On a recent long car ride Jenn and I were discussing the fact that demand for physical toys have been in decline recently. It would seem that in this digital age all the kids want is an iPad stocked full of video games, which as a video game developer is good news for me, but overall makes me kind of sad. Many articles on this focus on the interactivity of video games over the static experience of re-enacting movie scenes with a licensed action figure. Personally, I’d like to point out the problem of forcing everything to spawn from proven licensed material. You’ll never really engage a child’s imagination with such a restrictive point of view. Case in point, from my own childhood, consider the MUSCLE Men:
When I was a kid there were plenty of licensed action figure toys out there: GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Mad Balls, etc. But I very vividly remember the day my mom set me loose at a local flea market and I discovered a huge gallon zip-lock bag of MUSCLE Men for just a couple dollars. I’m sure the awesome value of getting hundreds of little guys for such a cheap price was a big part of why I bought them – I was never good at saving and thus rarely had much money to spend on bigger ticket items. But when I brought those little pink guys home I played with them quite a bit, imagining all kinds of crazy stories and backgrounds for them.
The thing with this toy is, you had to invent your own story, because there just wasn’t a pre-pacakge one supplied. Maybe if I dug I might find one, but at least Wikipedia tells me that only 2 of the original 236 figures even had names. And of course I didn’t even have the original packaging, I just had that one gallon ziplock bag.
With GI Joe or He-Man it was pretty well laid out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The TV shows, which were little more than toy commercials, gave all kinds of characteristics and stories for the figures. But these little pink men were just all over the map. One guy had a shark head, another had six arms, many vaguely resembled wrestlers, but many were just completely bizarre, and all of them were the same shade of eraser pink.
I wanted them grouped into teams, so I had to invent the teams. I wanted the teams to fight, so I had to invent why they didn’t like each other. There were so many of them I couldn’t just make two factions, there were easily a dozen factions. And when I put them away they all went back into that one big bag so the sorting and deciding “does the six armed guy with a helmet go in the weird limbs group or the wearing armor group” re-occurred over and over again.
Maybe I’m just showing myself as the crotetchedy old man I’ve become, but it seems to me that toys are in the decline because toys today suck. Kids have crazy inventive and bizarre imaginations, and their toys should engage that and let them exercise it. Sure, making an exact replica of the latest cartoon movie character will sell plenty of units, but will the kids play with it over and over again, or will they forget all about it once the next animated blockbuster comes out? I say, give them some weird little men with too many limbs and bombs for hands, and they’ll be entertained for weeks.