It’s the time of year to give kids toys, and if you’re one of the shoppers trying to please them, you deserve even more sympathy and pity than your parents did. Kids today are different. They don’t want dolls or construction sets. They want the things we want—like smartphones and apps—and at surprisingly early ages. In 2003, the NPD Group found that boys between 6 and 12 were already spending more time playing with video games than with traditional toys; more than half had started gaming by 5. Girls, too. This year, a British survey reports that girls prefer video games to dolls. In 2011, spending on video games eclipsed spending on traditional toys, $24.75 billion to $19.4 billion.
Whatever happened to electric trains, Erector sets, Lincoln Logs (or even action figures), and dolls? Well, you can still find them at most toy stores and big box stores, technically. But many of the “classic” toys beloved by grandparents (building blocks, construction sets, dollhouses) are now found at high-end specialty shops, as if they’re hallowed antiques from another era. It’s never a good sign when construction toy sets are on display at the National Building Museum in Washington.
But before anyone starts feeling sad about the changing tastes of kids, maybe we should take a look at the changing tastes of adults. Here’s a fact most people don’t know: the average age of gamers these days is 30. Yes, we have come a long way since 1989, when 8-year olds first punched the buttons on their Nintendo Game Boys when they weren’t playing with their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Those 8-year-olds never put down the console. Today, TV ads pitch bigger and better data plans to preserve family harmony, since kids and parents are jostling for the same hardware and bandwidth.
All this may indicate no more than the triumph of the sensual byte over the tactile block. But I think there’s more going on here. Simply put, childhood and adulthood just aren’t what they used to be. When I researched the history of the 20th-century American toy, I was struck by the reasons parents (especially middle class) had until recently for giving playthings to kids. Usually it was a desire to send the children messages about aspirations for the future or a longing to relive joys from the past. Toy farm machinery or Erector construction sets were supposed to give boys an advantage in technology and business; companion and baby dolls were intended to let girls rehearse their presumed futures as homemakers. At the same time, toys like Noah’s Ark play sets (or the Daisy air rifle) hearkened back to an idealized childhood.
Already by 1900, though, there was a shift. Movies, newspaper comic strips, and illustrated storybooks (and, a generation later, radio) brought new fantasy figures from these media to the toy boxes of many American kids: think of teddy bears (named for Theodore Roosevelt) and Shirley Temple dolls as well as Buck Rogers sparkler guns and Popeye windups. And, after World War II, an endless array of cowboy guns and holsters arrived on the scene, followed by sci-fi action figures and Barbie. Amid this ever-expanding and endlessly changing rush of playthings something was lost: those parental messages of hope and nostalgia, the connection between the parent and the child in the gift of the toy. The dolls, toy soldiers, and novelties desired by kids in the second half of the 20th century reminded few parents of their own childhoods and had little to do with their aspirations for their children.
Curiously enough, the video game, which arrived late in the last century, has in many ways been a break from the 20th-century trend of toys separating adults from children. With roots in the 1970s (Atari) and the 1980s (Nintendo), digital play is something to which most young parents today can easily relate: they, too, grew up with it. And, while video games certainly are not “messages” from adults offering kids a way of playacting their futures (much less parental nostalgia), they are still an activity enjoyed by all in the family. Far from being seen as childish playthings to be tossed aside in adulthood, video games have become more “sophisticated,” so that even grown-ups can hold onto their controllers and claim that gaming has “grown up” with them. (And, of course, game makers since the early 1990s have recognized this, shifting games from “G” to “M” ratings—with the predictable effect of causing youngsters to lust after the “M” games as markers of maturity.)
So should we simply celebrate the reunited nuclear video-game family? That depends on how you feel about the broader cultural shift, especially among males, to lessen the play of their youth and adulthood. Even as boys rush to give up their childish playthings for the “manliness” of video, men refuse to give up the play of their youth. What we’ve seen is a cultural compression toward the “cool” of youth and away from the “cute” of the small child or the “maturity” of adulthood, and this phenomenon goes well beyond video games. Consider many PG-13 movies and the cartoon channels to appreciate how much entertainment targets neither boys nor men exclusively, but the overlap between the two. All around us is the man-boy.
For my part, I confess, I’m partial to the more old-fashioned separation between adult and child—not to mention a less video-centric world. I’m very happy to see that the NFL is promoting the habit of 60 minutes of physical play per day for kids in hopes of prying them from video games. But, then again, why just for kids? Wouldn’t Mom and Dad also benefit from some time outside and away from the screen? Perhaps it’s the future that adults will play like kids and kids will play like adults. But perhaps not. Maybe we need to think a little more of what grown-up leisure ought to look like—and consider giving the toy back to our youngsters.