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The Barbie Bubble

When I finally cleared through the crowd of technology reporters at the press preview for Digital Life ­— the largest consumer electronics show on the East Coast — I saw the booth causing the buzz was Mattel. Besides hand-held games, the tyke toy behemoth was showcasing its Barbie Girls virtual world, a girls-only "digital playground" for ages 8 to 15. Mattel wasn’t the only one unveiling kids’ versions of adult toys — there was a kiddie Guitar Hero incarnation ("Pop Hero") with actual Hannah Montana tunes from JAKKS Pacific, and night vision goggles for a bit of Iraq-war-turned-Halloween fun. (You can attend Digital Life September 25-28 at the Javits Center in New York City.)

With tech gadgets like cell phones and laptops topping even toddlers’ wish lists, it was only a matter of time before more complex interactive games trickled down to the younger market. And it was eager. If virtual worlds like Second Life seem slow to catch on with the mainstream, not so with the younger generation. Mattel’s has attracted 13 million users since its launch in 2007­ — nearly as many as Second Life has garnered since 2003 — and is now the fastest growing virtual world. For the tweenie-bopper crowd, who grew up using AIM as their chief social communication, online mixing beyond of their buddy list may be the logical next step. But venturing out alone in a virtual world is at once safer and more dangerous than wandering the real one: while the digital realm allows for and encourages anonymity, the line between the virtual world and real life is blurred — while most children know not to give out personal info to strangers on the street, the gaming atmosphere of Second Life seems to erode the taboo.

In an effort to promote online safety, Barbie Girls just added the Parents’ Place feature, where adults can monitor their daughters’ account and chatting abilities. Mattel’s virtual world does have a significant amount of protection — words outside of the database’s vocabulary are blocked, as are numbers and sequences. Barbie Girls’ limited chat capabilities may encourage safety, ("Please don’t ask me that," one girl said, after I asked where she was from — and she told me Indiana), but digital worlds in general seem a mecca for stalkers and predators, who can customize avatars to make them appealing.

And while the Barbie realm could function as a safety-first training ground for more complex online worlds, it’s unlikely girls will stay put until they’ve reached the 18+ of Adult Second Life. But if they don’t graduate to (co-ed) adult worlds on their own, the extreme communication limitations imposed by the Barbie Girls vocab set mayf rustrate girls on the older side of the spectrum until they look for more complex and personal choice-driven digital realms. Already, 85 percent of registrants are over age 8, and in June, Barbie Girls launched an extended version with a subscription membership, and basic users unwilling to pay an extra fee may be put off by the restricted access versus worlds like Second Life, which are free.

But Second Life, with its popular Sexy Beach arena and limitless communication, is no playground in the Barbie-sense. People visiting Second Life come with a different intention in mind than those signing on to instant messenger or surfing Facebook. Instead of coming to chat with friends, Residents go on to explore strange territory and meet new people. While I grew up with a strong sense of a talking-to-strangers taboo ("chat rooms" had a sordid underbelly connotation), in Second Life, that stigma is gone.

While the Parents’ Place feature may foster dialogue about online practices between parents and kids, it is mostly limited to that conversation. The limited feature does more to highlight the impossibility of actually controlling what kids do online. Several site features require parental permission, but all kids have to do is enter their parents’ e-mail address. That’s where Mattel really missed the point. If girls are sophisticated enough to play in a digital world, they probably already have e-mail, and savvy preteens can give themselves permission (this is the generation that teaches their parents how to text message). And while Barbie Girls sells itself as the only virtual world just for girls, like Second Life for teens, there is no guarantee that users are in the target demographic. (In making my account, after checking the 16+ box for my age, a window popped up that instructed, "If you’re under 13, ask your mom or dad before playing in the Barbie Girls world." You press ok, and then move on to the next step.) Though I was just there to explore, I am far from the 8-to-15-year-old intended range. Adult Second Life, which goes virtual worlds beyond Barbie Girls, is supposedly only open to users over 18, but no verification is required besides entering your birth year. Any tweenager who has ever lied about their age to impress a romantic interest or used a fake ID to buy cigarettes knows what year to enter to make them the appropriate age. There, where you can send links to personal pages and post porn, Barbie Girls’ precautions would seem ridiculous and futile, like telling kids that eating their vegetables will keep them from getting sick while an epidemic rages around them. Adolescent girls are perhaps the most worried over of the underage demographic, and they are latching on to the virtual meeting space with a vengeance. Barbie Girls’ Parents Place is an ineffectual tool to keep tweens off Second Life’s sex-clogged beaches and in Mattel’s pink playground.