Can Webkinz Teach Kids Personal Finance?
Over a year ago, I asked whether Webkinz were a waste of money or a learning opportunity for kids. I think I can now pose the question for adults as well.
A couple months ago, when I had the yearning for a puppy, Stacie decided that a Webkinz Golden Retriever would fill that void. If you don’t know what a Webkinz is, just think of it as a virtual, online pet with a real, stuffed counterpart. The stuffed animal does nothing special except that it comes with a code to activate your online pet “buddy”. That’s my pet “Stinky” on the right (I lucked out and found a “Dude” cap).
Ways to Earn/Spend Money in the Webkinz Online World
Before I discuss the financial learning potential of Webkinz, I need to introduce you to the online world. You can earn or spend “Kinzcash” in the following ways (I’ll only list the more common areas). As a major note, though, you never spend any real money online. You only spend actual cash when you buy your Webkinz plush toy or other offline promotional items.
- Games: You have a slew of games to choose from, and in each game, you earn different amounts of Kinzcash. You can play games the following ways:
- Arcade: This is the standard area and each game earns a different amount of Kinzcash depending on the complexity. I’ve found the biggest earner (and the biggest time waster) is Zingoz Pop. I’ve mastered the game and can easily earn 500 KC in about 20-30 minutes of playing. However, you’re just mindlessly shooting bubbles and it’s probably not teaching me anything useful. Probably the best game for kids are Quizzy’s Word Challenge (like Boggle) and Booger Gets an A (teaches basic addition and can get pretty difficult).
- Special Games: You have a “Today’s Activities” section where you can earn KC through games like Balloon Dartz or just clicking on “Click here to get 35 KC” links. There’s only one special game per hour, and some hours are just sale items in the “W-Shop”.
- Tournament Arena: This area is just like the Arcade, but with a few more games. The biggest difference is that you can play against other players one-on-one to earn additional KC (you also earn what you normally would playing the game alone), or in a tournament style. Since I usually win Zingoz Pop tournaments, I’ll earn the 400-500KC plus another 15-30KC, depending on the number of participants.
- Quizzy’s Question Corner: This is solely a trivia area with many categories and and endless supply of questions for all ages or specific age groups. This is another area that can take a lot of your time, but at least you might be learning something while earning Kinzcash
- Employment Office: You’re allowed to “work a job” no more than once every 8 hours. Jobs include mining for gems, sorting KinzPost (a hard math game), laying tile floors, building burgers, and working at an adoption center (caring for other pets), among other games. You can earn 50KC for Easy games at Level 1, all the way up to 350KC for Hard jobs at Level 3.
- Gardening: You can actually buy seeds and plant them in your outdoor rooms and grow things like cabbage, corn and tomatoes. As long as you come back daily to tend the garden, you can get an endless supply of veggies every 5 days or so from each plant. You generally harvest anywhere from 1-5 veggies per plant. Even though you have to spend money up-front, I categorize this as earning money since it pays itself back in the long run.
- W-Shop: Basically the main place to spend your Kinzcash. You can buy things to customize your room (furniture, wallpaper, paint, flooring, appliances), your online pet (clothing, accessories)
- Your Room(s): You can buy rooms from $500-$1000 in “Kinzcash” dollars, including an outdoor area. In your room, you can customize the walls, floors, furniture and appliances, all for various amounts of Kinzcash. By default, you get one room for each Webkinz pet you register. Right now, I’ve customized 7 rooms (2 outdoors). Oh yeah, you can also dress your pets here, and also give them a workout (I have a pool and a trampoline).
- Kinzville Academy: Generally, these are mindless games that earn you “badges”. You actually have to pay 50KC for each “lesson”, and the lessons are pretty useless. For instance, “strength training” is just pressing a button to get a bar up to a certain point, and then releasing when it gets down to a certain point. “Agility Training” is just jumping over hurdles with the arrow keys. It doesn’t really teach anything other than discipline in trying to attain all the badges across all 6 levels (it takes months since you can only do 3 classes per day).
