According to Urban Dictionary, to “nerf” something is:

To weaken or make less dangerous. Taken from the “Nerf” brand name, which makes sports equipment toys out of a soft foam (e.g., the Nerf football is soft foam rather than the hard leather of a real football). Used frequently in the context of computer game balance changes.

I’ve been playing Webkinz for a very long time, since 2006. I used it with my students during the regular school year since 2007 and in the summer of 2015, it was the theme of my STEM focused unit with my Grade 3 class. It was at that time that Ganz, the company that makes Webkinz toys and controls the online game site, decided to make a huge update. The interface changed significantly but my students were fabulous – they unlearned the old ways of planning and relearned new ways. According to the Wikipedia article, the 2015 update was meant to make the game more “kid-friendly”.

Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered in my own play with Webkinz, it has made what used to be authentic-ish “real-life” consequences unimportant and instead rewards meeting random demands. Let me explain.

In Webkinz, players can plant and maintain a garden. Prior to the 2015 update, if you did not visit your garden at least every other day, the plants would eventually become full of weeds, shrivel, and die. This mimics real-life plant maintenance, and I thought it was a natural and clever way to encourage players to log on daily. I’m not sure if Ganz was uncomfortable with anything dying in the game, or if few players actually chose to create gardens, but they altered the way gardens work in the update. It was nerfed. Now, players no longer have to tend to their garden. No watering is required. No weeding is needed. Even if you leave your tomatoes on the vine for weeks and weeks, they will not rot. With just a single click, you can harvest your crops. It makes gardening too easy.

strawberry-harvest This is what gardening used to look like.

The game still needed ways to keep players logging on often and staying involved, so the programmers created a system, which I believe is called “Webkinz Cares”. The virtual versions of the stuffed toys have empty hearts near their profile photos. While players are logged in to Webkinz, at any point during their own play, a message “from” your pet will pop up, demanding that the player meet the pet’s specific need. Usually, the request will be unrelated to the task the player might already be performing. Pets will ask players to:

  • feed them
  • change their clothes
  • take them to the arcade
  • buy them something from the W Shop
  • answer quiz questions from Quizzy’s
  • perform a job at the Employment Center

If the player responds to this demand before the 3 minute timer runs out, the pet’s heart is filled to a certain level. If the player fills a pet’s heart completely, points are awarded and when certain levels are reached, players get virtual prizes.

I dislike this new system for several reasons. First of all, the game tries to dictate the tasks players undertake, instead of letting the players choose their own adventures. It is possible to ignore the demands to go shopping, but you cannot remove the stopwatch countdown and if you do not complete the task requested by the pet at all (or within the required time), the pet frowns and sighs and the happiness level reduces a bit. Secondly, I disapprove of the message that someone’s demands must be met RIGHT AWAY, and that often these demands are consumerist. Common Sense Media has noted the huge consumerism push and the presence of third party advertisements, which did not initially exist on the site. I have pointed out to my students how the company tries to get players to spend real money (e.g. Deluxe Membership to access exclusive content / Gold Coins you buy with real cash to buy exclusive items) and answering the demand to go shopping on a whim even when you don’t need anything is a “sneakier” ploy to promote unbridled capitalism. Sadly, as with many materialistic things, the filled hearts don’t last for more than 24 hours, resulting in a never-ending call by your pet to be satisfied, not by your attention or love, but by purchasing. On a Wednesday, I played enough (and responded quickly enough to the demands of my virtual pets) to fill the hearts of 8 separate pets. The next day, none were filled. The only way I can fill the hearts is by responding to the artificial demands. I used to really like the little graphs that indicated a pet’s health, hunger, and happiness. The bar graphs maxed out at 100 and had logical ways to increase them – noticing the decreasing bars and discussing how to change them were educational and fascinating discussions with my kindergarten students. (For instance, if the pet was hungry, feeling it candy helped the hunger but hurt the health; feeding it broccoli helped the hunger but hurt the happiness!) From what I’ve seen, the hearts can only be filled when fulfilling the computer-generated demands. If your pet doesn’t ask for something, the heart can’t be filled.

I will still play Webkinz, both for personal pleasure as well as a teaching tool for my Media Literacy class. I will just point out the overt and implied ways that the game encourages us to spend, spend, spend and promotes an immediate gratification agenda. You can enjoy something and still be critical of it too.