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I went birthday shopping for some four-year-old friends the other day and rediscovered the romance of the Playmobil playset. Or the action figure playset in general.

I trust you know what I mean by a playset. It’s a toy building or vehicle, often opening up to a cutaway view, a proscenium stage on which our little plastic heroes perform their scaled-down dramas. The Ewok Ghetto from Star Wars. Barbie’s Malibu Dream Bordello. G.I. Joe’s Jungle Bunker with Spiderhole. (“Action figure,” by the way, was a term cooked up in the 1960s to sell G.I. Joes to boys without having to utter the dreaded word “doll.”)

The playset, for me at least, occupies a sweet spot on the spectrum from ludus to paidia, and also on the spectrum from abstraction to specific representation. A playset is not a game. It doesn’t come with rules or an objective. But its combination of character and setting, or action figure and ground, is pregnant with a million possible stories and adventures. At our house, it’s the playsets that are in constant use. Not the structured board games, not the electronic toys that play for you, and not the austere modular blocks.

Your household may differ. There was a revealing little moment at Pastplay when I was singing the praises of Playmobil to my friend and colleague Bill Turkel. But if you know anything about Bill’s work, you can probably guess that he was, like so many makers and hackers, a Lego and Meccano kid. For Bill, to play is to build. Those little plastic bricks are like computer code made physical. They combine and recombine according to dead simple rules of assembly to create infinite, unpredictable forms. Michael Chabon has a lovely essay on Lego in his recent Manhood for Amateurs, where he calls “the old familiar crunching” of Lego bricks and blocks “the sound of creativity itself.”

I get that. But what I always did with Legos was to build something approximating a playset and a couple of action figures. Then it was on with the show. I guess what I most like to snap together, take apart, and recombine are not objects but stories. My preferred bricks and blocks are characters and eras, bits and pieces of history, fiction, movies, and myths. This is me hacking, or this, or this, or this (god help me). With apologies to the extremely swell Stephen Ramsay, that’s myscrewmeneutical imperative” (link is to a PDF of Stephen’s paper on “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around”). I trust there is room in The Amazing New Digital Humanities™ for both kinds of play.

At one point in Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost compares the specificity of Playmobil figures to the modular abstraction of Lego:

When I began buying Playmobil for my kids, I originally thought there was no way they could offer the same kind of creative play as Lego, since the latter can be recombined in many more ways. But on further reflection, the high specificity of Playmobil pieces offers procedural learning on a much more deeply culturally embedded level … We don’t see just knights in Playmobil, we see Crusaders. We don’t see just fighters, we see Mongol Warriors. By providing a specific point of reference bound to human culture, the toys come equipped with specific cultural meaning as well as abstract processes for substitution. The components of each collection provide adequate context to allow kids to recombine their toys in a way that preserves, interrogates, or disrupts the cultural context of each piece.

Michael Chabon’s Lego essay ends on a similar note. After noting, and at first lamenting, the shift from the chunky, lo-res Lego bricks of old to the Technicolor precision of today’s “trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined” kits (Jo VanEvery notes the same shift in comments here), Chabon pulls a switch:

I should have had more faith in my children, and in the saving power of the lawless imagination. … Kids write their own manuals in a new language made up of the things we give them and the things that derive from the peculiar wiring of their heads. …When he was still a toddler, Abraham liked to put a glow-in-the-dark bedsheet-style Lego ghost costume over a Green Goblin minifig and seat him on a Sioux horse, armed with a light saber, then make the Goblin do battle with Darth Vader, mounted on a black horse, armed with a bow and arrow. That is the aesthetic at work in the Legosphere now–not the modernist purity of the early years or the totalizing vision behind the dark empire of modern corporate marketing but the aesthetic of the Lego drawer, of the mash-up, the pastiche that destroys its sources at the same time that it makes use of and reinvents them.

This kind of bricolage (get it? Lego? bricolage?) is just what I imagine when I talk about playful historical thinking. You root around in the drawers of the past. You pull out whatever seems useful, or interesting, or beautiful and pointless. You reenact the narratives of your culture and you tell new stories with the resources at hand. You mix and match, snapping Skeletor’s head on Barbie’s body, or imagining George Washington’s advice for 21st century ills.

If it sounds like I’m endorsing some kind of “nothing is true” postmodernism, I don’t mean to be. I’m just talking about good old-fashioned play. Postmodernism copies some aspects of play, but play was around a long time before postmodernism, and is likely to stick around longer too.

[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]

engineering vs. humanities

Date: 2010-05-26 09:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mgrasso.livejournal.com
I never had more than a polite pittance of Legos. With me it was always about the cartoon tie-in toys, whether the Smurfs at age 6-7, or the Hasbro dyad of Transformers/G.I. Joe from ages 8 to 12 (yes, embarrassingly late... and by the time I was done playing with toys it was pretty much right into RPGs: Marvel/DC/eventually D&D).