- Curio Shop: Along with mining for gems to create a “Webkinz Crown of Wonder” (I have 28 of the 30 gems!), you can buy rare items such as furniture, appliances and clothing. You can also give the shopowner a tip, but I’m not sure what it ever gets you in return (not that it needs to though).
So what’s missing?
So you can see from above that you can earn money and spend it. But as we adults (should) know, real life isn’t just about earning and spending, right? And it takes a little more than popping bubbles to earn real moolah too. As I admitted, there’s a few games and tasks (like gardening) that at least teach basic skills like math or well, gardening (water, weed, dig, harvest), but the site includes far more time wasters than educators. So what else could the site use to teach kids real skills and personal finance?
First, the easiest thing to introduce is somewhere to stash your Kinzcash. Although I’ve probably spent about 10,000 KC, I currently hold about 52,000 Kinzcash. I’m done trying out the different room options and designs (for this article of course) and I don’t feel the need to customize anymore. So what do I do with all that cash?
To teach kids the value of savings, Webkinz could introduce a “KinzBank” where you can deposit your money and earn an interest rate that matches the current market, preferably along the lines of ING Direct, not the piddly .2% offered by Bank of America! Kids can watch the miracle of compounding interest firsthand and perhaps even carry that knowledge into the real world. Instead of money “burning a hole in their pocket” (like it did for me as a kid), they would ask mommy/daddy to open a savings account.
Now we begin to get a little more into a simulator environment, but I’d like to at least introduce kids to investing in stocks and mutual funds through basic “fake” companies (or even real ones). I would personally like to invest some of my 52,000 into companies that kids know like Toys R Us and then watch my investment grow or fall. Granted, I would hope that parents would get involved and walk their kids through investing, but honestly not many parents themselves understand the market. It would be a good learning opportunity for parent and child alike!
Ok, kids earn all this money through the “Employment Office”, but they don’t have to pay any in taxes. Webkinz could charge a flat tax to be used for “improvements”. Perhaps they could even require kids to file mini tax returns based on earnings reports for the last year. However, since most kids probably don’t last on the site past 3 months, they might want to do quarterly estimated returns.
Maintaining a Home
Ok, so you can buy all this stuff for your rooms, but nothing ever breaks. You don’t have water leaks or termites or anything that real homeowners, and even renters, have to deal with. I’d like to see Webkinz introduce a simulator environment that would throw a little crisis against the account once per month. That means the W-Shop would need to sell things like water heaters, furnaces, and maybe plumbing/electrical services (charged by the hour of course).
Here’s one of my big complaints. An ear of corn gives you 3 hunger points back while a burrito gives you about 10 (on a 0-100 scale). If we’re going to entice our kids to eat healthfully, then we need to promote the nutritional value of a bowl of strawberries over a hamburger. I can eat my entire garden harvest and only get about 12 hunger points back, whereas I can buy a steak dinner for 25 KC and get the same value. I think if I ate 4 ears of corn, I’d explode, so let’s try to at least equalize things, ok?
Again, all you can do right now is earn and spend, and even though you can tip the Curio Shop owner, there’s no place to just give away your Kinzcash. The simplest thing for Webkinz to incorporate into the site is the ability to donate your KC to other kids’ accounts who have less in their bank (they should be active accounts though). Think of it as an economic stimulus package in that it might entice the other player to earn a little more to attain a goal (like buying an expensive bedroom set) or just make them feel good that someone else cares about them.
Another option would be to set up virtual counterparts to real-life charities like Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army (you could have a bell ringer in front of the W-Shop during the holidays). You could display the total donations received and actually have donation goals for the users to attain.
Perhaps if the goal is attained, Webkinz could actually make a real donation in some predetermined amount to the actual winning charity. Just an idea.
While Webkinz does have some good options to let the kids learn, it doesn’t quite match up to reality and has a lot of room to grow. Introduce banking, charitable giving and other real concepts and take the service to the next level. Webkinz could even start marketing directly to parents to entice them to play online too. If the new features can be adjusted to different age-appropriate levels, then Webkinz would have a virtual goldmine of opportunity. Seriously, teaching people through animated pet puppies is probably much more effective than a boring text-based web tutorial or article.