May 10, 2009

No more innovation in toys?


While out yesterday I passed by a Toys R Us and stopped in on a whim, to see what crazy new toys the kids are playing with these days. To my surprise, the selection was nearly identical to when I was a pre-pubescent kid 20 years ago. The only major change is the layout of the store -- lots of open space with islands, rather than densely packed long aisles.

Action figures didn't really exist until the 1980s (there were some doll-like figures before that), but during the past 20 years, there doesn't seem to be much new about them. Hell, a lot of the lines were the same as 20 years ago -- G.I. Joe, Transformers, Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, professional wrestlers, etc. The only new thing about action figures seems to be that they're a little bigger than before. Related to that, I saw very few of the "shitload of small guys" toys that used to be standard -- those green plastic army men that you bought by the hundreds, M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, the Trash Bag Bunch, and so on. This must make keeping the toybox in order a lot easier on parents today! Also, no scary monster toys like Boglins, the Inhumanoids, etc.

Video games also became staples during the 1980s, and compared to Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Super Nintendo of roughly 20 years ago, there's been no sea change in video games, other than 3-D graphics being standard. Actually, there is one major innovation -- the first-person shooter genre. But since these games are more boring than other genres, this isn't much to cheer about.

Erector sets were invented in the early 20th C, and again there was no huge change apparent in what I saw. In fact, the related Lego blocks seem to have gotten much worse -- now, they involve little imagination. There's some preconceived thing, such as a plane or a castle, that you put together by following the instruction manual. The blocks are specialized to this thing, unlike the bland blocks that you could reassemble into anything else you could think of. There were only a couple of buckets that contained lots of all-purpose blocks; most were specialized kits. Most of the duplo Legos were all-purpose, though -- y'know, those big fat ones for pre-schoolers. It really seems like they've sucked all the fun out of Legos.

Board games also go way back, and there doesn't seem to be anything super-new about them.

Ditto for sporting equipment. They have those slicker-designed two-wheel scooters now, but we had those awhile ago too. I didn't inspect everything there, but I saw a lot less of what we used to have -- now, it's only the stuff required for standard sports (rollerblades, basketballs, skateboards, bikes, etc.). I don't recall seeing pogo sticks, pogo balls, that thing... well, it was a disk-shaped thing that was tethered to your ankle, and you swung it in circles on the ground with one foot, and hopped over it with the other foot, like jump rope. The point is that there didn't seem to be as much of this zany goofy stuff as when I was a kid.

They didn't have nearly as much of the "disgusting crap" category as I recall -- make your own monster goop, a playset where you drown figures in slime, that kind of thing. There was a little, but most of it has been turned into chemistry set-like stuff, or Play-doh. Again, chemistry sets are nothing new.

There were a lot less "suit up for battle" toys -- guns, swords, shields, helmets, vests, etc. There were rapid-fire Nerf guns, something that I wish I'd had as a kid. There used to be an entire aisle filled with kits that gave you everything you needed to be an army commando, a "wipe away the urban filth" cop, Indian warrior, medieval knight, or whatever. The desire to suit up and go kill things hasn't vanished among boys, but it's hard to express when you don't have access to the tools. Again, little is new.

Stuffed animals likewise had nothing really new -- although I suppose the list of interesting animals is pretty limited -- and have been around forever. As with action figures, there were no scary monster stuffed animals like My Pet Monster.

The only thing that I saw a lot more of yesterday compared to 20 years ago were electronic learning thingies -- give them their first laptop so they can begin spelling! Still, they're not very different from the PAWS typing game or Number Munchers that I played on my elementary school's Apple IIe computers. The doo-hickies I saw were just improved versions of Speak & Spell, but now this category takes up lots of space, whereas 20 years ago parents were more realistic about how appealing this gay crap would be to 8 year-old boys. School handles the task of literacy just fine.

So what's up? Each decade through the 1980s saw some huge new category of toy introduced -- with the 1980s introducing both video games and action figures, which appear to still be the most popular toys. Many of the other categories are even older, such as erector sets, stuffed animals, and board games. Worse, the current versions of these toys appear hardly modified since at least 20 years ago. Moreover, a lot of the cool stuff of yesteryear has simply vanished, especially toys that encourage rambunctious or mock-violent play -- helicopter parents.

