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Conference insights from Vancouver and Boston to Paris and Beijing.

Sandbox Summit: Day 1

Toy action figures, transmedia and the future of play.

Make no mistake: The Sandbox Summit at MIT this week is not just child’s play. An exploration for youngsters disguised as grown up product designers, creatives, and academics, the Summit is a collaborative event focused on how media and design influence children’s education and perspectives of  society.

The first day of the Summit kicked off with the father of Transmedia, Professor Henry Jenkins (we will post an extensive interview with him on our design mind On Air podcast in the coming weeks). Transmedia is storytelling across multiple forms of media with each element making distinctive contributions to a viewer’s understanding of the story world.  Jenkins explained that the work of early adopters of Transmedia emerging in Hollywood are rooted in much earlier iterations of the concept. They are the same grown fans who geeked out over Star Trek. They are the young kids who had every Masters of the Universe toy (and remember the distinct smell of the Stinkor action figure — I know I do.) As the key thought leaders in entertainment, gaming, and marketing, they are referring back to the lessons they learned as youngsters about participation, interaction, and world-building. Their exposure to toys and games rooted in expansive narratives told by George Lucas or  original pioneers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Baum, and Walt Disney are influencing their ability to adapt, transform, or remix stories across multiple media platforms in an integrated way.

Jenkins explains that this type of integrated storytelling has been used since the 19th century. This tradition has continued with children using action figures, not to re-enact the stories they have passively consumed but to actively borrow the characters as a means to project their own ideas in the form of physical avatars. Jenkins argues that the recasting of action figures in this type of play contributes to the creation of new mythologies. So the kids that projected their own imagined avatars on plastic figures are the inventive thinkers behind Transmedia campaigns for the movie “District 9,” a story about aliens vs. humans as an allegorical reference to apartheid in South Africa. The campaign worked to extend the story beyond what we saw on screen: branded park benches that segregate humans and non-humans, fictional activist sites for aliens, and so on. The components of the campaign created a unified experience for fans to participate in the physical play spaces.

Although Jenkins emphasized that action figures spawned the creative and multi-faceted Transmedia movement, some presenters on the panel “Real Toys for an Increasingly Virtual World” were skeptical of overly designed or specified toys in fostering a child’s creativity.  Marina Bers, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Child Development Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Sciences, Tufts University, asked conference attendees to consider how we define a toy in the first place. Barry Kudrowitz, who started MIT’s Toy Lab at MIT, jumped in to say that there is a distinction between toys and toy products (when someone puts affordances around play or assigns play to a particular product).  Bers said she preferred non-branded toys that were more of a blank canvas for children to create their own characters (a radical view, she says, which was adopted from her politicized up bringing in Argentina). Bers worked on physical building blocks, strung together,  that children can assign actions to. The string of blocks is then photographed by a computer camera and translated into computer code that follows the actions written on the blocks. This is a means of melding the physical and virtual world, completely designed by the children.

But the third panelist Stacey Matthias, Owner, Insight Research Group, had another point of view. Mattias defined toys as thinking tools that children use to express and to explore. Mattias used the example of her own daughter ripping apart a teddy bear with a tech enabled screen as a stomach designed to teach mathematics and using the stuffing as a craft project for her room. Mattias, and much of the audience seemed to agree, that children have an irrepressible spontaneity for play that even in a hyper cultivated culture or environment, cannot be smothered. Children will continue to manipulate the toy as they see fit and to fit those toys into their own mythologies, as Jenkins suggested.

How do you see the future of toy design? As children’s toys seem to be more pre-packaged, do you think this will hinder children’s imagination or challenge our children to hack and transform their toys to convey their concepts?