will happily keep withdrawing $6 to $12 a month from your bank until you're well into your 90s.
With these type of services, you usually have to install a downloaded program file, or purchase a CD-ROM and then pay for future content updates. Another service along these lines is JumpStart Advanced Preschool World, out next week from Knowledge Adventure (www.adventure.com), with educational games and regular downloadable updates with new activities.
Several new services are due over the next year. Planned for this autumn in conjunction with the release of the animated movie Tinker Bell, Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow (www.PixieHollow.com) will be aimed at girls aged between 6 and 12, who want to become fairies.
According to Steve Parkis, senior vice-president of Disney Online Studios, registering for the site and becoming a fairy will be free. But special powers will be granted to those who buy a fairy bracelet, which is intended to connect to your Windows computer via USB cable. If you want to get your fairy onto your friend's buddy list, you will need to buy a certain charm and touch it to your friend’s bracelet.
The Walt Disney Co. is building another virtual world, inspired by the movie, Cars.
Also on the way is a major addition to Neopets (www.neopets.com), a pretend-pet trading community originally created by two programmers in Britain. Viacom purchased Neopets in 2006 and has been working on the World of Neopia, due early next year. Instead of the flat-looking visuals of the old service, this one will give users a 3D version of their Neopet avatar and let them play games, trade items, chat and share ideas.
Spore, from Maxis, a division of Electronic Arts Inc., is more a game than an online service, although it does offer ways to interact with others online. The game, which will be of interest mostly to older children, is the brainchild of Will Wright, creator of the Sims, and is due in September. It can be played from a computer, Nintendo DS or phone.
In the game, one can design life forms that grow into tribes, which one can also design. Things get interesting when one connects to other players’ worlds to see if your creatures can get along with theirs.
Finally, Lego Universe (www.legouniverse.com), coming next year, will offer a new way to play: in a world consisting entirely of virtual Legos. “Imagine tens or thousands of people, from all over the world, working together on a single project,” said Mark Hansen, director of business development at Lego Holdings AS and the head of the project. “They can work together, and build a model of a city like Washington, DC. Just about anything can be constructed or smashed apart.”
Hansen promises a place where you can build that castle you’ve always dreamed of, which you can then defend against an army of bad guys, all while trying to persuade other players to join your quest.
Playing a video game against a computer is one thing. But online services like these show that interacting with actual humans can be much more interesting, especially when the person behind that other avatar might be your own child.
©2008/The New York Times