Kids’ Stuff

How toys stopped being about play and became mainly about collecting

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In 2010, venture capitalist Chris Dixon wrote a blog post that sought to explain why the multimillion-dollar businesses that once dominated the consumer web at the turn of the millennium — companies like AOL or AltaVista — had been displaced in a single decade by the likes of Facebook and Google. The answer, he argued, was not that the older companies were complacent or stupid. Rather, “the reason big new things sneak by incumbents is that the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a ‘toy.’”

By this he meant that when disruptive technologies first emerge, vendors and consumers often overlook their novel utilities, since their assumptions about use and value are still framed by old paradigms. Compared with the existing tools that seem to sufficiently address consumer needs, the new tech seems trivial, redundant — a toy. In time, however, the new invention disrupts our understanding of utility itself: It creates new kinds of demand, new use cases and new satisfactions, cornering new markets and eventually turning the tables so that the old systems now seem like kids’ stuff.

The “commoditoy” refigures consumption as a continuous loop

As a theory of how particular technologies come to dominate the market, Dixon’s idea is not especially illuminating. Facebook and Google did not succeed because their competitors misunderstood what they were offering; rather they emerged victoriously from a commercial struggle with a range of companies offering similar services. But it does work as a piece of rhetorical ju-jitsu, seeming to transform any criticism into a source of strength. Every snarky takedown further proves that the target is a misunderstood visionary, being punished for peeking a little further over the horizon than their short-sighted peers. In this sense, it perhaps offers some insight into the behavior of certain Silicon Valley founders — recall Mark Zuckerberg attending a meeting with Sequoia Capital in his pajamas, for instance. In a culture where innovation is fetishized, creating the impression of being written off by the square world helps confirm your disruptive bona fides.

We are 12 years on from Dixon’s blog post. Its author is now general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the VC firm funding some of the most hyped startups in the rapidly expanding crypto/metaverse/web3 space. His prolific posting has turned him into something of a guru, and among his followers, “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy” is one of his most popular mantras. This in itself is no surprise. Many crypto enterprises depend on mobilizing a critical mass of investors around a project with extremely basic functionality. If their confidence starts to get shaky, then you’ll need some good slogans to stave off the “FUD.”

However, a look at some of the biggest projects in the crypto space suggest that the “future will look like a toy” is not just rhetoric but a core element of their design philosophy. I don’t mean that they offer hidden utilities that transcend consumers’ blinkered understanding of their own desires. I mean that they seem like they’re made for children. Take a look at the collections at the top of NFT marketplaces, or “play-to-earn” games like Axie Infinity, or any of the multitude of metaverses currently being peddled, and it appears that Dixon’s prediction has been turned inside out: Start out with a toy, and it will become the next big thing.

Across the crypto space in general, there are a wide variety of aesthetics, as one would expect given that visual artists have been at the vanguard of experiments with NFTs, DAOs, and other cryptoeconomic structures. But at the top of the market, things are far more homogenized. Hordes of profile-pic-style (PFP) NFT projects hew to the same stylistic templates, typically either Cryptopunk-esque pixel art or post–Bored Ape cartoons. The most prominent metaverses, from Meta and Microsoft to Decentraland, are cut from the same cloth: simple lines and shapes; blocks of bright color, primary, pastel, and neon; cartoonish cutesiness, sometimes blended with mild puerility. Elements of visual style are borrowed from media directed at or favored by children, whether it’s the blockiness of Minecraft or the pitiless black-eyed stare of Funko Pops. Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse seems to cop its look almost entirely from the Nintendo Wii, with its egg-headed avatars and sterile laminate finish.

Why have these purportedly revolutionary technical innovations adopted such a juvenile aesthetic? Some of this might be attributed to technical teething problems. Profile-pic NFTs are produced in batches of thousands, often through procedural generation, so simplicity is essential. Meanwhile, an interactive 3-D world that can support thousands of simultaneous users remains a daunting programming challenge, which can be mitigated by adopting a low-res, cartoony finish.

Then there’s the problem of mass adoption. Crypto is a notoriously opaque and unforgiving milieu, so a toyish visual style can be seen as an attempt to help outsiders over the intimidating technical and demographic hurdles. It’s familiar, and it seems to promise innocent fun, unlike the anhedonic Skinner boxes of current social media. Framing crypto assets as toys also compensates for their apparent lack of utility or fundamental value, encouraging buyers to imbue them with sentimental worth just as children invest inanimate objects with imaginary characteristics.