Usually when innovation dies down in a field, it's because there used to be a monopoly that, due to its insulation from competition, had huge coffers and could afford to devote a lot of it to high-risk projects. If there's too much competition, you don't have a bottomless purse, and you're too focused on treading water than on taking huge risks on the Next Big Thing. The prototypical example here is Bell Labs or the DoD during WWII and the Cold War. Once AT&T was busted up by deregulators, starting in the 1970s and culminating in the 1984 divestiture, major technological innovation basically stopped.

Maybe something similar happened in the toy industry. I could look that up, but maybe later. Just wanted to bring it up while the thought was still fresh in my mind. Of course, there could be a big demand-side aspect to the change, as parents are more hyper-protective of their kids than ever before. That would certainly explain why there are so many learn-from-a-laptop toys and hardly any swords-and-shields toys.

There's obviously a huge market to exploit -- young boys who want to pour slime on stuff and shoot projectiles at real-life targets -- but getting to them would be pretty tough, since you have to get by their parents. So, opening your own store is out. You couldn't even try to sell them toys hush-hush at the playground or park since kids aren't allowed to go anywhere without a parent or some other annoying grown-up watching over them. And even if you could, it's not as if the kids themselves would have enough money to buy the toys they crave deep down. I usually can't stand to hear the phrase, but for once I blame the parents. Lighten up and let your kids have some damn fun, while they still can.

Update: When I went looking for a picture of "toys" to include, Google Images returns a whole hell of a lot of pictures of sex toys. Now there's a toy industry that's seen lots of innovation and an exponentially exploding consumer base over the past 20 or so years. This is yet another example of how society has become more grown-up since roughly 1990 -- malls are for affluent adult professionals, not kids or teenagers, Halloween was overtaken by skanky women, and the adult sex toy market is flourishing while children's toys are stagnating.


  1. In the vein of your theory things are geared more towards adults these days, I wonder if kids aren't migrating in large part to adult "toys" (the regular kind, not sex toys) at an earlier age, so the market may just be drying up. Right after last Christmas I saw a kid who couldn't have been over 8 plastering a power line post with a paintball gun outside my apartment.

    Having unique toys helps but ultimately kids' creativity is what drives their play. I have many more fond memories of staging wars with marbles, generic Lego sets, soldier figures, or anything else we could get our hands on than I do answering questions on the Speak & Spell.

  2. I'm happy to say that you're wrong on several counts.

    I can't speak for anything but the board/card game industry, but head over to and of their 40,000 games listed, the vast majority of the top 1,000 are from the last 20 years.

    Great games are being developed at a great pace, it's the distribution that's a little kinked up. And that's because there IS a monopoly: Mattel is pretty much a monopoly on toys, and Hasbro is pretty much a monopoly on games.

    A typical Toys R Us must stock Mattel's toys and Hasbro's games, and they threaten to remove them if the stores try to introduce other games. Furthermore, there is limited shelf space, so they are only willing to stock proven sellers: a catch 22 for new games, of course.

    Luckily, there are thousands of ways to get the better toys and games outside of major distribution chains.

    That's how a little something called Magic the Gathering started up (heard of it?) And then Pokemon.

    But the interesting movement is Eurogames, which is massive and starting to penetrate the US market. Check them out on BGG or on Wikipedia for more info (or recent writeups in the NYTime and Wired).

    As far as toys go, I don't know enough about them, but Hasbro's game and Mattel's toys (an Jakks and Leapfrog) tend to only concern themselves with licensing rather than innovation, that's true. But, again, look outside the bigger stores and you'll probably find a lot more. In this age of Internet, that's not hard to do.


  3. Clearly you're wrong that I'm wrong, as you didn't name any major new category of toy. Before roughly the 1980s, there were no action figures -- and then there were action figures. Everywhere.

    Before Atari, there were basically no home video games -- and then there were home video games. Everywhere.

    Board games may be better than before, but so are cell phones -- but those were available in the early 1980s. It's major innovation I'm talking about.

  4. I guess that depends on what you consider innovation.

    GI Joe action figures date back to the 60s, Barbie to 1959. Before them were dolls dating back thousands of years. In what way is an action figure or a plastic doll innovative over a cloth doll?