I doubt it will surprise anyone to know that when it came to Transformers/G.I. Joe I had created an incredibly complicated expanded universe that intertwined tightly with the cartoon continuity (never the comics, although I later realized that the Joe comics had all the messy real-world details insofar as the Joes' various Southeast Asian escapades and origin stories). I deferred on the toys whose cartoons I found wanting on the storytelling front: He-Man, Thundercats and Gobots were poor poor substitutes for the writing of Flint Dille (check out his most famous collaborator!) and company. I even had a "series finale" when I finally decided it was time to put away the toys for good.

What I'm trying to say here is that the Lincoln Logs, Legos, and Construx never lasted more than a week or so in my house in heavy rotation and when I did use them they'd end up being support items for my story-telling. How boring it was to build something for the sake of building it! I wanted to do something with the result, and if I had a blueprint, so much the better! This is undoubtedly why I'm not a coder; both Messrs. MacDougall and Coupland have this one right: Legos made engineers and cartoon tie-in toys made... well, in a way I'm still writing fanfic expanded universes in other people's intellectual properties, he said from behind the Storyteller's Screen. :)
From: [identity profile] robotnik.livejournal.com
Amen brother. O, Reagan-era deregulation of kids' TV, where would we be without you?

My next post in this onslaught will link to MIT media guru Henry Jenkins on He-Man:

When I speak to the 20 and 30 somethings who are leading the charge for transmedia storytelling, many of them have stories of childhood spent immersed in Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, playing with action figures or other franchise related toys, and my own suspicion has always been that such experiences shaped how they thought about stories.

From the beginning, they understood stories less in terms of plots than in terms of clusters of characters and in terms of world building. From the beginning they thought of stories as extending from the screen across platforms and into the physical realm. From the beginning they thought of stories as resources out of which they could create their own fantasies, as something which shifted into the hands of the audience once they had been produced and in turn as something which was expanded and remixed on the grassroots level.

In that sense, the action figure is very much the harbinger of the transmedia movement.
From: [identity profile] mgrasso.livejournal.com
So we have 80s cartoons to blame for fanfic, huh? I'd buy that.
From: [identity profile] sben.livejournal.com
Not to ruin the party, but this quote reminds me of a screed from Ron Edwards. The contrast between the quote and the screed is quite interesting.

Date: 2010-05-26 09:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sben.livejournal.com
Oh, wow, this is a timely post for me.

My son (4½) loves Playmobil (though he likes his Legos, too). I grew up a die-hard Lego partisan, while my brother was more into his Playmobil, one of many excuses for me to scorn him. But I’ve started to think incoherently about what you wrote up so clearly here: It’s not a bad thing at all for Playmobil to provide a bit of structure to play with (and against). Not everybody needs a blank slate to have good, engaging, creative play.

And it’s much easier to have Roman legions fighting a T. rex using Playmobil than using Legos.

(Aside: You were so close to monkey, ninja, pirate, Roman in that last picture.)

Date: 2010-05-26 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sben.livejournal.com
(I should note that I am, in fact, a coder.)

Date: 2010-05-27 02:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robotnik.livejournal.com
Q.E.D.!

I always quite liked Legos too.

Date: 2010-05-26 10:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] peaseblossom.livejournal.com
Despite a ridiculous number of both sorts of toys -- Lego and Playmobile; also Zoob, K'nex, and those Papo and Schleich figures. I mean, really, is anything cooler than an emo fairy princess? Howabout one that rides a horse?



-- today the kids were playing the Puffball family meets Mr. Sticks with six of those craft pompoms and a popsicle stick. So, I don't have a point, except maybe that I'm a colossal sucker.

Date: 2010-05-27 02:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robotnik.livejournal.com
Ha! I should have added that the "toy" at our house that gets absolutely more use than any other is an inch-wide, five foot long green velvet ribbon. It's a cape, a leash, a snake, a feather boa, a magic wand, and a strangulation hazard all in one!

I had no idea the popularity of those Schleich figures until this most recent toy shopping trip. They are way cool, and there are hundreds of them! There's like a whole line of emo fairy princesses* alone!

*I wonder if [livejournal.com profile] mgrasso is aware of this?

Date: 2010-05-27 05:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mgrasso.livejournal.com
I am now! :)

The arm-length hair of the ice-cold beauty Ophira is just as pitch-black as her unsearchable soul. Ophira's black wings are trimmed with bronze just like her long deep green gown. A precious stone, black as night, adorns her white skin. She is also the most mysterious and enigmatic of all the shadow elves.

*laugh* No comment.

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