Toys and the Playful World

Talk for Women in Toys
New York City
14 February 2001

Good evening.

First, I’d like to thank Terri Bartlett and Women in Toys for inviting me to give the first keynote talk in the organization’s history. It’s a great honor to be given the opportunity to address such an engaging and influential group, representing the best aspects of the toy industry. For me this is a rare and valued opportunity to share with you my own thoughts about the incredible importance of your work: you are principally responsible for creating the shape of the 21st century world.

This might seem a tall statement, but – if you allow me – over the next 20 minutes I’ll take you on a tour of the world you have created, and show you how the new realities imbedded within your toys have had a profound influence on our children’s minds.

Nearly a hundred years ago, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget did something very simple: he carefully observed his three children as they grew from infants to adults. Of this, Albert Einstein later said, "only a genius could have thought it up." Piaget discovered that his children were not born stupid, nor unknowing, but rather, that their knowledge of the world was incomplete. Children begin their lives as natural philosophers, starting with a set of propositions about how the world works, which they relentlessly put to the test. Some of their theories fail, and are amended or discarded as need requires, while other theories, proven true, become the foundation for ever more expressive descriptions of the world. Every child is a physicist, an anthropologist, a zoologist and a geographer; from a child’s continuous and repeated interactions with the world, understanding emerges. By first grade, a child has already learned "the facts of life"; everything thereafter, while important, depends entirely upon what has come before.

For all of human history, we have known two broad classes of objects, the "animate" and the "inanimate." By the time we’re five years old, we have learned to discern the difference between these two. Piaget found that children learn to represent this difference in a simple rule: if it moves on its own, it’s animate. If you have to push it to make it go, it’s inanimate.

Each one of us grew up in a world where people and pets were invested with a certain internal reality that bricks and blocks obviously did not possess. This is not true for our children – and that’s your doing. It all began with Furby.

Something more than fifteen million of Tiger Toys’ animatronic "pets" have been sold since their introduction in 1998, and you all know they were the hottest toy in the world that Christmas season. The hype surrounding them has cooled, yet they have left an indelible imprint – not just on the toy industry, which is attempting to recreate the wild success of Furby – but also on the minds and character of children who have Furbies.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has spent the last 25 years at MIT, studying how children interact with and use computers, last year set her sights on Furby, performing an extensive set of studies on children who owned Furbys. After watching them play with their digital pets, Turkle asked the children a crucial question: Did they think that Furby was a living thing, or was it more like lifeless object? The children stunned Turkle by refusing to identify the Furby as either living or inanimate, even though they clearly recognized that it was mechanical. Something about the quality of the interactions these children had with Furby gave them the clear sense that Furby had a semblance of the "inner life" we normally associate with living things, though not to the same degree.

True to their calling as natural philosophers, these children had discovered something that we are only dimly beginning to sense as adults; the rules are changing, and the boundaries between the living and the mechanical are about to become very blurry indeed.

This is a simple statement, yet it has far-reaching implications, and should be making us nervous and excited in equal measure. Human history can be defined as an ever-increasing capability in the material world; suddenly we’ve been able to imbue the material with our own qualities of intelligence, emotion and reactivity – not to the same degree that we ourselves possess, but enough so that children have no trouble recognizing it for what it is – the playful world.

With Furby we have crossed a line in the sand, and there’s no going back: the current generation of children, comfortable with the in-betweeness of Furby, have a growing expectation that the entire material world will become increasingly responsive to them as they learn to master it.

If you look back a generation or two, you can see how another toy helped to define the world of the early 21st century. In the fifty years since LEGO bricks have been introduced, billions have been manufactured; they’re now considered an absolutely essential toy. I’m certainly part of a generation raised with LEGOs, and from them I learned how snap-together components can be used and reused to create an infinite array of forms. Today we talk about snap-together solutions in software, enzymes which bind .like LEGOs in biology, molecules which snap together in chemistry and physics. It’s not as though the world has suddenly acquired these properties – they were always present. Rather, it’s that the imaginations of children, like myself, who played with LEGOs, adapted to their expressive capabilities. The world has become a snap-together environment, like so many LEGOs.

Within a few days of Furbys launch, LEGO introduced Mindstorms, its own interactive toy, which took the static plastic bricks, and allowed children to create their own programs – bits of their own intelligence – and download them into the bricks. Children playing with Mindstorms are mastering physics, mechanical and electrical engineering, and the principles of software design – although for them, it’s just creative play. But the real lesson of LEGO Mindstorms is that the physical world of bricks and the ephemeral world of software aren’t separate at all, but rather form a continuous, cohesive whole; where the material ends and our intelligence begins – this too has begun to blur for our children, and all because of a toy.

