WebkinzDo you know about Webkinz? I only heard about them fairly recently. They’re a popular line of toys with many children because they blend the fuzzy cuteness of Beanie Babies with the technology of the old Tamagotchi toys, and then add the Internet. Kids who own a Webkinz stuffed toy, sold by a company named Ganz, can log into the Webkinz site and care for a techno-version of that creature.

Here’s a New York Times story, “Web Playgrounds of the Very Young,” about Webkinz.com and some related sites for elementary-age kids like Club Penguin, another Tamagotchi-style site, and Pirates of the Caribbean. (Disney owns both these sites.) Librarians, take note: you’ll probably be seeing these kid versions of Second Life on your children’s area PCs soon, if you aren’t already.

Here’s one of these new interactive “worlds,” and the big business behind it:

Tinker Bell’s world, called Pixie Hollow, illustrates the company’s game plan. Disney is developing the site internally — creative executives who help design new theme park attractions are working on it — and will introduce it this summer to help build buzz for “Tinker Bell,” a big-budget feature film set for a fall 2008 release.

Visitors to a rudimentary version of Pixie Hollow, reachable through Disney.com, have already created four million fairy avatars, or online alter egos, according to Disney. The site will ultimately allow users to play games (“help create the seasons”) and interact with other “fairies.” When avatars move across the screen, they leave a sparkling trail of pixie dust, a carefully designed part of the experience.

Four million fairy avatars? That’s an unsettling thought. 

My question is: Are these virtual worlds going to morph into the fiction and films of the future? With video games as popular as they are, and fiction reading decreasing, will the children’s authors of the future become more likely to express themselves by creating virtual worlds with plots?

I can definitely see it coming over the next ten years, although I know the 3D novel will hang around a long time. There are still times when sitting and reading and letting that movie play on in your head – I don’t know about you, but I always picture any novel I’m reading as a movie projected on the inside of my skull – is exactly what you need.