Ben and Peter couldn't even look at the girls' laptop during the Barbie session. Ben went to his favorite site, Sports Illustrated for Kids. Through SIKids.com, he manages various fantasy teams and also plays online games. He showed Peter the site's All Star Dodgeball, where you get Shaquille O'Neal, Mia Hamm, and other athletes fight it out, if not to death then at least to unconsciousness. Then Ben went to AddictingGames.com and started playing Bowman, a game in which you control an archer and whose instructions read, "Your best shot is through the other guy's head."
For the sake of this article, I decided to see what advantages accrued to the player who could persuade a parent to cough up a membership. My daughter and I went to an actual store where I purchased a $15 stuffed poodle that came with an access code allowing entry to the paid part of Webkinz.com, a site owned by the stuffed-animal retailer Ganz. The goal at Webkinz: to accumulate enough wealth to keep your stuffed-animal avatar living in the kind of style to which a Leona Helmsley pet could become accustomed.
It was refreshing to find that players could earn money by actually doing jobs. There were many choices: hamburger cook, gem miner, newz delivery, flooring assistant. The description for flooring assistant read, "Help install fancy floors in the homes of the rich and famous." This may actually be good training—attending to the citizens of Richistan is one of the bright spots in our economy. The job was challenging, consisting of pattern-matching of the kind offered during a neurological assessment. The creators of Webkinz must also have consulted with the French Ministry of Labor, because once a job is done, players are not allowed to work for another eight hours. The kids found this to be an outrageous restriction of their right to work.
Now that I've found out what my daughter is actually doing on her computer, I've concluded that these sites are mostly benign. They still left me depressed, though. I know much of kids' play is about imitating grown-up life. But instead of actually playing house or creating a fort in the back yard, their play has shrunk to a screen programmed by adults, some employed by massive corporations. When I mentioned how it used to be, Ellie asked, "Did you have computers when you were my age?" I shook my head. And she gave me a look that said, "Quod erat demonstrandum." Anna tried to cheer me up. "If you were watching us do it, you'd think it's a waste of time and it's not teaching us anything. But it's not a waste of time because it's fun." Ben added, "It's a whole other world tucked away. It's almost like secret information and your parents don't know what you're doing."
It was Peter who made me feel that not all is lost, and some parents (although not me) are managing to hold onto the way childhood used to be. Peter doesn't have his own computer, which is fine with him because "I have a lot of homework and I have piano and trumpet. We have to set the table, and eat, and wash the dishes. And I usually go to the park two hours a day—it's a block up. That's more fun. I do random things there with friends, like jump down 13 stairs at a time, then 12 stairs, random stuff." That does sound like fun. Maybe when he gets older, he could turn his random stuff into a Web site. Jumping down 12 stairs is free. The 13th will cost you $5.95.