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Friday, July 31, 2009

Undercover Mom in, Part 3: To pay or not to pay?

By Sharon Duke Estroff

The vast majority of children’s virtual worlds (and certainly the materialistic pinkpalooza at are commercial – not public-interest ¬endeavors. So while these Web sites may have excellent intentions in creating safe, kid-friendly online playspaces, they are, at the end of the day, in it for the money, of course.

Some virtual worlds (like Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis and Pearson Education’s Poptropica) generate profit through paid advertisements. Kids are allowed to play for free, but their fun is laced with overt and covert commercial messaging (i.e. Apple Jacks banners surrounding the screen and playing hockey using M&M candies as pucks, respectively).

Other virtual worlds, like BarbieGirls, employ a pay-to-play model, meaning that cash flow comes not from outside advertisers but from paid memberships. While anybody can open a free BarbieGirls account with limited play capabilities, only those acquiring paid VIP memberships are allowed (to quote directly from the site) “special access to all the hottest stuff!”

Crown jewels
: Some sites I’ve visited as Undercover Mom reserve the privilege of clothing one's avatar and furnishing his or her online abode for paid members only. Not so in Barbie Girls, where I was allowed to select a stylish, size 0 outfit ¬– and flooring, wallpaper, and a bed for my loft – from the get-go. Yes, I might have signed up for a free account, but I could strut my virtual stuff about town without feeling like I was donning a scarlet “Non-Member” tiara. For kids who cannot afford to pay (or whose parents refuse to pay) for VIP membership but still want to be included in the fun, this is a significant perk, in my book.

Skeletons in the closet: Although my lack of VIP citizenship may not have been glaringly evident to the masses, it certainly was to me; BarbieGirls dishes out constant reminders to non-members of their subprime status. Sure, I could window shop to my heart’s content – even try on glamorous outfits and accessories – but there was a sales attendant on hand at every store reminding me that I couldn’t buy a darn thing unless I coughed up $5.99 a month. In Paw Pawpalooza, a popular region of, I was denied access to both the Tail-Shakin' Treehouse and the Jungle River Boogie ride. The only place I was welcomed was the Posh Pets shop, where I wasn’t allowed to adopt a pet. A similar caste system ensued in Extreme Dream Park where I could not enter the Sparkle Coaster Place, “a magical land filled with treasures and surprises." I was, however, allowed to enter the Purple Parlor where I could get my fortune told. Once a day. Honestly, If I were a tween girl on BarbieGirls, it wouldn’t have taken me 10 minutes to start badgering my parents to let me become a VIP. [Big pressure to be a VIP doesn't only come from Barbie Girls corporate; get the full scoop in my next installment.]

The bottom line: This week’s Undercover Mom adventure drives home an important reality (for both parent and child) that there is no such thing as a free lunch in kids’ virtual worlds. I asked consumer guru Clark Howard, author of Clark Smart Parents, Clark Smart Kids, if he had any suggestions as to how parents might best handle the pay-to-play dilemma presented by BarbieGirls VIP memberships. He suggested: “Sit down with your child and explain that this Web site wants her to pay money to be there, and that if she would like to use her money – or work it off by doing chores around the house – she can; but she needs to understand that, in choosing the membership they will be giving up X,Y, and Z.” It’s Howard’s hope that Congress will eventually pass a law disallowing such direct marketing to children under 14 years of age.

Related links

  • Screenshots illustrating Undercover Mom's points about BarbieGirls this week

  • Paperdolls to avatars: "Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars," The Guardian reports in an update on virtual worlds in general. It compares kids' and newer grownup virtual worlds with Second Life and explains why VWs, unlike social network sites, actually make money (see also "Virtual economies & kids").

  • Wired's GeekDad on the virtual world Pixie Hollow: "The game allows users to create a Tinker Bell-like character and then use this fairy to explore the land of Pixie Hollow, buy items at stores, make friends with other pixies, buy items at stores, play games and buy items at stores. While my son has really enjoyed playing another of Disney’s MMOGs, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, playing Pixie Hollow with my daughters has left us feeling a little empty."

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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