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Deep Thoughts at the Toy Fair

I went to the American International Toy Fair last week, which is, according to its organizers, the largest toy trade show in the Western Hemisphere. Some 1500 exhibitors were at the Javits Center, and I was excited about it for months, because toys strike me as little political and social artifacts that reveal all sorts of interesting things about our culture. (See earlier posts on dolls and politics.)

So I was sort of depressed after I finished my first run through of the show, because my first impression was: not much has really changed in the world of toys. Actually, I was almost ready to leave Javits in despair, because I’d been expecting to be blown away –okay, I was expecting something like a Willy Wonka-led experience, minus turning purple and all that — but instead, I found myself looking at toys that I might have had in my own collection when I was a kid, ‘lo those many decades ago. The world of childhood, it seemed, was still a pink tulle frothy place, where kids apparently still want to pull red wagons, blow bubbles and camp out in the backyard in a tent shaped like a fire house. I started to wonder whether most children live the sort of idyllic lives where this sort of thing would seem relevant. I started to think about writing a story about wishful thinking.

Luckily, it turns out that I’d missed at least half the exhibitors on my first pass through, on my second time around, I found a bunch of interesting things that caught my attention.

The first thing that motivated me to put pen to notebook is a new board game called "Your Best Life Now". This is a game based on the bestselling book written by Joel Osteen, who is a pastor at the Lakewood Church, a megachurch in Houston, Texas that is the fastest-growing in America. Play this game, save your soul."The game will make a difference in the lives of people that play it," says Kevin McNulty, VP of Sales at Endless Games, the manufacturer, in a press release. (They also manufacture a kid’s dice game called Bull Craps.) "Its play has a unique twist that integrates the game’s results into the lives of the players after they finish playing." A nice bit of social engineering, that, and it’s hard to believe that the religious right has missed this trick before. Imagine the possibilities if they can come up with a casino-style game to spread their gospel! Vegas may never be the same.

That got me thinking about board games as a cultural indicator. I mean, they really tell us a lot about what skills we value, and, since so many board games are based on memory, what information we find most important. Chess is all about strategy, whereas older board games, like Monopoly, and the hot game when I was a kid, Life, teach you about capitalism, whereas games like Sorry! teach you how to be cutthroat and undercut your nearest and nearest. Games like Trivial Pursuit teach us that it’s important to pay attention to the infostream we’re surrounded by, whereas games like Pictionary teach us about non-verbal communication. Taking it down to its most basic level, of course, board games tell us that winning is important.

Sidenote: This is so ingrained in American culture that it’s hard to believe that the lust for victory is not a universal, but like anything else, it’s culturally defined, as a recent article in the journal Psychological Science revealed. The article compared media coverage of past Olympics in Japan and America, among other things, and found:

When American athletes and commentators explain exceptional performance, they emphasize the individual’s athletic strength and skill (i.e. powerful feet, robotic stride, and mental toughness). The Japanese lean toward another formula where the athletes’ training and preparation, like studying Judo since elementary school or overcoming previous athletic failures, are just as important. Japanese athletes and media are also more likely than Americans to think that the contribution of coaches and the athlete’s emotional state are important factors in winning.

This makes me wonder whether board games that are typically played in Japan, say, or other countries, are different from those that are played here…something I will have to look into.

In any event, with the goal of divining the broader meaning of board games in mind, I set off around the Toy Fair again to look with fresh eyes at the exhibitors. I’ve come away with this one observation: it seems that a pre-cooked fantasy life is much more important than the actual life at the moment. For, where there were once games that quizzed us on, say, political milestones, or on spelling and vocabulary (a la Scrabble), the dominant trend in board games seems to be paying obsessive attention to the fictional lives of our favorite television characters. I saw trivia games based on The Apprentice, for example, on CSI, and on CSI Miami. Desperate Housewives, Law and Order, Sex and The City, Sopranos, Survivor, and so on.

Now, I love my TiVo as much as the next gal, but I find it somewhat disturbing that these games give the distinct impression that watching TV and accumulating lots of information about people who are total fabrications is is a skill-building activity, instead of a mindless zone-out.

I can’t say this is a trend, since I didn’t see anything else like it, but I did find this new game quite amusing, and will note it without further comment: Size Matters, which promises "hilarious fun as players compete to determine the longest, fattest, thickest and generally the biggest things in life."

Next up: More from the Toy Fair… in which I ponder Spa Science.

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