(CREATION Magazine Column, 2000)
TOYS ARE FOR KIDS – all the best dictionaries say so. What grown person in their right mind playacts with dolls? Or plays at war with little toy soldiers? Or with mock weapons, pretending to exchange fire with other grown people?
More and more grown people every day, it would seem…
Since an industry was founded on the exploitation of virtual space for interactive entertainment many aliases have been assumed in a search for identity and mass-market acceptance. ‘TV Games’ became ‘Computer And Video Games’ became the misnomer ‘Interactive Entertainment’… a term that is equally valid to describe conversation or sex or a multitude of other acts involving people or animals.
The truth of the matter is the multibillion-dollar industry in question is dedicated to the next generation of toys, built not from bone, hair, cloth, wood, metal or plastic but an infinitely flexible digital material.
Now the toys exist in virtual space – the ethereal made almost real for people either lacking the imagination to make their own contact or curious to experience first-hand the imagination of others.
Computer technology acts as a receiver and transmitter between the ethereal and real. Through a simple physical interface (a mouse, control pad or keyboard perhaps) the user’s input directly or indirectly manipulates an illusion: a pretend toy set that almost exists - in virtual space.
This new generation of remote control toys has led to more widespread neoteny – the retention of juvenile traits - than ever before. More adults (primarily males) are prepared to playact with dolls (action figures then), play at war, race model vehicles and embrace fantasy environments without fear of stigma.
Perhaps because of the novelty of the technology it’s considered more socially acceptable to play with virtual toys than real or pretend ones. (It’s funny how people prepared to kill and be killed in Quake III - the latest embodiment of Cowboys And Indians - wouldn’t be seen dead playing the same game for real, like kids, with pretend weapons.)
Perhaps we should consider expanding our definition of ‘toy’ – of what a toy means and who uses it. Toys are the tools of the playful. No other discrimination is necessary.
There’s no longer a need for vivid imaginations to access and manipulate ethereal space; no longer a need to make up or set up or tidy up the toy set; no longer a need to make up objectives or fight over who was hit, who was out, who is ‘it’, who is right and who is wrong. The playthings, playfields, roles and rules are more vividly realised. Artificial overseers, opponents and players ready to assume the most banal of roles are readily available.
Traditional toys come complete with distinct, suggestive themes and outline stories but seldom ‘supernatural’ rules – focused ways to play with the toys: defined means of manipulating the toys and definite goals.
Children playing with their toys extrapolate the given theme and suggested rules to make their own entertainment, re-enacting embellished mundane situations and events from existing stories.
The industries devoted to the design, development, manufacture and exploitation of traditional toys focus on realising the basic pieces of the desired universe because they can leave the player to decide how to use the toys within physical constraints.
Virtual toy sets on the other hand must be far more elaborate than the more traditional constructions. The repertoire must be realistic to the extent of incorporating sufficient natural rules (for example, a consideration of fundamental physical laws) to ensure that the toy set functions correctly and conceivable outcomes are satisfied.
Only then can considered supernatural rules be employed to give the player something to do – some appropriate tasks and challenges and dramatic situations to exploit the nature of the toy set and its inherent rules.
The action figures (or dolls) still come in all familiar shapes and sizes and roles - from stout, squat, moustachioed plumbers (Mario) to Lara Croft: the new Barbie and Action Man rolled into one (with undertones of a sex doll thrown in for good measure – and marketing)… Only now these dolls are more conveniently manipulated and come with more exciting poses and noises - not to mention a complete range of accessories, accompanying characters and whole prefabricated worlds and stories to play with.
Now we have more dramatic reproductions of sports comprising detailed representations of our leading heroes - the Subbuteo ‘kick flick’ replaced by remote control pad buttons to perform much more satisfying football moves.
We have the latest F-1 cars, sports cars, tanks and fighter planes rendered in glorious digital forms far more desirable than the traditional plastic or die-cast metal vehicles of old. Small soldiers are no longer frozen in plastic postures - they now appear to live to obey our every order without question.
We have the power to ‘magically’ manipulate blocks and bubbles and balloons. We have expansive arsenals to put even the latest American military technology to shame and can put the extreme firepower to task in purpose-built arena, with cameras inside the action figures’ heads for a unique first-person perspective of alternatives to Cops And Robbers, Cowboys And Indians, War With Sticks For Guns…
Thanks to the digital medium we have all existing physical toys represented with more functionality, more convenience, more flourish… and less demands on imagination.
A future of innovation awaits outside the industry as it stands. People presently exploiting alternative media will grow increasingly familiar with interactive space and bring with them an experience of generating content, a new perspective to create more diverse and captivating situations - and perhaps even some new toys.