December 27, 2013

Toys most popular with today's less empathetic children

Here is a review of the hottest-selling toys this Christmas season at major retailers, for both boys and girls.

I checked it out on a hunch after watching my 5 year-old nephew opening up some Christmas presents (via Facetime). He liked Beyblades (spinning tops that battle each other), a pirate pistol that shoots rubber suction darts, and a large Iron Man that shoots some kind of projectiles from one of his arms. When it came to some of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he didn't immediately jump all over them. In fact, he asked my brother, "....What does it do?" I could tell he found action figures boring.

And sure enough, none of the items on the best-selling list is an action figure. There are a couple of toys that are meant to activate the kid's empathy centers, and get them interacting with another creature that has a mind and personality -- the Elmo and Furby dolls that made me think I was looking at a list of best-sellers from 1998. I wonder how well those go over with boys, though. Only one "baby" doll for girls, and it's a baby monkey that needs to be fed and have its diaper changed. I guess wanting to care for a baby person would be promoting teenage pregnancy to impressionable kindergarten minds, or teaching them to put aside their future career just to breed.

Growing up in the '80s, we had all sorts of guns, including ones that shot projectiles, we had vehicles, and we had building toys (not just Legos, but the entirely new Construx). The Speak N Spell was as close as we got to today's best-selling "educational" tablet for tikes. Toys just were not that thing-oriented back then. When my nephew asked, "What does it do?" he was construing the action figure as a thing or tool rather than a person.

The '80s and early '90s was the heyday of action figures, which had gotten started with the large G.I. Joe dolls in the '60s. It was the Star Wars figures that really took the phenomenon over the top, making action figures the go-to toy for capturing the market of 4 to 12 year-old boys. G.I. Joe (the small ones), Transformers, He-Man, etc. etc. etc. It seemed like there were at least a dozen different action figure lines in toy stores at any given week in the '80s.

And those iconic toys were not things, tools, or gadgets, but characters. I don't remember any of us re-enacting the scenes from the Star Wars movies involving this or that character. Most of them we couldn't even remember who they were from the movies, and just made that up -- their skills, their motives, their relationships to the others (whose back did they have, who did they have beef with), and so on. That was certainly what we did when we didn't recognize who these characters were, as when they did not come from a major movie or cartoon. That's fine -- we just made it up ourselves.

Now, the ongoing stories and battles among our action figures was about as sophisticated as the plot lines on professional wrastlin' or in comic books, because we weren't that into drama. We needed it to set up the fun part -- having them battle it out -- because we knew that people don't just randomly get into heated or epic battles. They need alliances, grudges, emotions, and with enough variety to put them at cross purposes with one another, sowing the seeds for some major shit to go down.

At the very least, you need Good Guys and Bad Guys. That basic social tension doesn't arise when you're operating tools, however fun it may otherwise be. The rubber dart gun is hard to personify, and kids aren't allowed to play with other kids, where they could choose their own role to play in a mock battle.

To Generation X, it's weird how depersonalized the popular children's toys are today. Even Barbie's best-selling toy is a "dream house" filled with things rather than people and relationships -- so much for girls being so empathetic. (At least parents aren't buying their daughters pre-phones to help them make the transition to swiping a screen while ignoring their surroundings.)

Those battles also needed basic dialog, as well as any narration, spoken aloud in distinct voices in order to bring all of that out for the audience. I know I wasn't the only kid who talked to himself in different voices while playing with his action figures...

You can't make kids, especially boys, play with junk that doesn't resonate with them. So this change is not the result of toy companies trying to push this or that type of toy -- they'll push whatever earns the highest profit -- nor even of parents trying to mold their kids (since parents cave in to whatever kids want, in order to avoid damaging their self-esteem). Rather it reflects how children these days have swung toward the systemizing end of the spectrum, away from empathizing. They're more thing-oriented than people-oriented, even the girls.

The larger context is cocooning, which gives people less experience with people, interactions, relationships, emotions, and the social world generally, but does allow them to cultivate a deeper interest in the things around them. Helicopter parents are only too happy to accommodate this -- kids who are people-oriented are susceptible to External Influences, while those who want to shoot rubber darts at the fridge or fill up Barbie's dream house with more stuff will feel more content to stay locked inside the private domestic sphere during their formative years.

