It’s a small tragedy that our kids will be all thumbs.
My sister just (and by just, I mean in April) had a baby: a son. My first nephew. I have yet to meet the little bugger, but recently I was in the Museum of Natural History, and as I passed the gift shop I caught a glimpse of a stuffed brontosaurus and immediately decided it would make a lovely gift, even if the kid has yet to develop the dexterity necessary to hold it. Buying that plushy dino was a significant moment for me, not just because I was buying the first gift I’ll give my first nephew, but because it was a stuffed animal. When I was a kid, I had a few stuffed animals, a fistful of finger puppets, and action figures galore. I played with these probably well past the age when a boy is meant to be acting out his own Batman meets the Power Rangers stories, and held onto pretty much everything until just last year, when my parents redid their garage and my toybox got shunted off to Goodwill. So long, Ninja Turtles. Farewell, Captain Planet. Good luck, stuffed Raptors mascot. Bye bye, bucket of Megablocks.
What’s interesting in reminiscing about my childhood toys is the fact that almost every game I played with them was one of those aforementioned Batman meets the Power Rangers type scenarios. My stuffed animals and action figures and little Lego dudes all interacted together, all had individual names, all lived in the same neighbourhood cobbled together from a Ghostbusters firehouse, a handful of makeshift Megablock huts, and my quilt (piled up so that little caves formed all over it). On this glorious field of battle and friendship, grand, even operatic, dramas unfolded every day. It saddens me all to hell that my nephew will probably never do this on nearly the same scale.
The kids of next year, our kids, are going to form a generation that learns to play only with its thumbs, and only by certain rules. It’s not like the toy companies no longer exist, but video games will take up more of a kid’s time than ever. Who needs to buy a Batman figure when you can get the game where he runs around, moving, talking, and kicking criminal ass in a grittily rendered 3D Gotham? Why bother choosing a molded toy to bring with you to school when you have 50 different games on your iPod (or, god help us, iPhone that you have almost no reason to own at age eight, aside from a hyper-protective mother)? Why break out the old Scrabble board with the three missing E pieces when you and your buddy can play Words with Friends without either of you actually having to go over to the other’s place?
More than this, why bother constructing your own elaborate stories with all your toys when there’s a challenging video game to play with its own super intricate storyline played out in a lush world far larger than the confines of your bedroom? The problem with this is that any interactivity between worlds gets cut way back. There’s no way to get the character from one video game to hang out with the character from another video game – at least, not unless the people who own the rights decide to make such a game. Such games have been made, to be sure, but the prescriptive nature of these crossovers take away almost all of the authorial power the child playing the game may have ever had a claim to.
Maybe this is why I liked Toy Story so much as a kid, and why I equally love Toy Story 3 as an adult. This movie franchise is probably the reason I treat my girlfriend’s teddy bear with respect and make sure I never leave it face down after I make the bed. It’s not just that there’s something magical about toys coming to life when we’re not around, it’s the idea of all the toys in play with one another. The fine people at Pixar weren’t the first to come up with such an idea; surely, they owe a lot to Hans Christian Andersen’s Brave Tin Soldier or Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit. But John Lasseter came along and did it at the right time for me. I was ten years old when the first Toy Story was released, and I wept like I was still ten years old straight through the last ten minutes of the trilogy’s conclusion. Watching grown-up Andy play with his toys one last time before saying goodbye to them forever broke my heart, and I swelled with remorse that I had neglected to do the same with my own toys, blithely bundling up my childhood and dropping it off at the Sally Ann.
I suppose the changing material culture will cut down on these types of nostalgic attachments for our children. And maybe that’s a good thing: fewer regrets for them, right? At the same time, I hate the idea that a child of mine could be so detached from using his or her hands. Sure, with the Wii, Move, and Kinect, we have all sorts of options for free flowing movement, but we’re not really touching anything, are we? Our eyes are on a screen. And come on: they actually make Lego video games. Lego video games! These things are literally building blocks. Why do we need to digitize that? I’m sickened by the thought that my nephew might play a Lego video game before he ever actually plays with Legos.
In the long run, there’s not much to do about it. I can’t make kids not want a Nintendo DS (hell, I want a DS; DSes are cool), I can’t make them want to play with toys of disparate sizes and functions all at the same time, and I can’t make them prefer a single He-Man figure over an iPod with three dozen games in it. My sister’s kid is definitely going to be really into Angry Birds at some point. But maybe I can get in there first with a big ol’ bucket of Megablocks. I just have to wait until he’s past that pesky “choking hazard” age.
Kalervo Sinervo has been pontificating on matters of no importance ever since he realized he liked the view from on top of a soapbox. He currently lives in Montreal, where he’s working on an MA in literature at Concordia University, a degree that affords him many opportunities to write about Facebook, Disney erotica, and other issues of magnitude.
Check out his comics-related Tumblr, Steamboat Wilderness, if you like to chuckle.