Virtual worlds aren't just growing for gamers and Second Lifers. One of the more popular ones for kids is from Mattel. The BarbieGirls.com site launched in the shadow of Webkinz with a very Webkinzy model. The virtual world was free, and kids would be a little plastic Barbie doll music player with a USB port to boot it up and unlock special content. Once on the Barbie Girls site, kids found the default Webkinz milieu â'' dress up, dollhouse, games â'' made-over Barbie style, of course.
The world is bright with purples and pinks, lime-green sofas out of an Ikea catalog and puffy pink egg shaped chairs. They click around glossy apartments with shiny wooden floors, and play outside with tiny dancing owls in the Tail Shakinâ'' Treehouse. And, oh yeah, when you earn B Bucks money from the virtual games, there are lots and lots of clothes to buy for your almond-eyed avatar â'' from lace-up pink boots to expensively ratty jeans. There are supposedly 2.64 quadrillion ways to dress up your character.
A surprising thing happened because of that â'' the plastic dolls lost their appeal. In the first 28 days, Barbie Girls attracted one million members, by 90 days, 3.5 million, all the way up to 13 million today. The kicker - and added surprise for Mattel - is that the majority of the girls on the site would never be caught dead in meatspace playing with a real Barbie doll â'' theyâ''re too old. Turned out, the virtual worlds attracted a massive new market of pre-Facebook kids. The majority of the audience â'' 65% of the users â'' are girls age 9 â'' 12, kids who older than the core toy-buying crowd.
Mattel decided to find a way to monetize them in some other way instead. Barbie Girls became the first virtual toy site to go entirely subscription-based. For a sliding scale, girls sign up to become VIPs on the site, with special access and privileges. A free â''basicâ'' membership is still being offered but a nine-year-old told me â''thereâ''s nothing to do unless youâ''re a VIP.â'' VIPs get tiaras, others don't. Some things never change - even online.