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A real, live virtual stuffed pet

WebkinzIn 1975, the Pet Rock was the hottest holiday item on the shelves. For just $4, you got a rock, a carrying case and a training manual. Yes, a rock. Americans snapped up more than 1,000,000 of these geological novelties in just a few months. Next, in November of 1996 Bandai launched the first edition of the Tamagotchi, a small plastic egg with a screen that displayed a rudimentary electronic bird-like pet. This demanding little microchip caught on like wildfire, and more than 30 million have been sold worldwide. Since then, technology has evolved, and now, the next big “pet” product is Webkinz. Each little stuffed animal comes with an access code for the Webkinz website, where the creature comes to life on the computer screen.

Kids begin with a wallet full of Webkinz currency and plenty of places to spend it. They furnish a room for their new pet, purchase food, toys and accessories and monitor their happiness, health and hunger. When cash starts running low, Webkinz can get a job or visit the arcade, where success pays off. Kids can interact with their friends using the chat feature, or by hosting game tournaments, and they can also adopt several pets under a single user name.

Many kids (and parents) are looking for fun, age-appropriate activities on the internet, and while there is a ton of content directed towards children, not all of it is this well-organized, insulated and frankly addictive. Ganz, the maker of Webkinz has invested mightily in this concept, based on early success, and the quality of the content is evident. The games are fun, and they target skills like pattern recognition, strategic thinking and quick reflexes.

We had heard a lot about how this product was taking off, but we weren’t ready to commit without conducting our own user test. We got a sample and passed it along to a smart 13 year old. We were curious how it would fly with a tweenager. She absolutely loved it, and that sealed the deal. We ordered them, and now they are in stock.

They come in two sizes, and each pet includes a year’s subscription to the online service. After a year, you can extend the service simply by purchasing another Webkinz pet. Each time you adopt a new pet, your subscription renews. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been playing with our sample pet (it’s research, I swear), and I’m really amazed by how motivated I am to keep him happy, healthy and well-fed. I guess that’s the reason these “pet” products all succeed — people are hard-wired to be nurturing. It’s fun to be the caregiver — at least until the object of our affection starts screaming to be fed in the middle of the night.

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