Learning is fluidly moving across multimodal spaces as presented in the playgrounds of the 21st Century. The experiences of the children in the contemporary society extend across both play virtual worlds and the schoolyard playgrounds. It is mediated through the types of role play and playmaking that is found in the spaces, their identities have ultimately shaped the social and cultural lives of the individuals. Today, the young children consistently use gadgets and have opportunities to learn from the digital media (Lauwaert, 20). There are popular virtual plays such as the Webkinz that are fast becoming the playgrounds of the children in this century (Barnes). In this paper, I examine what it means for children to be engaging in the virtual plays through Webkinz. It is fundamental to note that the life of the children in the 21st century is entirely different from that of their parents and teachers. It is also important to bear in mind that gender identity and other forms of socialization occur at the young age of the child and not just during the adolescence as some parents may want to assume (Barnes). The socialization of children cut across their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social developmental dimensions. It is, however, important to note that every child is unique and may be affected by the socialization ion different ways (Lauwaert, 40). The virtual world provided by the Webkinz games among others form and shape the socialization of the children since the majority of them spend a lot of time online creating avatars or taking care of the virtual pets they have. Therefore, the game socializes the child in various realms including the gender and racial norms that the child may adapt with time. Therefore, the research below is an analysis of the ways that the Webkinz toys socialize its young users to gender or racial norms (Bulik and Snyder).
Webkinz just like all the other virtual worlds are three-dimensional environments where children engage in various activities. The virtual world inhabitants assume avatars that are their world representations or the online faces that are in the form of animals and pets in the games. With today’s enhanced graphics, it allows the participants to edit any features of their virtual world avatars including their hair, skin tone and other accessories such as clothes (David, 38). Some of the activities that the young children and their avatars engages in include playing games, interacting with others and communicating with the avatars, dressing them up and caring for the pets among other activities. Then children are provided with an opportunity to answer some trivia quizzes and engage in school-related activities that engage and expand their knowledge. The Webkinz also has its virtual currency called the Kinzcash, and the kids earn it by engaging in various activities (David, 45). In as much as the activities are not new in life, they are a new phenomenon for the children and offer them an opportunity to advance their gender and racial norms (Dowdall, 91-92). If the children have been brought up in a society where they have picked up that girls engage in home activities and that they are gentle and sweet to others, they are bound to advance the gender role norms through choosing such activities and pets when they are playing the game. Depending on the way that they see their parents treat one another or their siblings, they advance that in the virtual world where the parents have no control of them. Therefore, they may become even more gendered carrying stereotypes picked in the real world and because of practicing and engaging in the game for the majority of time in the day, they hold the stereotypes as the true gospel and hence get socialization on the gender norms (David, 58).
There are many types of Webkinz ranging from wild pets, wild animals, made up creatures, and mythical creatures. The choice of the type of Webkinz to take up highly depends with the kind of socialization that the child receives and the toy that they pick may highly socialize them (David, 48). Moreover, in the advertisements of the Webkinz types, there are those types advocated for young girls while others are shown to be the ideal ones for the boys. For example, the mythical creatures that look fierce and scary are mostly for the boys as per the advertisements and the parents may influence the children to think of that line (Cheng, Brenner, Wright, Sachs, Moyer and Rao, 77). However, the cute little ones that look beautiful and gentle are mostly made in pink colors, and other colors stereotyped as female colors, and the girls are more inclined to get such a Webkinz. It shapes the mode of thinking of the children making them receive a form of gender identity and socialization. The boys begin to realize that the boys are meant to be more aggressive and tough while the girls are supposed to be gentle, lovely and in some extreme cases timid. Therefore, they begin shaping their gender identity and behavior based on the socialization. The pets meant for the girls are also the ones that can be domesticated such as the gentle one like the cats, parrots and the like. However, the aggressive looking creatures and animals are those that are usually wild and not domesticated and hence are the ones attached to the boys making. It makes the gender stereotyping inclined to mean that men are the ones that are outgoing, and cam does all manner of risky and dangerous activities whereas the girls have to remain protected indoors (Dowdall, 98). It also socializes the children on their gender roles and norms in that they need to be caring and stay at home if they are ladies and the men have to remain wild and courageous just as the image that the pets they play with every day portrays.
