Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cyberkids at the Toy Fair

The American International Toy Fair starts next week (Feb. 11-14) and this year everyone is all "a buzz" about " high tech"...again! Part of this is a result of the ongoing celebratory discourse around tech-savvy "cyberkids" (which promotes the idea that if kids are encouraged to develop their innate technological skills they will be better prepared for a future as IT workers), but mostly the industry seems to be responding to consumer trends. The US toy industry grew for the first time in ages last year (to $22.3 billion), primarily due to a 22% increase in the "youth electronics" category--which grew from $871.5 million (2005) to $1.1 billion (2006). (Note: That's not including video games, which have their own category and represented an additional $12.5 billion last year in the US alone). The Toy Fair (as it's called) is a big deal for toy manufacturers and retailers, who are now dealing with a $60 billion global industry which remains dominated by US toy companies (Mattel and Hasbro are the biggest in the world, with Japanese companies Bandai and Sanrio, and Denmark's Lego rounding out the top five), and by US retailers (Wal-Mart and Toys'R'US are the top two toy sellers in the world (in that order)).

As toy trend specialist Reyne Rice describes, "About four to five years ago we saw that kids were starting to leave the toy industry for four main areas: music, fashion, electronics and entertainment. So by bringing those play patterns into products that are suitable and accessible for kids -- and priced for families' wallets -- the youth electronics aisle has exploded with those types of products."

While tech toys are seemingly nothing new, it appears that their dominance over this year's Toy Fair is worthy of note. I also noticed two key themes in the press and corporate discourse around the event so far that I think are worth exploring:

1. Toying with Technology
The first key theme is a sort of dumbing down or "toy-ification" of existing technologies that are believed to be popular among kids. This is immediately apparent in Gelfand's Wired coverage, wherein he states: "[T]oy manufacturers will be introducing a host of adult technologies aimed at small children -- including kid-friendly laptops, graphics tablets, digital cameras and a host of other high-tech items." A good example is the ClickStart laptop for kids, which consists of a toy computer that plugs into the TV instead of into real computer applications or the internet. According to Chris Byrne (the "Toy Guy"), "Kids insist on being on the computer, and giving them one that satisfies that desire to be like mom and dad, and have a computer, but one that connects to the TV, is really good" (cited in MarketWatch).

I see here a fascinating contradiction - on the one hand, there's this urge to have the child play with technology, but on the other hand the implication is that real technologies are for adults. Instead of really engaging with the technologies themselves, these toys encourage kids to "play" at or role-play using the computer. A sort of Easy-Bake Oven for the digital age. Of course, the idea to have kids "play" at computers is an attempt to safely replicate the widespread reality of kids playing on computers. By transforming a new and perhaps threatening relationship, that of children-and-technology, into the more traditionally understood relationship of "children and toy", the notion of the cyberchild is reconstituted in familiar terms--where the parent retains authority over technology, and the child's activities are redirected towards the contained space of the playroom.

2. Enclosure
The second trend involves toys and software aimed at constraining existing technologies to give parents a sense of control over their children’s technologically-mediated activities. Three new toys in particular stand out in this regard, Mattel/Fisher-Price’s Easy-Link Internet Launchpad (which plugs into your PC’s USB, and acts as a portal and internet filter to ensure kids can only access certain age-appropriate websites…perhaps primarily those created by Mattel???), Vtech’s V.Space online (an educational desktop application), and Hasbro/Tiger Games’ Net Jet (an online gaming system for pre-teens). Again, the emphasis is on control, though in this case the toy/software integrates existing technologies (such as the internet) but in a highly limited way. Thus, kids can go on the internet, but can only visit certain websites and engage in certain types of activities. As with the previous batch, however, I fear that the social construction of these new technological artefacts positions children in a very specific and highly ideological way. While the celebratory discourse around kids and technology remains an underlying factor here (it is, after all, the aura), the relationship is perceived as something that must be contained, enclosed, stopped and modified. The creative aspects seem to be left out almost completely (although there are some art/graphics games that encourage creativity with digital art), as are the social and cultural aspects of going online to play with other kids or to participate in a new form of cultural production. Instead, kids’ digital play is re-interpreted as a highly purposeful and primarily commercialized form of play. The emphasis on education is no coincidence—the desire to transform children’s online play, as Ellen Seiter describes, into a productive pursuit is obvious within these toys which seek to appropriate the relationship by selling parents the magic beans of the digital age: safety and education.

Here are the full articles for the Wired, and MarketWatch coverage.

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