Every day when 10-year-old Lucia Urbanic gets home from school, she visits a world where she can play with her blue elephant, find a free omelette in the middle of the desert, and go on a magical quest for a faerie.
It is way more fun than homework.
She does it all on Neopets.com, one of the most popular sites for children on the Internet, where kids nurture cartoon pets and play a variety of computer games.
But while children like Lucia navigate through a virtual game world, they come in contact with lots of marketing of real-world merchandise, which has drawn the ire of some parents, media watchdogs and child psychologists.
"The whole purpose of this site at this point is to keep kids in front of products," said Susan Linn, author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood," and a psychologist. "They are very up on what's appealing to kids, but they are not thinking about what's good for kids, and parents get to think it's not as bad as Grand Theft Auto."
The site appeals to kids, especially the girls that comprise 60 percent of Neopets' audience, because it focuses on animals and has cute graphics, Linn said.
And the appeal seems to be growing. During November 2005, 3.4 million unique users signed on, with users staying on the site for an average of three hours and 45 minutes a month, according to Nielsen//Netratings. The company claims 30 million people have signed up for Neopets across the globe, and in June, Viacom, which counts MTV and Nickelodeon in its holdings, bought the Web site for $160 million.
Lucia has four Neopets – the limit for one account – and they all vaguely resemble real animals. Rosieposie is her oldest Neopet, an "Elephante" that Lucia has named after her real-life pet, a shy cat. But while the real Rosieposie hides from Lucia and her mom, Lucia checks in on her Neopets almost every day to make sure her pets have enough virtual food and haven't gotten sick.
"I play every day if I have time," says Lucia, a fifth grade student who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "But, if I have lots of homework, I don't get to play."
Part of the fun of Neopets, Lucia explains, is being able to explore the different lands in Neopia. Her favorite area is Mystery Island, a tropical paradise off the coast of Neopia, or she likes to go to the Haunted Woods, and complete challenges presented to her by the "brain tree," a scary looking part-tree, part-brain creature that rewards Neopets who answer his questions correctly.
To feed Neopets, players must earn Neopoints, the official currency of Neopia, by playing games on the site. But feeding a pet is just the beginning. There are shops full of virtual merchandise for pets, from paintbrushes to change one's color to medical supplies like Neoflu Jelly Pills, and even a lodge where you can send your pet on a holiday.
This virtual marketplace has tie-ins to real-life products. Neopets.com has coined the term "immersive advertising," which unlike banner or pop-up ads, integrates a company's name and products directly into the entertainment content of the site.