Researcher Brings History of Animated Toys to Life

By Tom McLaughlin

Dolls that can walk, talk, and blink their eyes. Personal drawings that magically move on the screen. Physical characters that seemingly “come alive” in an alternate, virtual universe.

Talking doll parts are seen alongside a patent for a talking doll

These and countless other ubiquitous toys are only some recent examples of playthings that cultivate and sustain the fantasy of toys “coming to life” which has long dominated the popular imagination, explains Rutgers University–Camden researcher Meredith Bak.

“Liveliness and animacy have been prominent and recurring features in children’s playthings since the 19th century, when industrially produced toys for children became widely available,” says the assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden. “The idea of animation has continued to evolve ever since. It shows up in new design attributes and the language used to market toys or their characteristics.”

While children might be eager to play with the latest and greatest animated toys, Bak can’t wait to – both literally and figuratively – unwrap them and take them apart.

The Rutgers–Camden scholar focuses her research on this enduring fascination with animation in its various forms, examining the changing rhetorical and technological means by which toys are “brought to life.”

“I am looking at how animation has been defined and deployed by toymakers and marketers, and how such definitions position the child in relation to the plaything,” says Bak, whose doctoral dissertation focused on optical toys and movable toy books as elements in 19th-century children’s media and material culture.

Bak notes that she is interested in examining the cultural aspirations and anxieties to which animated toy manufacturers and marketers seem to be responding.

For instance, she says, Crayola’s Color Alive is a vivid example of the many products on the shelves today that draw upon and attempt to actualize this centuries-old fantasy of the animate plaything.

As she explains, Color Alive is an “app-enabled” coloring book that allows users to color pictures and scan the images, which then appear to lift off the page as an animated 3D form. As children move their mobile devices, the animated characters seem to follow and react to triggers.

She says that the product’s name and promotional materials boast an innovative offline and online play experience that allows kids to bring their “coloring to life.”

“Animation is thus of central importance to the product line’s marketing and design,” she says.

While much can be gleaned from such promotional materials, says Bak, her analysis extends beyond the surface – quite literally – and considers the toys’ undergirding technologies.

In doing so, she combines the examination of promotional materials alongside industrial documents, such as notes and patents, as well as analyses of the toys themselves, often by exposing their technological interiors.

“I want to take a step backwards and ask what conversations went into designing it,” says Bak. “And when we say a toy is creative or enhances the imagination, what is the toy actually doing? What’s really new about it and is the technology employed enhancing or impeding the child’s creativity?”

For instance, notes Bak, although Crayola frames the Color Alive line as a tool for kids’ media production, characterizing animation as a skill-based form of creative practice, much of the labor involved in the app’s animation process has less to do with traditional animation skills and more to do with understanding and performing the affordances built into mobile technologies, such as the camera and sharing images.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher stresses that she isn’t looking for faults or criticisms of animated toys, but is interested in examining the cultural aspirations and anxieties to which these toys seem to be responding. For instance, she notes, the line of Osmo products evokes a quality of “education” in their packaging and colors, in tune with a national conversation around STEM education that encourages toymakers to consider and create toys that appear scientific or cultivate a sense of creativity.

“They are packaged in a white box, with primary colors, and shapes and numbers,” says Bak. “It’s tapping into what we think of as educational toys. So how is such a design aesthetic attempting to capitalize on positive associations with technology while responding to parental anxieties?”

Bak cautions that some toys designed and marketed as encouraging creativity might not live up to their promises. For instance, she says, there are many apps and platforms now that let children design and create their own characters or avatars. Yet, in choosing from pre-selected options, she asks, are these decisions the same as those made by a child who designs a character from scratch?

“Such technologies then might be seen as impeding or limiting a child’s creativity because they are giving them too much without allowing them to use their imagination,” says Bak. “The other side of the argument says that this technology is actually opening the doors of a child’s imagination and expanding what is possible.”

It’s an age-old argument that’s been asked since the earliest talking dolls, says Bak, and one that will continue to be debated as long as technology evolves.

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