I turn 20 this weekend. Hence, I’ve decided that now is the perfect time to take a nostalgic yet investigative look at my youth — to recognize that stasis and change are two sides of the same coin; to remember the meaning of “play” as I cartwheel farther into the grand playground of adulthood. What I’m trying to say is, I just spent two hours on Webkinz.com.
When I logged on, the interface was completely different, but my dinosaur, Trike, was still there. That’s right — in a plot twist that is both a blessing and a curse, Webkinz no longer deletes your account after a year without Webkinz purchases; it simply limits your access to certain features. Trike was wearing oversized red sunglasses — just like the sunglasses I bought in real life a few months ago. Maybe my taste hasn’t evolved wildly, I thought. Then I figured out how to see my other pets and found that they all had names like SugarSea and Bubblenut.
My friend Jack pointed to my pet bat’s beanie and asked, “Is that a colander on its head?” Then I noticed that Trike was frowning. I panicked: How do I make him happy? How do I do anything with this new interface? Ultimately, I gave him a bagel from my inventory, and he was satiated. Then I wandered through my Webkinz house; inexplicably, almost every room was bare.
A speech bubble appeared next to Trike: “I guess we could do something else…” He was sad again, but I didn’t want to look for another bagel, so I took him to the Arcade. There are some new games, including “Goody Gumdrops,” which stars a raccoon that looks suspiciously like a scene kid. Many of my old favorites, such as Polar Plunge, are now only accessible to “Deluxe Members.” Upon realizing that I was crazy rich, with 58,000 KinzCash, I hit up the W Shop. Imagine my surprise when I realized that you can now purchase new pets there. I scrolled through my options: “Charming Rat”; “Homespun Groundhog”; “Chillaxin Penguin”; the realistically named “Endangered Dama Gazelle.” I settled on “Sock Bear”; then I realized that almost everything at the store could only be purchased with “eStore cash,” a.k.a. real money, as opposed to the in-universe KinzCash. Devastating.
Of course, I checked out Kinzville Academy, the Tournament Arena and the newspaper, which miraculously still publishes daily. When I hit the Curio Shop, Trike prompted me to go shopping instead; I said, “Shut up, you little capitalist punk” aloud and went mining for gems, unsuccessfully. I’m not getting any closer to the “Legendary Crown of Wonder.”
After that, Jack and I headed to Quizzy’s Corner for some trivia, where we selected the “13+” age range. We were pleased by the fact that we knew almost every answer; we were even more pleased when we didn’t know the answer to a question about snakes. The kids can enjoy learning here! We are the kids. That elation was quickly killed when we clicked on a new “Free Prizes” page and saw the following message: “Watch videos each day from our advertisers and you’ll earn a prize each time.” Oh, to live in the days when the only ads on Webkinz were PSAs showing pets brushing their teeth, advocating dental hygiene. Then again, Webkinz has always been a corporation; it’s just stopped trying to pretend it isn’t, or maybe we’ve just gotten better at seeing through its disguise.
Finally, I watched the animated “movies” that I had made in the Webkinz Theater. “Kinz Super Showdown,” “Smile, Grumpy Dog,” “Show Business Is Tough” and “Hannah Montana Kinz” weren’t Academy winners, but they were time capsules. The words said by the characters hadn’t been predetermined by any Ganz executive; my elementary school self had typed them into the computer, and thus, they shone with my quirks, my speech patterns, my odd baby-toothed humor. Looking back on how many hours I spent using that one feature of the site, I smiled, thinking that Young Britt would be happy to witness Future Britt writing and directing plays.
I was almost ready to log out — but first, I frantically sent friend requests to other users until Webkinz stopped me, saying I had too many unanswered requests pending. I wondered about the people behind these pets: Were they my age? Were they also visiting out of curiosity, or were they regulars? Would they ever reply? I was about to exit before Trike piped up with a question: “Could you please feed me a snack?” I gave him a plate of “deluxe nachos.” “Aww, you really do care!” he responded. On that note, I left.
Is Webkinz a wasteland now? Absolutely. It’s confusing and overrun with sad money-making campaigns. On top of that, so much of what users can do on the site now feels pointless, considering my real-world options as a college-kid-at-large. Yet Webkinz’ element of free play, combined with nostalgia, makes for a good time-killer — and it revives the sense of goofiness and imagination that never stops being important. I probably won’t be logging back on to Webkinz for long — and I won’t be buying a “Charming Rat” with my birthday money — but it’s nice to know that as I encounter challenges as a twentysomething, I’ll carry my adventures with Trike with me.
Brittany Menjivar | firstname.lastname@example.org .