Creature Fever

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Nine-year-old Emanuelle Broza's blue eyes light up as she starts talking about her Webkinz. "I call my pet Peter," she says enthusiastically, a shy smile on her face. "I love making money so I can buy Peter all kinds of things. I got him with an empty room and then I had to make up a new room for him. So far, I've bought him a princess room, but you can also build a pirate room, which is much more expensive. I've also managed to buy him an oven to make food in, a sink, a bathroom and also a really pretty garden."

Like thousands of other Israeli children, Emanuelle, who lives in Ramot Hashavim, has caught the new bug that just arrived from America - Webkinz, virtual creatures trapped in the computer. "All the kids in my class, and there are almost 30 of us, have Webkinz and bring them to school every day," says Broza, pausing to take a deep breath. "You need to understand that the real game is not the doll, but on the computer, on the Internet. In the computer game you have to take care of your pet, look after it, feed it. Peter, for example, is a pretty quiet dog. There are other dogs that are wild and pretty hyper. Each Webkinz has certain traits, even if they're not really real. Like Peter likes to eat hamburgers and 'bone cake.'"

The Webkinz Web site (www.webkinz.com) allows kids to raise virtual pets in Webkinz World - after buying colorful furry counterparts in toy stores. Each pet is imprinted with a code that gives buyers membership on the Webkinz site; this allows them to start raising the pet on their home computer. On the site, kids can design houses for their new pets, furnish them and equip them with electrical appliances, and buy all kinds of other treats with the virtual money they earn by playing various games on the site.

Webkinz, which has been popular in North America for some time already, recently made serious inroads among Israeli families. Emanuelle's brother Eli, 7, has his own Webkinz. "I've had him for a month," he says, holding up a plump orange fish. "I heard that all the kids in my class had them, so I also wanted one. I asked Mom and Dad to buy it for me and they said yes. I went with Mom to buy the Webkinz, but the store was all out, except for the fish. So I took it, it was fine with me. I call him Nemo and he likes to sleep a lot and play with me," says Eli, placing little Nemo on the floor and kicking the poor fish across the room.

Addictive tendencies "I'd call Webkinz the next-generation Tamagotchi, something more sophisticated. My kids really enjoy the game and it's wonderful to watch," says Keren Broza, mother of Emanuelle and Eli, who finds many positives in the creature fever that's taken over her house. "I admit that I sometimes worry a bit about them playing the electronic game, but at last they're not watching so much television. I know, they've moved to the computer, to their own virtual world, but as they play the game they're developing all kinds of nice skills, like developing a sense of responsibility when they have to take care of their pet. I do have to limit the amount of time they play, because they could go on and on for hours. It's clear that this thing can be addictive. So we have Webkinz, but we also read and they belong to after-school clubs. We don't let it get out of control."

Like the Broza family, the Horesh family of Moshav Rinatia near Petah Tikva, has also welcomed the colorful creatures into their home. Ten-year-old Noga chose a Husky dog named Lily and her sister Anat chose a frog. "I chose the Husky because it looked nice and cute," Noga says excitedly. "She's a very special dog. One time she almost died on me by mistake. Her health wasn't that good because I forgot to feed her."

Luckily for Noga, and for Lily, an apple was all it took to solve the problem. "Lily mostly likes fruit and vegetables, and there are lots of ways I can get money to buy her food: You can work or play games or win lotteries, and then you get what they call KinzCash, which is money. Since I didn't have money then to buy food, I stole the apple from my sister's pet. Other times I ask my Dad for help because when he plays he wins a lot more money than I do. I think he likes playing."

Shira Kizelstein, 11, from Yehud, doesn't rely on her parents' help; she just puts in a lot of time in order to satisfy the whims of the two Webkinz she is raising. "In one hour I can make between 500 and 1,000 shekels," she says. "I can play for hours, because the Webkinz are just like people. You have to feed them, bathe them, even brush their teeth and their paws. Sometimes they get sick like people. If the Webkinz gets sick, its nose turns green or else it suddenly has an icepack on its head. If that happens, you have to take it to Dr. Quack at the clinic. Webkinz is just like a real city. It has everything, including a clinic."

