Thursday, July 12, 2007

Playful Perspectives: Toying with the Online World

Playful Perspectives is our co-blog with Ty's Toy Box. Today we're looking at an issue that's all around us...the internet. Virtual playthings are springing up like, well, virtual weeds. Are they gimmicks? Or are there some good play experiences to be had. As always, the answer is a definitive it depends. Read on and be sure to click the link at the end of the article to get Ty's perspective.

"The internet is really, really great...," sings Kate Monster in the smash musical (adults only, please) Avenue Q. And that just about sums it up. For information and entertainment, the explosive growth of this medium is transforming our culture. Various studies suggest that kids are spending as much time online as they are spending watching TV.

So, it's only natural that toy companies would look to leverage that enthusiasm into some kind of product/profit scenario, and while there may be a lot of that out there, we've only just begun to see what's coming down the pike. Set aside for a moment online experiences such as MMOGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Games) or specific, and quite wonderful, services like Xbox Live. And set aside internet-only (for now) experiences like Club Penguin. What we want to look at today is the growing trend for toys that interact, in some way with the internet.

As we've been looking at the products that are coming out, as well as some slotted for 2008, it's clear that this is a booming area. And, like all things internet, it's becoming more sophisticated with each new toy, even being relatively new. If you have kids of the right age, you can't help but having heard about Webkinz or Shining Stars. These are plush toys with an internet component. Hot as they are, what you're buying are passwords to a semi-related online world. The passwords just happen to have a plush toy attached.

Moving up the scale, you get the new line from Mattel that's launching this month: Barbie Girls. This is a complete online world where kids can create their own avatars in the form of Barbie-esque characters and do all sorts of things like decorate a room, shop for a pet and even watch online movies. The toy that powers this is an abstract, semi-doll-shaped MP3 unit that connects to a USB base and unlocks elements of the world unavailable to kids who don't own the toy.

Also for older girls, one of our new favorites is Bella Sara, which combines a beautiful collectible card game with an online component. It's all about horses, which we all know girls love, collecting, playing and trading. The artwork is gorgeous (see the picture above), and the offline component is the first collectible card game for girls that really reflects the way they play. (We'll talk about this play pattern and what Bella Sara is doing right in another entry.)

Even preschoolers are going to be able to get into the action. Fisher-Price is unveiling the Easy Link Internet Launch Pad later this year. It's a unit that plugs into the computer and uses dimensional characters placed in the unit to "unlock" certain web sites that have age appropriate games for kids.

Zizzle has a new activity toy called Spotz that uses the internet to drive the creative experience. It's due out later this year.

Clearly, everyone (at least everyone in product development and marketing) at toy companies thinks "thar's gold in that thar internet." But, of course, as always, there will be winners and losers. Some companies will do it better than others and products will come and go. We can predict with pretty clear-eyed certainty that there will be a lot of things rushed to market and a lot will collapse under its own weight. The best stuff, both what's out there and what we've seen that's coming down the pike, won't just use online play as a gimmick but will also use the computing power of the internet and the ability to generate and disseminate content quickly, to keep things fresh. As a marketing tool, it's unsurpassed: You've got your taret customer signing on to continue their active involvement with a product and what better way to sell more?

Still, that customer, even a young one, has many many choices, and products that don't deliver or, dare we say it, aren't fun, aren't going to hold your kids' interest. As kids grow and mature, they'll move quickly from one product to the next, and the challenge will be to keep engaging them as they become more and more sophisticated.

One very positive thing that all of these sites have in common is that they treat the internet as a toy, in the most basic, classic sense. It is an adaptation in a form and context that children understand of an adult activity. More simply, kids want to be online because they see their parents and older siblings and the culture as a whole online. That's the best thing that many of these sites, especially the ones for preschoolers, deliver. It's a toy experience. Now, I know that it's hard for many of today's parents, and especially grandparents, to think of that expensive and fragile machine as a (gasp) toy, but children don't have that perspective. To them the computer is like the TV, an appliance that allows them to do things they want to do, and they are fearless about it. What they need is a way to use it that is consistently engaging and age appropriate for them. That's something all of these toys deliver.

The other thing that all of these toys have in common is that the web sites are completely safe. Whether they are monitored by real humans, limit what kids can say and do, and, in the case of the Fisher-Price item and others, lock out access to other parts of the computer, safety and security of kids is the top concern of all these companies. Naturally, you'll want to supervise what your kids are doing, and monitor their use, without looking too closely over their shoulders, but you can be very confident that companies have invested heavily in making sure that their sites are both fun and secure. One of the real advantages of these sites is that you can test drive before you buy. That's something that's pretty rare. You can get a look at the games, the artwork, the characters and make a judgment before you spend any money on toys, and that's great.

Now a strict critic of the internet might go about nitpicking a lot of these sites, but at the end of the day, what matters is whether or not your child enjoys it. Who cares if a game is rudimentary if your child is engrossed and, better yet, has some kind of social experience whether virtual or one-to-one in front of the computer? This is play pure and simple, and don't be afraid because it doesn't look like the play you remember. Your parents were probably baffled at some of the things you did. It will always be thus. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that 20 years from now, today's kids will look at what their kids are playing with and say, "Why didn't they have that when we were kids???

That's the wonder of the toy business!

Now check out what Ty's Toy Box Mommy has to say! And keep playing!!

--C. Byrne