Tuesday, December 9, 2008

On boys, their toys, and Illinois

When I was a kid, my favourite toy by far was Lego. My younger brother and I would pour buckets and buckets of the stuff out on the carpet, spreading it out to cover the breadth of the room. There we'd sit, surrounded in a sea of blocks, and we'd set to work. But though we played together, often for hours, the way that we played differed greatly.

My brother found, very quickly, that he was the builder between us: He had a knack for construction, and would create elaborate cars, planes and buildings. Though he was years younger than me, he produced work of a complexity that I couldn't rival, even in imitation. When I tried to create the sort of objects he produced so effortlessly, I could only muster cheap knockoffs, mere shadows of The Real Deal, trapped in "No Name Brand" purgatory.

Ladies: Treat yourselves. I insist.

But while I was a real dead weight when it came to construction, I took a shine to the figures themselves. I busied myself building various Lego-mans, naming them, providing them roles, families, and eventually, dynasties and lineages. While my brother built the world they inhabited, I involved myself in story and role, eventually producing a generational drama of Dickensian dimensions.

In these cases, though we played together, we were involved in very different games. The very different ways we played spoke to our natures: My brother's building spoke to a natural inclination to the mechanisms of things that would lead him to become an Engineer. And my bouts of play-pretend were evidence that, years later, I'd still be
playing with dolls.

This is the simplest difference between toys and games. A toy operates either through intrinsic properties (say, a bouncy ball, a frisbee, a Lego brick) or through direct representation (A toy 'sword', an army figure). Occasionally you'll encounter toys like a Nerf Gun, that combine both. But in every case, a toy 'contains' itself - that is, the means of play relates directly to the toy's properties.

Compare to a game, which relies upon a series of established rules, and moves towards a goal or a desired outcome. It's here that performance and competition come into play. In this sense, a game can be as complex or as simple as its rules - but in every case, the dimensions of a game are applied externally, and require knowledge and consensus in order to operate.

So in the case of video games, where rules-consensus is largely automated, the 'toy' becomes inextricable from the process of play. In a classic "Madden-type" game, there is no ball, in largely the same way that there is no spoon.

Ceci n'est pas une cuillère.

This isn't to say that the operation of the game circumvents the role of these toys in play, but that the intrinsic pleasures (say, hitting or throwing a ball) innate to their respective toys are traded in for the social pleasures of sport. (Performance in a game-environment, victory over opponents).

It is only when games pull away from the well-established symbolic role of these sports that we can see the trees for the forest, so to speak: Consider recent batches of kinetic games on the Wii, which require nothing so complicated as the knowledge of how to swing your arms. If only in their simplicity and tangibility, a sense of 'toy' returns.

In other cases, the nature of toys remain virtually unchanged despite a chance of venue. A gun in a shooter, for example, can still be understood as a 'toy gun', despite it having its role enhanced within a game-environment: The enjoyment of this type of hardware comes in part from the performative pleasure of simply possessing them (A sniper rifle! I'm a sniper!) and in part due to their intrinsic operation in a game-environment. In my case, regardless of the shooter, I will always incline towards a shotgun. Part of this is functional: I'm a lousy shot. But there's something immensely satisfying in blasting someone with a gutful of shot.

So despite a move away from our tactile and immediate understanding of what it is a toy is and does, what we're encountering is nothing so much as new configurations of play: new 'games' that speak of our appetites and our collective character. It's interesting to consider the role that we approach our new toys, both in what they are, in how they are applied.

It may well be that as our appetites for play increase, that virtual settings allow us a convergence of the many conventions of gaming - a "Singularity of Sports", if you will. What would this horrible Ur-Sport, one that combines and mutates our every moment of play, look like? Do we even dare try to fathom its wretched depths?


- Rook


  1. And now for an episode of "Tell me more"

    Rowan Witt, "Spoon Boy" of 'The Matrix' fame.

    When guest starring on "Home and Away" (1988), Rowan played a girl pretending to be a boy.

    Plays the piano accordion

    Rowan made it to the final round of Harry Potter auditions, but was beaten by Daniel Radcliffe. He got to fly to London during the audition process.

    Keep up the good work Rowan, you superstar!


  2. Now, I was under the mistaken impression that he just bent spoons.. but his appearance on "Home and Away" proves that he can bend gender as well.

    Mark my words.. he's just getting warmed up. Someday he'll be able to bend anything.

    No jail will hold him... he can just bend the bars and escape. He will grow in prominence, bending the ears of important political figures around the world. In time, entire nations will bend to his will.

    And in his dying years, he'll bend TIME ITSELF to go back and do it all again, forever.

    The thought of being crushed under the heel of Rowan Witt, Emperor-for-Infinity is pretty darn depressing, actually.

    Its enough to make one go on a bender.

  3. I dunno what's better; the articles or the comments from you two.