But the toylike aesthetics are also a manifestation of an older trend, in which designs and styles hitherto targeted at teens permeate mass culture. Today’s biggest movie franchises are based on intellectual property that a few decades ago might have been seen as the preserve of teenagers. Video-gaming has likewise transitioned from being widely seen as an adolescent pastime to a more or less universal pursuit. Collectible dolls and trading cards are now marketed to all ages. If we want to understand why crypto looks the way it does, it may help to situate it within this broader process.

When we think of toys, we typically imagine objects which have been designed purposefully for children to play with. But as anyone who has spent much time around kids will observe, this is only half the story. The word toy is both a noun and a verb: It’s not just a type of object with particular qualities but a way of relating to any object, regardless of its design. The space between these two uses of toy is where the qualities of creativity and imagination often associated with childhood come into their own. Kids don’t just imbue the toys they are given with magical powers and lifelike agency; they also appropriate otherwise mundane objects (pieces of luggage, twigs, dangerous kitchen implements) into their universe of make-believe. In this way, children are prodigious inventors and discoverers of new meanings, utilities, and values in the inert world of objectivity.

For some writers, this inventive capacity helps make children powerful instinctual critics of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the grownup world. In his essay “Toys and Play” Walter Benjamin observed that “toys are a site of conflict” where the adult’s desire to impose aspirations and behavioral standards clashes with the child’s inclination to experimentation, discovery, and free play. Children’s relationship to their toys lets them take issue with the value systems being handed down to them.

Likewise, Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno argued in Minima Moralia that child’s play has a utopian dimension. “In his purposeless activity,” Adorno wrote where, “the child, by a subterfuge, sides with use value against exchange value … The little trucks travel nowhere and the tiny barrels on them are empty; yet they remain true to their destiny by not performing, not participating in the process of abstraction that levels down their destiny, but instead abide as allegories of what they are specifically for.” To the child’s mind, there is no such thing as profit; the truck completes its imaginary logistical adventures for their own sake, not for capital accumulation. Here, toys represent a kind of pure use value, unpolluted by the contrived equivalence of the commodity form.

Some of the biggest projects in crypto seem like they’re made for children

But the idea that childhood represents a realm of imaginative freedom outside economic processes is historically contingent. Modern institutions insulate children from the direct pressures of the capitalist marketplace only to discipline them in readiness for it. “A child,” wrote Benjamin, “is no Robinson Crusoe … they belong to the nation and the class they come from.” To the extent that childhood is a “precapitalist” space outside the market, it inevitably becomes the target of capital’s search for new sources of accumulation. Hence what some academics have called the “children’s culture industry”: a global network of media and toy conglomerates whose business is to find new ways to commodify kids’ creativity and sell it back to them.

The emergence of this culture industry in the late 1970s and early ’80s heralded a shift in how children’s toys were produced and sold. Big toy manufacturers began to move away from generic play objects like blocks, dolls, and train sets and toward what sociologist Beryl Langer calls “commoditoys”: branded items from an extended universe of products and content. Franchises create a space in which the object of the child’s fantasy is immediately available to them as an item to be purchased and possessed.

The Star Wars series is perhaps the paradigmatic instance of this new phenomenon, with its 1970s action figures and novelizations presaging the constant deluge of derivative content seen today. For increasingly consolidated entertainment corporations, this strategy is a bonanza, allowing them to republish the same intellectual property across multiple formats. After the Reagan administration loosened FCC regulation of commercials during children’s programming, there was a huge increase in shows where the protagonists were themselves toys, available for purchase at all good retailers. This gave us Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and a cornucopia of other IPs that will now presumably be constantly recycled until the sun explodes. Between 1982 and 1994, Hasbro produced more than 750 G.I. Joe toys, many hundreds of which featured in the accompanying animated serial.

With commoditoys, Langer writes, “each act of consumption is a beginning rather than an end, the first or next step in an endless series for which each particular toy is an advertisement … the moment of possession is the beginning of desire.” The commoditoy refigures consumption as a continuous loop, leveraging the child’s propensity for imaginative association to build dense fictional worlds in which each purchase refers them to another. The child’s impulse to “toyify” — that is, to discover new utilities and values in a thing by treating it as a toy — is met by a universe of readymade meanings, characters, stories and emotions, each of which simultaneously constitutes a potential commercial transaction. The process of “bringing to life” that occurs so often in child’s play is reified as the possibility of buying and possessing the object of your fantasy in toy form. An imaginative leap leads directly into an act of consumption, a process which can be extended across a potentially infinite series. Play becomes a form of collecting.