Webkinz just like the other toy players in the industry, have stuck in the gender marked marketing of toys because it is easier to have a target market for particular toys to drive up sales. The gender-based marketing of toys is also prevalent because at a practical level the toys marketers agree that segmenting the market; they can sell a variety of versions of the same toy. Moreover, nostalgia in parents and grandparents also drive them to spend more on toys that remind them of their childhood. The marketing taps into the deeply held beliefs about gender still operational in the contemporary society (Lauwaert, 45). It is depicted in the argument by parents that most daughters and sons like different things. It is particularly true for boys a parents tend to stick with gendered toys for boys because they understand the social costs for boys who transgress to toys meant for girls. It is even made worse by the highly homophobic society present in some areas today and due to the desire for gender conformity. The costs of boundary crossing to other gender toys can be enormous to both the parent and the kids alike. Moreover, the marketing by the Webkinz Company as well as other companies on toys make the girls, and the boys alike affiliate themselves with certain toys because of interaction with their peers and following their observation of what happens in the society. The children are therefore more likely to request for gendered toys for the purpose of social conformity. Engaging with the virtual world provided for in the Webkinz zone with the toys, they further form their gender norms and adapt to the stereotypes of gender and shaping their gender identity (Bulik and Snyder).
Webkinz is an online platform that is continuously offering the virtual world with more materials that are three-dimensional, interactive and offering an online fantasy for the children. It enables the children to communicate, participate, and create online selves as they interact with others. It is this that has a consequence for the development of the children. However, the site has continuously continued to attract the girls than the boys with time as with the activities and services that they offer leaving the boys for another platform such as Spiderman. Marketing with the target being the girls in most cases, Ganz has unrolled products such as body spray and lip gloss, clothing for the toys, charms, part carriers among other W-Plus items released by Ganz. The majority of the items are appellate to the girls and not the boys and has led to shaping the gender norms of the child as it affects their development being the site where some of them spend the majority of the time with the parents engaged elsewhere (Cheng, Brenner, Wright, Sachs, Moyer and Rao, 72). These roles and opportunities offered by the games and online activities for the platform enable the girls to form a perception of what are their norms. The boys are also avoidant of such portals, and hence those that want to play the game may be subject to social ridicule and the packaging of the Webkinz when sold in the stores has enhanced this. Moreover, a majority of stores would recommend Spiderman over Webkinz to a boy, and this has further increased the socialization of the children (Bulik and Snyder).
Toys holding racial stereotypes have become outdated, as there is a social rejection among the potential consumers. Moreover, for Webkinz there is majorly the use of pets and animals, hence may be difficult to have a racial connotation behind the pets and the activities in the virtual world (David, 38). However, the marketing of the items with the advertising faces being of the majority white individuals may make the children pick up the racial difference as the more affluent white majority divides the game for the upper social-economic (Bulik and Snyder). It may form a stereotype among the kids as they are socialized to believe that some of the toys are meant for the whites. The marketers targeting the majority of children that are affluent may be holding the stereotype that the majority comes from a particular race and not the other. It is this that the children may interpret as racial bias and may get the socialization of racial biases (David, 41).
In conclusion, the Webkinz among other virtual toys creates a sense of a virtual world for the children of which they learn a great deal. The children also spend a lot of their time engaging in the activities and hence the toys have a developmental effect on the children. The children from as early as three years can notice and pick up the advertisements of such toy companies and differentiate the gender roles and norms that mark the adverts n ad also pick up ideas, norms and stereotypes as they engage in the fun activities and toys. They get the gender roles and norms from the kind of toys and activities that they are socially advocated to have on the virtual world offered by the Webkinz site.
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