“Mom, can you accept this email on your phone? I need parent permission in order to recover my Webkinz account.” With winter break winding down, my friend sits across from me on her couch in a Pittsburgh high-rise, laptop in front of her, as she logs into the fateful website.
I’ve been playing Webkinz almost daily for the past month. Usually, I log into the platform for less than ten minutes, there to perform the tasks that can be accomplished only once per day—a spin on the Wheel of Wow, which rewards the spinner with a prize; the Wishing Well, which, like a slot machine, rewards the player with “KinzCash” based on patterns in their spin; and mining in the Curio Shop to collect rare gems.
To anyone who straddles the line between Millennial and Zoomer, Webkinz denotes a cultural moment. First launched in 2005 by the Canadian toy company, Ganz, the plush toys have a code attached to them that unlocks access to an online interactive game, in which pets can be fed, clothed, shopped for, housed, and used to play games. It seems like everyone born at the turn of the millennium is familiar with Webkinz, and most likely had one themselves—unlike many other fad or collector’s toys, Webkinz retailed for roughly $15 per pet, far more financially feasible for families than, say, an American Girl doll or even LEGO bricks.
The Webkinz world contains both whimsy and sophistication—there are hundreds of activities to perform with your virtual pet, and the brightly colored interface and eccentric figures have remained virtually unchanged in the ten years since I stopped playing Webkinz as a middle schooler. Whereas ten-year-old me was obsessed with decorating and redecorating the various rooms in my house and getting good grades at the KinzVille Academy, my 21-year-old self looks to Webkinz as a casual break from a life which—even in relative isolation—feels driven by achievement.
There’s something powerful about isolation. Due to distance learning, most of my days are spent poring over Zoom, a textbook, or an assignment at my kitchen table. Still, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown, I reflect upon how quarantine has enabled me to stop performing for other people—whether through abandoning the 24/7 laser-focus on achievement or the now-regular decision to skip my makeup routine before leaving home. Of course, not every aspect of my pre-quarantine life was a performance. But there’s something meaningful about discovering the version of myself that exists when no one’s watching.
For me, that person has been largely childlike. I’ve been listening to the music that childhood me loved—mostly, an embarrassing combination of Hannah Montana, Nickelback, and (country) Taylor Swift. I’ve been treating myself with Lunchables, Danimals, and Swiss cake rolls—frozen, like my dad likes them. I’ve been watching reality television, something that I decided I was too smart for during high school.
The return to Webkinz is part of this progression. But it’s also about revisiting childhood memories with the knowledge and support that I have now. When I was playing Webkinz as a ten-year-old, I often worried I didn’t have friends and thus could not add friends outside of my family on the platform. Now, I’ve convinced my friends to join me in rediscovering Webkinz—some of whom have become even more reinvested in the platform than I have.
As Covid forces us to experience the tide of history, it is easy to feel powerless. With 500,000 Americans dead, countless thrust into economic and personal precarity, and isolation taking an enormous toll, it is apparent that the world is intent upon turning despite our objections. But I’ve been focusing on the one type of history I do have some control over: mine.
Revisiting Webkinz, drinking Capri Suns, eating Lunchables—all of these nostalgic indulgences have allowed me to control my personal history by rewriting it, choosing to focus on the distractions of childhood rather than my once-desperate desire to grow up.