As we crossed the threshold of the 21st century, we thought to expect intelligent computers and regular flights to the Moon; instead, space has been replaced by cyberspace, and every day our children visit a realm which didn’t even exist a decade ago. When I was six, my parents bought me the World Book Encyclopedia, which, with its illustrations and articles, I read from A to Z. Today, a child walks up to a computer, types in "Britannica," and has access to the definitive reference work of the English language, instantly and entirely available to answer any request. A child now entering first grade has never known a world without the Web; I want you, just for a moment, to try to imagine a world without the telephone, without electricity. It’s difficult to do, because both of these technologies are entirely commonplace, woven into the fabric of our culture so intensely it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a time before they existed. As electricity is for us, the Web will be for our children; an invisible field of knowledge that surrounds them, and infuses the entire world with instant answers to their requests. Within a generation, it won’t be important how much you can remember; that will have been replaced by how agile you are at acquiring the facts you need. The know-it-all will have been replaced by the get-it-all.

Finally, let’s not forget the other significant innovation in toys, though it seems to live in a world apart from Toy Fair – video games. The latest generation of these devices produce simulations – virtual reality – of such fidelity that the boundary between synthetic experience and video or film has also begun to blur. In a few years a father might walk by a television, pause, and ask his kids – "Is that live – or Playstation2?" While his children will know the difference between the two, the question might not possess the same significance for them as it does for an adult.

In the blurring of the inanimate and animate, the static and the active, the real and the simulated, we find our children, perfectly at home, because this is the home you – as designers – have created for them. It’s changed their minds, for as they set out to learn about the world, you changed the rules; or rather, you updated the rules to reflect our latest capabilities. For our children, these new abilities are a given; they’re learned as easily and completely as a child acquires language, and just as language shapes thought, so our understanding of the world shape our possibilities within it.

Because of the toys you’ve given them, our children are already speaking in an new tongue, the language of the playful world.

We’re at the beginning of a revolution; as these children grow, they will expect the world to be listening to them, reacting to them, placing demands upon them which must be satisfied. Just as you can make a Furby sick if you refuse to feed it, so the playful world will come with its own set of responsibilities – responsibilities which will be defined by the qualities you design into their toys. That’s why I can say, in all honesty, that you are creating the future, because your work sets the boundaries and goals of our children’s imaginations.

Now that I’ve saddled you with an almost ridiculous responsibility for the future, I’d like to make some suggestions of my own, directions which I think would be both wise – and profitable – avenues of pursuit.

First, can the idea of the playful world be extended ever upward and outward, into something that might be called "lifelong kindergarten"? We know as never before that learning is a process which never ends, that to remain vital we must keep our minds as well-exercised as our bodies. Already LEGO has managed to do this, because half of its Mindstorms are sold to adults for adults, and an entire community of enthusiasts – young and old alike – have grown up around it. But could we do the same thing with Furby? It’s already known that Furby is a good companion for people who crave companionship but may not have the physical ability to care for a pet; the affective, emotional relationship that individuals have with Furby appears to produce incredible psychological benefits. Can the emotional range of Furby be extended, not so as it replaces a beloved pet, but so that it can produce an ever-deepening, evolving relationship with its owner?

Certainly this is possible, it requires neither a miracle of computer science nor the magic of biology, but rather the application of principles which are already well understood. Such a toy could also be a powerful companion for children, who would be able to understand their own emotional natures and needs as they see them reflected in a digital mirror.

Next, can we update the microscope, incorporating into it the latest advances in technology, so our children can look down onto the very atoms which make up the universe? Already scientists can do this, with a device known as the Atomic Force Microscope, which is really nothing more than a very sharp pin. These devices are getting cheaper every year, and when used in conjunction with the latest generation of video game systems – which should be thought of as general-purpose high-performance supercomputers, not just as the engines of entertainment – we could offer our children an ability to see the stuff we are made of. I had a microscope of my own when I was young, and remember looking at my own red blood cells under its lens. Can we promise our children that they’ll be able to look all the way down, and from that experience, have a fundamental understanding of the world around them?

Finally, can we make the Web a toy? By this, I don’t mean a web site designed for children, but rather, can we take the web away from the computer – or something that looks suspiciously like a computer – and embed it into, say, a stuffed animal? Perhaps a "Mr. Know-it-All," who, with a bit of voice recognition and synthesis, can answer a child’s questions on nearly any subject, a portable (and huggable) encyclopedia which accurately reflects the pervasive sea of knowledge which is our children’s birthright.

I know that these are just wild ideas, but I also know that each of these are potentially possible, and eventually affordable; whether children will want such toys is beyond my knowledge, but my sense is that they’re hungry for these kinds of objects, which fully reflect what they know to be true about the world, and their power within it. I think it’s up to all of us to sit down and imagine the possibilities: how can we encourage engagement, exploration and excitement, in the context of a playful world? If something as simple as Furby can have so profound an influence on a child’s expectations of the world – my god! – what great power you hold in your hands.

Good night, and thank you.