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updated 7/13/2007 12:50:11 PM ET 2007-07-13T16:50:11

For about a week my 6-year-old son, Mark, was having a grand old time on Webkinz, one of several children’s Web sites that have exploded in popularity in the last year or so.

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Then it dawned on him. His online pet, a gorilla named Ben, was playing games like “Rock Paper Scissors” and “Go Fish” against the other denizens of Webkinz World, nearly all of whom were pink kittens or fluffy-maned horses.

“Is PoniesRock!24 a girl?” he asked.

“What difference does it make?” my wife and I responded.

“Yeah, but is PoniesRock!24 a girl?”

We finally conceded: “Probably, yes.”

Click.

He quickly reconciled his little internal conflict and was soon happily back on track. And that was fine with us. Webkinz is one of the few sites that has captured our son’s attention without aggressive promotional tie-ins for superhero movies or television shows. He doesn’t need a lot of parental help to navigate the site.

And Webkinz has broad appeal.

While it seems that the sweet spot in the Webkinz demographic — what with the cutesy-pie graphics and the proliferation of fluffy felines in pastels — is probably the preteen girl, the site has something for everybody. When we boot Mark off the computer to go play outside, either my wife or I will often play a few games before we shut it down.

To log on to Webkinz, you first have to buy a specially designated stuffed animal for about $15 or so. (The toys themselves appear a little cheaply made, like what you’d find at a roadside carnival. My wife has already had to stitch Ben up twice.)

The price compares favorably to another popular site, Club Penguin, which charges about $60 a year for full access, though limited features are available for free.

The toy comes with a code giving you one year’s access to the Webkinz World site at webkinz.com. There your toy gorilla or cat or frog or bunny becomes a virtual pet, and it’s your job to keep it happy, healthy and well-fed.

You do this by “buying” food, toys and amenities with Webkinz cash, which you earn by playing the games and fulfilling various tasks.

Or just buy another stuffed animal — you get 2,500 or more in KinzCash for every subsequent toy you purchase, compared with 3 to 50 by playing games. That is assuredly part of the reason many people seem to collect dozens of WebKinz toys.

The huge variety of games and activities is by far the site’s best feature. Some are habit-forming and addictive, including math, word and shape puzzles in the vein of “Tetris” or sudoku. Most reward critical thinking in some fashion or another.

Some games appeal to the very young — my 3-year-old laughed uncontrollably at one game where you whack a puffball-type creature with a club — and others appeal to adults and teens. I suspect many players are adults, either using their children’s accounts like we do or childless adults who have moved on from their Beanie Baby collections.

The games can be played solo or two-player, and the Web site will usually find you a challenger in seconds. You can see the site’s appeal to adults late at night, when the arcade is still hopping and the level of competition on those word puzzle games rises dramatically.

Some of the games seem complicated even for older kids. A dice game that is apparently popular was a little confounding. Mark needs help playing some games, but can do others by himself. The variety is sufficient to please everybody.

The lack of advertising on the site is also welcome. The Web site provides rewards and incentives for buying additional toys but does not seem particularly aggressive in pushing kids to spend real money. Some features, like tending to a garden, reward players who log on to the site every day. My wife says it promotes responsibility, though I find it mildly obnoxious to insist on my child’s daily participation.

The ability to outfit your pet’s living quarters is also staggering. Thousands of virtual items are available for purchase, from custom towel racks for the bathroom, swimming pools for the backyard and designer clothes for your pet to wear.

The virtual shopping mimics real online shopping, with “add to cart” icons. Some may see it as indoctrination into real online shopping, but we were actually pleased because my son is learning to save money, forgoing smaller items to buy the big stuff.

And it provides an interesting window into what kids find appealing. I was a little surprised he spent so much time selecting particular types of furniture.

The Web site limits the ability to chat and interact with other users to a series of prefab questions and statements — “What’s Up?” “I’m feeling tired.” “Do you want to play in the arcade?” and so on. That makes it impossible for skeevy pervs to prey on children.

Unfortunately those limitations — while necessary — also make it difficult to have any substantive interaction. Playing a live opponent really feels no different from playing a computer. What’s the fun of winning “Rock Paper Scissors” if you can’t trash-talk your opponent after your rock whomps all over his scissors?

The interactions with your virtual pet are also a little stilted, and like politicians, the virtual pets have a tendency to pander to their audience.

“Do you want something to eat?” Mark asked his gorilla.

“You take good care of me,” the gorilla responded.

“How are you doing?” Mark asked.

“I’m glad I’m your pet,” he responded as a little heart burped out from the gorilla.

The graphics are cute and simple, and the site itself usually seems to work well. At times on a recent weekend, though, the entire Web site was shut down for maintenance. We also previously faced glitches running some games on a Safari browser on a somewhat-dated Macintosh; those problems cleared up after switching to the Firefox browser.

The Web site is operated by the Ganz company, a third-generation family business outside Toronto that had been primarily known for manufacturing plush toys and collectibles. Spokeswoman Susan McVeigh would not discuss the number of registered users or which features on the site are most popular.

She did say that the site began in 2005 but really took off late last year. Many stores have been selling out of the toys.

And she said more boys inhabit Webkinz than people realize.

Ben the gorilla will be glad to hear it.

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