Monday, May 07, 2007

Virtual Paper Dolls

A popular form of girls' online play that has not yet received much academic attention is the dress-up and role-play games that go on in virtual paper doll sites. I'm not sure what the difference really is between paper dolls and avatars, except that the former seem to be played primarily by girls and younger teens, with a strong emphasis on fashion. Girls may have one or several virtual paper dolls that they style and primp, entering them into beauty and fashion competitions. The focus on fashion has excited marketers, of course, who see this as a great opportunity to market their clothes and brands as virtual paper doll clothing items to young demographics. Some of the sites have pretty sophisticated currency systems, which could potentially lend themselves to real world revenue...assuming the girls are willing to fork over real money. For now, the sites seem to generate profits through integrated advertising and data-mining site forums and webpages.

YPulse's anastasia recently interviewed the CEO of a popular virtual paper doll site, StarDolls, with some interesting results. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Ypulse: Why do you think "virtual paper dolls" or avatars you can dress up have become so popular with teen girls? Are there boys on your site, too? If so, do they use it differently?

Mattias Miksche: For me it is really simple: kids and girls especially have always played role playing games, pretending to be someone else, a rock star or a celebrity. What we have now is a new generation that has grown up with the internet and are playing the same games as the generations before them - but now on the computer, interacting with others. There are boys on the site, but honestly, they do not get the world of Stardoll. 93% of our members are girls and we're proud of that. There are more than enough places on the web developed for and by boys.

YP: What do girls do on Stardoll after they create their dolls? What's the most popular community feature?

MM: Dressing up the doll and decorating the suite/room are the first things they do - over and over again. On Stardoll, you can be whoever you want to be and change your appearance and looks every day - and a lot of our members do. Writing personal profile text is also very important since it adds to the graphical presentation of yourself as displayed with the MeDoll and the Suite. Most popular is definitely trying to become "Cover Girl" of our online magazine. In order to win, you need several thousand votes per day and there are campaigns and entourages in order to win that coveted spot.

YP: Who are the most popular celebrity Stardolls?

MM: This changes constantly - all we do is to listen to our members. If there's a new album, TV-series or movie out that is generating traction in our target demographic, we'll know about it in days.

Check out these popular virtual doll sites to get a feel for how it operates as a play opportunity, as a marketing (and market research) tactic, as an online cultural space for girls:

Update: I just found out about an article by Rebecca Willett, which will come out this summer in a new edited book about kids digital culture. Her chapter is called "Consuming Fashion And Producing Meaning Through Online Paper-Doll Sites". Check out the publisher's page for Growing Up Online, edited by Sandra Weber and Shanly Dixon (who has presented papers on girls and virtual paper dolls herself, though I can't find any links). Great line up of authors and subjects, I'm looking forward to reading it.

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