At her school, Webkinz dolls are the hottest topic of conversation. "Everyone talks about what he bought for his Webkinz, how he designed the Webkinz's room. We talk a lot about our experiences from the game. It keeps us busy because it's a trend, everyone's talking about it and everyone has it. That's why it's important to have the most special Webkinz you can get," Shira continues. "I have a really rare Webkinz, the love monkey. Around here, very few kids have it. I was able to get one because our store in Yehud has a good connection with the supplier and they were able to convince them to bring in different animals than the ones everybody has."

Real panic Toy shop owners around the country are reporting a hysterical demand for the toys. Omer Levy, who works at a Kfar Hasha'ashuim toy store in Eilat says he's never seen sales like this in the three years he's been there. "Every Sunday we get 24 new dolls in the store and by Tuesday afternoon not a single one is left," he says. "They buy them all. They just snatch them up. The hysteria for these toys started during Hanukkah, about two months ago, and it hasn't let up.

"My sister has one of these dolls, too," says Levy. "At first, it was a little hard for her to get into it, because the game is in English, but she got used to it very quickly. She plays with it a lot and I can understand why. These animals are very real, even though they grow up on the computer. An attachment is formed with them; it's like raising a real pet. I'll even admit that I play the game once in a while, when I can find a half hour here or there. It's fun."

At the Ariela Olam Hayeled store in Ashdod, the scene is the same. Ariela Eliezer says that the sales rate in the past month increased sharply after the importer lowered the price from NIS 99 to NIS 69. Eliezer has been managing the store for 30 years, and still, this new trend momentarily caught her unprepared. "Two weeks ago, I ran out for a few days," she reveals. "Suddenly, I was out of the dolls and people were just driving me mad about it. There was real panic. People came and paid me money up front so I'd save certain dolls for them. They called the store nonstop. It's not nice to say it, but they drove me insane. One girl bought 10 dolls from me and another bought four."

Eliezer has been trying to figure out the essence of the Webkinz magic. "I can't explain it exactly, what it does to children, but I see how curious they are about this game," she says. "This doll comes in all kinds of variations and a lot of kids have to have more than one animal. They want more and more. They need the frog and a dog and a whale, too. The curiosity ties into the kind of care each animal needs, and the way kids love to give to animals and help them."

Elia Broza of Tel Aviv, cousin of Emanuelle and Eli, also had to have more than one. "I have four," she proclaims happily. "I have a dolphin, a pink poodle, a bulldog and a little dog. I love them all. The dolphin is the most special, because he lives in water. When he leaves his room he goes out into a bubble. There are also products that are suitable just for him - like dolphin cake, for example. It's fun to have a bunch of different animals because every time you can take care of a different one. Yesterday I took care of Sweep, the dolphin, and today I took care of my pink poodle."

Wouldn't you rather have a real animal to take care of, like a dog or cat, maybe? "I have a real dog at home, but the Webkinz animals are easier to take care of. All I have to do is sit at the computer keyboard or use the mouse and I can make sure the Webkinz have everything they need. A real dog has to be taken out for a walk, fed - It's a lot harder. Maybe that's why kids love taking care of virtual pets so much."

An uncertain success Last week, toy stores were reporting a shortage of Webkinz dolls. "Demand for the toys is double what the company supplies us with. It's become a real craze. Kids aren't the only ones getting into it. Mothers are, too," says Eli Biton, manager of the Lahit Barosh store in the Nahariya Mall. Biton has worked in the store for 22 years. "I can tell you that there's something different about this game, something special," he says. "This product stimulates the children to use their heads, it gives them skills that have to do with commerce and it gives them the responsibility to care for their animal. I think that this game, unlike other games, does achieve an educational goal. And because it's in English, all the kids are exposed to the language. I think it's terrific." PMI owns the rights to market and distribute Ganz products (makers of Webkinz) in Israel.

