Commerce and the World of Toys

Toy companies have perfected the art of making something for children, without the children in mind at all. Incidentally, so have democrats.

No toy entertains my kids as much as the contents of our recycling bin. With the help of some tape, glue, string, and markers they can turn an assortment of containers and cardboard boxes into anything they can imagine. They have plenty of toys. But as many parents will tell you, most toys only hold their attention for so long before they wind up on the shelf, or in many cases smashed to pieces and scattered across the house for me to clean up or step on. Such is the contrived durability that manufacturers bake into their products in the hopes we will buy more of them.

This fascinates me. For all the wonders of industrial capitalist production it has a hard time competing with its own garbage when it comes to creating toys that hold kids’ attention. Of course the novelty of the objects that appear in our recycling bin every week give it an advantage over individual toys. Still, trash can stimulate creativity in ways that many toys simply don’t. Why can’t toy companies do a better job of engaging the imagination of children even with their massive marketing and manufacturing capabilities?

Well, because toy companies are in the business of selling toys, not the business of making them fun. Depending on your perspective this might sound either completely obvious, or far too cynical. I don’t wish to suggest the people working at these companies simply want to rob children and their parents of their money by selling them a bunch of toys that kids will forget about in a few days. But they do have to work within a capitalist system. If they can make a great toy that entertains kids for years they will, but only if it helps their bottom line. These people have jobs they want to hold onto and companies they want to keep out of the red. If a toy holds a child’s attention beyond a year, what will their parents have to buy at the holidays? The toy economy depends on the constant exhaustion of attention and pursuit of fresh toys.

This becomes very clear watching the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us. Though many of the toy designers showcased in this series seem to have a genuine passion for their work, a lot of their decisions are economic ones that have to do with production costs and marketing, not stimulating creativity in children. For example, there is a team of Power Rangers because it let Bandai sell five action figures instead of just one. He-Man rode a strange oversized green tiger called Battle Cat because Mattel ran out of money for new tooling equipment to make vehicles, so they used the equipment from another toy line and just changed the color. Hasbro painted the G.I. Joe character Snake Eyes entirely black because eliminating the detail on one figure kept costs down. More broadly, the highly gendered nature of many modern toys comes not just from ingrained social norms, but from the way companies like to sell toys. They reason that by fragmenting the market into “girls toys” and “boys toys” they can make more sales than sticking with gender neutral toys.

When it comes to toy marketing, the way companies use TV shows to sell action figures looks particularly transparent and ripe for parody. Sometimes the cartoon comes first, but often it is an afterthought that only gets developed in order to sell the toy. The Transformers, He-Man, and G.I. Joe cartoons all came about after manufacturers had designed the toys and needed a way to sell them. If this has gotten less blatant since I was a kid, it is only because the marketing and manufacturing of action figures has become a more integrated whole. These shows give toys a context. Without that context kids might not want them and parents would not buy them. Children spend a lot of their time creating and living in fantasy worlds. These cartoons provide those worlds and the toys let the kids hold a piece of them in their hands. In this way they do capture the imagination of children.

Capture is the key word here. Stories and mythologies are an important part of the human experience. Not just for entertainment, but to orient our values. Stories put together in order to sell kids a piece of molded plastic will not reflect the kind of values I want my children to have. They will at best punt to the lowest common denominator and at worst reinforce all the worst values and gender stereotypes floating around in our society. I can think of nothing more mind numbingly stupid than the different incarnations of Power Rangers, but I suspect I would have loved the battling robots and such if I had been a few years younger when it first aired. Not that I think the stories are always what draw kids into these shows and toys. I could not tell you the plot or even the names of most of the shows I watched as a kid, but I remember what the characters and toys looked like. Their design plays a huge part in their appeal, just like any other product. For me these toys felt like they either came from the future, or some magical world. Since I grew up, manufacturers have gotten even more savvy about creating toys with the shapes and colors that lure kids in.

We could leverage children’s need for stories more effectively, giving them better scenarios to play out instead of the same old smash the bad guy script or by developing toys with less prescribed ways of playing with them. To some extent a franchise like How To Train Your Dragon does the former, with many plots in the show and movies revolving around rescuing, nurturing, learning, building, and finding non-violent solutions even as it has plenty of action and fighting. However, for the most part we see the same formula that doesn’t even entertain kids that well repeated endlessly.

