Two Barbie worlds were presented at CES this year: the online world of Barbie Girls and the standalone software package Barbie iDesign.
Let’s start with Barbie Girls. Barbie Girls is an online community that allows girls to shop, play games, design fashion, and chat in a 3D world. It is free for users to sign up and use the site, however, users that buy the Barbie Girls MP3 player/Doll can access more content than those that don’t have the device ($19.99 – $43.95 on sale on Amazon, regular price $39.99 – $99.99 for upto 1GB of memory). Chat is limited to messages that can be selected from a drop down menu and there is no personal information about the other chatters available. Freeform chat is only available to users who have the Barbie Girls MP3 player/Doll and the users must prove that they have an offline person-to-person relationship in order to be able to type their own messages to each other. This is done by registering each other’s MP3 player/Doll with each other’s computers — the players have to physically connected to a friend’s computer. Here’s a picture of the online site and the Barbie Girls MP3 player/Doll:
Onto to Barbie iDesign:
A blog entry on The Gadgets Page has a far better explanation and appreciation for this software package and toy than I can provide. Here’s the link. In summary, this toy consists of some standalone software that is packaged with some cards displaying different items of clothing like skirts, shirts, pants, and shoes. The cards have barcodes on the bottom, and using the provided barcode scanner, each of the items of clothing become accessible through the software to dress up a digital doll. Extra cards packs are available for purchase to expand a user’s wardrobe. After dressing the digital dolls, they can be displayed on the run way in a fashionshow. There is the ability to print from this software :)! Here’s a very low quality video of the demonstration the Mattel representive gave:
What’s interesting about these worlds is that Mattel has managed to figure how to get money out of this by realizing that kids don’t actually have credit cards, but rather the parents have money. So instead of charging by credit card for a subscription or access to items within the digital worlds, money is linked to the purchase of hardware and items available at brick-and-mortar toy stores (and online at sites like Amazon). Parents can purchase these items or children can purchase these items using cash from allowance or chores or however parent give their children money.
This one was tough for me to write up because there are some aspects of Barbie and the kind of play these worlds engage girls in reinforce thinking and patterns of interaction that I think are overall detrimental to society — and I’m not referring to the body image thing because that is something that can be easily discussed with children. I’m speaking of something more insidious and not so easily explained. I don’t like how the online world creates two levels of membership — one for users who “have” and one for users who “have not”. This is the same thing I didn’t like about Stardolls. It’s tough enough being a kid in real life dealing with socio/economic stratification, why reinforce the idea that priviledge is only for those who “have” in a play world. I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who “had” (relative to most of my friends) as a child, and trust me, it cuts both ways and the result is bullying. Most of time it’s not physical, but psychological, which really does scar some children for life.