Avatars & virtual penguins vs. real-life dolls

By Anne Collier

Sales of Barbie, Liv, Moxie Girlz, and other dolls have declined 20% in the US since 2005, and kids as young as 8 and 9 are passing them up for the live “doll play” – or avatar play – of virtual worlds, the Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, citing NPD Group figures. It tells of 8-year-old Paige, who says she finds playing with dolls boring after a while, and of a Manhattan dollmaker, who says his company used to make dolls for kids 0-12 and now makes them mostly for kids under 3. NPD says 3-to-5-year-olds are doll sellers’ “sweet spot.” Is this trend bad? Does it mean childhood’s eroding, as the Inquirer suggests at one point in the article? Possibly, but it also says that would-be doll-lovers have a lot more options for entertainment now, including dolls, and the Inquirer cites the view of one psychologist as saying that this apparent growing need for stimulation may actually be exactly what kids need to prepare for adulthood; she said the world they’re growing up in is “more souped up.” That’s true. But think, too, about how much cooler it is to design clothes oneself in a Web site, then to put them on a virtual doll also of one’s own design, than it is to hound a parent to buy clothes already designed by someone else for a mass-produced doll that can’t be customized much at all. Moms, might it be nostalgia that would make us sad about waning interest in dolls – or just a broadening interest in real and digital ones)?

Virtual dolls, or avatars, also have virtual environments and even storylines that can be created by their owners. It’s a different kind of imaginative play, but imagination and creativity are definitely involved. Then there’s the interplay with other kids’ avatars, virtual pets, and virtual homes – the social part. That’s very often pretty creative too. Parents need to be aware of both the upsides and downsides, but the best way to approach all this, probably, is to be open to the upsides too, and maybe see it as an opportunity for learning new media literacy. Our kids are developing the very important, pre-installed “filters” in their heads – the critical thinking about what they’re playing with and how they’re playing, as well as the commercialism involved in virtual play environments – and they need our help in developing that filter, the one that improves with age (hopefully)!

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