Four years ago, I stopped into a Toys R Us and noticed how little innovation there has been in the basic categories of toys -- action figures, board games, video games, building sets, mini-vehicles, and so on. There doesn't seem to be a fundamentally new type of children's toy since the explosion of action figures and video games in the late 1970s and '80s.
I stopped in again and took another good look around, and that seems just as true four years later. The trend toward recycling older brands of action figures (etc.) was even more obvious. Star Trek is now in, thanks to the new movies, and so is ThunderCats -- apparently based on a reboot / re-whatever of the original cartoon. It boggles the mind to walk into a toy store looking for stuff for my nephew and see basically nothing new in terms of the type of toy, and even the brands within each type, compared to when I was his age.
But something else struck me that I didn't notice before -- whether it's old or new, it seemed like everything was based on a strong brand already in existence, with the toys being a kind of spin-off and cash-grab. There was hardly any toy line that was created to be a toy line first and foremost -- it had to be parasitic on some mega-franchise.
This marks a real decline in the imagination of children over the past 20 years. They don't want to play with toys whose elaborate backstory they do not already know, more or less. The unfamiliar does not provoke a feeling of curiosity but of boredom. "Oh, I don't know what that is. Hey look, trains from Thomas and Friends!"
Back in the '80s, when the toy culture was at its most recent peak, there were very popular toy lines that were launched alongside a cartoon or comic book series. However, for a lot of those multi-pronged attacks, most kids didn't see the cartoon or read the comics, whether because they were poorly advertised, were only around for a few episodes / issues, or whatever else.
For example, I never even knew that the Inhumanoids was a cartoon when I was little -- not until I read about it in Wikipedia. It only lasted 13 episodes and must have been on at a weird time or only in certain parts of the country. But those toys were really popular. Every major toy store carried them, and my two brothers and I had a variety of them. Ditto for the Dino-Riders -- instantly recognize the toys, no clue that there was a cartoon to promote the toys. Starriors had some kind of limited comic book tie-in, but again, I never knew about it, even though every kid would have recognized and probably owned some of the toys. And so on and so on.
If anything, it appears as though the toy lines were given the most emphasis, and the cartoons, comic books, movies, etc., were solely intended to promote the toys -- not to stand alone as cartoons, etc. Today it's the exact opposite: the movies and TV shows are highly developed, and the toy lines are cheaply and thoughtlessly spun off of them.
Sure, there are exceptions from the good old days. Everyone who was a child then remembers the cartoons that tied in with the toy lines for Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, ThunderCats, and a handful of others. Not to mention the ubiquitous Star Wars toys.
But when I look through Wikipedia's category page for 1980s toys, and weight each entry by how popular it was back then -- like, do I remember it, did I own the toys -- the general picture is that we were interested in toys that were not spin-offs of some brand or franchise that we already knew a lot about. Give us something new and exciting, dammit.
This is even more striking outside of action figures. Boglins, Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears, Construx, Garbage Pail Kids cards, Madballs, My Pet Monster, Pound Puppies, Teddy Ruxpin, the Koosh ball, the Pogo Ball, Skip-It, Lazer Tag... It's hard to find examples of stuffed animals or dolls that actually were based on an existing franchise. Whereas now the plushies have to be instantly recognizable -- Mario, Sonic, or some other popular video game character, Disney / Pixar blockbuster characters, etc.
I became too old for toys during the '90s, but my sense is that this independence of the toy world from other worlds of entertainment had already begun to decline by then. When I was right on the edge, around 12 or 13 (circa 1993), there didn't seem to be line after line of toys whose brand was unfamiliar from the broader culture of TV, movies, and video games. But there were still things later like the Furby and tamagotchi, which weren't based on existing mega-brands. By now, there's not even that minimal level of unfamiliar toy lines.
I know even less about the toy culture of the mid-century, but my vague impression is that, like the Millennial era, it was more dependent on huge familiar brands. The Davy Crockett hat, the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon ray gun, the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, and so on. I'd have to look more into it to be sure, but I'm not that interested right now. It would go along with the broader cultural inertia of the time. Like how everybody had begun to complain about how nothing new had swept popular music since the Jazz Age, and how dull and degenerate it had become by the 1950s. (Sound familiar?)
All kids really need is a basic sense of who the good guys and the bad guys are. Let their imaginations fill in the rest on their own. Maybe my idea of what some action figure was like differed from what my brother or my friend thought they should be like. Well, OK, suit yourself. Kids don't suit themselves anymore, do they? Every last little detail has to be fed to them pre-digested.
Have you ever seen them open up a new toy set, something with many different pieces, and the first thing they rush to do with them is re-create the way they're pictured on the box? Like, the same exact configuration. My nephew got some kind of vehicle and location set (like gas trucks and a gas station), and that's immediately what he did. My brother reassured him that he didn't have to just duplicate the picture on the box, y'know, encouraging him to have a little more fun with it. No, my nephew was dead set on it looking exactly like the box first.
Even worse with Legos -- there are no more blocks that you build into whatever you want. Everything is a part of a playset with a specific theme and specific final form to... I was going to say "achieve," but more like "snap into place." It's like coloring by numbers.
Children's toys are of no great cultural importance, but they do give us insight into the mindset and behavior of young people, especially as it changes over time. The fact that they still insist on not using their imagination when given explicit encouragement by their parents, just goes to show that this shift is not merely the helicopter parents warping and stunting their kids' minds. Somehow the children themselves, since the 1990s, have sensed that they're growing up in a world where OCD is the winning strategy, and not flexible thinking and curiosity.
Children are more perceptive of the world around them than we give them credit for, and are more active in creating their identities than the blank slate view would have it. Unfortunately in this case, that means a lot of the blame lies with the kids themselves when they turn out so rigid, boring, and incurious.