PMI CEO, former judoka and first Israeli Olympic medalist Yael Arad, knows she has struck gold. While she can't say at this point whether it's just a passing consumer fad or an extraordinary educational product that will endure for generations, Arad has definitely pulled the equivalent of an ippon on all competitors.

Arad relates that the world of Webkinz came into being in April 2005 in Canada. "The Ganz Company was founded by a Jew by the name of Samuel Ganz, who's now an 88-year-old grandfather. For years he had a company that made stuffed animals for kids. A few years ago, with the massive entry of Chinese manufacturers into the market, his company's profits declined and he realized he had a problem. The story goes that the solution arrived during one Friday night dinner, when one of Ganz's grandchildren suggested that he give each doll they manufactured an entry code to an Internet site where kids could play games for free."

The grandson's idea succeeded beyond all expectations. According to company figures, the term Webkinz gets Googled in the United States an average of 11 million times a month, and the company is estimated to have earned more than $60 million dollars from the product in the past three years.

Arad was quick to pick up on the significance of these numbers. "Our company specializes in locating and importing international labels for kids," she explains. "As soon as we identify a product abroad that we feel has commercial potential, we purchase the rights to it. Usually, we do this before the public in Israel has even heard about the product. Two years ago, we found Webkinz and started tracking the product. We saw that the concept was very clever, that it had an element of connection between the children's world and the world of the Internet, between a virtual product and a physical product, and that collecting was also a strong element of it. We hoped it would become a big craze, but we knew it wasn't a sure thing. We held off on the marketing for over a year." Why?

"We were afraid. We were quite nervous about introducing the product in Israel. We weren't confident that we'd succeed because we were facing some serious hurdles. While it was a major label in America, it was completely unknown here, there was no television show supporting it. We were also worried that the English language would be a barrier, both for the children and for the marketers, who might not understand the game well. We had to start from zero in bringing this product into the market." The shortage being felt today in the stores - Is this just a marketing ploy or is it a real problem? "It's definitely a real shortage. Even though we've sold hundreds of thousands of the dolls so far, we'd like to sell as many more as possible. But we just can't meet the demand. Each week we import a very large quantity of dolls, but it's not enough. As it looks now, this is one of those toys that come along once in a generation. I hope that by Passover we'll be able to balance the supply with the demand."

Fear of death Despite the general hoopla, there are some who find the Webkinz game in bad taste. Y., a special education teacher and mother of two from Hod Hasharon, decided to remove Webkinz from her home. "In the beginning, it seemed like something very innocent," she says. "Basically, it's a doll that has a very childlike appearance. But when I realized the absurdity of this game, it actually scared me. The scariest thing was that one of the basic experiences in the game is related to death. If the child doesn't take care of the animal - let's say, he doesn't feed it for two days - then it dies. The burdens placed on the child's shoulders are ridiculous."

For Y.'s 6-year-old son, the fear of his animal dying was too much to take. "He was anxious all the time that it would die on him. The whole thing was twisted," she says. "I felt like he didn't need to have these kinds of worries right now. That the responsibility was too much for him. I just don't get the whole idea that kids need to experience this thing. These kids become emotionally involved with the animal and this attachment creates unnecessary stress for them. They're preoccupied with it all day long, even if it's just a virtual matter - all they can think of is whether the animal is going to die or not. The principle of the game is nice to a point, but it takes on inappropriate dimensions when death enters the picture. Then the game becomes something really tragic."

Yonatan Bar, an 8-year-old from Herzliya, takes a more relaxed view. When he's sitting with his friends, Omer Feldman and Udi Davidof, who have Webkinz, too, he makes practical suggestions as to how to avoid tragic events. "Rexy never died on me," he says proudly, petting his stuffed tiger. "You just have to look after him. If you care for him properly, there's no reason for anything bad to happen. You just have to make sure that he eats enough and sleeps as much as he can. On the computer it says that Rexy loves to play soccer and to eat healthy, so every day I water his garden so tomatoes and carrots and watermelons will grow, and then he eats them. My system is that I buy him a lot of food and then store it. That way, we never run out of anything."

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