It’s the holidays. While that means many things to many people, one thing it means for me – as a person easily mistaken for an adult who has three nephews and a niece – it means toy-shopping for Christmas morning. So off to the toy store I went.
I strolled through the aisles, looking for toys I thought fit the bill for the children whom I know and love so well (translation: I was trying to find the exact figures that are on their lists). And all three of my nephews are into the Lego action figure lines: Chima, Hero Factory, etc. And in the Lego aisle I noticed a lack of, well, Legos.
Don’t get me wrong, there were Marvel Superhero Legos and DC Superhero Legos and Lord of the Ring Legos, plus the aforementioned action hero lines. But there weren’t any classic Lego playsets, not like the ones I recall from my childhood. And this bothered me, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. It’s not because I’m anti-licensing or anything. Nor did I think the old playsets of yore were in anyway superior to these sets; at least, not exactly.
It wasn’t until I watched a recent Duplo ad (Legos for infants) that it clicked for me. The ad contained no original playsets. It was all Disney/Pixar/Nickelodeon characters made out of Duplo or playing on vehicles/locations made from Duplo. No original characters.
Before I get onto my old-man tirade, shaking my cane at these newfangled modern toys, let me be clear: I love franchise toys. I love Transformers, GI Joe, Power Rangers, etc. I think they’re great toys and I think they’re very useful and wonderful tools to help fire a child’s imagination.
The problem with franchise toys is that they’re known quantities. Everybody knows who Optimus Prime is, what he sounds like, what he does, what he’s like. So when you get an Optimus Prime action figure, you are getting a defined character, in a defined story. No matter how wonderful the mythos of said character is, it is still ultimately a limiting element. You’re getting a picture with which you will be coloring inside the lines. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but children need more than just that.
What made Lego standout from many of the other toys of my childhood was there were no defined characters, no defined stories, and really not even any defined elements to it. When you opened the bag and put the vehicle or set together, you had no idea who this person was or what was happening, where the story was set or what was going on. YOU had to come up with all of that. YOU had to create the settings, YOU had to create the characters and motivations, all of it. YOU were able to project your own stories onto the Legos. You weren’t creating stories in someone else’s universe; you were creating your own stories in your own universes. You were drawing your own picture.
I lament that there are not more toys where you can do that.
Well, I should amend that. Barbie is still that way. While Barbie (the toyline) is largely concerned with clothes and accessories (and ‘boys’ toys, don’t pretend you aren’t too: battle-damage figures that are identical except for different paintjobs? Figures that come with 19 swords and 32 guns so you can mix and match? Come on, you are’t fooling anyone), there isn’t that much of a definitive character to Barbie. While the occasional DVD movies and whatnot always paint Barbie as generically kind and universally admirable, the character herself is always distinctive to each setting and story: a princess is a far cry from a ballerina or a doctor or an adventurer. And moreover, it’s left to the one playing with Barbie to define who she is and what she’s doing. The ability to project onto Barbie is one of the line’s greatest strengths by far.
When knockoff toys were more prevalent – He-Man and GI Joes were the most common when I was a kid – kids were faced with toys that were sometimes to cool too get rid of or just relegate to backup goon, but who didn’t fit into the established canon created by the cartoons. Faced with this challenge, they would have to create names, personalities, etc. They would have to decide if this was a good guy or bad guy, competent or incapable; it was all up to them. In many ways, this would be the ideal ‘next step’ for kids who are used to playing with franchise/licensed toys – to be given figures that aren’t part of the established canon but whom they have to be fit into the story. This is how their imaginations are taken to the next level.
But ideally, toys without characters and stories, but still compelling and dynamic would be best. Legos always fit that role perfectly. The beautiful but tragically short-lived Stikfas toyline was probably the best the toy world’s seen in recent years. And not as a dismissal, but there’s always Barbie.
Toys are not meant to capture children’s imaginations; they’re meant to set them free. Children should not be constrained to the characters, stories, and worlds of what is on TV or found in video games. A common and accessible mythos is invaluable, no doubt. And franchise toys do a lot of good for kids and offer them a lot. But children need access to toys with a blank slate, toys that they can project onto so as to cultivate their own imaginations and to broaden their creative vocabulary.