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NeoPets invade the Internet world

By Christine Boese
CNN Headline News

After choosing a Neopet from among the 46 different species, virtual pet owners can give it its own unique name and set of characteristics.

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(CNN) -- "Neopia: It's a whole world in there!"

That was one father's awed response to the almost cult-like phenomenon of the online world of NeoPets. Chances are you've never heard of Neopets, but if your kids like Pokemon or key chain "pets," they probably have.

This interactive community consists of virtual pet owners whose NeoPets inhabit the mythical land of Neopia.

I'd like to explore some pros and cons of this phenomenon, but I can't give concerned parents a straight answer. It's going to be a judgment call for you, and possibly a thorny one. I can provide you with some information to assist you in your decision.

Five weeks from now, in my next column, we'll also talk to some kids who use the site and the people who run it and try to get a handle on its popularity.

Like many other kids' sites, the folks at NeoPets go to great lengths to assure parents that their kids are being safeguarded. The site is very well monitored by adults, as it should be.

An online world that even girls love

Let's face it, computer games mostly appeal to boys. Most games favor "first person shooters," blood and gore, "Dungeons and Dragons," and conquering alien landscapes.

The gentle world of NeoPets -- the site claims it has more than 40 million participants -- stands in stark contrast to this norm.

Girls and boys both love it (57 percent of its users are girls), and competitions in the "Battledomes" more closely resemble Pokemon fights.

You win points in Neopia, and no one dies. Score one for NeoPets.

Television vs. Internet: Passive or active?

Picture your kids in front of the television with glazed eyes and a big funnel on their heads as content pours in.

That image doesn't hold on the Internet. Kids don't sit and watch a Web site: They act.

The NeoPets site even teaches children HTML so they can make their own Web pages.

Games on the site, which include word, math and just silly games, are tough, but gamers can earn Neopoints.

How does the site make money?

The NeoPets site and all its basic services are free, yet the California-based company makes a lot of money, more than $15 million a year, through advertising.

You won't see a banner ad on the site. It relies on "immersive advertising," like product placement in movies.

Many of the objects and places in Neopia are branded commercial products. You can "buy" these virtual products with your Neopoints for your NeoPet. Other products earn you points.

This product conditioning at first scared me. It seemed like deep layers of brainwashing. Sneaky ads seem worse than blatant ones, especially for kids.

Playing on the site myself, I became less concerned. It didn't get on my nerves as much as I expected, mostly because the site is so rich, I had a lot to do that had nothing to do with ads.

The indoctrination into consumer culture was there, but it reminded me of playing store and school when I was a kid, more like a game than something real. OK, OK, I admit it -- I was having a blast.

Kids are exposed to a lot worse advertising brainwashing on the average Saturday morning television show than on this site, and with TV the critical parts of their brains are not nearly as engaged.

I still don't like the idea of indoctrinating kids into anything, but you will have to decide for yourself. I score this feature too close to call.

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