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Friday, August 14, 2009

Undercover Mom in BarbieGirls, Part 4: Peer pressure to pay up

By Sharon Duke Estroff

Among the cardinal (albeit unfortunate) rules of the schoolyard social jungle is that the more cool, expensive stuff you have, the higher you climb on the food chain. And what kid doesn’t wish to become king or queen of the jungle? Children’s virtual worlds like Barbie Girls understand this fundamental truth about their target audience, so they lay the groundwork for a social caste system by offering privileged paid memberships (i.e. Barbie Girl’s VIP Club) - and let peer pressure take care of the rest.

While I was allowed as a non-paying member to select a single stylish outfit on sign up, purchasing additional attire requires a premium membership. With only the clothes on my back, I couldn’t swap out my wardrobe on the quarter hour like my VIP peers. I couldn’t catwalk the contents of my closet through town - or accessorize with funky jewelry and purses. Instead, I was forced to wear the same lame sundress 24x7, a Barbie Girl social faux pas of the highest order.

I faced similar stresses over my Barbie Girls room, a loft-looking studio apartment with a double bed. Not that my room wasn't nice. The floors were hardwood and my comforter was swanky. But my VIP pals' pads were lavishly furnished from wall to wall and decked out with Jacuzzis, entertainment centers, and indoor hammocks strung between breezy palm trees. I cringed at the prospect of hosting a party in my spare, humble abode. But, alas, it was a non-issue, since subprime citizens such as myself cannot invite guests to their rooms.

Truth be told, the materialistic messaging and pressures I encountered on BarbieGirls weren’t really any different than those that kids face daily in our consumeristic contemporary culture. Yet in this particular virtual-world setting - a societal microcosm populated by mallrats and would-be super models - the overall effect was admittedly more intense.

But here's the sparkly silver lining: BarbieGirls.com provides modern parents with an ideal (albeit unlikely) teaching tool. So sit down with your tween and explore the Web site together. Use the magical hyperbole of Barbie's online world as a launching pad for essential parent-child conversations about marketing and materialism; possessions and popularity; friends and peer pressure; happiness, gratitude, and balance. Help her understand that while glitz, glamor, and fabulous clothes can be cool and lots of fun, our personal worth and value ultimately come from the inside out - and not the other way around.

Related links

  • Screenshots that show what Sharon means, for example, the difference between BarbieGirls Basic and BarbieGirls VIP at a glance
  • "Paying for Points" broadens out this picture. It's an analysis of payment and reward systems (and the social hierarchies they create) in virtual worlds, starting with WeeWorld - by analyst and blogger Tim Howgego in the UK .

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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