If you're a parent of children between the ages of 4 and 8, you are perhaps familiar with the stuffed animals called Webkinz. These are small toys--dogs, cats, sheep, birds, etc--and every purchase also brings with it an access code for a 1 year membership to the online Webkinz World. Registering on the site allows the user to adopt their pet and begin creating a virtual room. The actual stuffed animal they purchase shows up in the room, and the user can buy things like furniture, toys, trees, clothes, food, and just about anything else you can imagine. The toys themselves are a huge hit at our house, and the game a total failure.
Our girls own a few Webkinz each, and every time they get a new one, they ask to go and see them in the game world. One time my youngest daughter got an owl for her birthday, and she was very excited to go and start playing with it online. "Dad, first I want to make a forest for her to fly in." Creating a room in Webkinz world involves purchasing things at the store using Kinzcash. When you start off in Webkinz world, you are given a limit amount of Kinzcash, and you can earn more by playing various games, mining for jewels, getting a job, or doing some other banal activity. Most opportunities to earn Kinzcash are low-paying, and so the experience of being in Webkinz World is usually one of winning the lottery followed by poverty.
We looked into building a forest. Of course you can buy trees in Webkinz World, and there are many to choose from. However, they are, much like mature trees from your local landscaper, very expensive. My daughter could only afford four trees with her money, and then there was nothing left. "At least she'll have a few trees." At least.
There's nothing really all that problematic going on here, right? No one can build a forest. It's expensive. It takes time. The goal might be noble, but the means evade us in the real world. Why shouldn't the game world re-inforce this? Why shouldn't the game mirror the real, and for heaven sake teach our children about how things really are?
Let me show you another popular game:
Here, recreated in Minecraft, are the Reichstag and the Enterprise. Whatever you think of these (waste of time, what's the point, wow amazing), I want to draw your attention to a very simple truth: it was possible to build these. I'll go out on a limb and say that the creator of Minecraft didn't foresee this when he made the game. Further, most players of the game don't want to do this. I've seen other people build roller coasters, libraries, castles, working computer logic boards, etc. People have basically taken this silly little game to the edge of what is possible. But since its creator forgot to circumscribe the game, the limits aren't what most people bump into when they play.
Why doesn't Webkinz allow you to build a forest? Why does Minecraft let you build a city? There's an interesting presentation by Ben Kirman you need to read:
He makes some great points:
- The design of the game has 'gaps.' No explicit objective, freedom to experiment, no strict extrinsic narrative
- Any freedom to exploit game rules can lead to emergent play
- Playfulness emerges through 'gaps' in design.
Building a forest is impossible if you build a virtual world where you buy trees in a store. The virtual store is a fantastically well understood and readily mapped system of rules. Why does Webkinz have a store at all? Why bother with money? What would happen if you let kids have an unlimited number of trees, or tables, or beds? Maybe you don't understand how computer games work, but I'm a developer, I do, and I can assure you it's possible. But doing so would surely set them up to fail in a world of scarcity and limited resources? Surely we'd do better if we kept their imagination in check by metering it with a virtual check-out? Really? Then why are kids' parents building spaceships and vast buildings in their virtual worlds, and kids have to buy trees for $500 or more per unit, and after planting 4 of them, there's nothing left to do?
I have a lot of problems with Webkinz world, but luckily I haven't had to say anything to my kids: they want to play it, but find that it's not possible to play, so give up. In a world of scarcity, where I only have so many dollars to spend on games for my kids, I'm not going to waste them on renewing an unplayable game. Maybe I'll buy them Minecraft instead; or maybe I'll wait a bit until he makes Kidcraft, where it's possible to build a forest right away.