Vice Squad
Friday, October 15, 2004
A Big Mac, Fries, and I'll Raise You...

Have you ever heard of NeoPets? I certainly hadn't, but they are virtual pets that you have to tend to one way or another, I suppose, sort of like those Tamaguchi things from a few years back. And they apparently aren't entirely virtual, either; here's a description from the Amazon page of one particular NeoPet, a Mynci:
NeoPets are the latest in the virtual pet craze based on the characters from the immensely popular Internet site, Just like the Internet, these 4-inch high "pets" come alive at the sound of your voice and they respond to the tone of your voice with sounds, movements and lights. There are over thirty different sounds including laughs and giggles for each figure. Myncis are lovable thrill seekers who enjoy exploring tall trees and visiting other hard to reach places. A Mynci has cheeks that light-up and a head that nods when it turns from right to left. Oh, and it can also wiggle its ears... Colors May Vary.
So when I wasn't paying attention, NeoPets apparently took the US by storm. But why mention NeoPets on a vice policy blog? Is it because of their addictive qualities? Er, no. In Australia, it seems, McDonalds has been offering a NeoPet with their Happy Meals. Oh, so this is a story about childhood obesity. Er, no. It turns out that one way to keep the little rascals in good health is to win at some gambling-style games when you go to the NeoPets website. Lose, and your pet will have to turn to virtual charity for sustenance. Is the lesson here that to be a good pet owner, you should be a skilled gambler? Fortunately, the site offers instruction on how to play poker.

Some parents are a bit peeved, according to this story from an Australian television station. Here's a sample:
...the Neopets website advertised on McDonald's packaging and website has left parents such as Michelle Stiebel far from happy.

Among the activities the site offers are virtual pokies, roulette games, and card games where one of the cute characters teaches children the rules of poker and blackjack.

As Michelle's son Harley explains, you need to gamble to raise points to feed your virtual Neopets. He says if you don't gamble up enough points to feed your pet, it goes to the "orphanage". Players who don't win enough points gambling to buy food actually have to send their Neopets to a "virtual soup kitchen".

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