Monday, February 12, 2007

Lucas, from Star Wars to Lego

(Image reproduced from Gizmondo)

In recognition of his massive contributions to media-driven toy mechandising and the invention of the contemporary action figure, George Lucas was inducted into the toy industry Hall of Fame this weekend. The event both launched the American International Toy Fair and set the tone for the fair's (and the industry's) ongoing emphasis on movie-toy crossovers. Lucas has played a key role in the evolution of children's play culture, primarily by way of his numerous and highly innovative forays into the licensing and merchandising of the Star Wars franchise. The films have supplied a seemingly endless array of characters, creatures, vehicles and starships upon which toys, action figures, LEGO building sets and now video games continue to be based. More importantly, Star Wars was the basis for a new level of cross-media, cross-product, transnational synergy that soon re-set the bar for what a successful kids' media brand could hope to achieve. As Dan Fleming (1996: 96), author of Powerplay: Toys as Popular Culture (one of my comp readings) writes, "[I]nternational merchandising of this kind is a ten-times more lucrative business now than it was before Star Wars...[The release of the first Star Wars film] marks an unmistakable watershed in terms of a much more densely interconnected and interdependent global popular culture of imagery and artifacts."

The bust that LEGO has created in honour of Lucas' induction (seen above) is a particularly apt symbol of Lucas' on-going role in shaping children's play, through both the spread of media-branding into an ever expanding diversity of children's playthings, as well as the close relationship this shares with digitization. LEGO and Star Wars currently enjoy an immensely lucrative partnership, that extends both brands from the physical (LEGO playsets and related merchandise) to the virtual realm (through the LEGO Star Wars video games and highly popular online community). Both incarnations promote a form of narrativised or branded play that in fact encourages kids to appropriate, subvert, and manipulate, but ultimately submit to the thematic motifs and narrative structures provided by the films and related media. Looking again to Fleming's (1996: 104) analysis, we can see how his description of Star Wars brand action figures and toys can easily apply to the LEGO sets and video games as well:
"The narrative elements, or derived 'play scenarios' as Kenner's Star Wars toy designers thought of them, marked a substantially new development in the way children were being encouraged to interact with toys."

While previous TV-based toys encouraged kids to play out scenes or scenarios from the texts themselves,
"these new narrative contexts had multiple narrative possibilities deliberately built into them from the beginning. With clearly established teams of characters and basic story structures..." kids were given the basic tools for the creation of endless plot derivatives, and encouraged to do so.

I'm not sure what exactly to make of all this, but I do like "narrativised play" as a concept. I find it much more suitable to the malleable, semi-empowering forms of branded play that are currently so popular among the children's industries--play that integrates real opportunities for agency and creativity (and user-generated content) within the overarching, oppressive authority of a well-defined media (or consumer) brand.

You can read the Lucas Film press release from back in May (when the announcement was first made) here.

Or click here for a fascinating story about LEGO Education Centers via KidScreen.

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