Monday, 13 July 2015

Kidzania: innocent fun or capitalist wet dream?

I just spent some time in London for work, and a friend of mine who has a small child told me about this brand new theme park attraction called Kidzania, which sounded fascinating and terrifying in about equal parts. Shortly after I walked by their ad campaign in the tube and took a couple of pics. I became even more curious and looked it up.

Whatever I think of them critically, I'm a bit of a sucker for theme parks. I leave my critical thinking at the door when I walk in Disneyland for example. As a game, I spent one time in Disneyland Paris queueing with small children to get all the autographs of Disney characters in a notebook. I was younger than now though still taller than most of the kids at about 20 years old. I also love tabletop role-playing games, and while I did want to be helicopter pilot when I was 6 years old, once I found out I could also be a make-believe mischievous thief or a fire-ball throwing mage in tabletop games that sounded a lot more exciting.

Kidzania, originally from Mexico, and according to their website and Wikipedia page is a chain of family entertainment centres. Each one of their worldwide 16 locations features a fully modern albeit child-sized mock city full of law abiding, hard working playing kids. As I understand it from my friend's description, parents are encouraged to part with their child along with a substantial amount of cash for a couple of hours while they go and play modern hunter gatherers at the mall.

Once the kids are in the non-magical kingdom, they have the chance to train as model citizens of an ideal capitalist society, in other words they take on jobs and earn Kidzania money for it. Each new kid in there has a dedicated bank account, and can withdraw the local Kidzos currency from any of the citys ATMs. The website doesn't specify if or what the currency exchange might be if one child travels to a different Kidzania location. So apparently you have kids role-playing and dressing up in adult jobs like firemen, dentists, journalists, business men, cooks, air host(esses), etc. Altogether over 100 different roles jobs. Once they earn and learn by role-playing their jobs, they can spend their Kidzos on entertainment and items from the Kidzania shop.

'Zupervisors' are there to help the kids in their work play time and of course major brands are there to sponsor activities relevant to their field, hoping to make loyal customers of children at an early age, given when they're 18 years old they never listen to them.

Domino's Pizza, Coca-Cola, DHL, Sony, Nestlé, Danone, Unilever, etc already have branded booths where happy children can 'play work' using their branded products and working in their companies.

While I mostly find the idea of this corporate capitalistic ideal society for children frightening, I'm also ambivalent: it is true that role-playing is natural for kids, and imitation play is as well. Play in all its forms is to be cherished, mammals all learn through play, and we humans are no exception to that. I'm also not too sure the play should be this close to the 'real world' as we know it, and it feels way too close to training kids to being obedient corporate drones to work, earn, and then spend.

Or am I being too cynical..? What do you think?

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