In succeeding decades, the logic of the commoditoy has been absorbed into the heart of the culture industry’s global business model. Blockbuster films are invariably contained within a broader “cinematic universe,” replete with opportunities for merchandising and cross-promotion, while old franchises are constantly rebooted or scavenged for saleable parts. Following the acquisition of a popular license, derivative content blossoms across all channels — sequels, prequels, spinoffs, animated series, videogames, Lego, Lego video games. In an industry terrified of commercial and aesthetic risk and clinging to its remaining clutch of valuable properties, what was once a marketing strategy directed explicitly at children has become a defining rationale.

The fusion of entertainment and tech has created a host of new opportunities for this kind of serialized consumption, while also speeding up the tempo with which play shuttles into consumption. Fortnite has pioneered the integration of culture industry IP with a microtransactional digital economy, creating a space in which all our favorite toys are available to us quite literally as “consumables.” Roblox, meanwhile, has made great strides closing the gap between play and child labor. These 3-D sandbox experiences are one of the main models for the metaverse-style experiences that tech companies are hoping to mainstream in the coming years. In this sense, just as early adopters of social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook were test subjects for the gamified engagement mechanisms that define those platforms, so have children been recruited as pioneers at the next frontier of cultural consumption, one based around the perpetual consumption of virtual toys. To quote Mark Fisher, “Blitzed with capitalist hyperstimulus … children occupy the frontier-zones of capitalism, operating as probe-heads in what, for adults, is the future.”

An imaginative leap leads directly into an act of consumption

The toylike aesthetic that predominates at the commercial end of crypto applications is one ramification of this. It’s become conventional for PFP NFT projects to describe their ultimate goal as creating entertainment franchises in the mold of Star Wars or Marvel. Bored Apes have their own cartoon, their own “band,” an upcoming film, and, most recently, a virtual land register for their upcoming metaverse, which has so far absorbed around $300 million in investment — all aiming to at least give the impression that owners of their NFTs will one day hold a stake in a sprawling multimedia empire.

It’s easy to pour scorn on such a wide disparity between means (cartoon animal drawings) and ends (global media empire), but these projects are essentially attempts to build a commoditoy from the bottom up, beginning with the structure of serialized financial transactions and then, supposedly, creating the stories, characters, and worlds that are the pretext for all that consumption afterward. The toylike aesthetic is both an advertisement for the universe of “content” that will one day validate the NFT as an investment vehicle and compensate for its current lack of meaning or utility, encouraging the buyer to form an affective attachment to what is right now nothing more than a few lines of code in a distributed ledger. “Crypto-toys” collapse the distinction between a financial and an emotional investment — a necessary maneuver for a digital asset class ultimately backed by nothing more than flows of sentiment.

Of course, the pot of gold at the end of all those NFT project roadmaps is not a cross-media IP franchise in the traditional sense but a metaverse. Again, these ambitions are pure expressions of commoditoy logic, imagining a condition in which not just individual toys but the entire “extended universe” of IP come to life as a continuous whole, erasing the distinction between content, advertising, and commerce once and for all. This vision of the metaverse is as a closed loop of serialized consumption, where each user’s desire expresses itself as an ever-expanding collection of toys.

It would be easy to conclude that if aspiring tech disrupters are making products that look like toys, it’s because they want their users to act like children. However, the issue here is not so much the prospect of universal infantilization as the model of childhood being offered. Commoditoys seek to exploit the creative and affective receptivity of kids, their inclination to experiment with value and meaning, while suppressing their imaginative freedom and autonomy. Crypto-toys mobilize the same structures in an effort to recruit a mass audience to the crypto world’s gamified financial systems.

In the process, they disseminate a version of childhood in which toys and play have been accommodated almost entirely to consumption. But this vision does not exhaust the possibilities of any of these things. One of children’s most admirable qualities is that they never accept the world as it’s given to them. A playing child measures the limits of her circumstances against the extent of her imagination; her toys, at once dumb things and animate beings, help her see that the nature of objecthood isn’t necessarily as objective as it might appear. These are the kind of attitudes worth cultivating at any age. Faced with attempts to reconfigure childhood as an infinite cycle of commodification, the best response may not be to tell everyone to grow up, but instead to decide what kind of kids we want to be.

Richard Woodall is a writer and researcher based in Sheffield, England. His interests include the history and politics of visual technologies, as well as the analysis and critique of digital capitalism.