Big Sarge in Charge has a square jaw that rivals a Ken doll, but Sarge is real "man"--much taller and bulkier than your typical G.I. Joe, and with a booming voice perfect for the barracks or the battlefield. According to his publicity sheet, he's "the first action figure system with expandable intelligence and interactive adventures."
As a booth worker at the 98th American International Toy Fair demonstrated Big Sarge's technological wizardry, Joe, our audio guy, turned to me and whispered, "When we were kids, we played kick the can and were happy."
Kids today apparently don't kick cans unless there's some sort of chip in them. There seem to be few toys, these days, that don't have some technological component to them.
At lunch during Toy Fair, a public relations woman told me about an "interactive candy" manufacturer. "Interactive candy?" I asked, bewildered. The PR lady scurried away and returned proudly with a Power Puff girls spin pop, a battery controlled lollipop.
Right below the fashion and flower districts and just above the photo district turned Silicon Alley, there's a nondescript street in New York City on which toy legends are launched. Besides being home to T. H. Bagels, Louis and Sons Office Furniture, Castro Convertibles and a karate dojo, this block of West 23rd Street houses--once each year--the heart of the toy industry in America. This week, tens of thousands of the great powerhouses in the $30 billion dollar business, most who looked as doughy and joyless as attendees of most any other convention, descended on showrooms that dot the street, as well as at the nearby Javits Center, for a look at the shape of play to come.
What we saw on display is testament to the invasion of technology and computers into our collective psyche:
* Animatronic snakes, dinosaurs, hippos; Bio-bugs--unwieldy plastic guys that boast "central nervous systems" that make them as unpredictable as the real creatures;
* Tucker the Talking Truckbot, a dump truck that can utter 25 phrases and has three interactive touchpoints;
* Ozlo the Interplanetary Intellibot, who, like Sarge, has the capacity to learn;
* A new fifth anniversary edition of Tickle Me Elmo, which, thanks to the magic of cheaper chips, now has five tickle spots instead of one, and will even be cheaper than the original;
* Baby Smartronics, which speaks foreign languages to your kids.
And forget piggy banks--there's the shiny pink Barbie ATM Bank With Me, which automatically tallies up the tooth fairy and allowance money girls deposit into it--and take out.
'When I was your age...'
"When I was a kid, I was poor," said Wing, our videographer, (who grew up in Borneo, Malaysia) as we waltzed through endless displays of gadgets masquerading as playthings. "We made our toys by hand, and appreciated everything we had."
It was hard not to have a wistful feeling about the good old days of austerity and rag dolls as we walked through the halls of the Toy Fair. Even as people who have a keen appreciation and interest in the beneficial effects of technology, it's hard not to wonder whether all these whiz-bang toys are a substitute for that most wonderful of toys, the imagination.
I posed that question to Christopher Byrne, a sort of Wonka of toys who runs Toyguide.com and who thinks about these things for a living.
"I think it's a big issue whether technology is hurting creativity," he admitted. "We see no evidence of that because good play and good toys don't change from year to year. Their gears and their technology might change, but kids are still curious about exploring their world. They want to rule the world, be God, if you will, and they want to be totally in control of their play, and also engaged in the stories they're making up."
It doesn't matter, Byrne continued, if you have a rock or a high-tech object, if you've got that element of story and child control. Of course, he made that comment about 10 feet away from a new toy called Rock On, an animated stone with eyes that move to the beat of your voice or of music.
A scooter with juice
The irony of Toy Fair is that, adults are trying to divine what will trip the triggers, so to speak, of kids. Most good toymakers, Byrne said, use kids to test out the goods before they bring them to market. But since no children are allowed at this event, it's hard to get real user feedback on the potential popularity of what's on display. An incongruous parade of guys in suits curiously study colorful toys at a seemingly endless array of booths.
The proof will be in the "Mommy, I want one" factor once they do hit the stores, and, to be fair, one of the hottest selling toys of last year was the decidedly un-technological Razor Scooter.
Even that toy is one the industry is trying to soup up, with an electronic version that goes 6.5 MPH on display in one showroom. But technology couldn't help my pathetic attempts at using the thing. I fared best on the Razor-looking scooter that has low-tech training wheels.
Of course, the real goal of the toy industry isn't to worry about what's good for kids creativity or not. Its job is to sell.
Wing told me an insightful story about one Hanukkah a decade ago when his kids were 4- and 5-years-old. "On the first day I gave them an easel," he recalled. "On the second, paints. On the third night, they said, 'Dad, stop. We want guns and knives.' "
No matter how much you deny kids something or try to divert them, they're going to ask for it. But that makes it even more imperative that there's more to play than an on-off switch--the best switch of all is the mind.