When I was a kid toys were… actually they were a lot like they are today. As much as the old man in me wants to launch into a nostalgic recollection of how much toys have changed since I was a kid, toys have changed surprisingly little since I grew up in the 80s. It’s not just that kids play with the same kinds of toys today as they did back then, action figures for instance. In many cases they play with toys that are almost identical to the ones me and my brothers played with as kids. Franchises like Transformers, Star Wars, and Power Rangers are not only still around and quite popular, their product lines have changed little in the past few decades. Just as we see the same movies endlessly rebooted, manufacturers like betting on toys that have sold well before. It feels stagnant to most of us, but it presents less of a risk than trying something new. This goes not just for action figures where I have different kinds of transforming robots marketed to different age groups, but for all the other toys that were new when I was a kid like laser tag and remote control cars.

That’s not to say a toy needs to be new to be good, fun, or imaginative. I still have a soft spot for Star Wars and though it gets repeated endlessly I find the Transformers design concept makes for engaging toys even if I wish they would stop making movies and TV shows. The robust simplicity of toy trucks means they are probably as engaging now as they were a century ago. Children have played with dolls for as long as our species has existed. Even our primate relatives play with objects in a way that resembles a child caring for a doll. A lot of the toys that occupy my kids the best are simple and time-tested. Play-Doh, art supplies, and puzzles pack a lot of bang for their buck if you want to keep your kids occupied.

Manufacturers sell lots of “skills-based” toys, especially for babies and toddlers. Toys made by companies like Baby Einstein have some kind of marketing which claims educational benefits. This takes advantage of the anxiety of first-time parents by convincing them that a toy can give their kids some kind of special developmental advantage. While experienced parents and those a bit more skeptical about marketing know that interacting with most physical objects will help a child develop the kinds of spatial skills these toys tout. My son’s love for mechanical things and problems solving first manifested taking apart and reassembling an old pepper mill as a baby. Most parents have also gotten a lot of mileage out of different kitchen gadgets.  

Due to the fact that adults, not children, actually buy the toys, manufacturers aim a lot of their marketing at grown-ups. This causes me a small amount of dread on the occasions where people buy my kids presents. The social pressure to purchase a present for a child can cause adults to buy a toy just for the sake of buying a toy. This often makes for bad gifts that kids don’t play with or break into a million pieces. The worst culprit is not birthday or holiday presents, but the favors, trinkets, and other little baubles handed out to kids on what seems like an increasing number of occasions. The little bits of plastic that barely qualify as toys don’t function to entertain kids, but for parents putting together goody bags to have something, anything, to give children attending a birthday party, or any number of functions. It seems like I can’t take my kids anywhere without somebody unloading this stuff on us. Like so many products of a capitalist system, these so-called toys bring to mind the excrement that the protagonist of Ursula LeGuin’s masterpiece The Dispossessed lamented, because they feel depressingly wasteful from start to finish. The kids usually forget about them after the car ride home. The people handing them out only do so because they feel obligated. I get a little sad having to send them off to the landfill when I find them broken in half behind the couch. And I doubt that anyone involved in their production or sale gets excited about them except to the degree which they let them pay their bills.

Although I have heaped a lot of criticism on capitalism for producing such lame toys I have to admit that it also produces some really excellent toys. I absolutely love LEGO and magnetic tiles. My kids like them too. When done right I find building toys amongst some of my favorite, not only because they entertain my kids, but because they do encourage them to create. Depending on the day, LEGO occupy them as much as their recycling bin projects.

But here I will go into old man mode and say that when I was a boy LEGO was different. You had fewer special pieces and no branded sets or movie tie-ins. (The special pieces are oddly-shaped bricks that fit very specifically into a particular place.) While a young Greg would have loved a Star Wars X-Wing LEGO set, I’m glad I only had the old space sets. This forced me to create my own star fighters which came entirely out of my head. The shift towards branded sets and the specialized pieces push kids into making the model as it exists on the box. The boxes of the old sets often showed several projects you could make with them. This let you know the pieces held more potential than what the manufacturers laid out in the single set of instructions provided. Corporate tie-ins won’t stop kids from smashing their creations to bits and building something original, and there is a broader range of LEGO available today than ever before, but it’s a clear example of purely marketing-based design choices.