    The collectible cad game is innovative no matter how you look at it. Eurogames are a highly innovative movement in board game design and mechanics. There have been board games for 4000 years; that doesn't mean a new movement in board game mechanics or design isn't innovative.

    There were electronic games in the 1980s, but massive online virtual worlds are a major innovation: not just due to graphics or scope, but due to the interaction and collective nature of them. They were born in the MUDs of the 1980s, true, but the MUDs were about quests, not civ building or virtual second life.

    Cell phone games are a major innovation, even if cellphones were available in the 1980s.

    Alternate reality games.

    Augmented reality games. Eye of Judgment and Chaotic.

    Tagamochi (1996).

    Bop It

    Pokemon, YuGioh, and Digimon. Marapets.

    Consider this: the "new" toys and games don't always have the same presence in the toy stores that the older ones do.

    And consider that toy stores themselves are somewhat anachronistic; the majority of toy store purchases are made by mothers for their kids, NOT by kids for themselves. This is a trend of the last thirty years. Therefore, most of the toys have to be familiar to the mothers, not the children. And that's why they look the same as they did thirty years ago.

    Today's children are finding innovative toys on their own, from collectible cards to online games.

    And consider: the prevalence of television, online video, and movies made a huge impact on the entertainment industry in general, beginning in the 1950s. Toys must compete not only with other toys, but with all forms of entertainment.

    The primary thing I disagree with though is your saying the monopoly breeds innovation. That's just patently the opposite of reality. Monopoly breeds complacency. Competition breed innovation.


  5. Nah, action figures showed up only in the late '70s, not becoming mainstream until the '80s. They're not even close to dolls -- "action" figure.

    Collectible card games might be the only new category in 20 years. It smells like a mere cross between dungeons and dragons and trading cards, but I never got into it, so maybe not.

    And you don't know anything about the history of invention or innovation, even though I've already pointed you toward the biggest example.

    "Monopoly breeds complacency" -- not in the real world. That's why Bell Labs invented more or less everything from 1940 to 1984, when it was busted up. That's why everything else worth mentioning was invented within the DoD -- there are no competing Departments of Defense, just one.

  6. If I were a kid now...........the Nintendo Wii, the Nerf Football, the wiffleball bat-and-ball, and that play-area-at-McDonalds would be my favorite things....

    I was pretty partial to building tree houses when older, but lincoln logs and legos when I was younger.

  7. One more thingy.......If we would have had those "laser-tag" guns.......OMG! With the woods around our subdivision in winter after the snakes had hibernated (we were afraid of the snakes, and I still am), we'd have had a blast.....

    Yes, I did the paintball thing with the guys for a few years in the mid-nineties. Its too exhausting now, but we all had a lot of fun out there.

  8. Nah, action figures showed up only in the late '70s, not becoming mainstream until the '80s. They're not even close to dolls -- "action" figure.Doesn't G.I. Joe count? It/he came out in 1964, and as I know from personal experience was extremely popular circa 1970.


  9. In your RSS feed (why only provide a teaser?) I can see the post on the delayed entry into teh labour force but isn't isn't showing up on your site.

  10. I deleted it until I fool around with the data more.

  11. I think you used the wrong language in describing your argument. While it may be true that there have been no revolutionary advances in toys, there has still been significant innovation in the realms that currently exist. By your logic, one could say that the internet has not undergone any innovations since the inception of the 9600 baud modem and AOL, after all "The Internet" had been invented by then.

  12. Remember too that nearly all toys are now made in China -- Viva capitalisme!

  13. Dude, I blogged on this almost a year ago.

    There are low barriers to entry into the toy business -- most of the toys like the Slinky, Barbie Dolls, etc. were put together by non-Toy people who had a good idea and sold to toy companies.

    The reason is simple: not enough young (White) people. The hey-day of the Toy industry correlates almost exactly with the baby boom. Duh.

    It's the same reason rock music has not done anything since the 1980's -- not enough young people to make a market.

    Declining Demographics is the central fact of economic life.

  14. That makes no sense -- a smaller consumer base would explain things if there were lower *sales*, but not lower *innovation*.

    If you think about it, it's just the opposite -- major innovation happens when the consumer base is small, and when the base is huge, there's a lot less. Look at any technology -- phones, computers, aircraft, internet, etc.


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