Saturday, May 5, 2007

Starting them young

This story has to be told in two parts to understand the title.

Part one, the kids all have an online character in a game we refer to as "Millsberry". (Emma also plays another online game called Webkinz. Webkinz is the latest rage. You purchase a stuffed animal, IF you can find one, and the tag on the animal has a code to create the online version of your new pet.)

Millsberry is a virtual town. It has basically everything a real town would have. It's a free on-line game so it doesn't have everything, but to the kids it pretty much has everything. When you sign up to play the game you create a character. Your character has a house, for which you may purchase furniture and other home accessories. You can also purchase a pet, clothes and food among other 'stuff'. Your character earns money by playing games. Once you've earned money you can go to the store and purchase stuff. Now this is where the game gets interesting for both the parents and the kids. The kids enjoy buying an item, a new couch for instance and then seeing how it looks in their house. Emma has even been known to spend a fair amount of time positioning her virtual couch in her virtual house, taking great pride in her new decorating motif.

The virtual spending habits of the kids are interesting to us as parents because each kid's spending suits their personality. Andrew's money burns a hole in his pocket and disappears as fast as he earns it. He lives in a three story mansion that he has paid for with his hard earned Millsbucks. You could say he is House Poor. Emma, is the miser and saves and shops carefully before making her purchases. She even contemplated making her character a vegetarian when she saw the difference in price between meat and vegetables at the gorcery store. Laura spends her money on sparkly dresses, pink shoes, and other assorted accessories. Laura and Emma also enjoy browsing through their virtual closet and trying on different outfits.

The kids enjoy playing Millsberry. The family goes in cycles. We'll play a bunch for a few weeks and then won't play at all for a period of time. One time when we hadn't been playing for a while, when Laura signed back in she was sad to find out that the pet store had taken her cat back because she wasn't feeding it. She thought it died, but thankfully the game doesn't allow their pets to die. They only return them to the pet store.

Part two, we purchased a new table for our patio today. It didn't come with an umbrella so Charlotte and I were shopping for one online. Andrew came by and began looking over our shoulder. He watched us select the umbrella we liked, put it in our 'shopping cart' and proceed to 'checkout'. He laughed and said, "that's just like Millsberry". What made his comment so funny is that our actions to really make an online purchase were the exact same as his actions to make a purchase for his Millsberry 'dude'. The only difference was that we had to enter a credit card number and Millsberry just debits his account.

Fast forward about two hours. Charlotte and I were shopping for a base to hold our new umbrella. Emma stops by to see what we're up to. Within minutes she makes the same statement as Andrew, "that's just like Webkinz". Now this is funny to me on one hand and troubling on the other.

What to make of this 'innocent' game? Andrew and Emma's observation showed me that our kids are being initiated into the world of the consumer. The problem here is, the 'virtual' world doesn't make the connection to the real world for them. They're too young and we haven't taught them all that they need to understand about money yet. Think of Andrew's perspective, we click a few keys, empty our 'shopping cart', 'checkout' and a few days later a umbrella shows up on our doorstep.....magic.

Laura certainly doesn't understand. She understands saving to purchase an item (which is a good start, yea Laura) but not how we earn money. The other day she told Charlotte "we need to buy more stuff so the people will keep giving us more money that we can use to save up for our RV" (side note: we've changed our mind and are no longer saving for an RV). Laura thought the change Charlotte had received with each of her purchases that day was ' extra money'. We were making money with each purchase as far as Laura was concerned. She's so cute. :)

So where does this observation leave us. It leaves us thinking through what our children are learning in all their 'innocent' activities? Are they learning what we want them to be learning? Our kids will still play Millsberry and Webkinz but Charlotte and I will help them gain a better financial perspective as they play.

As parents, we can use these virtual towns as tools to teach responsibility with little to lose...except maybe your virtual cat.

1 comment:

Katie P said...

Hi guys-
We are now Webkinz owners (a bullfrog, the last one in town at the hospital gift shop, kind of ugly, but Jacob fell in love with the stuffed animal). His username is hothoop. So have Emma add him, what is hers?
-- Katie and all