What is a "toy?" And what is the problem with thinking of games in this way?

Read Pink Zapper Helmet's post first. It's long but worth it.

Now I'm not trying to be obtuse when I ask "what is a toy?" Well, perhaps a bit. But still, I feel like we always benefit from breaking down these terms and trying to understand their subtleties.

In our (Western) culture "toys" are obviously for children, except for the sex kind (which, IMO, is still relevant, but I digress). Taken aside from their cultural role, "toys" are, at their most basic level, objects to facilitate "play," either by a set of rules (a "game") or by activating the player's imagination. A jumprope is a toy, because we understand it in terms of "play," whereas a piece of rope is a tool, unless you use it to tie up your friend while pretending to be cops and robbers. Then we're back to "toy." Or think about the phrase "that's not a toy!" which simply means you're playing with something you shouldn't be. This is what toys do, by definition: they encourage the act of play.


"Play" is a trickier concept, but it can still be understood rather concisely. While many people consider "play" to be an idle waste of time, it's long been understood in anthropology that playing is actually crucial for the mental development of children and adolescents. Games provide a variety of frameworks for "playing," all of which can teach you various things. Team sports are social microcosms. Independent play is highly creative and encourages innovative thinking. There's a reason why even the stodgiest and most-serious adults probably enjoyed "playing" when they were young: children have a lot of stuff to learn, and they are encouraged to do so.

The simple question is: what's wrong with an adult doing the same thing?


Games create mostly consequence-free space to explore ideas and concepts. In many ways, this is aligned with an oft-stated goal of ALL art: to stimulate thought and emotion. "Play" is simply a lens through which we can engage the world, and it happens to be one of the first ones we're ever introduced to ("peek-a-boo").

I think Western culture is far more arbitrary than Japan when it comes to the idea of "play." For example: chess can be a serious pursuit; ditto any professional sport. Regardless of the fact that these are "games" nobody thinks of them as childish or silly, because they are widely established as "adult" and "serious." Never mind when or why this was established; the simple fact is that it was, and now these activities enjoy a privileged position in our society.


Culturally, video games are in limbo, somewhere between "peek-a-boo" and chess. This is represented by what our culture considers a "typical" gamer: a teenager, or young, directionless adult. But the simple fact is that different games appeal to different people at different times. This is the way it should be. If TV can accommodate both Yo Gabba Gabba and Breaking Bad, gaming can accommodate a multitude of audiences too.

The problem isn't that games are "toys" and "toys" are for children: the problem is that we tend to think that toys are for children, and it affects the kinds of toys we make and consume.

I think PZH is absolutely spot on about Japanese game design owing a lot to arcades with Western game design being PC-based, but I think the article sells the arcade experience hugely short (the "Vine" versus "cinema" comparison was the moment I decided to write this). While PC gaming benefits from the laser-like focus of sitting in privacy directly in front of a computer screen, that doesn't necessarily make it any smarter; just different. Arcades have added social dimensions, interacting directly or indirectly with other patrons. They also have added competitive dimensions; indeed there would likely be no fighting games scene if it weren't for arcades and head-to-head competition in public spaces. Heck, there's even an economic dimension to playing at an arcade, simply trying to take your quarters as far as they will go.


The arcade is clearly a space for "play," and yet it's a kind of play that is considered childish in Western culture. Not so much the case in Japan, where it is perfectly normal for adults to enjoy arcade games. What this amounts to is a society where "play" and "toy" are only primarily the domain of children, not exclusively. And again, if the purpose of "play" is to learn and engage with the world, then what exactly is the problem with adults playing with toys?

The biggest one is that we don't make very many toys for adults, or if we do, we don't call them toys (again, except for the sex kind).


To take a step back (or actually, way off to the side...), this weekend I showed a friend of mine the first episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. He was saying how he'd never really liked any anime, and I was saying how it was one of my favorite TV shows ever made. With a little duct tape, a sturdy chair, and some patience, he eventually stopped resisting and I put it on.

The thing that threw him off more than anything else about the show was the way the character designs would modulate between more traditional anime-style and more outlandish and cartoony styles on a moment-to-moment basis. He found it completely jarring. All I could tell him was "don't think about it too much, it's just for fun," even though those of you who are familiar with that series could attest that "fun" isn't exactly the point of the Elric brothers' experience. So why is it there?

For my friend, the tension between the bits of surreal playfulness and the deadly-seriousness of the overall story took him out of the moment. For a Japanese audience, perhaps these two elements might not seem nearly as disparate; after all, we are looking at a completely imagined universe that once only existed inside someone's brain. The idea is to sell a joke, or some other heightened emotional state through whatever techniques are at the artist's disposal. The creators are playing with us.


We should embrace this spirit of playfulness. Simply because something is a toy does not mean it cannot teach us things, move us to tears, or stir us to action, even as we adults put childish things behind us. We can demand better quality from our toys, surely. We can demand more toys for underrepresented groups, be they LGBTQ or senior citizens. But to resist the label "toy" seems to reject the inherent strength of video games, which is not to tell a story, or move me emotionally, or make me scared, or any of these optional secondary goals: it's to facilitate "play" as a state of mind.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out TAY Classic for all the hottest TAY-on-TAY action 24/7. The TAYtorial can help you get started. And thanks again, Pink Zapper Helmet, for giving me some delicious food for thought!