New Tech Toys Encourage Imaginative Play

By Tracey Dowdy

Saying toys have changed since we were kids would make even Captain Obvious himself roll his eyes. Heck, toys have changed significantly from when my kids were kids. The big news isn’t that toys are changing, but how they’re changing.

I tried to limit how much time my kids spent in front of a screen when they were young and did my best to encourage imaginative play. We read every day, built a lot of blanket forts, colored, painted and drew for hours. That’s not to say we didn’t watch movies. I could hold my own in a “Wizard of Oz” or “Lion King” quote-off just fine thank you. I simply preferred to play with them the way I played when I was a kid, when the wheel had just been invented and the latest technology meant my Casio digital watch.  As a result, my girls were never big into gaming or tech until cell phones came along. Now, their phones can do what it used to take a calendar, a camera, a phone, a typewriter, a personal assistant and the U.S. Postal Service to do. Tech has seamlessly merged with our lives from the cradle to the grave.

Toy and game developers, who I assume are all exactly like Tom Hanks character in “Big”, have been incorporating imaginative play into their products for years. But they’ve taken it a step further and have become much more intentional by encouraging consumers to submit ideas for games and toys that can then be downloaded or purchased worldwide. In fact, the Toy Industry Association (TIA) recently declared “Custom Built” as one of the top toy trends of 2014.

“Encouraging kid-generated content allows children to tap into their creativity and play exactly how they want to play, whether they are having fun with arts and crafts, designing their own dolls or plush, or building new virtual worlds,” said TIA toy trend specialist Adrienne Appell. “This is an important, growing trend that will continue to have a tremendous impact on the future of toys and gaming.”

Disney, quick to spot a trend, launched “Disney Infinity”, a game where players can take their favorite Disney or Marvel characters and place them in the game. Since its inception last year, the “Toy Box” feature where players can custom design game worlds or download worlds created by others has over 12 million customized toy boxes.

“I believe this generation of players, whether they’re on the digital screen or playing inside their own living room, expects a level of customization in order to feel ownership and pride over what they have,” says Disney Infinity Executive Producer John Vignocchi.

LEGO recently introduced LEGO Fusion, where kids are encouraged to build and create with physical LEGO bricks then scan and import pictures of their creations into the game. Players can challenge their friends to see whose buildings, towers or vehicles are the strongest, the tallest or the fastest. Fans can also submit original ideas through LEGO Ideas and, if the suggestion gets 10,000 supporters, LEGO will consider adding it to their line. They also regularly run contests for their MINDSTORMS platform and fans can submit ideas for the customizable/programmable robots.

User-generated modifications or “mods” are a big part of the video game industry. Nineteen year old Alexander J. Velicky spent 2,000 hours over the span of a year creating the Falskaar mod for Skyrim. It was basically a job application, and though he wasn’t hired by Bethesda, he was hired by Bungie, creators of Halo.

British toy company Arklu hosts social media contests to create outfits for fans of their “Lottie” doll. In May, fans were asked to create a superhero costume for Lottie, so fans from around the world submitted designs. Lilly, a six-year-old girl from Ohio won and now her original artwork, name, age, and hometown will be incorporated into the package design when the costume is introduced in stores.

Similarly, the “My Own Monsters” line from North American Toy Company has creatures based on drawings by employees’ kids about what scares them. “MOrty the MOnkey” shoots at germs with bananas from his belly button and “Yucky” has “very big hands that can wipe off yucky kisses from big people.” Parents can submit their own child’s artwork and the creature will be handmade in North American Toy’s studio.

“Sophisticated content creation is no longer reserved for specialists,” said Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for LEGO Systems. “Children’s bedrooms have become creative publishing studios, so the expectation surrounding customization, personalization and ‘make-it-mine’ experiences is at an all-time high.”

As I parent, I see all this as the best of both worlds. Kids are still dreaming and building, but sometimes the castle they’re defending or dragon they’re slaying is in the digital world and not the backyard. Either way, that’s a lot of imaginative play, a lot of creativity and a lot of fun!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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