Despite the continued success of the cartoon marketing model, it has an expiration date built into it. As my generation cuts the cord and moves from live tv to streaming services children don’t see advertisements for toys along with their cartoons. We don’t have cable in my home, so my kids almost never see commercials. On the occasions when we travel somewhere that has only live TV they get quite indignant that they have to sit through so many commercials. Some of their favorite Netflix shows have toys, but they only know this because Santa or some other adult came through with them. I don’t doubt that marketers have already considered this issue, but I don’t know if their new approaches can make up for the fact that the old model can’t penetrate through streaming services that don’t have ads.

In fact, the way that toys get sold has changed significantly. Since Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy we no longer have a nationwide toy store chain—thank you, private equity firms—and very few smaller independent shops. Because of hyper-capitalism run amok we now live in a world without toy stores. Places like Target have a few toy aisles, but it’s not the same. Like so much of our world today the way kids interact with toys has lost an important in-person quality. People buy toys online or grab them in a cramped aisle in a big box store that has lots of other things for sale.

The stagnation in the toy market might have something to do with the fact that much of the innovation that once went into physical toys has now gone into video games. With the power to create and interact in such detailed worlds that video games provide, small plastic figurines seem rather boring and limited. I must admit that although I grew up with video games I feel rather resistant to letting my kids play them and plan on holding this off as long as I can. I have enough trouble pulling myself away from screens and I blame this partially on spending so much time playing video games. I would like to see toys that engage kids in the physical world at least for the time being.

To that end I stopped playing video games about a decade ago. When I want to play around with electronics I make electronic music. I find this a more creative outlet that still lets me get my fix of pressing buttons and manipulating electric devices. I don’t even need to look at a screen to do it. A modest synthesizer setup will cost as much as a gaming console and a handful of games. A number of small independent companies have even seen the potential for parents sharing a passion for synthesizers with children and produced products that straddle the line between toy and instrument. Kids love to turn knobs and press buttons at least as much as adults. These synths are fun toys on their own, but also connect with more adult gear so that parents and kids can jam together. Given the independent nature of these companies some of the kid synthesizers on offer are a bit expensive. I would like to see more large manufacturers step in and make some at a lower price. Though arguably some already make synths that kids can play.

I bring this up not just because it gives an alternative to video games that I include my kids in. The world of electronic music also gives a lesson on interoperability that toy companies could learn a great deal from. The story of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) really shows how cooperation can expand horizons and spur innovations. In the early 80s there was no standard way to synchronize electronic instruments or for them to transmit information between them. Some manufacturers had their own proprietary standards for communicating between their own synths and drum machines, but these could not be used by other manufacturers. Then engineers from different companies came together and created MIDI as a way for electronic instruments to communicate things like notes and clock data (tempo). This worked so well that the MIDI language went almost 30 years without getting an update. I can’t think of another piece of software that has gone that long without a tweak. Because of the implementation of MIDI I can own a drum machine from one manufacturer, a synth from another, a sequencer (a device that plays patterns) from a third, and they can all synchronize together. I could not do this if Roland and other companies each created their own proprietary way for instruments to communicate the way Apple and Microsoft created their own operating systems and software. Along with the increased popularity of modular synthesizers that let musicians combine different aspects of sound synthesis to create their own unique instrument, standards like MIDI and CV (control voltage) have helped expand the possibilities of what you can do with electronic instruments.

Imagine for a moment if we did something similar with building toys. Imagine if all, or at least most of them, worked together. LEGO has arguably created the best building system, so it should probably form the core of this new paradigm. But like any system it has its limits. If instead of competing with other building toys LEGO encouraged cooperation this would expand the possibilities of what you can create with LEGO. Imagine building something with LEGO, magnetic tiles, and your favorite lesser known building system. You could leverage the strengths of each and make some truly amazing things. Maybe one system lets you build bigger structures, another works better for building moving things, and a third lets you create things with more detail.

In the same way that MIDI expanded beyond the intentions of its creators to become an entire musical language applied for uses its designers probably never thought of, this new approach would inspire many new innovations. We would see not only the ability of LEGO to connect with other existing building systems, but new building systems would pop up. Just as MIDI has benefitted electronic instrument manufacturers, cooperating with other companies would benefit LEGO. We could conceivably apply this principle of interoperability to other kinds of toys as well. Children already play with different lines of toys all at once. But if we designed them with this in mind we could make them even more fun. We want kids to play nicely together, so shouldn’t we design their toys to do the same?

