Now that Bratz, the Pussycat Dolls and a handful of Mouseketeers Gone Wild have taken over girls' culture, old concerns about Barbie, her unrealistic figure and materialistic lifestyle seem a bit quaint. For the past few years, Mattel has even been pushing Barbie's relatively innocent and (dare I say?) wholesome image next to her racier rivals. Barbie now fills a niche within girls' culture, providing a safe, friendly, non-violent and above all predictable alternative to the newer, more overtly sexualized girls' brands. This sits well with many parents - even though Barbie's semiotics might not.
Despite the fact that sales of Barbie dolls have steadily declined for nearly a decade (with some analysts estimating a 27 percent drop between 2001 and 2004 alone), Barbie recently ranked first on the NPD Group's list of top-selling toy licenses. The doll's reincarnation as a media brand is a big driving force behind her continued longevity. In addition to a highly profitable series of direct-to-DVD animated movies, top-ranking websites and a stable of videogames, Barbie is now at the center of one of the most successful children's virtual worlds to date.
Since its launch in April 2007, BarbieGirls.com has attracted over 14 million members and proclaimed itself the "fastest growing virtual world in history." According to Mattel's press releases, the site attracts 45,000 new members every day, 85 percent of which are 8- to 15-year-old girls. After a yearlong open beta trial, BarbieGirls recently became one of the first toy-based virtual worlds to adopt a subscription-based revenue model ("BarbieGirls V.I.P.," available at a cost of $5.99 per month as of June, 2008). A much more limited free-to-play version remains available, but the majority of the game's features and activities are now limited to V.I.P. subscribers.
With BarbieGirls, Mattel hopes to cash in on something that the game community has known for some time: Little girls love online games. The world of BarbieGirls itself is a cross between The Sims and virtual paper doll site Stardoll, two properties that have been enormously successful at attracting female players. Combining fantasy play with virtual consumerism, both Stardoll and The Sims place a lot of emphasis on acquiring, creating and displaying virtual items. Similarly, BarbieGirls gameplay revolves around shopping, fashion and home décor. Just like the doll ...only digital.
Welcome to the Virtual Dollhouse
I started playing BarbieGirls about two months after launch. Admittedly, my initial reaction was less than positive. I was disappointed that a game so heavily focused on style would have such a limited range of avatar customization options. Most avatars end up looking eerily alike - thin, youthful females (there is no such thing as a BarbieBoy) with large heads and delicate facial features. The virtual space was much smaller than I was used to, and I felt encumbered by my avatar's limited range of motion. The mini-games were basic, frustrating and repetitive. The environment was filled with promotions for Barbie products and provided few opportunities for interaction. The "first-ever virtual world designed exclusively for girls," as the press materials described, appeared to be little more than a souped-up advergame.
Over time, however, I began to notice some deeper elements at work. Like many MMOGs, the BarbieGirls site's tightly structured design and technical limitations place significant restrictions on what players can do and say. In many cases, these restrictions reflect an underlying interest in keeping BarbieGirls a safe and welcoming space for girls of all ages. But additional interests beyond those of the players themselves also come into play - including those of parents, regulators, public opinion and the Mattel corporation itself.