Being a geek and a father, I’ve long tracked online destinations for kids. And while the offerings of Nick Jr. and PBS Kids are largely Flash-based brand reinforcement exercises, they are interactive (unlike the TV shows most of them are based on) and free (usually).
And since I’m also a social network whore and fascinated by the concept (if not execution) of virtual worlds like Second Life, I’ve been especially curious about similar offerings for children and tweens. Sites like Club Penguin, Webkinz, Neopets, Habbo Hotel, Gaia Online, RuneScape, Cyworld, and no doubt a multitude of others.
Disney’s recent acquisition of Club Penguin shows that this space will only get bigger and more competitive.
From what I can tell, Club Penguin and Webkinz are the leaders for the toddler to pre-teen demographic. A Wired piece about siblings’ battles over igloos convinced me to check out that icy lair. It’s free, but all the best stuff requires a paid subscription. Meanwhile, my friend and boss Beth had fallen in love with Webkinz. There, the price of admission is a plushy toy (about $12-15), which comes with an access code.
Inside either world, kids enjoy various activities and games and ways to interact with other kids… their chats heavily filtered and monitored, of course. There’s in-world currency, and things to buy, from pets (which, in the Webkinz world, means your pets have pets!) that require food and accessories to a multitude of home furnishings. Today, a simple stool. Tomorrow, a jacuzzi!
My kids have already fallen in love with Club Penguin, even though they’re stuck in the more limited free version. But Beth’s passion for Webkinz is so great, I’m really trying to encourage my proto-geek offspring to spend more time with their virtual plushies. Indeed, at first glance, it seems the Webkinz world is considerably richer, with guaranteed new stuff every single day. And Webkinz activities include math and reading exercises, encourage kids to regularly tend to the health and happiness of their characters, and offer a much wider wide range of tasks and jobs. Watching a penguin do the boogie in a nightclub gets old pretty fast.
In order for the wonderful Webkinz universe to offer fresh stuff on a daily basis, the site has to be taken down for a couple of hours each night. And while I guess the Webkinz programmers rightfully presume that most rugrats should be in bed by midnight, they quite tragically have an almost quaint East Coast bias. Which is to say, Webkinz goes offline at midnight, Eastern Standard Time.
That’s 6 p.m. here in Hawaii. Just about prime time, in fact. Exactly when I’d want to be able to log in with my kids for a little virtual fun after a long day at work. Exactly when my kids would love to play quietly at a computer before bedtime (rather than tearing the recently tidied-up house apart).
But instead of feeding Webkinz and doing fun jobs and chatting with Aunty Beth, my kids are greeted every evening with the message: “WebkinzÂ® World is temporarily unavailable! We’re working on making our website even better than before!”
And they end up back in the arms of Disney, doing the penguin boogie.