Electronic instruments provide another way forward for toys. Although many of the synthesizer modules I mentioned earlier do things that someone can already do on a computer (and do much more cheaply, so long as you already have a computer) the modules have the advantage of being physical objects that you can manipulate more directly with both hands. They have a real tactile quality you don’t get when awkwardly using a mouse to tweak one virtual knob at a time. Many of these modules came about as a way of doing with a piece of hardware what you can do with software. For those of us who spend a lot of time looking at screens for work, this kind of interface provides an escape where software synths and DAWs (digital audio workstations) can make us feel like we are stuck at the computer again. I don’t know exactly how, but I would like to see manufacturers of physical toys draw inspiration from video games in the same way that musical hardware creators have drawn inspiration from musical software.

Even with these changes, toys are still commodities. They are objects that companies market to children as fun and to parents as a way to keep kids out of their hair. But is that all they are for? I started writing this piece as everyone went into social isolation and at first it felt like a very trivial thing to think about during a crisis. But it did not take me long to understand the importance of reassessing how we think about toys. On a practical level I now have my kids home all the time instead of getting a break during school hours. So toys and keeping my son and daughter entertained became more important, not less. Beyond that this crisis has given a lot of people the time and opportunity to think about what our society deems essential and why. It has forced many to step back and rethink how we live.

So besides just making them more fun, what about toys do we need to reconsider? As I touched on earlier, imaginative play is a very integral part of children’s lives. Sometimes this takes the form of creating or acting out fantastical scenarios. Sometimes it involves imitating the behavior of adults in an attempt to grapple with, participate in, prepare for, or better understand that world. When kids mimic their parents and other adults by pretending to cook, build, parent, and so on they model future behavior. But they also model future behavior when we purchase a toy for them. This socializes them into a consumer mindset where they passively accept the items being given to them by large corporations. Whatever other values we might try to give our children, either by teaching them, playing with them, or purchasing toys that align with our own views, when we purchase any toy we can’t help but show them the world as a place to buy solutions.

What can we do about this? As is so often the case when trying to fix a problem, we look for ways to democratize the process. What would that look like? Instead of having kids merely choose from all the different toys available, we should have them involved in the design process. I don’t mean just having them sit in focus groups to help grown-ups refine their own ideas, or dream up creations that might sell well because they hit all the right buttons in kids’ heads but don’t actually hold their attention. This too closely resembles the way that our political parties focus group candidates to find the one that polls the best, so that voters can give their rubber stamp on election day. I mean actually incorporating them in a democratic process of toy design. We don’t want to manufacture consent, we want to manufacture fun toys. Obviously kids can’t see the whole process through anymore than every citizen can get involved in every aspect of government. Just as we delegate representatives, this democratic toy design system would involve kids having input at various stages in the process mediated by adults. We see this on an infinitesimal scale at stores like Build a Bear. Having realized the difficulty of selling toys in the current market this company “sells an experience”. But again, kids merely choose amongst variations of an end product. Do you want a blue bear or a red bear? Do you want a woman of color centrist democrat or a gay white male centrist democrat?

This might seem like a crazy idea, but try to remember back to when you were a kid. I like to think I can do this better than most people, but I still see the world primarily through the eyes of a parent not a child. Do you remember wishing that certain toys existed when you were a child? What if they did and what if this happened because of you? How would this change your perception of how you could influence the world? I increasingly see adults of my generation disillusioned with our political system and the possibility of changing the world. Would they see things differently if everyone learned from a young age that they could participate in a creative process that bore real fruit? This approach could teach democracy to kids instead of teaching them passive consumerism. At least to a point. We are still talking about manufacturing commodities here. I don’t know to what extent this process would take place online or in a physical space, but it has real potential to change how kids and adults think about not just toys but also production and democracy. I could see some kind of network of toy design and building collectives popping up, but I will leave that to someone with a better understanding of the manufacturing and design process to work out.

If we could create some kind of toy coop, what kind of amazing toys would it produce? Adults inherently will never understand what kids want to play with as much as kids. Kids can be weird, and incredibly imaginative. No matter how much I see myself as a kid at heart, I’m a parent who probably gives off the same vibe to children as a stuffy adult in a 90s toy commercial. That might explain why I have essentially proposed going to meetings and learning democracy as a way to fix toys. Even most adults I know find those things boring. But is this because it’s inherently boring to participate in decision-making, or because we haven’t begun it at a young age? I don’t know. But perhaps in this moment what we need to reform our system is not just hard work, but play. Sound fun?

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