Thursday, August 09, 2007

BarbieGirls Blurs the Boundaries

More news this week about Mattel's smash hit MMOG, which the company claims has now reached the 4 million mark population-wise. Izzy Neis has compiled a bunch of interesting tidbits on the site, including an article from Virtual Worlds News, which points out:
The MP3 player toys that unlock content on the virtual world, though, are now available at retail stores. The most interesting bit of information that no one has commented on here is that “Accessory Packs are sold separately for $9.99 and include various fashions, accessories and pets, as well as additional, exclusive content that comes to life online.” It’s worth noting these as an alternative to platforms like Habbo’s prepaid cards that are available at retailers like Target. For $12.95, this fashion pack gets you the physical goods, but it also provides a matching outfit online along with 100 B Bucks. The Deco Pack provides a virtual pet and 100 B Bucks.

The author goes on to suggest that these kinds of "real-world micro-transactions" could provide a viable way for sites to offload some of the costs (or generate profits) onto players without the need for a credit card or monthly subscription. Very interesting - and perhaps quite a clever way to tap into kids and parents' existing purchasing habits re: collectibles (such as Barbie clothes, Pokemon cards or Beanie Baby toys).

What's got me really interested is how the Mp3 attachment seems to want to be treated like a doll of sorts - with different outfits and accessories, sort of a mix between a mobile phone and a Barbie doll. The blurring of boundaries between physical and virtual play is also fascinating - we see the same thing with Webkinz and (blech) Be-Bratz, and I suspect a similar strategy will come out of the LEGO MMOG. As Izzy points out:
Yes we can all poo-poo these initiatives as ways to manipulate kids into marketing schemes and purchasing power and becoming materialistic. I get that. But– the ability to play with the toys you love online? That has to have some sort of cash backing it. At least barbiegirls gives kids the opportunity to play FOR FREE online– and roam and love the brand and love their dolls and make new “friends” etc. There are other sites (*ahem*) that such luxuries are banned from the start– making the tater tots shell out 30+ dollars to even have a GLIMPSE of the world online created for their favorite toy.

I've been reading a lot of Brian Sutton-Smith lately, which has been a good follow-up to a series of readings I did on the limiting effects that licensed toys can have on children's play (as well as critiques of this stance, such as Ellen Seiter's Sold Separately). I like these virtual toy world initiatives in that much about MMOG technology seems to suggest that these sites could provide kids with narrative openings and ways to subvert and appropriate media branding. The multiplayer component is especially relevant in this regard, but so is the freedom and player-collaboration that are so often emphasized in T-rated MMOGs. But there's also a lot about digital technology that enables enclosure and control, and if companies lean to far towards brand management and the commercialization online play (which they so often do...directing players towards in-game ads, restricting play to those activities that relate most directly to consumerism), it could instead mean a massive expansion of the (always potentially) limiting effects of licensing. I agree with Izzy that the prospect of playing with your toys online is filled with possibility and awesomeness - I'm just hesitant to believe that companies like Mattel will take full advantage of the many freeing affordances of MMOGs when these same technologies also offer such readily available opportunities to extend existing cross-promotional/marketing initiatives.


Izzy Neis said...

Sara, I'm now officially convinced that we should do a podcast session-- playing with all the devils advocate boundaries of virtual world/branding/ and gaming. It would be uber-fun to ramble and pinpoint ideas and understandings.

Hmm. Perhaps sometime in the future. :D

Sara M. Grimes said...

I agree - that would be loads of fun. I think we could easily fill an hour or two ;)