It's also important for reminding ourselves that empathizing does not mean interest in girly gossip -- that's a geek reaction. Following along with a revenge tragedy is also empathizing -- more so, in fact, since you meet a wider range of characters there than in garden-variety gossip. It's disturbing to see kids get so little practice developing the empathizing lobes of their brain, not only in real life but even in their play time. Some day they're going to have to interact with non-family members, and it isn't going to turn out well.


  1. I don't think there's any overall change in the videogame or children's movie markets, in terms of how character focused versus action / technical focused they are (I'm sure you'd probably say something about OCD token collecting wrt videogames though).

    Those can be rather passive media when it comes to story telling though - not much imagining other mental states and interacting with other players in the drama so much as watching a drama.

    By the way, last week I read an article where this blog was mentioned - - "A toy review blog about education, cognitive development, natural talent, physical activity, and social confidence". The synopsis of the blog and the Chinese-American New Yorker woman who runs it made me think about what you've said about helicopter parenting, tiger parenting, liberal consequentialist parenting (where parenting is equated to the education process in trying to shape and mold a child to be a good / successful citizen as an adult) and object orientation trends in children.

  2. Before G.I. Joe (the big one) we were thing oriented as well. The action figure age that you come from and thus naturally think of as some sort of normative was the beginning of the move to where we are now; away from interacting other people to interacting with things.

    In some sense it is the action figure age that is peculiar. Boys being directors of external action, rather than actors themselves.

    What is different about "back in the day" and now is how the rubber dart guns are used. Now the refrigerator is the target. Back then it was each other in battles that weren't always quite so mock.

    Perhaps the correct answer to "what does it do" is; get shot, not that that is likely to find parental approval, never mind endorsement.

  3. Video games shifted media categories sometime during the '90s, going from electronic action figures to a narrative medium that replaced TV and movies for young males.

    You'd have to compare the same genre to see how it's evolved. Fighting games used to have a basic motivation for the characters -- the Bad Guys kidnapped the Good Guys' wife, killed their kinsman, so the Good Guys' motive is revenge. Or vigilante justice.

    Then the Street Fighter / Mortal Kombat style caught on, and it became more like a cock fight or gladiator spectacle, with no motive.

  4. "Video games shifted media categories sometime during the '90s, going from electronic action figures to a narrative medium that replaced TV and movies for young males"

    That is a good point. is it because mainstream TV and movies became more geared towards women and older people?


  5. "Before G.I. Joe (the big one) we were thing oriented as well."

    I didn't want to go too much into the previous cocooning cycle, but toys were much more thing-y during the mid-century. Model trains, erector sets, the slinky, the cymbal-clanging chimp, guns (mostly of the futuristic Buck Rogers kind, then Western themed in the late '50s), and not so much action figures, stuffed animals, and so on. About as anthropomorphic as they got were the Robby the Robot toys.

    The Jazz Age was more like the '80s. Teddy bears were invented in the early 1900s but became a phenomenon during the '20s, like Winnie the Pooh. The Velveteen Rabbit was a related "hot toy" / story about a stuffed animal that came to life. Like the Care Bears, Teddy Ruxpin, and general craze for stuffed animals during the '80s.

    In the '90s, stuffed animals became things rather than creatures with a mind. The most popular store that sells them is called the Build-a-Bear Workshop, clearly branding them as things. You customize them like a car with this type of head, that type of clothing, etc., rather than them coming with their own existing personality like a person.

  6. "The action figure age that you come from and thus naturally think of as some sort of normative was the beginning of the move to where we are now; away from interacting other people to interacting with things."

    We spent more time interacting with other kids (siblings or friends) during the heyday of latchkey children. Must have been more than any other recent generation. We spent hardly any time parked in front of the television set like you see in pictures of mid-century children.

    I'm talking more about, when we were playing with toys, what qualitative form did that take.

  7. Thing-oriented / locked-indoors kids from the mid-century:

  8. Me and my brother amassed a big box of action figures (mostly X-Men). We didn't really need reasons for them to fight it out, good guys and bad guys are going to fight and that's it (maybe we implicitly thought of it like tribal warfare). If one "good guy" was going to fight others we'd make up something about them being brainwashed or an evil clone or something, but that was it.

  9. In the 70s there were cap pistols EVERYWHERE. Curse my liberal parents! I never even got a BB gun.


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