The online life of toys
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 built-in 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.