The New York Times has an article today about the recent boom of websites aimed at creating virtual versions of children’s toys and play worlds. It focuses on the sites aimed at young girls where, for instance, you can pay a subscription fee and get to play with virtual dolls, dressing them up and having them interact, etc. much like the physical doll-houses that have been around for ages.
A couple of points on this: I don’t want to come off as too much of a techno-skeptic (I’m as big a gadget geek as anyone), but the trend toward the virtualization of play bothers me a little bit because of the way it limits the imagination. A physical doll (or, in my youth, an action figure) has pretty much unlimited possibilities. It can be and do whatever a child can imagine, and free play with toys like these encourages large-scale, uninhibited imaginative thinking—thinking that’s important to a child’s mental development. On a computer, play is limited to what’s been programmed, what’s shown on screen, what options someone else—an adult, no less—has already imagined and built for the child. I don’t think the rise of virtual play is going to be a catastrophe or anything, but I do wonder if we won’t see some sort of shift in the way the next generation approaches play and problem solving as a result.
The other thing I want to point out is the way these sites, which are explicitly geared toward the elementary-school age, have positioned themselves as the safe, anti-MySpace alternatives. There’s been a bit of fuss over the last year or two about requiring big social networking sites to implement age-verification systems, even to shut their doors entirely to anyone under the age of 18. Sites like these show that such requirements aren’t necessary, as they’ve made it their business model to appeal to the younger crowd (and their parents) by boosting the safety and security features all on their own.