Play, by its very definition, has been about pleasure but not function. Consider this definition by Johan Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian:
“Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.”Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga, 1955
That notion of play as “not serious,” “lying outside “‘ordinary life,'” and “providing no profit or material interest” is a definition that certainly rang true at any time in the 20th century.” Unfortunately or fortunately, that definition no longer defines modern toys or play.
Two constituencies have changed our view of what a toy is expected to produce, parents and collectors.
Parents now see S.T.E.M. and S.T.E.A.M. toys as a launch pad for getting their children into Harvard. They believe the right toys can ultimately bring wealth and status.
Collectors see toys as an investment class designed to provide a profit when sold to the next aspiring collector. Action figures, and toy cars, offer serious men and women a chance to achieve returns on investment they cannot achieve with classic investment vehicles like banks or the stock exchange.
In other words, play and toys have moved from providing no profit to becoming an engine to enhance wealth through buying and selling or, by education, access to society’s most coveted jobs.
Is this a bad thing or a good thing? It’s neither; it’s just a thing. We still have to make and market toys and parents still have to buy them for us to be a thriving industry.
It is, however, sobering for those of us who grew up in this business selling fun.